Abrahamic Certainty

I’m going to make this week’s blog a double. In part this has happened by accident, in that I was inspired to bite off a bigger theoretical piece than usual here, and by the time I’d finished chewing my way through it I had about twice as many words as I usually allot myself for one of these things. But in part that is a happy accident because I was planning to allow myself to set my writing aside next weekend anyway, as I celebrate Easter in my own radically untraditional way this year. I could have broken this up into two chunks to keep readers coming back more regularly, but why bother? If you find this to be too heavy an intellectual snack for one weekend, read half of it now and save the other half for sometime next week.

Let me also warn you that this entry is written from the perspective of a sincere but questioning faith in God. If you are the sort of person who finds a presupposition of the existence of God offensive, you might want to skip this essay. I have elsewhere explained at some length why I believe in God and what sort of role that faith plays in my life, and this piece is more than long enough without adding in a repetition of those arguments. On the other end of the spectrum, if you are the sort of religious person who finds it offensive to have the authority of your own tradition seriously questioned, you too might want to skip this particular essay. I operate here on the assumption that even the most sincere prophets and saints have made serious mistakes, and that when it comes to seeking for direct spiritual guidance, a certain amount of uncertainty goes with the territory. You are fully entitled to disagree about these matters, but accommodating all of the various authoritative dogmas that might take offense at my approach is another thing I don’t really have time for this weekend.

All of this starts with a personal re-evaluation of Kierkegaard. For many years if people would ask me to list my favorite philosophers I’d have to stop and think, and a different list might come out each time, but Kierkegaard would always come out within the top 5. Kierkegaard prioritized finding meaning in the absurdities of everyday life as the essential task of both philosophy and Christian faith. He drew on both the Bible and on classical Greek and Latin materials to demonstrate how the respectable Lutheran status quo of his time had a fair percentage of BS involved. On those merits I still believe that he was probably the most outstanding and influential genius that the Scandinavian countries have ever produced. At the same time, however, Kierkegaard was rather open about his own human limitations and fallibility. He never claimed to be a prophet, which as I see it is quite a good thing; especially as lately I’ve noticed areas in his thinking where, as a product of his own time and culture, he seems to be quite seriously mistaken.

Kierkegaard is at his best as the cynical humorist and critical analyst. Where has been seen as intellectually weaker is in terms of giving his own final answers to life’s persistent questions. After recognizing that life can only be analyzed by looking backwards, but it can be only lived by looking forwards, and that the analytical
process itself inevitably includes more than a little bit of paradox; for everyday decision making Kierkegaard turned to a form of faith that was riddled with paradox and thin on proofs, which was precisely what he loved about it. For many, however, this involves unjustified and unjustifiable risks: diving into things that you can’t be totally rationally sure of, but where “something in your heart” tells you that it’s right.  (Quotation marks there refer to the term being borrowed from pop culture, not Kierkegaard’s writings.) For some the question follows from there, “Can’t we do better than that?” leading to the answer “Maybe not.”

Recently, as I’ve been contemplating some major decisions in my own life and talking with some close friends about these matters, one of these confidants raised the issue of Abraham’s faith, as considered by Kierkegaard. For those unfamiliar with the story it goes something like this:

Like any rich nomadic herdsman of his time, Abraham had dreams of raising a huge family… but it just wasn’t happening for him. He was on the north side of middle age already, as was his beloved and hot looking wife, and as hard as they worked on making babies, they just weren’t coming. At one point then Sarah, his wife, told Abraham to try to deal with the situation by seeing if he could get her slave girl pregnant. That worked pretty well, and Sarah sort of adjusted to the idea of her new step-son, Ishmael, taking over the family fortune. But then, after they had given up on trying to make babies, and got back to intercourse for the fun of it, as sometimes happens in such cases, Sarah managed to get pregnant and have a son, Isaac. That’s where things started to get complicated. Abraham really loved both of his sons, but his wife clearly came first in his life, and she loved her surprise biological son to the total exclusion of her step-son; and Ishmael, it seems, was not adjusting to this very well himself. Finally Abraham, on Sarah’s orders, sent Ishmael and his mother packing, to go live further south, where they wouldn’t be the subject of so many arguments.

