Monday, November 22, 2010

The Paradox of Faith

Genesis 22:1-19
John 15:18-19

Faith is absurd. Faith makes no sense, cannot be explained, and thus cannot be appreciated, let alone embraced by a world that functions according to its own senses and perceptions and within a realm that requires - and then provides - its own explanations. In the world of physical reality, seeing is believing. That which cannot be seen or explained is irrelevant and without foundation because it comes from nothing the world can provide for itself. Faith is a radical departure from the social norms we are more familiar with.

Soren Kierkegaard was a 19th-century philosopher, writer, and Danish Lutheran as was virtually every other citizen of Denmark. He found a total disconnect between genuine Christian faith and whatever it was the Danish state church was putting out. He came to refer to this "empty shell" as 'Christendom', a social philosophy that only pretended to be Christianity by using the same language and making the same claims but without the same expectations and demands. Kierkegaard considered 'Christendom' to be an even greater threat to Christianity than outright paganism because it only pretended to be something it really was not ("Good Ideas", Wilken, 169). It was the "fear and trembling" faith of Abraham by which Kierkegaard judged genuine faith.

Reading more about his views of the apparent conflict which exists between genuine faith and social standards of conduct (ethics) has forced me to confront my own faith especially within Kierkegaard's assessment of what the story of Abraham and Isaac offers to us. Jesus' own words to His disciples in John's Gospel seem to shore up what Kierkegaard considers to be absolute when we struggle with what the world seems to expect from us and what Jesus actually requires of us. Faith calls us far and away from comfort and conformity, and even puts us at odds with those around us.

Consider faith to be the challenge by which we are standing at the edge of a cliff and looking down into a dark abyss. We cannot see the bottom; we can only see to the edge of the darkness, and we have no idea what is beyond that darkness. From within that darkness calls the Voice who says, "Jump. I'll catch you." Faith does not simply ask us to believe the Lord will catch us. Faith requires that we actually jump!

Not literally, of course, but this kind of faith would be what our social standards would consider to be "insane"; there is nothing apparent for the greater good of society that will come as a result of such a leap of faith. Even by the kind of comfortable, rational theology the American Church seems to push, the Lord would not even ask such a radical commitment from us because, the Church reasons, the Lord wants us to be "happy". He would not ask such a thing of us. According to Kierkegaard, however, the social norm actually serves as a temptation that keeps us from pursuing the life of faith on the Lord's own terms. Our more comfortable faith fits neatly into how we have ordered our lives in social conformity.

Kierkegaard justifies exactly this kind of radical action by his understanding of Abraham's challenge when he was called upon by the Lord to offer up Isaac's life. By social standards, any decent person with a conscience would not consider such a thing. In fact, we would reason that anyone who claims to receive such a charge is insane and listening to demons because our God would not ask such a thing of us. Maybe not exactly that, but we fail to remember that Abraham's God asked precisely this thing of him.

Especially today, we have rationalized and watered down Abraham's story by looking backward through New Testament theology and Israel's entry into Canaan where such human sacrifices were the practice of some. When we look backward through the Law's prohibition against such practices, we can clearly see the outcome. Our concept of faith thus becomes predictable according to our own terms, expectations, and demands. Abraham did not have the Law or any kind of religious system. He had ONLY faith, the moment at hand, the beloved son he had longed for, and a God whom he had followed out of his homeland to a destination unknown. For what was being asked of him, he had no way of knowing it was a "test" he was facing because the story had yet to be written.

Even the prophet Muhammad in his day saw a disturbing level of complacency and social conformity within watered-down Christianity and Hellenized Judaism that asked nothing of its practitioners except to "fit in" with the secular culture and brought nothing but misery and social injustice to those who did not "fit in". It was his intent - he believed it to be his calling - to return the "people of the Book" to the radical, absolute, and unquestioning faith that was personified and "perfected" in Abraham's willingness to "jump", to obey without question. It was this faith upon which Jesus was to establish His Church, His blessed Body, against the "gates of Hades" in a world that would seem to prefer those "gates" to the radical obedience that moved Jesus to the Cross - and moved Abraham to do something that even in his time and within his social structure was unthinkable.

Kierkegaard also challenges us to consider a couple of unsettling and personally destabilizing social factors in Abraham's story. First, consider the time. One's identity was substantially wrapped up on one's own country; it was a means of identification. Abraham was being called upon to depart from his identity, his heritage. Secondly, making babies was the measure of one's social worth. To be without a child was to be without honor, without purpose, to be under some curse - according to society's norms. At such an advanced age, Abraham was childless. It was completely reasonable to believe he would die without an heir.

Social standards of the dominant culture were safe, perfectly ethical within the cultural context, predictable, and comfortable. Following the call of the Lord, however, was anything but safe or comfortable; and as we will discover later in Abraham's life, faith and ethical behavior would come to be completely at odds.

We know what ethical behavior is. What we don't know is the root, or the absolute, of ethics. What I might consider to be unethical behavior as a pastor, for instance, would not necessarily be shared universally by all pastors. Any ethical standard is a moving target because while we might agree on certain fundamentals, it is highly unlikely we could narrow down the definition beyond certain cultural standards.

Kierkegaard offered the paradox of Abraham's circumstances and faith through a sense of ethics, or social standards, by which Abraham was willing to "murder" Isaac. By a sense of faith, on the other hand, Abraham was willing to "sacrifice", or give up, what meant the most to him in the entire world for no apparent reason other than that the Lord asked him to. Abraham did not know what would come of it, or why he was being asked to do such an unthinkable thing. He was peering into the darkness from the edge of the cliff, and the Lord was asking him to jump.

It could be argued, as it has, that Abraham already knew the outcome as he expressed to Isaac when he was questioned about the lack of an animal for the sacrifice. If this were true, there could be no faith. It is more reasonable to assume Abraham was trying to assuage Isaac. It is reasonable to believe that if Isaac had been clued into what was about to take place, he would have high-tailed it back to the safety of his mother. Biblically, there is no rationale for believing one thing over another except by hindsight as the words are clearly written. What is not so well known was Abraham's state of mind. One can only image the anguish.

I do think there is one clear thing we can ascertain from the story and Kierkegaard's analysis. Faith makes no sense. It does not compute. It does not fit so neatly into our ordered sense of ethical behavior because our social standards - the means by which we "fit in" with our ordered society - has the potential of actually serving as a barrier between ourselves and the Almighty who may well be calling US into such radical obedience. The Lord may well be looking toward a much greater good by calling us out to the edge and then asking us to "jump", but we will not know this if our minds are toward the social norms and contemporary ethical standards.

The Lord's calling WILL put us at odds with the world around us, including our families, and certainly our friends and acquaintances; Jesus guarantees it. The burden upon us is to choose the standard by which we will ultimately and finally be judged: ethical standards established by the norms of our society - or standards of faith that will take us to the very edge - and beyond.

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