|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.
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.