In the next chapter then (Genesis 22) comes the real climax of the story. It says that “God tested Abraham” by telling him to kill and roast his dear son Isaac. Abraham was pretty secretive about this, but he set out to take care of what he believed God had commanded. He took a couple helpers and his son, along with some wood and butchering utensils, and snuck out one morning before his wife woke up. They rode for a good three days “to the place God had shown him,” and then he left the servants behind so he could go do a secret ritual with his son using the wood and a butcher’s knife. The kid was smart enough to notice that something strange was going on, in that there was a conspicuous lack of a sacrifice animal with them, but Abraham just cryptically told him, “God will provide one.”

The happy ending then comes when at the last second God stops Abraham from killing Isaac, and says, “I was just testing. You passed. Don’t hurt the kid!” Then Abraham sees a ram with its horns stuck in a bush (not the smartest animal in the pack, it would seem) so he kills and roasts that creature instead. Ever since then, however, there has been burning speculation about what was going on there. To start with, how did God give these messages to Abraham, and how could Abraham be sure that it was God talking to him? And after that, what lessons does this story really hold for the rest of us? It is one of the major turning points in the patriarchal narratives in Genesis, so it can’t really be ignored; yet it seems to have nothing to do with principles of kindness, trust, cooperation and understanding that religion “should be promoting.”

Kierkegaard latched onto this tale just because it makes so little sense in terms basic humanistic ethical principles being manifest in religion. His take on it was that sometimes you just have to trust God for no other reason than that he’s God. He gets to give the orders because that’s part of what he gets to do, being God and all. So if you try to crunch any religion –– Christianity in particular –– down to a sweet little set of humanistic principles, you’ve rather missed the whole point.

Thus far, in terms of coming to grips with the foundational metaphysical assumptions that monotheistic faiths are based on, I strongly sympathize with what Kierkegaard is saying. My problem with all this comes when I start to look for an answer to the question my friend puts to me: “What would you do in Abraham’s place?” My provisional answer: “I’d make damned sure of my epistemological reasons for believing that it was God talking before I’d do anything.” And that’s the crux of the matter: can any form of personal emotional experience ever be enough to provide absolute certainty that it is God with whom we are dealing?

The alternative of looking for rational certainty of God’s will –– discovering the divine through a series of systematic algorithms –– is something that Kierkegaard has adequately shown to be inconsistent with the core understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition at least. (And as I understand it, Al Ghazali made a similar point from an Islamic perspective 700-some years earlier.) Beyond that it would seem to me to be an implausible proposition on a number of different levels.

In brief, if God had wanted to provide absolute certainty about his intentions and desires for mankind, there would have been a number of ways in which he could have made that more clear. That, however, would have entailed an increased risk of various religious groups claiming that their authority is based on enforcing God’s revealed will for everyone else. That would have turned “true religion” into the most impersonal and authoritarian bureaucracy imaginable. Even without true, divinely inspired intellectual certainty we have some pretty serious problems with authoritarian religious bureaucracies. We can only imagine what it would be like if one of these groups really
did have God’s unequivocal stamp of approval!  Thus God, in all his wisdom, in the interest of remaining personal and relational, has chosen to remain somewhat mysterious and non-systematizeable. All this is to say, faith in God does not necessarily entail an assurance of being perfectly aware of what the God wants in every possible situation; somewhat the opposite in fact.

Now of course no authoritarian religious organization which enforces orthodoxy in its standardized teaching can readily accept the idea that they have anything less than a mandate from God himself to maintain such standards. Thus it would be more the rule than the exception for the ideas in the above paragraph to be labeled as the most evil sort of heresy. But the more dogmatically a religious group insists on maintaining absolute control as God’s sole (or primary) representatives, the more damage they do to their own credibility. The ultimate nature of God clearly beyond human understanding, and thus any group which claims to have an exclusive understanding of him is either bluffing or they really don’t get the question.

In any case, this brings us back to the question of a less rational, more mystical or emotional awareness of God’s intentions and desires for us; and how far we can trust such sensations. Is it possible to “just know” what God wants of each of us, and of each other? If so, to what extent?

Some would say that these matters are best left to those who have a legitimate claim to being apostles or prophets. But what gives such individuals the right to claim such authority? Short answer: we don’t really know, but some individuals’ “messages” in this respect just sort of ring true for their followers and for future generations. But on careful consideration that really isn’t such a great epistemological standard. Given the mutually contradictory nature of prophetic messages from different sources, each seen as “obviously divine” by millions of faithful followers, the only obvious thing is that the vast majority of those “prophets” or “apostles”, (to be charitable about it) must have got at least some of their basic details mixed up. On the other end of the spectrum, the standard job description for a prophet or an apostle says that you’ll be rejected in terms of popular opinion, at least in your own time and your own village, because others just won’t “get it.” So external confirmation in terms of reinforcement from other (potential) believers really can’t be taken as firm evidence of whether or not any given apostle, prophet, guru, etc. is the real deal or not.

