Any discussion of Abraham must turn upon faith, that new virtue brought to the world’s sight by the ancient Hebrews. Let’s take a look at the harmony between faith and the structure of reality – human reality.
Consider this scene. Odysseus is on the island of the goddess Calypso. He has been longing to return home, and finally orders come from above: Athena has prompted Zeus to send Hermes to tell Calypso to let the man go. She loves Odysseus – he shares her bed every night – but she submits.
So Odysseus is now hewing and planing planks, hammering pegs, shaving a slim trunk for a mast, and so on. Calypso gives him advice for the journey, which Odysseus takes with a good deal of salt; the gods can be capricious.
Another scene. Galahad, Perceval, and Bors are standing beside a ship. They read a warning upon it: it is the Ship of Faith and true belief, which no man may enter unless his faith is perfect. The ship has no tiller. It will take the good knights where they are destined to go.
They are on a quest to attain to the mysteries of the Holy Grail: the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, a foretaste of the wedding feast of the Lamb. The mysteries are, as the author will quote Saint Paul, what eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the mind of man to conceive.
I won’t deny the deeply human example of Odysseus, striving with his strength and skill to accomplish a difficult task, so that he might go back to rocky Ithaca, to his often-refractory people, and to his loyal wife and the son he has never known.
But faith is out of the question. Odysseus never takes the word of Athena as the truth, simply. Athena may lie. She did so on the plains of Troy, when she set Hector up to be slain by Achilles. The Greek gods meddle; and though the will of Zeus is that justice be done, Zeus is neither all knowing nor consistent.
Odysseus at Sea, mosaic c. 300 A.D.
The relationship between Odysseus and the gods, then, is analogous to the relationship between a man and his political allies or opponents. It does not dwell in the heart.
At first glance, the shipside moment with the good knights is strange and distant from ordinary human life. Yet when we look more closely we see that this is not so – most especially because there is no really “ordinary” human life.
The knights are friends: not just allies, or comrades on a ship. Their devotion to one another flows from their devotion to God. They are eager to board the ship, and rejoice to be together. They don’t know where the ship will take them, but that is essential to the adventure. Love does not demand an accounting beforehand.
It cannot. If we’re talking about personal being, then we can never come to an end of knowing. To devote yourself to a person, or to the God who calls us to know him and love him, is to embark upon a quest for which there is a goal but no terminus. And this is something that escapes the admittedly broad vision of Homer.
When Odysseus returns to Ithaca, he will, as it were, demand an accounting from his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus. He will test them, to reveal their loyalty and their cunning. They will pass those tests and thus prove themselves worthy relations of Odysseus.
I would say that in the loud weeping of father and son, crying like sea birds over the water, and in the hushed lovemaking of husband and wife, there are suggestions of a world of love that makes Odysseus’ trek across the countries of the Cyclops and the Lotos Eaters look narrow by comparison.
But it is still Ithaca, and the best we hope for is the status quo ante. That is not the case with Sir Galahad and his companions. They are on an adventure that cannot be surpassed.
Now, if human beings are not free, there can be no adventure. If they are free, but there is nowhere to go, there can be no adventure. The dwelling place of the Most High – not Ithaca – is the aim, and that unites faith and love in the fullest measure possible.
The Voyage to Saras, Edwin Austin Abbey, c. 1890
Even when we approach the altar and say to our betrothed, “I will be yours, come what may,” we board a ship like the Ship of Faith, and we embark upon the unknown waters of love.
Without the self-abandonment that faith entails, we cannot truly love; without love, we cannot come to know one another, or God. Odysseus knows things about Athena, but he does not immerse himself in the personal being of Athena.
Abraham, by contrast, does not know things about God – God is not a fellow-creature with creaturely characteristics. But Abraham is called to a personal relationship with God.
So when God demands faith, it is not that He sets conditions upon His blessings. Faith, the “one thing needful,” is so by the very nature of persons and of personal knowledge.
If I say to my betrothed, “I shall agree to marry you only after I have entered my time-machine, to determine just how this arrangement will turn out,” then I have foreclosed the relationship from the start. It is not just that I do not really love; I do not even know what love is. I am faithless.
If my betrothed were to say, “Look here, I have a time machine, and these are the wonderful things that will happen if we marry,” she would be buying my assent, but denying me the adventure of love. She would be assuming my faithlessness.
Faith is the fling of the heart into the adventure of divine love. Odysseus is sometimes an explorer, sometimes a tourist. Abraham is always the pilgrim.