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Abraham is the father of faith because he overcame himself; and through this overcoming, he recognized the advantage in sacrifice…

AbrahamIsaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” Isaac said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. —Genesis 22:7-8 (NRSV)

We might be forgiven if this exchange between knowing Abraham and innocent Isaac tugs at our emotions. The boy only wants to help his father—the wish of any boy. But Abraham has other things on his mind. Yet what should we make of Abraham, the father of faith? If we are honest with ourselves, from our modern perspective, every last one of us would condemn him of ill-intent and some kind of psychosis, to say the least. But as it stands, we live with the benefit of hindsight: We revere Abraham for his actions. Yet to revere with hindsight is to miss the point entirely; it is to place a polished veneer on a frightening reality; it is to choose the path of least resistance. No, if we want to understand Abraham, we must commune with his monstrous act as a contemporary[1]; we must recognize the hardship in his sacrifice, the discipline within him to bring it to bear, and the advantage of his faith in overcoming the paradox of his actions. For it is only through approaching the brink[2] that we see Abraham as a mirror to ourselves; and if we do not, we will never climb our own Mt. Moriah to receive the divine promise.

* * *

We Westerners are insulated from the “state of nature.” And this state of nature, as Hobbes saw it, is nothing but bellum omnium contra omnes—a war of all against all. Many of us base our understanding of life off our tiny, insulated experience; but we would benefit from knowing that this world will kill us any way it can if we refuse to fight back. Liberalism seeks to lull us into accepting tolerance for its own sake—practical consequences be damned. It sows the idea that rejecting diversity—that fighting back—is immoral, even if such diversity poses an existential threat. “You do you [and I’ll do me],” “live and let live,” “to each his own” are all-too-common phrasal symptoms of the pervasive individualistic Liberalism which infects our modern society. If we do not toe the line of tolerance-for-its-own-sake, we are outcast, ostracized; it seems more and more that the modern West gives no quarter to a conservatism that rejects such dogmatic Liberalism. No, to hell with that nonsense! If we see our adversary, we shouldn’t hesitate to neutralize his threat. And when we are done with him, we go after his friends; and if his remnants reject assimilation, we send them straight to hell. If we do not do it to them (because some secular morality binds us), our cultural enemies will certainly do it to us. That is the law of the land. Might makes right has driven life up to now and will drive it long after we work our way into extinction. Destroying our adversaries to the last man is only playing by the rules. To think otherwise is to commit ourselves to ruin.

“Progress” is an illusion of our limited, non-historical perspective so that, if there is any memory of us 500 years from now, the keepers of that memory will snicker and sigh at our naivety. If we push ourselves to the brink, we will see GodGod is the eternal thread of human nature that binds all men and connects us through time; if we instead keep ourselves comfortable, God himself, i.e. Life, will not look upon us with favor and give us peace. There is only peace in the Kampf; that is the paradox of existence. We must understand this Kampf—this duty to overcome our parasitical individualism—as the greatest of struggles; for to underestimate it is to cast an easy eye on that sacrifice which demands our fear and trembling.[3]

Read again the story of Abraham. The answer to all of Life is in that beautiful and terrifying tale. “You will be the father of nations, Abraham; and your wife Sarah, she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” And this is said when the couple was barren into old age! This is the promise in the back of Abraham’s mind when he climbed Mt. Moriah with young Isaac. Such wonder! Such fancy! Such faith! Faith is the only thing that can move us beyond the paradox—faith in the Kampf. If we do not think Abraham reckoned with the Kampf, we are only approaching Mt. Moriah as modernity reading a storybook. So superficial! So trite! Imagine the world through Abraham’s eyes! Experience the contemporaneousness of paradox! And work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.

The problem of modernity, which is to say the problem of Liberalism, is there is no reckoning. Our comfort insulates us from it. This reckoning is what others have understood as the Day of Judgment. If we do not reckon with human nature, if we do not approach the paradoxical Kampf with due fear and trembling (reverence), do you not imagine that we’ll face God’s wrath? Such wonder! Such fancy! But no faith. To reckon with God is to take account of man, the giver and taker of Life. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s—but what is Caesar’s is yet ours! Was not Caesar the commissary of man? Was not Caesar the purveyor and warden of the volonté générale? To reckon with God is to approach Mt. Moriah as a contemporary of Abraham; to reckon with God is to work out the paradox of the Kampf with fear and trembling and to make the movement beyond paradox with faith. Give to God what is God’s—but what is God’s is yet ours! And God shines his countenance upon us and gives us peace, we who have reckoned with the Kampf!

