Why does Rodin’s inert thinker need such a robust body? The thinker’s rock-like body suggests immovability. As the mind ponders existence, it is necessary to no one but itself. Alluding to the thought that “I think, therefore I am” (Descartes), the thinker is defined by thinking. This is the firm foundation of modern identity. Yet modernity belies the solid stance of Rodin’s figure, for in not knowing itself, the modern subject is invariably haunted, like “The Scream” (Munch).
Apart from one arm and hand, which are like a strut supporting a head heavy with thought, the thinker’s muscular body is seemingly detached from the activity of thinking. Naked, he is not about to go anywhere or do anything in a hurry.
The thinker has no backdrop of life, decisions and responsibility. He is stripped of context, as if universal and timeless. These are the ingredients of idealism.
In biblical testimony, thinking occurs within our response to another, with our ultimate other being God. Such thinking is not abstracted from activity, even in listening, but involves movement of the body within specific contexts. Faith’s intelligence of the heart is exhibited in decisions that involve tangible initiatives and responsibilities among others before God.
In this reflection Dr. Stephen Curkpatrick considers an issue that requires us to reflect on our ethical sensibilities.
Abraham’s willingness to offer Isaac has often been indicted as an offence to our ethical sensibilities. This indictment has even been expressed by biblical scholars, which misses the story’s crucial point. In biblical testimony, Abraham’s double-bind is the paradoxical challenge we all encounter before the word of God.
Abraham’s infamous double-bind is this: the request to sacrifice Isaac, the child of promise, is seemingly to relinquish the possibility of God’s promise. Abraham is asked to surrender the means of becoming through Isaac, the father of many nations. This is a trial of relinquishing every assumption concerning God, for raw faith in the word or promise of God.
Confronted with the contradiction of offering up the very means by which God’s promise can be fulfilled, Abraham believes God and is declared righteous. As the father of faith, Abraham challenges every presumption to knowing the righteousness of God with the response of trust in the creative word of God.
Abraham trusts that the promise or word of God will be fulfilled, even when it is seemingly contradicted. This is the perennial trial of Israel—to trust the word that kills even as it makes alive. Abraham believes God who calls to be things that are not, anticipating Christian testimony to passion, resurrection and righteousness through faith in the creativity of God in Jesus Christ.
Whether by rite, code or ideal, people have a propensity to postulate what God can do and the conditions by which this must occur. The word of God, as a word otherwise than our own, calls into question any such presumption and its self-justifying expressions.
In offering Isaac, Abraham’s trust in the word of God defies human logic; it is an offence to our righteous sensibilities. Yet the decision of faith—to trust that our integral possibilities are given by God alone—is a similar venture beyond calculation and justification of what is presumed righteous.
Abraham’s faith in the promise of God is expressed as hope against hope in trusting God’s creativity. Isaac is given though the creative word; he is received by Abraham through trust in this word. If in receiving the child Isaac, Abraham is portrayed in a state of buoyant faith, Scripture also exhibits Abraham within the trial of faith in offering Isaac. Acquiescing to the double-bind, Abraham’s response severs him from any feasible approval by others.
Abraham’s willingness to relinquish the very means by which the promise had been anticipated and now become a real possibility in Isaac is an ordeal that exceeds our grasp and therefore our empathy. His “passion” is given to misunderstanding, thereby installing the greatest ordeal of all—to be alone in faith that is not only misunderstood but also readily impeached by others.
Abraham is utterly alone within humanity. We have no sense of affinity with his terrible intention. (Kierkegaard)
The willingness to offer Isaac terminates any possible esteem for Abraham within our estimation. By faith in God who gives life to the dead, Abraham defies our common sensibilities. In the absence of faith in God who calls into existence possibilities that do not exist, Abraham invariably, is regarded as a criminal.
Abraham defies both our logic and ethical sensibilities concerning righteous. He is before an impossible demand within which God is trusted as sovereign who kills to make alive by the word of promise.
Abraham’s faith anticipates the paradox of passion in ignominy and resurrection in righteousness—a paradox to which all humanity is summoned in Jesus Christ. In Christ, this summons is to die to self-justified existence even as our existence is justified by the life of God in righteousness received as a gift.
The gospel paradox of seeking to save only to lose, in which seeking to secure our own possibilities is already their loss, is most present within Abraham’s double-bind. This paradox is also pivotal for the call of Israel to righteous existence before God.
The call to righteousness is only possible within a response to the promises or word of God. Israel’s hope in God, when pursued with fidelity in resistance to other possibilities exhibited among the nations, appears to be loss. This call to faith and distinctive righteousness also gives offence. Abraham offering Isaac similarly informs the paradox and scandal of Christ’s death on a cross as our creative source of righteousness. The issue of God’s righteousness lingers behind these unique textures of biblical testimony.
Does God choose what is righteous because it is righteous or is something righteous because it is willed as called by God to be righteous? The distinction can generate two entirely different ways of approaching the death of Christ: Does Christ die as a sacrifice in conformity to designated criteria of righteousness? Or is the death of Christ righteous because it is willed in inscrutable sovereignty?
The first option in each instance is conducive to our calculation; there are logical benchmarks to which “even God must subscribe.” The second option can seem arbitrary, defying logic, because God wills what is righteous and chooses the death of Christ as a paradoxical possibility that is only engaged by faith.
Abraham offering Isaac utterly confounds the first option—that God subscribes to certain criteria of righteousness that are comprehended and manipulable within our evaluation. Called to offer Isaac, Abraham must seemingly thwart the means by which the promise could be fulfilled, in trust that God will yet fulfil the promise in creative righteousness.
Abraham’s trial is Israel’s as it is continually challenged to forfeit every plausible means of securing its destiny for singular trust in the righteous promises of God. Abraham’s trial also anticipates Gethsemane: If it is possible, let this cup pass from me, yet not my will but your will be done. The outcome of this imperative affirms righteousness that is beyond calculation, yet wholly possible in the sure and creative will or word of God.
In biblical testimony, righteousness is established because God of Abraham, Isaac and Jesus Christ is the creative source of life and new possibilities. This is the crucial factor that will always elude our incessant but subtle desire to calculate righteousness.
If we cannot gaze on Abraham’s infamous double-bind (Kierkegaard), this is because its contemplation can only occur within faith by trust in the creative word of God as the hinge of righteousness that is ascribed to Abraham.
Faced with a double-bind of seemingly having to contradict the promise of God, Abraham’s only sure reference point is faith in God who is the creative source of all life, able yet to give life amid the limits of human possibility. Whatever indictment is levelled at Abraham, he is justified before God in venturing beyond his presumed possibilities as he continues to trust the life-giving possibilities of God in the call to faith.
Abraham offends our desire for any rationale that promises to remove the offence faith can be to modern sensibilities. He indicts our theological propensity to calculate and so adjudicate on the righteousness of God, which is disclosed otherwise as a gift. Abraham shows us that our existence is justified in trusting the word of God as the source of life and possibility for righteousness otherwise than our own.
The gift of righteousness, given through the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, summons faith in God’s word of call and life-giving creativity in grace, which will always remain a scandal to the logic and ethical sensibilities we so readily invoke toward self-justification.
Stephen Curkpatrick is a theologian and educator at CCTC, Melbourne College of Divinity
Reference: Kierkegaard Fear and Trembling