Yet even if the authority of a prophet’s or apostle’s message can never be fully confirmed in terms of its overall popularity, that still leaves open the possibility of inter-subjectivity: to one extent or another the issue always comes back to a question of a particular prophetic message “resonating” with what “God says to the heart of the believer”. Along these lines each of the Abrahamic religions officially holds that each believer’s status as a believer is ultimately between the “believer” and God –– not something that anyone else can competently judge; and the voice of God within the heart of the believer –– confirming for that believer the message of the Prophet(s) –– is the only thing which ultimately matters. On this Jews, Christians and Muslims theoretically agree: if God is not in fact speaking directly to your heart, all the rest is really just an empty show.

Such a doctrine actually poses a very limited risk to those who have a vested interest in enforcing orthodoxy. For starters this can easily be turned into an “Emperor’s New Clothes” dynamic: everyone inevitably claims to see the beauty of the message, because not to do so is tantamount to proclaiming one’s own moral and spiritual inferiority! Then once you have enough people proclaiming their personal affirmation of the beliefs in question, a sort of Asch social conformity dynamic kicks in (see, e.g., http://changingminds.org/explanations/theories/normative_social_influence.htm), and people start sincerely seeing things “the way they are supposed to” because everyone else claims to see them that way. So when people are told to “judge for themselves” as to whether or not the “divine message” they have been given resonates with them, chances of dissent are pretty limited.

[And for those who do not have the time or patience to read this all in one sitting, this might be as good a place as any for you to take an intermission. See you after the break.]

But if we set aside the question of why others claim to believe what they believe, and if we ignore the risks inherent in believing differently from the mainstream, if we then take these admonitions to judge for ourselves at face value, we find ourselves in a position
where there is really no categorical difference between the prophet and the true believer: personal spiritual intuition of one form or another is the thing that really counts. What makes the prophets’ or apostles’ spiritual intuitions special is that they are intended to serve as benchmarks for improving one’s own spiritual intuitions.

So when it comes to getting messages from God that might instruct us to do things which go against the grain of popular opinion, as Abraham is said to have, we really can’t flog that one off on the prophets –– leaving it to authority figures to make our spiritual decisions for us. Each truly believing Jew, Christian, Muslim, etc. is personally responsible to listen for God’s voice for her- or himself, and to follow that voice to the best of her/his God-given ability.


But this brings me to the point where my good friend Kierkegaard and I part company. I realized this in going through my personal library this week, thinning out the materials that are not worth lugging around or cramming into my limited personal space. In the process I picked up a book of his essays that I hadn’t opened in a while, and had a read through Of the difference between a Genius and an Apostle. His main point there was to say that, contrary to the message being preached in the various churches of Copenhagen at the time, the Apostle Paul was no genius; or even if he was it would be rather irrelevant. The relevant matter is that he spoke with authority, as one having a message from the Almighty. That much I don’t necessarily have a problem with either. Where I disagree is when it comes to his categorical assumption that acceptance of authority and careful epistemological investigation should be treated as separate, unrelated issues.

Part of this has to do with the fact that Kierkegaard was thoroughly adjusted to his role as the subject of a king rather than being a participant in a democracy. He wasn’t comfortable with the idea of having a leader who pandered to the masses; whose authority was based on being likeable or convincing: “There is something disturbing in the idea of a king who is witty or an artist. […] To ask whether a king is a genius –– with the intention, if such were the case, of obeying him, is in reality lèse-majesté; for the question conceals a doubt as to whether one intends to submit to authority. […] To honor one’s father because he is intelligent is impiety.”

Obviously the cultural assumptions which the reader is expected to bring to such a passage have changed a lot in the past 150 years. Does that mean that we have slipped further from God’s intended design for humanity? I rather doubt it. I don’t actually believe that there ever was any true “divine right of kings.” Frederick VII having ruled Denmark in Kierkegaard’s time was no more a manifestation of God’s will than Berlusconi’s presidency of Italy is today. The practical opportunities for citizens to influence matters may be limited in both cases, but that does not mean that anyone who has succeeded in gaining such power has Carte Blanche from God himself to run things as he pleases. Every holy book worth its salt contains passages on what constitutes good governance and what standards rulers should be held accountable to. Rulers which do not live up to their responsibilities are to be peacefully removed from office wherever possible. Unwise rulers are no longer routinely obeyed merely because they are rulers, and overall the world is a better and safer place for it. This clearly goes against the grain of Kierkegaard’s understanding of how authority is supposed to work, but then again he probably faced far worse disillusionments in other matters.

