Sunday, November 13, 2011

Weekend Egnorance: Caravaggio: The Sacrifice of Isaac

Caravaggio. The Sacrifice of Isaac. 1601



I love Caravaggio. The people in his paintings seem closer to life than any other artist of his era. He brings the late 16th century to life, and the themes (usually Biblical) take on a realism not often evoked by other artists.

The subject of this painting-- God's command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac-- is one of the enigmas of of Judaism and Christianity. God's command is easy enough to understand, at least on the surface- He tested Abraham's faith, and in sparing Isaac, vanquished human sacrifice among those who obey Him. He never had any intention of allowing Abraham to harm Isaac. Rene Girard sees this substitution for a human victim as a sea change in the affirmation of human dignity and the pivot of the Judeo-Christian faith.

But what of Abraham? How could he have accepted God's command? How could he have been sure that it was indeed God who commanded him? How could he even begin to act in accordance with a command to kill his son?

It tormented Kierkegaard. He saw the pericope as central to the Christian struggle.

He said it beautifully:

"... For he who struggled with the world became great by conquering the world, and he who struggled with himself became great by conquering himself, but he who struggled with God became greatest of all."
Faith is not merely an acquiescence to God, but a struggle with God. All who seek Him know the struggle. It is the central struggle of human existence. It's the purpose of human existence.

Kierkegaard:

Faith is the highest passion in a person. There perhaps are many in every generation who do not come to faith, but no one goes further. Whether there are also many in our day who do not find it, I do not decide. I dare to refer only to myself, without concealing that he has a long way to go, without therefore wishing to deceive himself of what is great by making a trifle of it, a childhood disease one may wish to get over as soon as possible. But life has tasks enough also for the person who does not come to faith, and if he loves these honestly, his life will not be wasted, even if it is never comparable to the lives of those who perceived and grasped the highest. But the person who has come to faith (whether he is extraordinarily gifted or plain and simple does not matter) does not come to a standstill in faith. Indeed, he would be indignant if anyone said to him, just as the lover resents it if someone said that he came to a standstill in love; for, he would answer, I am by no means standing still. I have my whole life in it. Yet he does not go further, does not go on to something else, for when he finds this, then he has another explanation.

Faith in God is a leap. It can only be grounded in evidence to a certain extent. At some point, one must simply decide "I believe". It is, as Kierkegaaard says so eloquently, another explanation. It transcends the explanations to which we are accustomed. A Christian friend once explained it to me quite well: "It's not first person "I" or third person "it". It's second person-- you and Him. An exchange of Love."

And that is the beginning of the real explanation, the beginning of wisdom.

24 comments:

  1. Faith is a gift from God to all.

    Some will refuse the gift, even make fun of it, and no mountain of evidence will change their minds.

    The gift of faith must be accepted with the heart before is it accepted with the mind.

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  2. Faith is not a gift. It is not even wishful thinking - it's wishful lack of thinking, a refusal to accept that our existence is finite.

    One of the dangerous consequences is the nihilistic belief that our life on earth is somehow insignificant compared to the afterlife, and that it's therefore OK to snuff it out. See William Lane Craig's recent approval of genocide.

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  3. @troy:

    [One of the dangerous consequences is the nihilistic belief that our life on earth is somehow insignificant compared to the afterlife, and that it's therefore OK to snuff it out. See William Lane Craig's recent approval of genocide]

    The belief in the afterlife isn't nihilistic at all. We believe that our actions in this life have eternal consequences, which is the opposite of nihilism.

    Nihilism is when you believe that there is no ultimate Judge or Judgement, that your actions have no eternal consequences, and that there is no objective moral law.

    The assertion by an atheist that Christianity (let alone Catholicism) is nihilistic is bizarre.

    And William Craig didn't endorse genocide. He simply pointed out that God's purposes transcend our ability to understand, and that the eternal consequences of acts in this life have to be factored in assessing the moral implications of the acts.

    If there is an afterlife, Craig is obviously right. If there isn't an afterlife, Craig is wrong. The issue turns on the truth for falsehood of Christianity, so it can't be used to adjudicate the truth or falsehood of Christianity.

    And besides, why am I having this discussion with an atheist, who accepts "shit happens" as the explanation for everything?

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  4. And besides, why am I having this discussion with an atheist, who accepts "shit happens" as the explanation for everything?

