The quality of our lives depends on lots of things over which we have little or no control: where we’re born, and to whom we are born, our genetic makeup…where lightning strikes or our proximity to an erupting volcano, or a string of numbers on a lottery ticket.
We may be born to parents who are prepared to be good, loving parents, as happened to my father. Then, as happened to my father, there may be a flu epidemic and both your parents die within weeks of one another, in 1918. (About 700,000 other people in the U.S.A. died from that flu, and nearly 20,000,000 world wide.)
My father and his two brothers and a sister were put in an orphanage. What little I know of that institution is that it was a house bought by a woman, Miss Rabelle, who had a religious conversion experience and dedicated the rest of her life to raising orphaned children, using her own money and whatever she could get from charity.
My father’s early life was greatly influenced by events over which he had no control. But I remember most the things over which he had control—his determination, his self-reliance and independent spirit. I remember and I inherited it.
Some are born into a wealthy family and given the best of everything, grow up with a sense of entitlement, and in spite of all that they may still turn out just fine.
For some reason, or set of reasons, we may be comfortable with who we are, and satisfied with our circumstances, and anxious to give something back.
There’s a sense in which the quality of our lives does not depend so much on where we were born, or by whom we were raised, but the quality of our life depends on how we respond to our circumstances.
There’s no question: the quality of our lives depends, to a great extent, on how we respond to what happens to us.
So, how’s life going for you, so far?
Since the quality of our life depends on how we respond to what happens to us, there’s a sense in which we’re always being tested. It’s as if Life says, “Okay, how will you respond to this one?”
Some choose to call that test a ‘trial.’ Abraham Lincoln talked about “the fiery trial through which we pass.”
Another Abraham, the first patriarch and progenitor of the Hebrew people, was put to the test five times. The most famous—or infamous—of these tests is referred to as the Akedah, the binding of his son Isaac.
It was a test that has challenged people of faith ever since.
Let’s review, briefly: You’ll remember that Abraham was the father of Isaac: the three patriarchs being Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
When he was 99 years old, and his wife Sarai was 90, God said to Abraham: “You shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her; and she shall be a mother of nations…” Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’
The name Isaac means laughter, or joke, as in ‘you’ve got to be kidding me!’
Abraham had already fathered a son with another woman, Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian maid. That son’s name was Ishmael.
Skipping back to that pregnancy, when God told Hagar that she was to bear a son God said, “Behold, you are with child, and shall bear a son; you shall call his name Ishmael…he shall be a wild ass of a man, his hand against every man and every man’s hand against him.”
Ishmael is, of course, the patriarch of the Arabs to whom Muslim’s point as father.
When Isaac was born, Sarah insisted that Ishmael be sent out of their household. Ishmael is the prototypic outcast. Thus Melville’s opening line in Moby Dick: “Call me Ishmael.”
Now let’s get back to Abraham’s trial. His son Isaac is born to Sarah when she was 90 and he was 100 years old. Then, when Isaac was a young man, the Torah says:
“God tested Abraham, and said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here am I.’ He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.’ So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; and he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place afar off. Then Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the ass; I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you. And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. And Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘My father!’ and he said, ‘Here am I, my son.’ He said, ‘Behold, the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?’ Abraham said, ‘God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.’ So they went both of them together.
The story continues: “When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. Then Abraham put forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here am I.’ He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’ And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.”
In seminary I found the story offensive and obnoxious. The Vietnam war was ‘the fire and the knife,’ the altar on which sons and daughters were being sacrificed.
When I was given an assignment to do an exegesis on Genesis 22—what’s referred to as the Akedah—I said, simply, that for me the only way I could interpret the story in a positive light is to suggest that the story represents a turning point in the development of the individual, and, by extension, a turning point in the development of civilization—turning away from human sacrifice, and, I like to think, an urge to turn from war.
So I interpreted ‘the test’ as an anti-war statement. The angel said, ‘Stop the killing, which many of us were chanting regularly at anti-war rallies.
Who said, “Stop?” The story says an angel told Abraham to stop. Lincoln called this ‘the angels of our better nature.’
Furthermore, I said, the story reminds me of Adolf Eichman as a reminder of blind obedience.
The story is intended, of course, to suggest the extent of one’s faith—that a full or complete faith means that we acknowledge that there’s something higher or greater than ourselves.
Blind faith, however, says ‘do whatever God says,’ stopping at nothing. Blind faith is idolatrous. Blind faith was there at Jonestown with 950 and it was there in the cult in Africa a week or so ago.
