By Tyler Been

“‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,’ not of philosophers and scholars.”[1] After Blaise Pascal’s death, a piece of parchment with these words was found sewn into his clothing. It is now known as the Memorial because it was written after an intense religious experience and was meant to be a reminder to Pascal of this experience. Martin Buber interprets Pascal’s statement in this way: “The God of Abraham … is not susceptible of introduction into a system of thought precisely because He is God. He is beyond each and every one of those systems, absolutely and by virtue of his nature. What the philosophers describe by the name of God cannot be more than an idea.”[2] At the very least, the statement is meant to draw a distinction between God as the object of Christian (and Jewish) faith and God as the object of philosophical study.

In light of this, it is ironic that when the German-American philosopher Walter Kaufmann critiques Pascal’s wager, he argues that Pascal has created a God of the philosophers that is incompatible with the God of Abraham. Pascal’s wager is an attempt to show the reasonableness of belief in God “according to our natural lights.”[3] But it is not an argument for God’s existence, as Pascal didn’t think that was possible. Instead, he says that either God exists or he doesn’t, and it is inevitable that one must take a stand in one direction or the other. Given that one must choose, it is appropriate to assess the consequences for each decision.

According to Pascal, if one decides to believe that God exists and he really does exist, one gains everything. If one decides to believe that God exists and he turns out to not exist, one loses nothing. Therefore, one ought to wager that God exists because it is the least risky option. It is a strange argument. Walter Kaufmann gives a number of reasons why he finds the wager uncompelling, but he ends with this: “[T]he God of Pascal’s wager who saves those who shun imprudent risks is not the God of Abraham. When God said to Abraham, ‘Go from your land, and from your kindred, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you,’ Abraham could not have wagered that he stood to win all without risking anything. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob asks men to risk everything.”[4]

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I was an undergraduate student the first time I read Kaufmann’s critique of Pascal’s wager. I do not pretend to know if Kaufmann’s understanding of the wager is good, or if his overall critique is fair. Regardless, I was struck by Kaufmann’s ending argument against Pascal. It was a mode of argument I had never encountered before. In a book arguing against traditionally understood Christian faith, Kaufmann inhabits a Christian’s understanding of God, perhaps even Pascal’s understanding of God, to critique Pascal. Kaufmann must be right; if one wagers that God exists for the sake of avoiding an unnecessary risk, it is hard to believe this is the God of Abraham. As Kaufmann states, the God of Abraham asks men to risk everything.

This point has been impressed upon me as I have preached parts of Abraham’s story through the month of June. In Genesis 12, God calls Abraham to leave behind everything he knows and to go to a land that God will show him. Abraham obeys. The Lord promises Abraham that his descendants will be made into a great nation and that they will bless the whole world. Abraham is required to live by hope in the future fulfillment of a promise, the fulfillment of which he will not even see. And to live by hope is to live with tremendous risk. What if the promise doesn’t come true? What if this God doesn’t keep his word?

The call God has placed upon Abraham’s life becomes tenser still as we move through the narrative. In Genesis 15, worried that he has no biological heirs, Abraham asks God if the one who will inherit God’s promise will be his child. God responds that yes, it will be his child, and he speaks his promise to Abraham again. Abraham believes the promise, and it is reckoned to him as righteousness, but Abraham and Sarah remain childless. So they devise a plot; Abraham will have a child with Hagar, Sarah’s slave. This is one of those moments that due to cultural differences and our hindsight understanding of the story we are often critical of Sarah and Abraham’s actions. However, when the story is placed in the context of Abraham being called by God to live by hope in the future fulfillment of a promise, their actions become much more understandable. Abraham and Sarah have risked everything, and from their perspective that risk is only worthwhile if the promise comes true, but the promise can’t come true without Abraham having biological children. All of Abraham’s and Sarah’s hope is dependent upon a child.

In Genesis 18, the Lord visits Abraham. Abraham runs about preparing food and the Lord sits under a tree and enjoys Abraham’s hospitality. The Lord asks where Sarah is. God then promises that when he returns in due season, Sarah will have a son. This promise causes Sarah to laugh with bitterness; she was far too old to have a son. Despite the odds, the promise comes true. God does the impossible and calls life into existence.