    HURRRRRRRRR DURRRR DERP ATEIST HATE GOD BECOSE THEY DONT HAVE NO FAITH DURERPREPR

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  5. I find the story of Abraham and Isaac bizarre in the extreme. Why would anyone think that someone can take away the 'sins' of others by sacrificing yet another? The story finishes with Abraham finding a sacrificial animal caught in a thicket so he doesn't have to sacrifice Isaac.

    How is this a 'sacrifice'? It wasn't Abraham's to sacrifice in the first place. The animal was the one making the sacrifice.

    Also, I regard the central focus of the painting the look of sheer terror on the face of Isaac as his bloodthirsty father extends his neck in preparation to slice open isaac's throat.

    I wonder if Isaac was s**tting himself.

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  6. Why would anyone think that someone can take away the 'sins' of others by sacrificing yet another?

    Because God said it, you evil sinner.

    Enjoy your afterlife.

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  7. @bach:

    [I find the story of Abraham and Isaac bizarre in the extreme. Why would anyone think that someone can take away the 'sins' of others by sacrificing yet another? The story finishes with Abraham finding a sacrificial animal caught in a thicket so he doesn't have to sacrifice Isaac]

    Scapegoating and punishing another to take away our sins is intrinsic to us. It has been practiced by all cultures at all times. Rene Girard proposes that it is in fact what makes us human-- it is the resolution of mimetic contagion by sacrifice of a scapegoat. This goes on at all levels everywhere- we scapegoat in politics, families, cultures, at work, in literature, in mythology, etc.

    Girard sees human sacrifice as the essence of evil. If you are unfamiliar with the terminology, you need to read Girard. Start with (http://www.amazon.com/See-Satan-Fall-Like-Lightning/dp/157075319)

    The Judeo-Christian revelation is the innocence of the scapegoat and the evil of violence.

    I think that Girard is right, and in fact that his insight is a revolution in the understanding of man and God.

    There is another way of understanding sacrifice that makes sense to me as well. We are accustomed to conservation laws in nature-- conservation of mass-energy, conservation of momentum, etc.

    Perhaps there is a conservation law (also created by God) for sin, and sin committed must be atoned by sacrifice. We do have an intuitive sense of this.

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  8. "The belief in the afterlife isn't nihilistic at all. We believe that our actions in this life have eternal consequences, which is the opposite of nihilism.

    Nihilism is when you believe that there is no ultimate Judge or Judgement, that your actions have no eternal consequences, and that there is no objective moral law.

    The assertion by an atheist that Christianity (let alone Catholicism) is nihilistic is bizarre."

    I think nihilism is an apt term for downplaying the value of a person's life because of that person's imaginary afterlife. It's the kind of nihilism that led the hijackers of 9/11 to lay down their lives so as to improve the erotic quality of their imaginary afterlife with an upgrade in the number of virgins awaiting them.


    "If there is an afterlife, Craig is obviously right. If there isn't an afterlife, Craig is wrong. The issue turns on the truth for falsehood of Christianity, so it can't be used to adjudicate the truth or falsehood of Christianity."

    It always comes down to Might is Right with you guys. Befehl ist befehl.

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  9. Protip: "sin" is an imaginary concept that has no connection to reality.

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  10. Michael,

    You're just repeating a made-up story. How do you know that your version of a human invented god is any truer than any of the other 10,000 or so gods invented by humans to explain the vicissitudes of everyday human life?

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  11. Now, if you want to see something awe-inspiring, have a look at this:

    http://vimeo.com/32001208

    You need to look at it fullscreen with HD.

    It's also reality, not a just-so made-up story.

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  12. @troy & @bachfiend

    The level of your comments on this blog betrays your abysmal non-existent knowledge of history and theology.

    You pride yourselves of using reason, and science, as your only and ultimate guide to the true and universal truth.

    I do hope you will one day realize how totally you are going up a creek without a paddle!

    There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

    Unless you think that Shakespeare and all great minds of history, are idiots!

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  13. Pepe,

    You're quoting a work of fiction, brilliant although it is. At least you're not quoting Scripture, also works of fiction, so I suppose that's progress.

    I do hope that one day you'll be facing Baal to answer for your lack of haith in him, but im certain you won't be facing any deity.

    You do like mangling metaphors. You can't go up a creek without a paddle. You can be up a creek without a paddle.

    I don't think that the great minds of history were idiots, but I do know that you are an idiot ++++.

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  14. @bachfiend a.k.a backward

    ...but I do know that you are an idiot ++++...

    QED!

    (Don't blame me, you provided the proof!)