Again, on the surface, or what the rabbis call ‘the plain meaning,’ the story is problematic because it seems to suggest that Abraham was a hero because he had blind faith.
There’s a poem by e e cummings that speaks to this. It’s rather harsh, but perhaps he’s speaking something that each of us feels at some time.
This poem is one of Cummings’ angry poems that comes out of his own life experience and his response to the two World Wars he lived through, including his experience in the Soviet Union about which he wrote a book. During the first world war Cummings joined the ambulance corp; he was a medic serving in France. Cummings did not title his poems, and his punctuation is unusual. This is the way he wrote the following poem:
why must itself up every of a park
anus stick some quote statue unquote to
prove that a hero equals and jerk
who was afraid to dare to answer “no”?
quote citizens unquote might otherwise
forget (to err is human;to forgive
divine) that if the quote state unquote says
“kill” killing is an act of christian love.
“Nothing” in 1944 A D
“can stand against the argument of mil
itary necessity” (generalissimo e)
and echo answers “there is no appeal
from reason” (freud)-you pays your money and
you doesn’t take your choice. Ain’t freedom grand
Perhaps the binding of Isaac speaks to freedom—to the freedom deep within each of us…the freedom to refrain from harmful behaviors.
The angel spoke to Abraham: ‘do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to (hurt) him.’
Cummings’ poem says we shouldn’t make a hero out of someone who was ‘afraid to dare to answer no.’ That doesn’t mean that anyone who said ‘yes’ is, or was, wrong. It has to do with taking responsibility for our own actions and our own decisions: blind obedience creates tyrants and is the central ingredient to totalitarianism.
So, what about Abraham? Why didn’t Abraham say, “No, I won’t kill my son?”
Why didn’t he protest to the command to kill his son, as he later protested to God about God’s plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah? Remember? Abraham said to God, “What?! You’re going to destroy the righteous with the guilty? What if there are 100 righteous…?” God said, “Okay, you find 100 righteous and I won’t destroy the city.” And Abraham protested: what about 50, what about ten?”
But he didn’t protest the order to kill his beloved son.
Was it because, as the rabbis say, he knew that it would all turn out alright…because he trusted in God, and he knew that God had a plan that included his being the ‘father of a great nation,’ which required Isaac to live and have children of his own?
If the story is not about ‘blind faith,’ is it about a kind of faith we might admire, or to which we might aspire?
Faith is the ability to live without the answers—and to do the right thing anyway. Faith requires thoughtfulness. “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind,” is the way Emerson put it. That is to say, we have to trust our ability to make the right decision; we have to trust our ability to comprehend…to understand what we need to know in order to make a decision.
The Akedah, the binding of Isaac, is problematic. I see a strong, disturbing relationship between Abraham’s willingness to kill his beloved son and the Nazi’s obedience to carry out the terrible orders to kill thousands upon thousands of innocents…millions of children, millions of non-military Jews…millions of Gypsys and homosexuals.
Is Abraham, then, a model for faith, or a warning? Did Abraham pass the test, or fail, miserably.
The story is, of course, pure myth. There’s little evidence that a historical person, Abraham, lived and walked the earth. He’s a composite character. He is us.
To this point in our human history we have been forced to accept the sacrifice…the killing. Perhaps we can identify with Isaac in this regard. We are bound. We are not free. We have, perhaps, been put on some altar as a kind of sacrifice.
Isaac doesn’t speak. What was he thinking? He’s not mentioned again. The story says that Abraham returned alone. Once his father removed the bonds, maybe Isaac turned from his father never to speak to him again. Since the story doesn’t tell us, we’re not only allowed but encouraged to consider these things, to fill in the blanks.
The binding of Isaac is one of the Biblical stories that is associated with Passover and Easter.
The Passover story says that the Hebrew people had been in bondage in Egypt and Moses was told by God to go and free them. To convince the Pharaoh to let the people go, an angel of death was sent to take the first born in each of the Egyptians homes—very persuasive indeed.
Jumping into the New Testament, there’s another story about a Father who decides to sacrifice his only Son, his special Son, his only begotten Son.
In that story God the Father offers his Son as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind. You know the story: this time, instead of being bound and laid on the wood on the altar, the son is nailed to the wood.
For us, of course, these stories are at best myths and metaphors. At their worst they are an indictment of religion in general. It is stories like these that have caused many thoughtful, sensitive and compassionate people to leave religion altogether.
But the stories were never meant to be taken literally.
