Sunday, February 06, 2011

Abraham's "Sacrifice" - A New Interpretation

Abraham's "sacrifice" is our "sacrfice," and the word should be in quotes, because, like everything else of the ego, it is not what it seems to be. Of necessity, to the ego sacrifice means giving up something and now lacking it while someone else has it. The concept is based on the Son's original thought of sacrifice, namely the insane belief that, for a separate individual to exist, wholeness, God, must have been destroyed or sacrificed.
Because the horror of that thought of killing off God is so intolerable, the Son denies it, and it inevitably gets projected out into a world of separate individuals, and sacrifice's prototype gets reenacted over and over and over again in all our special relationships. How often does one hear that the "secret to a good relationship" is "give and take."!
For me, Rembrandt's famous engraving depicting the biblical story of Abraham's sacrifice has always been so full of light  and has always given me such immense and profound relief over the idea of letting go of the ego's self will, letting go of the tiny mad idea of separation, letting go of my vision of what tomorrow must be like ("the only son"), which is always another repetition of the past in a different form. For me, that picture represents forgiveness, the light just shines the darkness away, it represents accepting the atonement. But the ego wants us to believe God would now demand sacrifice of us in payment for our sacrifice of Himas a literal interpretation of the story might suggest. It is sacrifice in the ego's view, for the ego also insanely believes it has something of value to offer us, something "more than [the] everything," that we in sheer terror, believe we have destroyed, never to get it back. (ACIM:T-29.VII.2, T-27.III.4:6) So the son does get to live, which is reminiscent of something Ken Wapnick has said, that in human (spiritual) adulthood, your new life is just like your old life, except without the fear, guilt and anxiety.

The sons of the ego are our projections, and physical children are a perfect symbol of the thought, for parents imagine they live on in their children. But our thoughts might be expressed in art works, or our handy work, as they are in every detail of our life. So, the story of Abraham's sacrifice should not be misunderstood by taking it literally, but rather appreciated metaphorically.  It is the story of us all, who refuse to live in the present, and seek our salvation in our projections, which ultimately are always projections of our guilt, with which we populate our lives and the earth, for they are endless forms of individuality, projected out and continuing the ego's dynamic of sin, guilt and fear, played out in all our relationships. The ego is indeed fruitful and multiplies ad infinitum, and populates the earth but many times zero is still zero. Giving up this hell to gain Heaven could hardly be a sacrifice. This theme comes up repeatedly in the Course:
 What would they see instead? The shining radiance of the Son of God, so like his Father that the memory of Him springs instantly to mind. And with this memory, the Son remembers his own creations, as like to him as he is to his Father. And all the world he made, and all his specialness, and all the sins he held in its defense against himself, will vanish as his mind accepts the truth about himself, as it returns to take their place. This is the only "cost" of truth: You will no longer see what never was, nor hear what makes no sound. Is it a sacrifice to give up nothing, and to receive the Love of God forever? (ACIM:T-24.II.6)
Be glad you have escaped the mockery of salvation the ego offered you, and look not back with longing on the travesty it made of your relationships. Now no one need suffer, for you have come too far to yield to the illusion of the beauty and holiness of guilt. Only the wholly insane could look on death and suffering, sickness and despair, and see it thus. What guilt has wrought is ugly, fearful and very dangerous. See no illusion of truth and beauty there. And be you thankful that there is a place where truth and beauty wait for you. Go on to meet them gladly, and learn how much awaits you for the simple willingness to give up nothing because it is nothing.
The new perspective you will gain from crossing over will be the understanding of where Heaven is. From this side, it seems to be outside and across the bridge. Yet as you cross to join it, it will join with you and become one with you. And you will think, in glad astonishment, that for all this you gave up nothing! The joy of Heaven, which has no limit, is increased with each light that returns to take its rightful place within it. Wait no longer, for the Love of God and you.  And may the holy instant speed you on the way, as it will surely do if you but let it come to you. (ACIM:T-16.VI.10-11)
 Why would you not perceive it as release from suffering to learn that you are free? Why would you not acclaim the truth instead of looking on it as an enemy? Why does an easy path, so clearly marked it is impossible to lose the way, seem thorny, rough and far too difficult for you to follow? Is it not because you see it as the road to hell instead of looking on it as a simple way, without a sacrifice or any loss, to find yourself in Heaven and in God? Until you realize you give up nothing, until you understand there is no loss, you will have some regrets about the way that you have chosen. And you will not see the many gains your choice has offered you. Yet though you do not see them, they are there. Their cause has been effected, and they must be present where their cause has entered in. (ACIM:T-29.II.1)
Salvation is no compromise of any kind. To compromise is to accept but part of what you want; to take a little and give up the rest. Salvation gives up nothing. It is complete for everyone. Let the idea of compromise but enter, and the awareness of salvation's purpose is lost because it is not recognized. It is denied where compromise has been accepted, for compromise is the belief salvation is impossible. It would maintain you can attack a little, love a little, and know the difference. Thus it would teach a little of the same can still be different, and yet the same remain intact, as one. Does this make sense? Can it be understood? (ACIM:T-23.III.3) 
 The ego's projections in thought, including in their physical manifestation as "sons," are nothing but the projection of itself into the future, in order to escape the presence of "God is," and instead to perpetuate itself by its attempts make a in defiance of God. The ego's goal is making the future like the past, and never having to show up for life in the present. To give up that illusion of a life, that substitute reality, is neither sacrifice nor murder, but salvation, and what then reveals itself is that we finally let go of the "tiny, mad idea," of the separation - symbolized by the Ram in the story. The stubborn and often foolish Ram is the perfect symbol for the insane idea that God's Son could "go it alone," possible only in illusions and a dream role in which the Son of God denies who he is in truth. In that thought of going it alone lies the essence of diaspora, and the feeling that we can never go home again - the prodigal son leaves home that way, to go and live in foreign lands, and thereby squander his inheritance.

