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Love Story, or the Absurd Against the Algorithms
A reflection on Abraham, the binding of Isaac, and how the absurd can sometimes save us.
What follows is a sermon I preached at Christ Episcopal Church on Sunday, July 2nd. Though I don’t cite them directly, Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, Erich Auerbach’s indespensible essay “Odysseus’s Scar",” and Ellen Davis’s “Take Your Son” were all very present in my mind as I reflected on Genesis 22:1-14.
Since my 20s, I’ve been a reader, off and on, of The New Yorker. Every issue is filled with great reporting, in depth reviews, fresh fiction, and poetry that often rings in my ears for months after. But my favorite part of The New Yorker, by far, is its humor. There are the well-known cartoons, always able to evoke a smile, but there are also the Shouts and Murmurs, short humor pieces by the likes of Jack Handy and Andy Borowitz. Recently, I read a great one by Simon Rich, who was once one of the youngest writers ever to be hired at Saturday Night Live. It’s titled “History Report.”
The premise is that in a distant future, a great-grandchild doing a history project asks a now elderly Simon Rich about what life was like back on earth which is now too hot for human habitation. Eventually the questions come around to how he met great-grandmother Kathleen. To the surprised child, Rich explains that back then people didn’t have algorithms to match them up on dating apps. That instead, they went to dinner or a drink with people they didn’t know. “The only way to get… personal information,” he says, “was by asking people questions to their face, as if their actual, living, breathing face was their social-media profile.” This was a risky affair because sometimes you might ask a question that could go south. For instance, Rich explains, “you might ask, ‘What do your parents do?’ and they would say, ‘My parents are dead.’ And then you would have to say something like ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t know that because I have no information about you. We are strangers.’ And sometimes the other person would forgive you, but sometimes they would not.”
The piece goes on to offer the beautiful story of how Rich met his wife in college. They began as strangers, but through a common love of the show Arrested Development they began a conversation that led to a relationship. With time they were married, and their unfolding discovery of one another, continued in a long fidelity.
Though it is a humor piece, Simon Rich’s story has an elegiac quality—a remembrance of a time when love and relationship was forged in the uncertain and the unknown, a time before people started researching potential dates online or let computers calculate their compatibility. Love is a risky business, and the truth is that most of us don’t like to be all that vulnerable. So it is that information appeals to us, and any promise of a perfect match will entice. But as anyone who did meet online will tell you, despite the promise of certainty, and no matter the algorithm, when it comes to love there are no safe bets. Love remains a reality of vulnerability and risk. And it is just that fact that brings about both the possibility of heartache and the chance at abiding, soulful resonance with another person. It is ultimately into the unknown and uncontrollable that we must venture our hearts.
To venture, assay, prove, try—these are the alternative words often used to translate the Hebrew word, naw-saw’, rendered at the beginning of our reading from Genesis: “God tested Abraham.” And those alternatives are helpful to keep in mind as we enter this hard passage, one that has been commented on more than any other in all of scripture. But for all its dark difficulty, at its heart this is a scene in a love story, and it is in that context that we must read it.
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The love at the center of this story is not the kind made by a match based on a hundred question test or AI driven psychographics. It is the love of resonant encounter, a love that recognizes an infinite depth in the beloved that cannot be captive or known or analyzed and summed up. It is a love that requires profound trust in the other. And yet at some point in every relationship, there comes a time of testing—a time when love must be proved true. Such a test, comes as often as not, when the relationship has been strained and the questions of the heart begin to churn until they search for an answer. When we come to this passage, we find God and Abraham at such a point.
Our reading today leaves off three important words right at the beginning that would be helpful to reinsert. Genesis 22 starts not, “God tested Abraham” but “After these things, God tested Abraham.” After what things? Well, there was that time when Abraham, for fear of violence, passed his wife Sarah off as his sister and let her enter the harem of a pagan king. And then after God’s rescue, there was the time Abraham did the exact same thing again with another king. Or there was that unfortunate choice when Abraham and Sarah decided that maybe God needed some help providing the promised heir, so Abraham had a son by Hagar and then a few years later left her and his son in the desert. All of these instances might make God question whether Abraham really trusts him, and whether, in return, he can trust Abraham.
Or “after these things” could take us all the way back to the creation, to Adam and Eve and all that follows, where in each twist of the story we find humanity betraying God’s love and trust. God has had a rough relationship history to this point and now God is staking everything, the love God has for the whole world, on his relationship with Abraham. God is vulnerable and so God wants to know—will Abraham prove true, will Abraham trust him and be faithful to him as so many before have not?
And so, in the crisis of these questions, God asks Abraham to do the unspeakable. What God wants to see, is if Abraham, in the face of the absurd, will ultimately trust his hope to God rather than any solution to the future that Abraham could create or ensure. What God wants from Abraham is his faith. And it’s here that the hardest part of the story comes, because it would be easy to see God here as a monster. If we knew someone whose lover asked for such a thing, we’d tell our friend to walk away. But this is no ordinary relationship.
What Abraham entrusts to God, is the life of Isaac and his own hope in any future. It is Abraham’s deep faith that tells him, in the secret of his heart, that no matter what happens, Isaac will be restored, and the promise will be fulfilled. It is no accident that this story, for Christians, has long been seen as a foreshadowing of God’s own giving up of his son and ultimate vindication through the resurrection. God’s request of Abraham is something only God could ask and through which only God could be trusted to provide blessing in the end.
And as much as God wants to plumb the faith of Abraham, in this test God is seeking to prove something about himself to Abraham in return. It was at the mountain in Moriah that God shows Abraham that he can trust him with Isaac, that he can trust the impossible endearments and promises that God has whispered in his ears. The promised future will arrive, not because of any power Abraham can offer, but because he has let go in surrender to a God who can be trusted, even at the edge of the absurd. Abraham names the place, “God provides,” for it was there, on that ground, that the reality of God’s faithfulness was made manifest in the face of what, outside of love, would be senseless.
Reading the story of the binding of Isaac in our age, might strike us as an encounter with a primitive god, a dark picture that bears no likeness to the enlightened faith we’d like to claim. And yet I think we need this story now more than ever. Ours is a world that desires to control more and more, to solve every problem, to heal every wound. And while that might seem good on the surface, it makes it impossible for us to live into the fact of our limits, our vulnerability, the absurd pieces of our life that could never fit in some neat rational system. Faith, hope, and love are not achievable by algorithm or formula, or knowable beyond the risk of faith. They require us to face of the unknown and ultimately unknowable. If we are ever to have real relationships, to experience the deep soul-singing resonances of life, then we will have to learn to venture into the absurd, trusting that God will keep his promises of blessing in the end.
One day, perhaps, a child in some future generation will come to us, asking about what life was like along our journey. I hope that somewhere, in what we share, there will be a love story—a trusting encounter of living relationship with God. And I’m certain that if we have such a story to share, it will not be because all our life made sense, or we experienced no loss or suffering, but because in the end we learned to trust our beloved, even in our confusion, even in the dark. Amen.