Because I am writing my last lecture for The Many Faces of Abraham, I am reading Kierkegaard’s famous (or is it infamous?) Fear and Trembling. As I paged through Kierkegaard I noticed the central thesis of his book, dealing as it did with the “why” Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac:
[Abraham’s] faith was not that he should be happy sometime in the hereafter, but that he should find blessed happiness here in this world. God could give him a new Isaac, bring the sacrificial offer back to life. He believed on the strength of the absurd, for all human calculation had long since been suspended.
I always find Kierkegaard troubling–his description of Isaac crying for mercy causes no doubt causes more people to lose faith than many writers who admit to atheism or agnosticism cause–yet nothing is more troubling than his claim that love is basically the belief that the lover (in this case the Knight of Faith) “gets something back” from the beloved (God). Even in college this seemed a little wrong to me.
“Wouldn’t real love be about loving the other person for their own sake?” I asked.
“That’s an awfully naïve view,” my teacher said.
Yet I stand by it. True love is like St. Francis “Prayer for Peace” (Even being Jewish doesn’t stop it from being one of my favorite prayers):
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
Another Catholic poet (and priest), Gerard Manley Hopkins, wrote a poem about his gratitude towards Jesus on the Cross.
O God, I love thee, I love thee—
Not out of hope of Heaven for me
Nor fearing not to love and be
In the everlasting burning.
Thou, thou, my Jesus, after me
Didst reach thine arms out dying,
For my sake sufferedst nails, and lance,
Mocked and marred countenance,
Sorrows passing number,
Sweat and care and cumber,
Yea and death, and this for me,
And thou couldst see me sinning:
Then I, why should not I love thee,
Jesu, so much in love with me?
Not for Heaven’s sake; not to be
Out of hell by loving thee;
Not for any gains I see;
But just the way that thou didst me
I do love and I will love thee:
What must I love thee, Lord, for then?—
For being my king and God. Amen.
I am embarrassed to admit I am not as familiar with the Jewish poetic tradition as I am the English and American ones. Yet the yearning to love and be loved that represents the deepest poems of the Christian tradition still appeals to me. I find it moving that Mother Teresa’s “Way to Love” served the purpose for her hospital that the Rule of St. Benedict serves for Benedictines.
Despite my being unable to accept the Catholic faith for myself–for reasons that are personal and that I won’t go into–I have always felt the lives of certain Catholic saints moving and wished that my faith was somewhat like theirs. By contrast, the love Kierkegaard felt for Regina–the woman whom he was engaged to, whom he broke off the relationship with because he said that God demanded the sacrifice–sounds pathological and sick, especially when, as my teacher put it, “When you read Isaac’s pleas to Abraham, you can hear Regina’s pleading with Kierkegaard on his breaking off the engagement.” And then, everyone knew who Fear and Trembling‘s author was, despite the penname, and what his relationship to Regina had been. I will let the reader look it up themselves if they want to know exactly what Kierkegaard’s Abraham told Isaac, but I am convinced that it was Kierkegaard who convinced everyone that Abraham was the worst father in World Literature.
Though I do not believe there was a “Historical” Abraham–I personally believe he began as a religious story either told by priests or average Israelites–I believe that in a sense the True Abraham is the man who lives inside each believing Jew’s heart. More, I believe what he teaches us is to give with our hearts, which is why Jews are taught to believe in Abraham’s “Chesed” or “kindness.” His love for Isaac was deep, his love for his God profound, and his sacrifice a painful ordeal. Yet he needed to live up to that ordeal so that future generations would see what it was to believe in God and practice that belief. Abraham, a Christian friend once pointed out, made mistakes: he passed Sarah off as his wife twice, and then there was the matter of Hagar and Ishmael, a second family he neglected. Yet in the Akedah, he made the final sacrifice which proved that his priority with God was absolute. More, he did so even though it would seem to mean that all of his dreams would die, and that besides honoring God, his life would achieve nothing save the slaughter of the son he loved. Yet he passed the test, the test that his love for God went beyond his love for himself.