Yet the story of Abraham's "sacrifice," - and of the prodigal son as well - tell it differently. They are the story of giving up the illusion - Abraham thinks he is going to have to sacrifice his only son, his only hope for a future (the ego always makes it seem its plans are our only hope), yet all he does is to let go of his self will, and the prodigal son recognizes that the only hope for Heaven and happiness is to do the will of his father, instead of squandering our inheritance and striving for the ego's treasures and wasting his life swimming against the stream.

Fundamentally, all the steps of forgiveness are in this story, exactly as they are defined in Lesson 23, namely

  • Taking back the projection (would I accuse myself of doing this?)
  • Changing our mind (metanoia) by turning to our Internal Teacher
  • Placing the future in the hands of God (c.q. the Holy Spirit)
or, in the precise words of Lesson 23:
The idea for today [I can escape from the world I see by giving up attack thoughts] introduces the thought that you are not trapped in the world you see, because its cause can be changed. This change requires, first, that the cause be identified and then let go, so that it can be replaced. The first two steps in this process require your cooperation. The final one does not. Your images have already been replaced. By taking the first two steps, you will see that this is so. (ACIM:W-23.5)
Last but not least, all of this imagery is closely tied to the many Jesus logia which express the notion that the only way to change the ending is to go back to the beginning, such as Thomas Logion 18, which says: "Fortunate is the one who stands at the beginning: That one will know the end and will not taste death." The whole point here is that the problem is not on the screen, the solution is not in moving the deck chairs on the Titanic: rather, the problem is the ego and the solution is undoing the ego, by working our way back to the original decision point in the mind where we made the choice for the ego, and now would make another choice, pursuant to Jesus' invitation to choose again:
Trials are but lessons that you failed to learn presented once again, so where you made a faulty choice before you now can make a better one, and thus escape all pain that what you chose before has brought to you. In every difficulty, all distress, and each perplexity Christ calls to you and gently says, "My brother, choose again." He would not leave one source of pain unhealed, nor any image left to veil the truth. He would remove all misery from you whom God created altar unto joy. He would not leave you comfortless, alone in dreams of hell, but would release your mind from everything that hides His face from you. His Holiness is yours because He is the only power that is real in you. His strength is yours because He is the Self that God created as His only Son. (ACIM:T-31.VIII.3)
Thus the story of Abraham's metanoia was truly the story of reconciliation in which we realize once and for all that the only thing that could ever make us happy is not getting what we think we want (God is NOT Santa Claus) -- the "only son" represents the continuation of the ego's dream of wish fulfilment --, but to join Jesus in doing the Will of the Father, which is also the true meaning of "following Jesus," as should be clear from Logion 99 of Thomas:
The disciples said to him, "Your brothers and your mother are standing outside." He said to them, "Those here who do what my Father wants are my brothers and my mother. They are the ones who will enter the Father's Kingdom."
 or, in the words of the Course:
Anger but screeches, "Guilt is real!" Reality is blotted out as this insane belief is taken as replacement for God's Word. The body's eyes now "see"; its ears alone can "hear." Its little space and tiny breath become the measure of reality. And truth becomes diminutive and meaningless. Correction has one answer to all this, and to the world that rests on this: 
You but mistake interpretation for the truth. And you are wrong. But a mistake is not a sin, nor has reality been taken from its throne by your mistakes. God reigns forever, and His laws alone prevail upon you and upon the world. His Love remains the only thing there is. Fear is illusion, for you are like Him.
In order to heal, it thus becomes essential for the teacher of God to let all his own mistakes be corrected. If he senses even the faintest hint of irritation in himself as he responds to anyone, let him instantly realize that he has made an interpretation that is not true. Then let him turn within to his eternal Guide, and let Him judge what the response should be. So is he healed, and in his healing is his pupil healed with him. The sole responsibility of God's teacher is to accept the Atonement for himself. Atonement means correction, or the undoing of errors. When this has been accomplished, the teacher of God becomes a miracle worker by definition. His sins have been forgiven him, and he no longer condemns himself. How can he then condemn anyone? And who is there whom his forgiveness can fail to heal? (ACIM:M-18.3-4, bolding mine)
Abraham set the example, and it should clear up our confusion for all time:
The Holy Spirit will direct you only so as to avoid pain. Surely no one would object to this goal if he recognized it. The problem is not whether what the Holy Spirit says is true, but whether you want to listen to what He says. You no more recognize what is painful than you know what is joyful, and are, in fact, very apt to confuse the two. The Holy Spirit's main function is to teach you to tell them apart. What is joyful to you is painful to the ego, and as long as you are in doubt about what you are, you will be confused about joy and pain. This confusion is the cause of the whole idea of sacrifice. Obey the Holy Spirit, and you will be giving up the ego. But you will be sacrificing nothing. On the contrary, you will be gaining everything. If you believed this, there would be no conflict. (ACIM:T-7.X.3, bolding mine)
Note: This new interpretation is not so new. The Dutch spiritual teacher Johan Willem Kaiser, whose work I'm translating into English, wrote about this meaning in several books of his, most notably in his The Experience of the Gospel, and in his The Mysteries of Jesus in our Lives. His works date from 20 to 30 years before the Course. Rembrandt in my view could never have portrayed the scene of light that he did, if he did not fully understand that for Abraham the reversal he experienced was a true miracle moment, where the light of the Holy Spirit could shine away the dark despair of the ego.

Copyright, © 2011 Rogier F. van Vlissingen. All rights reserved.