11. Abraham, the Father of Faith

This is traditional iconography of Abraham, the Father of Faith.
Greek Orthodox Icon of Abraham

As Socrates is considered the father of philosophy in the West, so the patriarch Abraham is considered the father of faith for really the entire world. The three major monotheistic religions – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam – all claim Abraham as their forefather.1 

Abraham grew up in Ur, a city-state of southern Mesopotamia. After the great Flood of Noah, people began to multiply again and spread throughout the earth. Noah had three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Shem (from where we get the word Semite) became the ancestor of all of the Middle Eastern peoples, including the Jews and the Arabs. It was through the line of Shem that God would reveal Himself to the world. He would not do this all at once, but gradually over two millennia, until His revelation culminated in Jesus Christ, the ultimate revelation of God. After the Flood, this revelation began with Abraham. 

Faith and Reason

It is important at this point to properly juxtapose faith and reason. In our modern perspective, reason means something that is based in scientific facts alone or empirical knowledge. It has nothing to do with the realm of the spiritual. Faith, according to modern thought, is pure belief that is not necessarily grounded in any scientific fact and may even at times be opposed to science. In today’s secular world, faith tends to be viewed as irrational. 

In post 6, I explained how Socrates separated reason from superstition yet grounded reason in spiritual or divine principles. Socrates saw no dichotomy between reason and the spiritual. In fact, he taught that a spiritual foundation was necessary for sound reasoning. This was the belief in the West up until the Enlightenment when the two were separated and put in opposition to one another. 

I will try to explain over the next few posts how Abraham’s faith was not whimsical, but was indeed grounded in fact. It was rational. The kind of fact and the type of reality he based his faith upon was a spiritual reality, the type over which science has no jurisdiction. To use an analogy, a metal detector is great for finding buried coins, but it is useless for detecting radon gas in the basement. Likewise, science is a great tool, but only for understanding the physical world. It is not meant to go beyond that into the realm of what is called metaphysics.

The Ignorance of Fideism and Scientism

Today, we live in a world dominated by scientism. Scientism is defined as “the excessive belief in the power of scientific knowledge and techniques.” In other words, we think that science can explain everything and has the answers to all of our problems. We view science as the highest and final authority that trumps all others. Even religious faith is explained via scientific principles. 

We should reject scientism but we should also reject fideism. Fideism is the practice of having faith that is not grounded in any fact or evidence, and may even be contrary to evidence. The faith of Abraham, as well as the other Old Testament saints, was firmly grounded in the fact of God’s revealed truth. But how do we know this reality if it is spiritual? The only way that we can know spiritual reality is if it is revealed to us by God; it is beyond the reach of our scientific instruments.

And that brings us back to Abraham, for God revealed Himself to Abraham. The Bible said that he “appeared” to Abraham. This is a very important word that I will expand upon in the next post.

The spiritual realm is just as much a reality as the physical universe. God gave the ancient Greeks the ability to develop reasoning skills to a highly sophisticated level. God entrusted His revelation to the Jewish people, Abraham’s descendants in the Old Testament. Socrates based his philosophy in the divine, but God did not reveal Himself to Socrates; He merely guided him through things like dreams and oracles.

Although the Jewish people of the Old Testament were intelligent, they were never philosophically inclined. They did not develop reasoning skills to the level that the Greeks did. But they were entrusted with divine revelation, the “oracles of God” as St. Paul says in the New Testament – a privilege that no other nation had. These two separate streams, faith and reason, would eventually converge two millennia after Abraham in the Christian Church. 

Trapped in the Matrix

For the most part now, in the West, we all live in an artificially constructed matrix, even more than that, a prison. In this matrix, we are forced to live by false a presupposition that material reality is all of reality. Unless somebody shows the true reality, we remain forever trapped. This is not a new idea, but a very old one. The clearest expression of this phenomenon in ancient times if found in the analogy of Plato’s cave. Many people in the West are held as prisoners in Plato’s cave where they see only a dim reflection of reality. Outside the cave is the full revelation that includes the spiritual. For those who escape and encounter that reality, it is impossible to return to the former way of thinking. But let that person try to enlighten those who are still in the cave, and he most likely will be met with persecution and even death.

The 1999 move The Matrix gives us a more contemporary version of Plato’s cave. At one point the protagonist, Morpheus, is giving a choice to take a red pill or a blue pill. If he took the blue pill, he would remain in what he perceived was reality, but in fact was an artificially constructed universe. If he took the red pill, he would see the truth about the Matrix. This is where we get the term “red- pilled” from, meaning to see reality as it is, and not as it has been falsely presented to us.

In Ur, Abraham lived in a matrix of sorts. Before he encountered God, he lived in a construct of paganism that veiled rather than revealed reality. His “red pill” moment was when God revealed himself to Abraham, and he saw reality for what it was. The matrix that we live in today continue to grow darker and more threatening. Those who even ask about an alternative reality are considered public enemy number one. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the only red pill that open our eyes to the true reality. Suddenly, we see a spiritual world behind and undergirding the physical. Those who refuse such a gift are doomed to live out their existence in a nihilistic universe that offers no hope. But what we learn from Plato’s cave is that most people would rather remain in the bondage that they know, rather than embrace the truth that they don’t know.

