Monday, October 27, 2014

Despair, the Hard Work of Theology, and Abraham's Test

I have a son. The other day my wife and I went to his first parent-teacher conference as a middle-schooler. We were told what an awesome kid he is. Afterwards, we got ice cream. Then we headed to the theatre to rehearse for a play he and I are in together.

Ice cream. Shared activities. Involvement in his education. These are things I associate with being a parent. Here are some things I don't associate with being a parent: Tying him down to a rock. Gathering kindling. Preparing to slit his throat and set him on fire.

Those are things I associate with being evil.

A couple of weeks back, Rachel Held Evans wrote an essay on the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac--you know, that story in which (at least on a straightforward reading) God tests Abraham by asking him to kill his son as a sacrificial offering. Evans declared, up front, that she would have failed that test.

So would I. More importantly, I share Evans' wariness of treating a straightforward reading of this story with anything but suspicion. Here's how Evans puts it:
While I agree we can’t go making demands and bending God into our own image, it doesn’t make sense to me that a God whose defining characteristic is supposed to be love would present Himself to His creation in a way that looks nothing like our understanding of love.  If love can look like abuse, if it can look like genocide, if it can look like rape, if it can look like eternal conscious torture—well, everything is relativized! Our moral compass is rendered totally unreliable.
Of course, there are metaphorical ways to approach the story. You can stress that child-sacrifice was not uncommon in Abraham's day, and treat the moment that God stays Abraham's hand as the key revelatory part in the tale--a kind of divine repudiation of a practice that was accepted at the time. Or you can see the story in terms of its narrative place within a Christian story where God gives His son up to be sacrificed for the sake of all humanity.

But Evans' discussion is about the story when you approach it literally and treat it as an accurate depiction of what God has done. In that case, we are left with an image of God that is starkly at odds with the urgings of a conscience shaped by the Christian ethic of love.

Evans asks whether such a God is worthy of our worship--and sees those who answer yes as forced towards a theology that worships power, that sees omnipotence rather than love as God's defining attribute. And she calls us to a Christian faith that engages our conscience, that allows the richness of our moral experience to shape our reading of the Bible.

Based on this message, Samuel James accuses Evans of being "too tired" to do "the hard work of theology." He likens her to Brittany Maynard, the young woman diagnosed with brain cancer who has recently become a poster child for physician-assisted suicide. In James' analysis, Maynard lacks the perseverance to continue to hope in the face of her grim diagnosis, and so seeks to end her life rather than continue to affirm life's value by fighting to the bitter end. Evans, he thinks, is shaped by a similar despair. But in her case it's her faith, not her life, that's put upon the sacrificial altar.

This strikes me as dead-wrong.

Why? Let me begin by explaining why I can't approach the Abraham story as a straightforward account of what God did in His relationship with Abraham. The story, as it's told in the book of Genesis, takes the following as given: God really did order Abraham to sacrifice his son, and Abraham knew this.

The story asks us to assume that this is true, and to read the story with that assumption in place. For me, this is kind of like someone telling a story about a guy who cuts out a perfectly round square from construction paper and gives it to his girlfriend as a Valentine. If the moral of the story comes out only if one assumes that round squares are real, the storyteller might ask me to assume this for the sake of the story. Maybe, for that purpose, I could momentarily pretend that I believe in round squares. But I could never actually believe in them. And I don't know how long I could sustain the pretense.

Likewise, maybe I can pretend to believe, for the sake of extracting from the story the lessons it intends to teach, that Abraham really knew that God was commanding him to kill his son. But I'm not sure how long I could maintain the pretense.

Someone once asked me to imagine the story of Abraham's testing through Isaac's eyes. I did, and for me the most harrowing part was the trip down the mountain, after Isaac's trust has been violated, his childhood ripped away, his father stolen irreparably from him by an act of treason. Once I imagined it through that perspective, I could never unthink it. In the biblical version of the story, Isaac is incidental. He's just there to serve as the pawn in the test. But if we treat the story as something that really happened, then we can't ignore Isaac's experience. We can't ignore the question of what God would command--and what He wouldn't command--if he genuinely loved not only Abraham, but Abraham's child.