There is peace in the struggle, but no comfort, unless we begin to find comfort in the terror of Mt. Moriah, which should ever be our goal. Comfort is the disease of indiscipline, for comfort shields us from pain. Discipline, on the other hand, is the structured introduction of pain into our Life; in expanding our discomfort, our tolerance to pain, we make ourselves abler. What can we live without? If we are disciplined, we can live without many things. And when others are wanting in their time of trial, the ablest man endures, which is to say, the disciplined man endures. The disciplined man incrementally meets the Kampf, and through these meetings comes to know both his ancestors and descendants, which is to say he comes to know God and, in turn, experiences the divine peace of an eternal connection.

Generations are at our backs and generations stand before us. If we are connected to them, we will and must face our Kampf. This struggle is both solitary and communal. It is solitary in that each man must reckon, alone and undaunted, with his place at the foot of Mt. Moriah. It is communal in that the individual is only understood against the backdrop of the community—the community from which he springs. When one has met and endured his solitary reckoning, he must, if he is to be worthy of the ancestors who gave him Life—that is to say, worthy of God—fight for the propagation of his community. In this way, the man of faith—the man of Kampf—communes with God, and his descendants will be as numerous as the stars of heaven.

Despite what the Modern Age has told us, we are not merely atoms, or atomized families. We are connected to those who have come before and those yet to come. It is this atomization—this disconnection from the past and future—that modernity, that Liberalism strives to inculcate, for it suits the economic foundation of modern society. Cheap labor can be seduced by the notion of a “melting pot.” Bleeding hearts can be seduced by the notion of “humanitarianism.” It is the unrealistic marriage of idealistic ignorance, the marriage of those untouched by der menschliche Kampf. The reality of Western modernity is an economic association of unassimilated disparate cultures and disconnected individuals. The notion of community is lost on modern man, on the Liberalistic man, because he is unable to reckon with the paradox, the eternal sacrifice which gives him bounty and peace.

As Abraham climbed Mt. Moriah, he did so out of an absolute duty to God; his aim was to sacrifice his only son. His thoughts were not on himself that day—and this is the Kampf: we must overcome ourselves—our vanity, our selfishness, our indiscipline, our comfort, our weakness. Abraham didn’t have to ascend Mt. Moriah on that hallowed day; instead, he could have taken the path of most men: the path of least resistance. But his duty to the struggle to overcome himself compelled his steps forward, and on that day he became the father of faith. What was God’s promise to Abraham?

By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.[4]

There is nothing of the individual and his salvation in that promise; such an individualistic interpretation of salvation is an inadvertent byproduct of the Reformation and subsequent Enlightenment only, which is to say, a product of godless and bloodless abstraction. No, man must work out his own solitary reckoning with fear and trembling, alone and undaunted at the base of Mt. Moriah; he must feel der menschliche Kampf in his blood, and only then can he be privy to the transubstantiation of the Holy Communion that binds all disciplined men of faith. Indeed, what we find in the divine promise—once the movement of faith propels us beyond the paradox—is parenthood, offspring, community, Nation, and the conquering of enemies. This is Abraham’s blessing and the blessing of all men who strive for the eternal human struggle to overcome their unworthiness.

If we are men, we are left with two things: Kampf and faith. The Kampf is the struggle against the state of nature, the war of all against all and the abundant weakness burdening the unthinking beast; the faith is the peace we find within the struggle; it is the happy tears we both loose and suppress when our knife is stayed above our only son, and it is the peace we find in devoting ourselves to a cause that transcends our selfish desires—it is an absolute duty to God and Caesar—for the two are not different—and it is a duty to the spirit that gives us Life, and the spirit that empties without us.

Abraham is the father of faith because he overcame himself; and through this overcoming, he recognized the advantage in sacrifice.

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Notes:

[1] As Kierkegaard might instruct us – imagining the Kierkegaardian contemporaneousness with Christ.

[2] Keeping with Kierkegaard, we might understand this “approaching the brink” as a teleological suspension of the ethical; we might also understand it as an acceptance and embracing of life’s irrationality, or put another way, “approaching the brink” might be understood as a rejection of rational progress, i.e., Liberalism. This will be fleshed out in due course.

[3] Philippians 2:12; we might also consider other passages from this chapter: do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit (2:3); look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others (2:4); the sacrifice and the offering of your faith (2:17). Might we not also imagine Christ a wolf in slave’s clothing (2:7)? After all, was he not “very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made … and He shall come again, with glory, to judge”? And later we will read God the Father’s promise to Abraham: “your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies.” There is eternal glory in conquering one’s enemies, to be sure. Our glory rests in the Kampf; and in finally overcoming ourselves, we begin to see the fangs that presage the wolf: vanquished enemies, glory, and judgment.

[4] Genesis 22:16-18

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