Part of what this entails is that citizens are at least in part responsible for the state of the government they live under. Rather than unquestioning obedience, what we theoretically owe to our rulers is respectful awareness of the issues they are dealing with, and active participation in the process of encouraging wise decisions. Thus respect for authority, rather than being a passive matter entirely distinct from epistemology, becomes an active matter acutely dependent on epistemology. And for reasons outlined above, this also applies quite directly to spiritual authorities as well.

So that brings me back to the question of what I would do if I were Abraham…

Perhaps, like Gideon and so many other holy men who have been faced with counter-intuitive instructions, I would ask for specific signs to prove to me that the instructions were at least coming from something more than my own disturbed emotional state. Perhaps I’d look up my old friend Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18) who comes from an entirely different religious tradition but still worships and gets messages from the same God, to see what sort of wisdom he could impart on the matter. Perhaps I’d just try to decompress for a while; leaving my foreman in charge of the flocks and all and spending some time just traveling, either by myself or with the wife and kid, depending on which would most effectively help me to be sure that I was thinking straight again. I figure if God would want the kid dead he wouldn’t be in such an all-fired hurry about it anyway.

My overall take on old Father Abraham is that he meant well, but he may have seriously got his wires crossed in trying to figure out what God wanted of him. Isaac actually comes across overall in the narrative as sort of retarded, and given how he was born long after his mom should have stopped having children, that’s more than possible. Having just kicked his smarter, stronger son out of the camp on his wife’s demand to improve the chances for this cute little weakling must have been rough on him. The chances of this little mommy’s boy ever amounting to anything seemed pretty slim. Maybe if he sacrificed this kid to his God, the way his neighbors sometimes sacrificed their kids to their gods, that would earn him extra favor from up above to make sure good things came to the kid who seemed to have better prospects anyway.In spite of all of his confusion though, God somehow got the message through to him just in time not to do it! So Isaac was saved, and Abraham was left with a feeling of God telling him, “Don’t worry. Everything’s cool. I know you meant well, but I have plans for this kid.”

Isaac went on to lead a limitedly successful life. He wasn’t really interested in any other women than his mommy until after she died. His dad then arranged for him to marry one of his cousins, who sort of a became substitute mommy for him. After failing at it for quite a while he finally managed to get his wife pregnant… once. And from there the rest of the stories about Isaac have to do with his wife and son taking advantage of his blindness and stupidity. Meanwhile Abraham remarried and had a big bunch of kids with his new wife, but then left the family fortune to Isaac and his family.

So when it comes down to it Abraham’s success is less down to him earning it through his heroic readiness to kill his weaker son, and more a matter of God being merciful to him in spite of his occasional screw ups, of which killing his son could have been by far the worst. Overall, if I would have been in Abraham’s position I believe I would have made an entirely different set of mistakes than he did, but God could have been merciful to me too in spite of myself. As things stand, some 4000 years or so later, Abraham’s legacy lives on, and those of us who follow in the different variations of the spiritual
path which he pioneered keep doing our best to get the message right in our own contexts. That includes me, and every true believer in any faith, who throws him- or herself on God’s mercy and then tries the best he/she can to live worthily of the mercy thus received. And as near as I can tell, that would also include Kierkegaard.

Like Kierkegaard, I make no claims at having prophetic gifts, but I listen for God’s instruction the best I can anyway. Ultimately, in spite of our uncertainties, we all must live our lives looking forward. We seek whatever help we can get from above. We fail on a regular basis, but we keep trying. Not giving up hope can be easier said than done.

Trusting that God will be merciful to those who call out for his mercy, and who are willing to show mercy to others on that basis, is the first order of business. Seeking valid general rules for living wisely and relating to others respectfully comes next. Getting special wisdom and guidance for unique circumstances where the general rules don’t necessarily apply would come after that. None of those are the exclusive territory of prophets or exceptional saints; they are available to all believers. None of them require special genius, but all of them require careful consideration of what information and sensations can be trusted. All of them require a certain humility, but none require blind obedience to those who claim to speak for God.

And with this in mind, may we each experience his mercy then this Easter, this spring, in our own surprising and revitalizing ways.

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Filed under Control, Ethics, Holidays, Individualism, Religion, Respectability, Risk taking

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