Let me put it this way. Were a voice to thunder from the heavens, "I, the Lord your God, command you to go and kill your son," I would assume I'd gone crazy. And if my sanity wasn't in question, I'd assume I was the object of some high-tech hoax. And if it came down to believing in a supernatural power as the source of the experience, I'd have to conclude something along the following lines: "Satan has taken to thundering commands from the heavens in the name of God."

Under no conditions would I believe that it was actually God who was commanding me to betray my son in defiance of the very meaning of parental love. And why not? Because to do such a thing would be evil. Even if I was sure that God would intervene at the last minute, my child would still be traumatized for life. A good God would not issue commands that, if followed, would inflict such horror. And I have an unwavering faith that God is good.

Put another way, to believe--even in the face of the most astonishing pyrotechnic display of supernatural fireworks--that God was actually commanding me to kill my son, would be to give up my faith in the goodness of God. It would be to stop believing that God is love.

Here is where Samuel James would accuse me of failing to do the "hard work" of theology. Apparently, to do that hard work is to do the hard work of believing the following two things simultaneously:

(a) God is perfectly loving and good.
(b) God might  (and sometimes does) command people to fundamentally betray the trust of the children who love and depend on them, simply as a test or as a sign of loyalty to God.

Sure, I can say the words, "God is love AND God commands people to kill their own children." But I can also say the words, "There is a square that is perfectly round in its shape--but remains wholly a square for all of that." That I can say it doesn't mean I can think it.  

I cannot possibly think it would be anything but evil for me to grab my beloved son, who trusts me and loves me, strap him to a stone, and prepare to slit his throat and set him on fire. I can say the words, but I can't think it.

I could pretend to think it, but such pretense would be hard work--the hard work of pretending to be someone I'm not. The hard work of repeatedly asserting what my conscience thunders against. Sometimes, betraying your integrity is hard work. Is that the "hard work of theology" that Samuel James is talking about? If so, he's turned theology into something ugly.

Let me be clear: Real theology is, indeed, hard work. And that work often includes the effort to determine whether two things that appear to be at odds on the surface are really compatible at a deeper level. When dealing with realities that transcend our limits, we may confront truths that we cannot readily understand. Wrestling with those truths is hard work.

But so is maintaining the pretense that you believe a contradiction. So is pretending to believe in what you can't coherently even think: that round squares exist, for example, or that a God of perfect love lovingly commands us to fundamentally betray the children who put their trust in us.

If James wants us to believe that there is a theological reconciliation that's possible here--a pathway to reconciling the apparent evil of commanding fathers to betray their young sons and the doctrinal commitment to the perfect benevolence of God--then he should do the hard work so that the rest of us can see what he sees. Instead, James simply accuses Evans of giving in to despair.

Presumably, James thinks that, unlike Evans, he has not given in to despair. But this seems wrong to me, too. If Evans has given in to despair, then so has James. And if James hasn't, then neither has Evans.

Why do I say that? Because Evans and James are both confronted with the same theological dilemma--and the difference between them isn't that one gives up in the face of the dilemma and the other does not. The difference is that, while both are forced to give up something to address the dilemma, they choose different things to give up.

Imagine that a parent is confronted with the following horrific dilemma: The house is on fire, and the parent can only bring two of her three kids to safety before it's too late to save the third. The parent who, in the face of this, curls up in a ball and cries while all three children perish has surely given in to despair. The one who charges in and saves as many as she can has not. Do we really think it matters which two the parent saves? If she saves little Billy and Cathy before the house collapses on Mary, she's given in to despair; but if she saves little Billy and Mary, then she hasn't?

