"Just Following Orders" - Abraham's Ideal and Correcting Processes

Updated: Jul 16



Experience involves limitations.

This can lead to suffering in life.

To overcome that suffering, one strategy is to aim yourself, aim your actions, aim intentions, at an ideal. Life suffers. Life seeks.


If you commit yourself to an ideal, there will come a time when that ideal will face you with the challenge of sacrifice. It will ask you to make sacrifices. It will also test you, order you to make sacrifices. There will come a time when your ideal will tell you it requires the greatest of sacrifices. And it will seem so pressing and important and real and true that it will take possession of you.


Your ideal will try to take you over completely.


Ideas possess people as much as people follow ideas. This can be positive as well as negative in nature. This means you need something to help you tell the difference in the moment, in the experience. You need consciousness-training so that you can be in the moment. You need something to navigate between serving something truly positive, or truly negative. You need to be able to measure the evil of your motivations and actions as well as the good.


Resolution can have different meanings. It can refer to the commitment or determination you might have toward something, or it might mean the level of detail and information that has been used to determine the measure of something. When participating or experiencing, your resolution - as in committed goal-seeking behaviour - might be quite high. However, resolution - as in level of detail used to understand things - might be quite low.


We have learned too often that “I was following orders” does not excuse evil. It shows commitment, loyalty, but following orders does not always show wisdom. We have learned that “I had my reasons” has not excused poor decisions or intentions. Rationality is permission. When rationalized, everything is permitted. But that does not mean our level of resolution in perceiving the truth of our actions is as admirable as it could be.


Consequences will still ripple out, despite our resolve.


Someone in pursuit of a goal is in no real position to take measure of that goal. You need something from outside that pursuit for registration. In print, registration can mean alignment and placement of elements in context with the greater frame of things. Registration also gives you a chance to make sure colours are calibrated as needed. Are the darks just unforgivingly dark? Are the lights unbelievably light?


How do you reflect on your registration of a problem - whether you are on track or not, properly aligned with all the elements? How can you adjust course without feedback, without updating your data, without another perspective? And where would the feedback come from besides outside of yourself?


One of the most fundamental lessons from art, and perhaps consequently from religious and spiritual practice, and therefore from nearly all of education, is the understanding of figure and ground. The skill of moving attention from figure and ground and then back, moving from art piece to context (and then to audience and to artist) is important to the resolution and registration of our own beliefs, our own attempts to address the suffering in life, the limitations in experience.


The basic metaphor is a comparison of a figure and ground to another figure and ground.


From experience to understanding to verifying, we can adopt an attitude of inquiry in order to develop a relationship with our ideals that benefits from the advantages of both resolution and registration. Perspective brings correctives. Correctives demonstrate, or reveal, responsibilities. The process trains you to move your attention from figure to frame, and even beyond, and then back again.


For an ideal to be truly an ideal, it needs some kind of correcting mechanism or process. It needs to be able to send you messages, clear information that the relationship between you and your ideal is healthy - figure and ground - a clear statement that shows it is not just simply having its way with you.




With the story of Abraham, a lot of interpretations focus on the commitment of Abraham to his ideal, to his god. If the point of the story was Abraham then maybe that would be fine. Staying on course is fine, sometimes.


But Abraham isn’t the point. Abraham’s relationship with his ideal is the point, because in the larger context, Abraham isn’t the main character of Genesis. Even when God tells Abraham to “Walk before me and be perfect” Abraham isn’t perfect. He isn’t the ideal man. He isn’t the ideal.


But what is fascinating in this proclamation is that the ideal in this context is actually telling Abraham not to be possessed, to not simply “follow orders.” Instead, stand in front rather than simply follow. Face judgement, exposed, courageous, making your own stand.


We can focus on another aspect of the story. Abraham’s ideal provides Abraham a correcting heuristic. Some voice outside Abraham that provides another perspective - an opportunity to examine his resolution and his registration - some signal of evidence that shows Abraham how to pause and evaluate, some gentle touch that suggests there might be a better way.


These are all messages that help Abraham adjust course, and are not simply confirming Abraham’s choice to “just follow orders.”


What makes a pursuit, or an ideal or a motivation, worthy of your attention and commitment is not that it demands sacrifices, not that it demands unwavering stubborn commitment toward not changing your mind. No. An ideal must provide some kind of clear correcting mechanism that comes with consciousness of the resolution and registration in the moment. Otherwise, it is no ideal but just something that is having its way with you.


When God tests Abraham, Abraham follows. When God directs Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, Abraham puts his ideal before himself and before his son. If you think of it like stage directions, Abraham puts his own son Isaac between himself and his ideal, which is telling. This is the act of a coward.


Where is the better place for Isaac? In many respects, Abraham needs to put himself before his son so that he can walk before his son and “be perfect” as his god charged him with.


Why? Because your child is a judge upon you, just like your god is a judge upon you, according to religious thinking.


Perhaps one of the most courageous things you could do is not sacrifice your child to your ideal, but instead understand the correcting process that comes with ideals that stand up to resolution and registration.


But this might only prove you have a terrible relationship with your ideal. Or your ideal doesn’t actually measure up - is it off-register or in poor resolution?


Is it just having its way with you?


Instead, stand before your ideal so that your child can judge you well.


And maybe this is also why Abraham needed correction. Abraham was possessed, and unable to tell right from wrong until a message from outside his focus, outside his fixations, offered him a better way.


Cheers.