    ReplyDelete
  15. Pépé "Unless you think that Shakespeare and all great minds of history, are idiots!"
    Hamlet's scepticism is juxtaposed in the play with Horatio's more traditional Christian worldview. Despite the friends' close bond, Hamlet counters Horatio's faith with the seemingly agnostic comment, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

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  16. The level of your comments on this blog betrays your abysmal non-existent knowledge of history and theology.

    >implying theology is a subject at all

    ReplyDelete
  17. Pepe,

    What exists in your mind (a.k.a.) doesn't exist in reality.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Wow, Dr. Egnor, your post concerning "stamp collecting" (i.e. it is focused on subject matter of interest from inside a theistic perspective and has nothing much to say against a non-theistic perspective) has certainly brought in a lot of disparaging comments from the "non-stamp collectors".

    This once again illustrates that atheism is just like not collecting stamps.

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  19. @bachfiend

    What exists in your mind (a.k.a.) doesn't exist in reality.

    What exists in reality doesn't exist in your mind.

    I can assure you! Help is readily available...

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  20. @Mike,
    I love the Baroque. What a master, and what a subject! Cheers.

    @Pépé
    "The gift of faith must be accepted with the heart before is it accepted with the mind."
    Nice!

    @Bach
    "I find the story of Abraham and Isaac bizarre in the extreme. Why would anyone think that someone can take away the 'sins' of others by sacrificing yet another? "
    That is quite the point, Bach. The instinct to sacrifice is a strange and horrifying aspect of our nature. It is a reality, though. In this tale is the biblical lesson on it. Is it disturbing? Yes! It is meant to be.

    @I♥SIN
    "Protip: "sin" is an imaginary concept that has no connection to reality."
    So is the language you just used to express that inanity. So are the numbers and systems you use to calculate how many pills to take, SIN.
    All sorts of things exist only in the world of the mind. That does not mean they are not real - it means your materialism is not sufficient to deal with reality as a whole. It seems your materialism does not even allow for a 'mental' reality beyond the physical. So no sin, no colours, no morality, no language, no numbers.... just 'ME'.
    A literally vacuous view that actually invites replacement: Hard Materialism.
    A kind of un-religion for big babies.

    @Modusoperandi
    I think there was an error. You simply quoted another comment. Did you mean to agree or disagree? or did you introduce an new concept? We are left wondering :P Could you repost? Thanks.

    @Anon,
    "...implying theology is a subject at all"
    The Doctor posts the subjects, we comment. The subject is most clearly a theological and philosophical one. Denial?

    @Bach
    you wrote to Pépé
    "What exists in your mind (a.k.a.) doesn't exist in reality."
    What a very strange assertion. How else do things exist for you? Do you have some other method of perceiving the universe that in your mind? Weird stuff back. Maybe a typo?

    @
    You replied to Bach,
    "I can assure you! Help is readily available..."
    LOL

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  21. hurrr durrr sin is bad lolNovember 15, 2011 at 11:01 AM

    All sorts of things exist only in the world of the mind. That does not mean they are not real - it means your materialism is not sufficient to deal with reality as a whole. It seems your materialism does not even allow for a 'mental' reality beyond the physical. So no sin, no colours, no morality, no language, no numbers.... just 'ME'.
    A literally vacuous view that actually invites replacement: Hard Materialism.
    A kind of un-religion for big babies.


    Cool story bro. Your theobabble makes no sense.

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  22. CrusadeRex,

    'What exists in your mind doesn't exist in reality' is true in two senses. Firstly, Pepe is deluded. Secondly, what the mind 'sees' is an illusion produced by the brain. What is happening in the outside world is observed by imperfect senses and processed by the brain, with the addition of what is expected from past experience, and presented to the mind.

    Have a look at the video 'the Invisible Gorilla' on YouTube. Psychologists have done an experiment in which a group of students watch a video of a basketball game, in which they have to count the number of passes. At one point, an actor dressed in a gorilla costume, walks into the centre of view, pounds his chest and walks off. About 50% of the students don't see the gorilla, even the ones who were looking directly at him. The point of the experiment is that you only see what you expect to see.

    What the mind experiences of the outside world is an illusion, a very useful illusion, but still an illusion.

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  23. Have a look at the video 'the Invisible Gorilla' on YouTube.

    Atheists are so ridiculous. First you invent "invisible unicorns", and when people realize you're laughable, you come up with "invisible gorillas".

    Please stop your nonsense and accept Jesus in your heart. Or else...

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  24. Jeebus,

    Good one. For about 2 seconds I thought you were serious.

    ReplyDelete