Consider the following three claims:
1. The biblical stories that purportedly report God's commands and activities, understood in their straightforward sense, offer an accurate portrait of God's commands and activities.
2. God is perfectly good.
3. My conscience is a product of God's creative work within me, and as such is not profoundly unreliable.
And now imagine that the following is true:
4. My conscience recoils in horror at enough of the things that God purportedly does in biblical stories--at least in their straightforward readings--that I cannot embrace both the resultant portrait of God and the belief in God's perfect goodness unless I treat my conscience as profoundly unreliable.
"4" is like the burning building. It forces us to choose which of 1-3 to give up. And I think it is fair to say that both Evans and James are in this burning building. Unless I'm profoundly mistaken, Samuel James, like me and like Evans, would be deeply hesitant to slash open his son's throat just because a voice claiming to be God told him to. And the reason would be the same one that moves Evans and me: our consciences recoil in horror at the prospect of doing something so unremittingly awful. Surely no God of perfect love and goodness would command something so evil. Like me, I suspect he'd say, "I'm either having delusions or being misled by malicious agents. Surely this is not the voice of God."

And when genocidal maniacs lead campaigns of brutal slaughter and assert a divine mandate, I suspect that Samuel James is just as skeptical of the purported mandate as I am--and as Evans is. And for the same reason: Our conscience recoils.

And this means that 4 is true for all three of us--because the Bible has stories in which God commands genocide, and stories in which He orders child sacrifice.

And given 4, we each have to give up on 1, 2, or 3. It seems that Evans and I have, under these conditions, given up on 1, while James has given up on 3. That is, Evans and I have given up on a certain human theory about how the Bible is related to the revelation of God, while James has given up on a certain human theory about how the human conscience is related to the revelation of God.

How is one of these choices any more a matter of religious despair than the other? Perhaps it would be a matter of despair to give up on all three. I would argue it would be a kind of theological despair to it to give up on #2. But in the choice between 1 and 3, why is one choice any more reflective of despair than the other?

It isn't. Rather, it reflects a difference in theology--a difference in our theology of divine revelation, to be precise. It reflects different answers to the question, "How do we discern the self-disclosure of God?" Developing and defending your own answer to that question in the light of challenging cases that force us to make choices--that is doing the hard work of theology, not giving up on it.

To slap the label of despair on those who develop one theology of revelation rather than another is, it seems to me, simply a refusal to take seriously theologies that differ from one's own. And it seems to me that taking seriously theologies that differ from one's own is part of the hard work of theology.


  1. Eric-

    Let me get this straight. You sort-of believe in a god whose characteristics are communicated through the scriptures and traditions of your sect. But when faced with a (hypothetical) difficult dilemma, you throw all that away and revert to your own conscience, just as an unbeliever would. What is the point of believing in god, or that that god is good? If you are going to follow your own dictates, why not give up the competing ontology that is so poorly supported, and which, when it comes to the crunch, you don't believe yourself? Not only are you cherry-picking within the particular cherry-picked tradition you have chosen to "believe", but you see quite clearly that whatever its dictates, you will go your own way anyhow.

    And then there is the question of where your conscience really comes from. Why not go with the knowledge we have gained scientifically and artistically about its nature and origin, and leave off the faux-scientific fairy tales, which are so (deservedly) hard to believe? Perhaps what looks like hard work (i.e. theology) is really ... a waste of time!

    At the end of such a process, you would end up with your conscience fully intact, as a guide without all the chatter and distraction of religious propaganda, which urges us to believe in it, not doubt, do what it instructs, adopt weird beliefs and practices, etc. etc. Typically enough, it urges us to do and be good, but so do all the other forms of high culture- it has no monopoly.

    Anyhow .. best wishes!

    1. "You sort-of believe in a god whose characteristics are communicated through the scriptures and traditions of your sect. But when faced with a (hypothetical) difficult dilemma, you throw all that away and revert to your own conscience, just as an unbeliever would."