The Sacred and the Secular

As a civilization, we used to talk about the division between the sacred and the secular, the secular being the natural world around us and the sacred being that which represents transcendent spiritual reality. For example, an ordinary drinking glass is a secular object, whereas a chalice used in a Communion rite in a church is a sacred object once it is set apart for such use. Just like the person who escaped from Plato’s cave, when we encounter such a thing as Communion in church, we are encountering a transcendent reality. When God appeared to Abraham, he encountered a transcendent reality.

There is a distinction between the secular and sacred on one hand, but on the other they are meant to be joined together. As Thomas Aquinas stated, “grace perfects nature” or “grace completes nature.” This is a way of saying that spiritual realities infuse the natural world. God’s glory and majesty are expressed through the physical creation. The ultimate example of this is the Incarnation, where the Son of God, the transcendent Logos, inhabited his own creation in a human body. By removing this aspect of reality, we are left with a physical creation that is a husk of what it was meant to be. It is like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, a body with no soul.

Creation then turns from something that was meant to reflect the transcendent to something else altogether. It turns from something inviting to something hostile. Rather then a creation under God’s fatherly care, we have a creation that may destroy us if we don’t placate it through our various recycling rituals. When we ascribe sacred qualities to naturalistic phenomenon, then we end up with pantheism, or at least a countless pantheon of gods that Abraham found himself surrounded by.

Without God, the natural order becomes a frightening place. It is like the little child in bed looking at all of the forms and shadows in his darkened room. Because of his active imagination, ordinary objects morph into monsters and demons. When his parents come into the room to comfort him, they simply turn on the light and all of the monsters vanish as the turn back common objects again.

The world Abraham lived in was equally frightening. If certain gods were not placated, then the crops would fail and people would starve. If the god of travel was angry at you, then you would be overcome by robbers. Abraham, like the rest, was subjected to nature that was hostile and capricious. But that was only until he encountered the transcendent God who, like a loving parent, shone the light of his glory onto the world as he endowed Abraham with eyes of faith. Suddenly, the frightening objects of the world are seen in their true light as objects intended to serve man and glorify God.

That is why in his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul states that Abraham would inherit the world. It was too small of a thing for him to inherit the land of Canaan in the Middle East. Rather, he and his descendants of the Promise, the Christian Church, will indeed inherit the earth someday. Abraham discovered that the earth, rather than being a potential threat to his existence, would eventually become a gift to him and his descendants. And it all started when God called him to venture forth from Ur, in order to lead the world out of darkness of superstition into His marvelous light of truth.

Pope John Paul II stated:

“Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”2

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Deo Gratias

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Amazon Reviewer: “Contemporary European disdain for organized religion and the rise in secularism on that continent owes its roots partly to the Enlightenment. Thus, to understand modern Europe one has to return to this epoch in its history, to those who shaped the European mind of this era and to a study of the ideas which they espoused and propagated. These ideas, for good or for ill have taken hold in other parts of the modern world, being incarnated in many minds and institutions in contemporary society and threatening to enthrone a world where only a certain kind of rationality without faith or a sense of Transcendence reigns supreme.” -Rev Paulinus I. Odozor, C.S.Sp, Professor of Moral Theology/Christian Ethic and the Theology of World Church, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA

Footnotes:

  1. Parrot, André. “Abraham”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 13 Mar. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Abraham.
  2. Encyclical Letter Fides Et Ratio, opening statement by The Supreme Pontiff John Paul II on the relationship between faith and reason, https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_14091998_fides-et-ratio.html, September 14, 1998

Bibliography and Sources:

 Agbaw-Ebai, Maurice Ashley, Light of Reason, Light of Faith: Joseph Ratzinger and the German Enlightenment, St. Augustine Press, South Bend, Indiana, March 26,2021

Crawford, Harriet, author and Harrison, Thomas, series editor, Ur: The City of the Moon God, Archaeological History Series, Bloomsbury Academic, New York, 2015

De Mieroop, Van, A History of the Ancient Near East, ca. 3000-323 BC, 3rd Edition (Blackwell History of the Ancient World), Wiley-Blackwell, Hoboken, N.J., 2015

Hahn, Ph.D., Scott, Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT., 2009

Kramer, Samuel Noah, The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character Revised ed. Edition, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1971

Time-Life Books, editor, Sumer: Cities of Eden, Lost Civilization Series, Time Life Education, 1993

Voegelin, Eric, Order and History, Vol. 1: Israel and Revelation, classic reprint hardcover, Forgotten Books Publishers, London, 2018

Zainab, Bahrani, Mesopotamia: Ancient Art and Architecture, Thomas Hudson publisher, High Holborn, U.K., 2017

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