Sunday 17 December 2017

The most dismaying thing about the story of Abraham (nearly) sacrificing Isaac

...Is to hear sincere Christians trying to explain (and justify) the story.

To explain the story involves either the sacrifice of God's goodness, or sacrificing the theory of Biblical infallibility; and it is dismaying how many self-identified Christians choose the former. 


Chiu ChunLing said...

While I have no particular attachment to Biblical "infallibility", I have never found a reason to doubt that the story of Abraham's offer of Isaac on the altar was essentially true. Of course, I see the story in light of the presumption that Abraham and Isaac would have been aware of the promise given to Adam that his posterity should not be forever damned by his transgression, but that God would at some point provide an innocent and just Son to be willingly sacrificed to atone for their sins.

It was always in symbolism of this that lambs had been offered as sacrifices. But Abraham certainly new that a mere dumb animal, however innocent, could never truly be more than a symbol of the holiness which should expiate sin and death. I do wonder how Isaac felt, being informed that he was not the promised one after all, though apparently he didn't take it too badly, as indicated by his faithfulness in his days.

I am curious what exactly stands out as definitely indicating that the story is contrary to God's goodness, other than that it says that "God did tempt Abraham". But it is a commonplace in usage that a good thing of itself may tempt people to do wrong. It can hardly be because the story does not explain the purpose and symbolism of sacrificial offerings, that is absent even from the story of Adam in the Bible (it's not even definitely recorded that God commanded it).

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL - I don't doubt that the *events* happened - what I doubt is the 'mainstream' interpretation of why.

The standard explanation fails the basic test of being compatible with the fact that a Christian needs to *know* that God is *at least* as loving as the best imaginable human father.

A wholly-loving father (of immense power) would not 'engineer' this situation for his son and grandson for any reason.

*That* was not *why* the events happened.

Chent said...

So, Bruce, why did the events happen? I learn a lot from you, but I am afraid I don't follow you.

Unknown said...

Jim Donald's theory of child sacrifice is that it is a symptom of spiritual pride / "holiness spiralling" that in ancient times was associated with worship of daemon princes such as Baal and Moloch. One would demonstrate one's "holiness" to others through sacrifice and thus gain power and control over them. Sacrificing one's own children was the ultimate demonstration of this. He further claims that this was the reason that the tribes who worshiped Moloch had to be completely eradicated.

Suspicion: the reason the events happened was so that Abraham (and the rest of us) could be definitively instructed that *child sacrifice is not something God wants*.

-- Robert Brockman

Bruce Charlton said...

@RB - When JD is right, it is for the wrong reasons. But the 'holiness spirals' idea seems pretty obviously demonic.

@Chent - I'm not offering an explanation - but any valid one would have to be compatible-with what I would do with my children, if I were as good a father as I can imagine.

a_probst said...

An undeniably sincere Christian had this to say:

17 By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son,

18 Of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called:

19 Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure.

From Hebrews 11

Chiu ChunLing said...

By 'mainstream' do we mean the Marxist influenced secularized interpretation?

I thought they regarded Abraham as a mythical figure in a series of implausible miracle stories. Their interpretation denies that God even exists except as a similar mythical figure. But this is hardly specific to the story of Abraham offering Isaac on the altar.

a probst's mention of the original Christian interpretation of the story, that Abraham was led to do it so as to prefigure the atonement of Christ and faith in the resurrection of the dead, doesn't seem to need scare quotes on 'mainstream' (though I guess original Christianity isn't really mainstream anymore).

As per "good father", I think that it can relate to teaching a child to swim. One tactic (and I don't say it is the best tactic) is to just throw them in the water and tell them to swim if they don't want to drown, while remaining ready to save them. Whether or not it is the best tactic, it is the one that is usable on children at the youngest age, and thus can be the only tactic that is useful if children need to learn to swim at a very young age.

Bruce Charlton said...

Mainstream = mainstream Christian. Not Mormon, not me.

Prefigure? It doesn't convince me. It isn't presented as purely symbolic.

