Sunday 10 March 2024

Abraham gets only 60% for "obedience" with respect to sacrificing Isaac; because God Most values "un-obedience"

William Arkle distinguished a way above and out-from the traditional dilemma of obedience versus disobedience to God; by considering the question from the larger perspective of God's creative intention with respect to Men (discussed in the post following this). 

In an letter to Jon Flint* (that I have slightly edited below), William Arkle discusses the Bible episode in Genesis 22; when Abraham is asked by God to sacrifice his son Issac - and obeys this instruction; but God intervenes and stops this at the last moment. 

When Abraham "passed" his test over his son's killing, to my mind he only got 60% for obedience. 

If he had said to God "This is not like you, I won't do it", he would have got 100 for unobedience. 

Thus God could foresee problems with the Jewish people

Arkle explains that un-obedience to God arises-from the black and white of disobedience and obedience being in conflict. 

In other words; what God most wanted was not that Abraham would obey, or disobey, a specific instruction that he regarded as coming from God; but that Abraham would instead recognize that the real and proper question was at an altogether larger and more general scale.  

Neither dis-obedience nor obedience was required, but un-obedience. 

What arises from this conflict is unobedience, which is a condition beyond the relatively automatic stages of dis-obedience or obedience, and has become autonomous and calculated and chosen.

Both disobedience and obedience are sub-optimal. 

Arkle suggests that dis-obedience to God can become addictive, leading to a psychotic condition where the disobedient person becomes driven, and almost unable to choose - like a junky. 

I think Arkle partly means that disobedience is usually done for short-term and hedonic reasons, and that an hedonic (immediate-pleasure-seeking) attitude to life carries all the lethal consequences of heroin addiction: its hedonic effectiveness always diminishes; getting pleasure gets to be all-consuming; life, thought, motivation become focused around blindly serving the agent of pleasure. 

Disobedience to authority is therefore self-destructive, like the negativism of a young child who does the opposite of what he is old - something which would rapidly be lethal, unless loving parents were available to step-in. 

But on the other side; while obedience is necessary and good in children; for grown-ups too much obedience can also be harmful; as seen in Abraham obeying an order that (if he truly understood and knew God) he should have realized was incompatible with God's Goodness - hence could not truly have come-from God. 

Arkle comments that "oneness" teachings (so common in New Age spirituality) lead towards oneness becoming a form of "super-obedience", in which the individual is taught to regard himself as "a nothing" - incapable of discernment. 

In other words, with oneness, the individual disappears-into the divine so that "obedience" is utterly impersonal, unchosen, automatic - not so much obeying as annihilating all possibility of anything else, and becoming an unconscious cog in the divine-mechanism.

Thus obedience, taken to the ultimate, tends to an un-Christian (more Hindu or Buddhist) ideal of the goal of consciousness and free will (and being itself) being dissolved-into the immanence of the divine. 

To put it another way; obedience to God should not and cannot be the highest ideal without becoming unChristian or anti-Christian. 

Obedience is only valid within the larger and modifying context of knowing and loving God; and God's ultimate wish for us is that we should transcend obedience to become an un-obedient participant, and eventual collaborator, in God's creative work

*I have reviewed a selection from these letters.


Mia said...

I am so much better for having read Letter from a Father and would never have come across it if not for you, so thank you so much for preserving it. On the obedience topic, I set out to be a "peaceful parent" and soon found that I was harming my children spiritually by allowing a state of rebellion to persist too long. There is a need to compel obedience from time to time by whatever means, but the window for that is short, ending at adolescence. But here we are, many years into many parents having missed that window entirely, while at the same time mankind overall is in its sort of adolescence.

Francis Berger said...

Un-obedience via the example of Abraham and Isaac is an excellent addendum to your recent (linked) post on freedom and creativity. The right "choice" seldom boils down to choosing between externally imposed, suboptimal options, as epitomized by ethical/morality tests like the trolley problem.

The right choice often exists beyond that framework, and it doesn't appear as a choice -- it appears more like a confident knowing that exists outside of the choice framework.

All the same, most people remain stuck at the level of thinking they can only choose between two suboptimal options.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ Mia - I'm glad you have found things in Arkle that were helpful. Ultimately we are each responsible for our-selves. Love is the only valid guide as to helping others (including our children), and is in itself the greatest possible help; but in the end we are responsible for ourselves.

@ Frank - "most people remain stuck at the level of thinking they can only choose between two suboptimal options."

It's an Ahrimanic legalism - like the judicial process that allows the witness only to answer Yes or No, and thereby ensures that the truth is excluded. As with questions of the form: "Do you still beat your wife?"

WJT said...

I’ve always thought it odd that Abraham tried so hard to talk God out of destroying Sodom but made no similar effort to save his own son.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WJT - Of course, Woody Allen's translation of that scripture is rather different:

And Abraham awoke in the middle of the night and said to his only son, Isaac, "I have had a dream where the voice of the Lord sayeth that I must sacrifice my only son, so put your pants on."

And Isaac trembled and said, "So what did you say? I mean when He brought this whole thing up?"

"What am I going to say?" Abraham said. "I'm standing there at two A.M. I'm in my underwear with the Creator of the Universe. Should I argue?"

"Well, did he say why he wants me sacrificed?" Isaac asked his father.

But Abraham said, "The faithful do not question. Now let's go because I have a heavy day tomorrow."

And Sarah who heard Abraham's plan grew vexed and said, "How doth thou know it was the Lord and not, say, thy friend who loveth practical jokes, for the Lord hateth practical jokes and whosoever shall pull one shall be delivered into the hands of his enemies whether they pay the delivery charge or not."

And Abraham answered, "Because I know it was the Lord. It was a deep, resonant voice, well modulated, and nobody in the desert can get a rumble in it like that."

And Sarah said, "And thou art willing to carry out this senseless act?" But Abraham told her, "Frankly yes, for to question the Lord's word is one of the worst things a person can do, particularly with the economy in the state it's in."

And so he took Isaac to a certain place and prepared to sacrifice him but at the last minute the Lord stayed Abraham's hand and said, "How could thou doest such a thing?"

And Abraham said, "But thou said ---"

"Never mind what I said," the Lord spake. "Doth thou listen to every crazy idea that comes thy way?" And Abraham grew ashamed. "Er - not really … no."

"I jokingly suggest thou sacrifice Isaac and thou immediately runs out to do it."

And Abraham fell to his knees, "See, I never know when you're kidding."

And the Lord thundered, "No sense of humor. I can't believe it."

"But doth this not prove I love thee, that I was willing to donate mine only son on thy whim?"

And the Lord said, "It proves that some men will follow any order no matter how asinine as long as it comes from a resonant, well-modulated voice."

And with that, the Lord bid Abraham get some rest and check with him tomorrow.

Laeth said...

both Arkle's and Allen's interpretations make sense to me. very interesting.