      No. I believe in a transcendent creator whose self-disclosure is difficult for humanity to grasp and understand properly given the cultural filters through which that revelation is received. As such, any historical report of revelation will be a distortion, and the task of historical religion is to attempt to work through the distortion by gradually evolving in the light of critical conversation about experience--in a roughly Hegelian manner.

      And since you've been involved for years in conversations on this blog, you presumably know all of that. But, in case you or others want to refresh yourselves on what I've said on these matters, this post and this one offer a couple of good places to start. You might also look at point #6 of my Philosophy of Religion in Outline from a few years back.

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    3. A God hidden behind a cloud, mumbling to us in an ancient tongue.

      The hard work of theology consists of endless jibber jabber over dogmas, doctrines and interpretations of holy writ. Trinities, divine-human fusion, the power, efficacy, necessity or non-necessity of blood sacrifice. The right age or time to be baptized. How much of Jesus is involved in the host. How inspired the biblical writings are above all other writings of the past, present, or future. The rights and responsibilities of the clergy or priesthood. Whether tongues are for today, or of the devil, or a psychological phenomenon. And how to make sense of the cosmos as we know it today rather than the empty shell of a flat earth cosmos our ancestors believed in, with God looking down from a nearby balcony.

  2. Eric-

    Why is that revelation received through cultural filters? Isn't that an argument that the various and sundry revelations might rather be culturally constructed & psychologically actuated, instead of culturally filtered? The revelation could have been brought far more directly (not to mention uniformly) to each person, given the theory you have of it, yet it is not. The epistemological situation seems highly suspicious.

    1. Cultural variation in beliefs could be explained either by the supposition that cultural filters are coloring/distorting experiences of reality OR by the supposition that cultures are just making it up. You seem to be gesturing here towards an argument along the following lines: Were there a God who self-discloses to humanity, such a God would be capable of bypassing cultural filters in order to generate a uniform understanding of the revelatory message AND would desire to do so. Hence, if there were such a God, there would be no cultural variations in reports of divine revelation. But there are such variation. Hence, there is no God, and these reports are just the result of different cultures constructing culturally congenial beliefs.

      I think this argument is unsound. My reasons for finding it unsound are rooted in ideas that are very nicely expressed in an essay by Thomas Talbott I was recently rereading. Hence, I think I will write a separate post in which I address this argument on its own and quote Talbott at length.

      That probably won't happen this week, though, since I am in a play that opens tonight.

    2. Eric-

      That is one formulation. But the non-existence of god doesn't descend merely from this hypothesis, but from every other lack of clear evidence, leading to the default hypothesis that it does not exist. Concomitantly, we have quite a few characteristics, needs, defects, and occasional experiences, social constructs, etc. that are open to interpretation, and with increasing knowledge can be more easily viewed in a naturalistic, psychological (critical) framework than in a god-does-it-through-a-glass-darkly framework. The latter framework has taken such a beating over the last few centuries, indeed, that it has retreated to the most vaporous regions beyond the reach of any reasoned analysis (life after death, supernatural pantheism, hell, etc.). What makes this different from out and out fantasy? Why the continuing need to envision a god who leaves the most tenuous of trails? Like one were at some kind of seance?

      Looking at Talbot's wiki page, it reads like someone not very interested in questioning his premises. Anyhow, I look forward to your discussion.

  3. I can identify with all commenters so far, to some extent. Have to agree the Bible can be crazy making with stories like this and oh, so much more. I have given up trying to make sense of it all, though I would say feebly, that these stories were cast in an ANE culture that is often very foreign to us Westerners. Also the claim that the Bible was all God dictated doesn't go very far if this is how God turns out to be. Maybe the best the Bible can do is hand off the baton to those skilled in honoring its abiding contributions and who take truth forward.