Teaching to swim is one thing - but asking your son to slaughter your grandson (like an animal) in order to demonstrate his obedience?

Deliberately choosing to do this, of all possible things?

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Self-sacrifice, not murder, is what would have prefigured Christ.

Lucinda said...

Since I first discovered the real danger in childbirth, I have had a kind of lingering frustration that any man would put a woman at such risk. Of course it is easy for me, as a mother, to understand that the birth of my child is worth the risk for me, but what does the man risk? Not really that much in terms of physical pain, suffering, death, or even intractable inconvenience.

There is not always, maybe not even usually, a real love for the woman that is part of the male drive to reproduce. But it certainly happens often enough that most children really hope that their mother and father produced them out of love.

I bring this up because it brings out a more mundane instance where male willingness to offer up the life of another for a greater perfection of love is necessary.

And Heavenly Father's plan involves pretty much everyone's death, one way or another. It doesn't seem to be in His plan that we place preservation of this life as an ultimate end in itself, though I think He rejoices when we can enjoy that particular mortal prosperity. What seems more important is that we learn to seek and receive His guidance.

I think it's possible that Abraham was seeking to hear God's voice, that some combination of thinking led him to believe it was necessary to willingly sacrifice Isaac, and that maybe the first really clear input from God came in the form of the angel who came to stop it. (It's an important part of the story that Abraham was significantly in the dark in some ways and acting by faith.)

This is not a mainstream interpretation, but I think that is because people want prophets to know for sure that every significant thing they do is right from the start. But one of the things I appreciate about this blog is the recognition that risk is an inherent aspect of acting freely from the real self. The key is a willingness to be corrected, willingness to repent.

Just some thoughts, I hope it's not too out there.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Lucinda - Intersting aside about childbirth; which resonates with my innate conviction that *this* is a domain of life (roughly - choices directly about child-bearing) when the wife rightly leads the marriage dyad in a spiritual-moral sense.

Chiu ChunLing said...

I think perhaps part of the issue is that, in most depictions, Isaac is represented as a very young child rather than the strong youth whom the story implies. That does indeed make it seem that Isaac could have had little or no choice in the matter, eliminating the element of self-sacrifice from the story.

But the other part is how our modern society unthinkingly infantilizes nearly everyone, but especially the children of the middle and upper classes. Rudyard Kipling...I'm sorry, I don't feel I have the right to address this topic with the feeling it deserves. All I can say is that Abraham's offer of his only son is at least as profoundly significant. All we have left of the stories of God's dealings with Christ's mortal lineage prior to their sojourn in Egypt is precious. The fault is only that we have so little.

Bruce Charlton said...

My point here, as before, is that when people make an interpretation of scripture that is not compatible with their deepest and best instincts of how a divine Father should behave in relation to his children - They Are Making Some Miistake.

We are not oblioged to be able to re-explain what is in scripture... 'I don't understand' is a perfectly reasonable response. Or 'I understand, but I can't explain it' - which is perhaps more common.

I often want to respond to Biblical interpretations with 'I know for sure that That explanation is Wrong; but I couldn't tell you exactly what is Right'.

But no rational person believes that scripture is infallible, as a product of Men, compiled by Men and read by Men it inevitably errs - even though all these processes were subject to divine inspiration and intervention. Nonetheless, too many people *implicitly* hold to scriptural correctness (in teh way they happen to understand scripture) even when it violates the simple basic necessities of Christian understanding of God and Man's relation to God - which is (uniquely) that God the Creator is our Loving Father.

We can be sure that overall and where it matters we will understand sufficiently correctly If we are properly motivated; but once we start breaking scripture into pieces...; once we start trying to 'explain' Stories in terms of Moral Principles...; and when we use these extracted Moral Principls as-if they capture the whole of Life... well, in such situations error is near-certain - and our proper check upon it is this one of checking compatability of interpretation with what we *know* of God's nature.

(Our knowledge of God's nature is, should-be, solid simple clear and certain - whereas interpretation of scriptural passages almost-never-is.)