What a moment of relief this must have been for Abraham and Sarah, who had staked their lives on the fulfillment of a promise. Here was the promised future, a son, Isaac. However, the dramatic tension of the narrative only increases at this point. First, Abraham is told by Sarah to cast out Hagar and his son, Ishmael. Sarah will not risk Ishmael inheriting anything alongside Isaac. Second, the sacrifice of one son was not enough; God commands Abraham to offer Isaac as a burnt offering. Abraham obeys. As he binds Isaac to place him upon the altar they have built, an angel of the Lord cries out to Abraham to stop. The Lord provides a sacrifice in Isaac’s place, a ram in the thicket.

In light of this narrative, we must as Christians confront the fact that we hardly know what the word God means. Who is this God who speaks with Abraham? Who is this God who eats with Abraham? Who is this God who makes promises and binds his identity to the contingencies of time? After all, in what meaningful sense could the Lord claim to be God if the promised future does not come true? Who is this God who allows his people to cast out slaves? What kind of God does the impossible, calls life into existence where it is naturally impossible, and then commands that that life be put under the knife? What kind of God provides a means for the promised future to come true, but then commands that the future he has promised be killed? What kind of God commands the death of a son?

These questions ought to unsettle us because the God of Abraham is unsettling. And perhaps the most unsettling question that must be asked is if when we gather on Sunday mornings we are actually worshiping the God of Abraham, or if instead we are worshiping a product of our religious imagination that we mistakenly call God. To put it differently, do we worship the God who commands the death of Isaac, or do we worship a god who is the creation of our religious subjectivity, a god who is the product of us projecting our communal values and needs onto the screen of eternity? This god is the god of our social justice projects, the god who justifies our political ideologies, the god who just so happens to love and hate all the same people we love and hate. This god gives us exactly what we need; he does not determine what we need, but instead gives us what our human fulfillment requires. This god is antecedently determined to be in our favor. According to the prophetic critique of Scripture, this god is an idol, a creation of our human hands and imaginations.

The implicit claim of the Genesis narrative is that Abraham could never have envisioned this God. The Lord chose Abraham, not the other way around. Abraham would never envision a God who asks him to risk everything, to stake his entire life on a promised future. Abraham would never envision a God who tells him to cast out Ishmael, and Abraham sure as hell would not envision a God who asks him to kill his son Isaac; that is not the stuff of religious imagination but religious nightmares. The God of Abraham is the free and sovereign Lord. As the free and sovereign Lord, he binds his identity to the contingencies of time as he sees fit. Hence, he can be identified as the God of Abraham, as the one who called Abraham, as the one who reckoned Abraham as righteous, as the one who gave Abraham the gift of Isaac, and as the one who commands the death of Isaac. These narrative statements correctly identify the Lord because he chose Abraham, not because Abraham chose him or envisioned him by his religious needs and desires.

As I preached through the story of Abraham this June, a theme popped up over and over again in my sermons: as Christians we must constantly critique our conceptions of God. We must with humility admit we are not so sure what we mean when we say God. We must constantly ask ourselves if we are worshiping the God of Abraham or a god of our own making. We must allow the narrative of Genesis to unsettle us by shattering our man-made religious ideals. We must see with Pascal that the God of Abraham is not the God of philosophers and scholars; their God would never command the death of Isaac. And with even more certainty we must see that the God of Abraham is not the God of our American religious imagination. That god must die.

The Rev. Tyler Been serves as curate at Church of the Holy Cross in Paris, TX in the diocese of Dallas.


[1] Pascal, Pensées, 913

[2] Buber, Eclipse of God, p. 49

[3] Pascal, Pensées, 418

[4] Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy, p. 172?

2 Responses

  1. C R SEITZ

    I would only add that the God encountered by Israel in scripture is consistently like this. This is also why the first Gentile Christians thought this book was extraordinary and a flash in the darkness of their prior lives(Origen et al); or rejected it entirely (Marcion).

    Reply

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