Karen Armstrong has a new book: “The Battle For God,” a review of fundamentalism in Jewish, Christian and Islamic sects, distinguishes between mythos and logos.
Mythos, or myths, are stories with hidden meanings which contain spiritual or religious truths.
She writes: (Mythos and Logos)
…were complementary ways of arriving at truth, and each had its special area of competence. Myth was regarded as primary; it was concerned with what was thought to be timeless and constant in our existence. Myth looked back to the origins of life, to the foundations of culture, and to the deepest levels of the human mind. Myth was not concerned with practical matters, but with meaning… The various mythological stories, which were not meant to be taken literally, were an ancient form of psychology.
Logos was equally important. Logos was the rational, pragmatic, and scientific thought that enabled men and women to function well in the world. We may have lost the sense of mythos in the West today, but we are very familiar with logos, which is the basis of our society.
Karen Armstrong is the author of the book, “A History of God,” an excellent summary of the god-concept in the three Western religions, including the contrast to the Eastern religions.
Her new book opens: “One of the most startling developments of the late twentieth century has been the emergence within every major religious tradition of a militant piety popularly known as ‘fundamentalism.’ It’s manifestations are sometimes shocking. Fundamentalists have gunned down worshippers in a mosque, have killed doctors and nurses who work in abortion clinics, have shot their presidents, and have even topped a powerful government. It is only a small minority of fundamentalists who commit such acts of terror, but even the most peaceful and law-abiding are perplexing, because they seem adamantly opposed to many of the most positive values of modern society. Fundamentalists have no time for democracy, pluralism, religious toleration, peacekeeping, free speech, or the separation of church and state. Christian Fundamentalists reject the discoveries of biology and physics about the origins of life and insist that the Book of Genesis is scientifically sound in every detail.”
She goes on to say that the true test of genuine reverence or spirituality is ‘compassion.’ She says that all the religions of the world have this in common—the true test, as suggested, for example, in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The answer to the question put to Jesus about inheriting eternal life is ‘love your neighbor.’ The lawyer pushed him and said, ‘who is my neighbor,’ so Jesus tells about the man who was beaten and robbed and left bleeding on the side of the road; the priest and the Levite walked by on the other side, but the man from Samaria—the man who was considered an outsider, at least, stopped and helped.
The test is ongoing.
I see a connection between Abraham’s test and the tragedy of Elian Gonzales, who has been bound, like Isaac. The little boy was taken into the sea, watched his mother perish, then he was used as a sacrifice, just as if he was taken to that mountain with Isaac…tied to the wood…the knife is raised.
It’s easier to hate Fidel Castro than to love Elian.
He survived the crossing, the long, dangerous journey with shark-infested waters, only to be pulled into a long-standing political problem with sharks of a different order.
It’s a political tug of war with him in the middle.
Where is the angel who will say to Miami’s Abrahams, “Stop!”
The people of Cuba have long been ‘used,’ in a variety of ways. Before Castro Havanna was turned into a house of prostitution and gambling by the mob. Castro kicked them out, and he invited another evil: Totalitarianism.
Can we see the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son in our own lives, our own stories?
There are deeper meanings to all the stories, including the story of our own lives, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves.
The twentieth century was marked by a kind of blind faith in technology. The astonishing successes in science caused us “…to think that logos was the only means to truth and … to discount mythos as false and superstitious.”
Joseph Campbell helped show us the ‘power of myth’ in our lives. Karen Armstrong continues that work, and it is work in which each of us must be engaged.
…the fundamentalism that we shall be considering is an essentially twentieth-century movement. It is a reaction against the scientific and secular culture that first appeared in the West, but which has since taken root in other parts of the world.
The economic changes over the last four hundred years have been accompanied by immense social, political, and intellectual revolutions, with the development of an entirely different, scientific and rational, concept of the nature of truth; and, once again, a radical religious change has become necessary. All over the world, people are finding that in their dramatically transformed circumstances, the old forms of faith no longer work for them: they cannot provide the enlightenment and consolation that human beings seem to need. As a result, men and women are trying to find new ways of being religious; like the reformers and prophets of the Axial Age, they are attempting to build upon the insights of the past in a way that will take human beings forward into the new world they have created for themselves. One of these modern experiments—however paradoxical it may superficially seem to say so—is fundamentalism.
Now, may we hear the voice of some angel who gives us the guidance and courage we need to stop what needs stopping, and to do what needs doing, to make our lives as rich, interesting and meaningful as they’re meant to be.
So may it be.