That is the direct feedback loop.

Unknown said...

stephen c said:
Bruce - maybe I am not rational, but I believe Scripture is infallible. I think this actually happened, exactly as described.

The Abraham story, as you correctly say, has to be measured by what we know about how we care about those we love. I have been reading your posts for years and one of the things I like best about your explanations is the basic explanation that you repeat again and again - we need to understand the world as if the world exists in a world where we should, and we do, care about those closest to us.

Well, Abraham was not so wonderful. And God put him through a horrible trial that I pray that nobody I care about will ever deserve to be put through (I cannot pray for Abraham not to be put through that trial, as much as I would like to, because the infallible Word of the Lord tells me that the trial has already occurred and Abraham has already triumphed).

Do I claim to understand that specific trial? Of course not. But several of the commenters - and you - have hinted why (a) the actual trial actually occurred to an actual father of an actual son (as described in the infallible Scriptures) and why (b) we should care: either as a real warning, as a real promise, or, for some of us, who do not have the blessing to live in a world where every truth is a truth that is immediately and clearly a truth about someone we love, as a philosophical or intellectual lesson.

Chiu ChunLing said...

I am commanded of God to pray that everyone will come to deserve to be asked to put the lives of their children on the line for the sake of righteousness. That doesn't mean I have a lot of faith in those prayers or say them as regularly as God asks. I know all too well that most people are never going to be worthy to be asked to sacrifice their children for any righteous cause, because it is their own will that they should not be righteous (except in their delusions).

Nevertheless, I occasionally say such a dutiful bit of nonsense, because God is worthy of it.

Ben said...

Always happy to see that you've commented Lucinda.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL - No. Not for a Christian.

We need to acknowledge that sacrifice - the concept of sacrifice - is an error based on projecting human evil onto God; such that Man believes that God need to be *propitiated*. He does not.

My understanding is the Jesus superceded the 'need' for sacrifice (which was always a human need, not a divine need). Jesus was a final sacrifice - not because an infinite sacrifice was needed by the Father - but because he was *final*.

Jesus wanted an end to the system - the mind-set - of sacrifice; because that was based on a false understanding of God to whom *submission* is the appropriate response.

Early Christians - such as Paul - did not try to correct this misunderstanding of the nature of God, but instead presented the death of Jesus as a final because infinite sacrifice, to a God who demanded sacrifice as a just response to sin. I can only regard such arguments as expedient; not as the truth.

It is basic to Christian understanding (outside of expediency) that God is wholly loving, and a wholly loving God neither demands nor rewards sacrifice.

Chiu ChunLing said...

I think that has to depend on what you mean by "sacrifice".

In the sense of giving up one thing that is desirable to obtain something better and more desirable, especially what is sacred, there cannot and must not be an end to sacrifice in our relationship with God. To have free will means to have choices, even in a multiple choice test where "all of the above" is listed as an option, we recognize that this must either be more or less correct than any of the above.

In the very limited sense of using the literal shedding of blood to symbolize Christ's Atonement, I must agree that the historical fact of Christ put an end to the necessity.

If one is speaking of the interpretation of the symbol that made God the one who demanded that we should choose between good and evil, and only be allowed to repent of evil by dabbling in some kind of blood magic, then my view is that this was always wrong, even before Christ's Incarnation and teaching. I would go further and say that it was always known to be wrong until the implicit pantheism of certain Greek philosophies entered
Christian theology by making it so that God was the only original being and the entire universe exists as nothing but a divine whim.

The ancients always knew what the pantheist seeks to deny, that evil is real and 'exists' quite independently of good. It is entirely different from good, there cannot in principle be an "evil god" which is a direct counterpart of God. The pervasive scriptural comparison between light and darkness is instructive, we now know far more about what light and darkness are...and specifically that darkness is simply the absence of light. The night is not produced by an anti-sun that sucks away all the daylight. But the fact that darkness is only the absence of light doesn't disperse it as a sort of trick of your imagination (it does help counter the instinctive fear that darkness will suffocate or drown you, or is otherwise stealthily murdering you, but that instinct exists for a reason, without light you are quite apt to be injured from lack of sight unless you're very cautious). The laws of physics we have discovered give light the power to banish dark, rather than the reverse. The entire darkness of inter-galactic space cannot put out a candle. But that is not favoritism, it is simply the difference between light and dark. There is a LOT of darkness to go around, and its always available whenever light isn't present. Candles don't get to pop into existence whenever a source of darkness fails or is occluded (Hehe, except in this mod I wrote for a video times).