    Although I am sympathetic to everyone so far who has commented, I would have to say I am much like Eric. I believe there is a transcendent God beyond the fray, but also in it, and very much true love. God's love may be so vulnerable that s/he allows the human grapplings with it (i.e. the Bible and other holy scriptures) to remain simply as fallible witnesses to call us all to pursue the trail of that love ever set before us.

    But yes, believing in a tradition that has produced these horror stories (think the Canaanite genocide and more) flummoxes me to no end.

  4. Burke suggests that God COULD have communicated without going through social filters, and in fact the communication would have been more accurate if God had directly communicated the unvarnished truth to us. I completely agree, which is IMO a reason to think that God's purpose in inspiring scripture WASN'T to communicate flat fact, and that it's a misuse of scripture to approach the Bible that way. In the moral sphere for example: I don't think we go "I wonder if we oughta murder people, well the Bible says not, so now I know". Those of us who are not mentally ill have consciences, and those CONSCIENCES tell us hurting other people is wrong, we don't need the Bible to give us that information. I see the purpose of the Bible being to evoke in us a spiritual reaction, to touch our hearts, to poke our moral sense, all so that we can become the kind of people who love God and neighbor as ourselves. So it isn't important that every story be a proposition about an actual historical event, and cultural filtering is totally not problematic.


  5. I don't really see the point of responding to a post about the apparent theological dilemma that Eric describes by arguing that God doesn't exist and the argument is moot, so why don't we all wake up from our shared delusion. It's certainly a possibility but it's not what the post was about. One could make that point in any discussion about a religious subject, but it doesn't add much to the debate so why bother?

    I think Eric's argument was interesting. Coming from an evangelical background, I find it refreshing to find someone who both believes in the God of the Bible, and who is also unafraid of looking unflinchingly at these difficulties. That isn't an attitude I've come across myself very often when I've been wrestling with these kinds of issues. Most people either reject the whole subject out of hand, or else have an uncritical belief in the truth of the Bible that effectively files issues like these under "God is mysterious, so we can't expect to understand everything he does with our puny human minds." Thank you Eric.

  6. This is an extremely powerful article. The presentation of the three claims, of which most Christians feel obligated to give up on at least one, is compelling and illuminates my own thinking on the issue in a way I wasn't quite prepared to confront. In my attempts to save my own faith, I realise I opted to jettison #2 - the notion that God is objectively good. Or rather, I chose to rephrase it thus:

    'God is the supreme root and ground of all existence; there is no Lewisian Tao against which his actions can be measured. Therefore, it cannot be true that God is good by a standard of goodness that exists apart from God. Rather, what God calls good we are obliged to affirm as good, under pain of infinite torment.'

    I further added to this what I called Tyrant theory:

    'God is not a king in the way earthly potentates are kings; he did not inherit his power from another, nor was he raised up by the people. Rather, he seized and continues to seize power eternally through his almighty strength. His views on right and wrong are pre-eminent because he is stronger than the rest of existence combined; because under no circumstances can we and the universe force our preferred behaviours upon him but he can force his preferred behaviours on us, he is sovereign and we are subjects.'

    Whilst still identifying as a Christian I formulated the following:

    'One can identify a form of natural morality that exists simply by virtue of the fundamental choice all sentient beings have between existence and non-existence. That a Christian is obliged to choose actions which initially seem contrary to their own self-interest (for example pacifism) are justified by additional information they possess that might not be available to the observer; namely, the existence of a future infinite state of reward and punishment.

    It is readily evident that any natural morality is superceded by the 'gun to the head' exemption - if one is directly threatened with death, one will do anything one has to in order to survive. Except we as Christians are already being threatened by a much larger gun, being held to our head by the creator of the universe. If forced to choose between the gun of an earthly hoodlum and hell, we choose to get shot by the smaller gun; self-interest, practiced in a profoundly disagreeable situation.'

    It's interesting to consider my journey might have had a different destination had I rejected one of the other views instead.

  7. Maimondes would have despaired deeply at most attempts to read the bible in a purely literal sense.