Pre-Christian ideas about the nature of evil bordered on the delusion that darkness is a physical substance that can injure you...but then they are less silly than the notion that evil isn't real or is something created by God as an amusement to make life more 'exciting'. Evil is 'in' us because we are not perfectly good, and this is true even of God's angels, including to the degree that resulted in Satan's rebellion. A guttering candle may produce more smoke and heat than light...but all ordinary candles produce a mixture. But it is more useful to think of evil not as something within us but the lack of some good.

And yet, Jesus also spoke of evil as being in the heart. It's not a useless idea, just limited in application. We must deepen our understanding. A lack of light may endanger our lives. A lack of goodness can damn our souls. We should be warier of sin than of shadows.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL - It seems we agree on that core issue of blood sacrifice etc. I feel that I must interpret the *interpretations* of many of the Old Testament authors (as well as some of the New Testament ones) as incorrect; in the sense that they confused contingent socio-political expediency with divine law/ the nature of reality. I am confident that much of what is described in the OT is correct - but I am equally confident that the OT authors often explain the events wrongly, misinterpret things.


I don't find the idea of evil as lack of good to be sufficient or coherent - I think we need to regard evil as that which actively-opposes good.

(i.e. Evil is indeed a negative thing - but it is not a lack; but is an opposition. Secualr modernity cannot understand evil because it lacks a positive Good for evil to oppose.)

This seems to make sense, as a positive statement - it also leads to the idea that it is not necessarily evil (although perhaps it is usually evil) Not to want to 'collaborate' in the divine plan for men to become children of God. Not to want this for oneself seems to be just something that some people have in their nature - and perhaps especially in the East where the ultimate goal is seems a Nirvana.

In sum, I regard Christianity as an opt-in religion. Christianity is The Good - Good is a consequence of God's creation.

Of those who choose Not to opt-in, some are evil because they attack creation and The Good; others may simply wish to opt out. I presume that God allows this - granting oblivion, Nirvana or some other heartfelt desire.

Probably there is also a Paradise for those who wish to continue with the best aspects of mortal life but without divine aspects (not to be a part of Christ's or The Father's great work of creation) - this would broadly correspond to something like the Telestial heaven of Mormonism; or the various forms of paradise envisaged in other religions including Christianity's most formidable rival.

As William Arkle made clear for me, a loving Father would not arrange his creation such that the only alternative to Heaven was Hell - hell is only for those who choose it. Some find tthe choice of hell hard to imagine, but it seems almost normal to me among most of the Western leadership class: all those mostly deeply adherent to the mainstream Leftist Positivism that dominates The West... Although perhaps the desire for oblivion at death is still (for a while) commoner that the desire for Hell.

Chiu ChunLing said...

Well, here we enter the division between personal evil and impersonal evil.

The universe, by and large, is impersonal, and the evil of it is impersonal evil, a mere lack of goodness, or in a world benevolence, will towards good outcomes. This is the vast and unlimited evil that can exist independently of God, that only gods can oppose. But the evil of humans is personal evil, it is the defect of character in a being created by God for a good purpose but turning against that purpose as a result of deficiency of benevolence. Personal evil, evil people, beings with enough goodness to have freedom (capacity to act according to their will) but without sufficient benevolence to have created those good things in themselves, can only exist through the action of God in giving good things to a will that did not merit them. Thus personal evil can never exist independently of God. Not because God created the evil of those wills (their lack of sufficient benevolence to make persons of themselves), but because God gave them personality.

This is what is required for malevolence to exist.

On the issue of opting in, I am persuaded that God does not impose personality on wills that would reject it. There is a difference between someone not deserving to be exist as a person and wanting to not exist as a person. At an absolute minimum, the individual will in question can only have been indifferent about being a person, otherwise the imposition of personality on those who genuinely desired not to be people would not be a loving act. I believe this of mortality as well, God allowed Lucifer and some number of other pre-mortal spirits to reject the conditions of mortality with attendant moral responsibility. It would of course be the case that God would not constrain any to any degree of life who really didn't want it, but I see this as being preemptive. The fact of personal existence is the result of not volitionally rejecting it.

Satan, at least, has not wished to be abolished utterly. I have also encountered no living human that entertained such a wish as a felt and earnest primary desire rather than an hyperbolic argumentative construct.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL - You may recall I am a believer in Mormon metaphysics, and what you say above is untrue from that perspective.

Chiu ChunLing said...

I'm not sure what Mormon metaphysics actually are on any of the subjects addressed.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL - Maybe you should find out? Start with Sterling McMurrin.

Chiu ChunLing said...

I started with the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, which appears to have more authoritative standing. McMurrin's biography suggests that his connection with the faith, and especially its prophetic tradition, was tenuous and strained.

In any case, I am not persuaded by authority. The metaphysics that give impersonal evil an existence totally independent of God, with only personal evil being dependent on God's gift of personality to that which could not independently merit it, is the only logically tenable solution to the idea that good exists at all.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL - The most orthodox of the premier Mormon philosophers is Blake Ostler - who is excellent. A lot of his work (including some superb youtube talks) can be found online - but the 'hard stuff' is in expensive and rare books.

The encylopedia is a wonderful thing, but has very little philosophy in it.

McMurrin himself was raised a Mormon and ended a practising but non-believing Mormon; he did, however have good standing among the Mormon Presidents and apostles, and his philosophical work was praised and used by them.

James E Talmage was a very lucid and inspiring writer, and clear exponent of Mormon doctrine - but he did not have the philosophical depth of McMurrin or Ostler.

The other great modern scholar of such matters that I know of is Terryl Givens - who is politically very liberal (for a Mormon), but was recently called to be a Bishop, so presumably is of good standing among the orthodox hierarchy.

From the pluralist metaphysics of these writers, nothing is 'totally independent' of God, since we are all his children - but all personages are to a significant degree 'independent' of God in the sense of being eternally co-existent as intelligences, before we were 'procreated' as literal spirit children of Heavenly Parents.

Thus we all have both a degree of independence which is the basis of our free agency, and also are actual children of God therefore bound to God. This makes solid sense to me.

Chiu ChunLing said...

In this case, I'm forced to prefer the intentional silence on explicit metaphysics in authoritative sources. That which has negative existence, which clearly exists as a simple result of the absence of some positive existence, must in every case have entirely independent existence from that which must not be absent for it to not exist.

I suspect that, at core, original Mormonism (as original Christianity and original Judaism) must have accepted this metaphysical rule about evil. But it is impossible to advance it explicitly in the modern world without condemnation.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL - Negative theology is in practise all-but useless to humans - but your second sentence has (at least) four negatives - to the point that one could never be sure about what is meant by it!

Real evil cannot be regarded as merely the privation of Good (as described by RW Emerson for example) - that, in effect, is the abolition of evil.

What remains is a quantitative scale from zero to Good, but no evil.

But maybe that is Not what you mean.

Chiu ChunLing said...

I'm inclined to think that negative good is possible, just as negative money.

We call negative money "debt", and negative good evokes the idea of waste. It is here that personal evil stands out, what a waste that God should give existence and spirit and life to those who will only squander it out of a lack of individual benevolence.

But it seems that God does not consider it a waste. If there is a thing that makes me suspect God might really give good things to volitions that did not even want them, it is this lack of consideration for wasting them.

Still, God may just nuance "waste" differently. If the recipient really wanted the gift, then it is not a complete waste from that perspective, at least.