Saturday, July 24

This Is A VERY DELICATE “Skeptic’s” Column To Write



So I’m going to take a little time to say what my intent is not. First of all, my intent is not to ridicule Christianity. Sincere critique is one thing:  I agree with Sam Harris, who says, early in The End of Faith, that religious propositions and principles should be no more immune from searching critique than any other type of propositions. But ridicule is something different. So my purpose is not to ridicule. Rather, my purpose in writing as below is very simple:  I have questions. That’s all. Just questions. To orthodox – lower-case “o” – believers, these questions may be, probably will be, at least somewhat uncomfortable to contemplate. But I also believe that no question should be literally un-ask-able. Progress often comes from asking uncomfortable questions. (Like “Golly! Why should one human being own another?” or “Gawrsh! Women are US citizens, so why shouldn’t they vote?”) In fact, so far removed is my intent from ridicule, that I even suggest some possible answers to the questions I ask. I should also probably say that I approach the following biblical texts, not from the standpoint of factual history, but as theological parables, rather like the story of the young George Washington chopping down his father's cherry tree. Anyway, with the above in mind, here are my questions:

o Abraham’s Willingness To Sacrifice Isaac

I say “Abraham’s willingness” and not “Abraham’s sacrifice” to dispose immediately of the most obvious response:  that Abraham did not actually sacrifice Isaac. Granted, but it is the willingness to do so that I want to emphasize, because (a) it is the willingness to sacrifice Isaac that subsequent writers find most compelling – think “Kierkegaard … Fear and Trembling” here – and besides, the writer of the Book of Hebrews makes no reference to mere “willingness” and writes as if the sacrifice actually occurred. (Granted, I am assuming that all the referenced translations are accurate.) The point is that all these commentators point to Abraham as a hero of religious faith. Kierkegaard, in Fear and Trembling, even calls Abraham a “knight of faith,” most likely the only such who has ever lived.


Let’s pause to take stock of where we stand. Western culture, informed by the Judaeo-Christian tradition, including orthodox Christianity, lionizes and places on a pedestal a man who was willing to kill his son – and, according to the Genesis narrative, who very nearly actually killed his son – at the behest of his (Abraham’s) God. But more than even that, not only is Abraham lionized and placed on a pedestal, he is immortalized and revered as a paragon of faitha paragon to be emulated, no less. Simple question: why? If that enculturated reaction is fully justifiable, then why would not Andrea Yates’ defense counsel have been able to defend her against the murder of her four small children by simply pleading that “God told Andrea to do it?” If Abraham is a paragon of faith through his willingness to sacrifice his one son, why should we not similarly esteem Andrea Yates for her similar willingness -- which, unlike Abraham, she actually implemented -- to sacrifice her four? Simply plead “God’s will” and an atrocity becomes a paradigm. In her deeply unsettling book about the Abraham-Isaac narrative Abraham on Trial, Carol Delaney reflects deeply on just this question, and ancillary questions, relating to sexuality, patriarchy, and patrimony – along the way, alluding to a contemporary newspaper account of a man in Los Angeles who did precisely that:  killed his child and pled “God’s will,” thereby replicating Abraham’s near-sacrifice.

I think Kierkegaard, in Fear and Trembling, gives us some important clues.  Kierkegaard argues that Abraham, because he is a “knight of faith,” stands in what Kierkegaard calls, in his typically near-opaque phraseology, an “absolute relation to the Absolute”. That is, a “knight of faith” – Abraham was probably the only one – stands in a relationship to God of such immediacy that Abraham is free to ignore social taboos against, in this case, parents killing their children. When one faces God alone and altogether apart from any enclosing community, ordinary moral principles cease to apply. Abraham is indeed isolated. As a member of no tribe or clan, as a naked individual in the “state of nature,” a “knight of faith” goes, as one person once described death, “alone into the Alone”. Bottom line:  the rules simply do not apply to Abraham … or any other “knight of faith”. So the difference between Abraham, on the one hand, and Andrea Yates and Delaney’s unnamed killer in LA, on the other, is that, unlike Abraham, the latter are not in the “state of nature”. The latter are part of a social contract. So Yates and the LA killer, unlike Abraham, are bound by social norms and taboos, to say nothing of the criminal justice system. They live and function on the level of what Kierkegaard, in Stages on Life’s Way and elsewhere, describes as the “aesthetic” realm, where social norms and taboos are determinative of the moral content of one’s behavior. This also explains why Kierkegaard sees life in a society as intrinsically inferior, spiritually, to a solitary life, basically a life in the “state of nature,” confronting God as a pure individual, and why Kierkegaard entitles one of his books The Crowd is Un-Truth. A Kierkegaardian society is, strictly speaking, an oxymoron, just like "married bachelor." But even if such were possible, a Kierkegaardian society would be a “society” comprising mere anarchic feral consciences, each free to do as its god tells it. Which is why, in the last analysis, Soren Kierkegaard's vision of faith and society scares the stone-righteous hell out of me. Think "survivalist" here.

This resolves … well … sorta-kinda … assuming one accepts Kierkegaard's assessment ... the conflict about Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac. But it raises an arguably equally disturbing question about one’s attitude thereto:  if one reveres Abraham's obedience as an example to be emulated, as the writer of Hebrews invites us to do, does not one simultaneously repudiate this reverence by continuing to live in society? I leave this question as an "exercise for reader".

o The Story Of The Annunciation

This is where I have to tread even more carefully. One more time:  I'm just asking questions ... and even suggesting answers. Take a moment to read the Annunciation narrative in Luke 1:26-38 -- preferably the longer version in Luke's Gospel -- and then, after you have done a very "close" reading of the text, consider the following question.

Where in Luke's account of the Annunciation does God -- presumably through the Archangel -- solicit Mary's consent to the Pregnancy?


I can't find such a text, in either English or (my modest knowledge of) koine Greek. In fact, there is not a question of any kind regarding any subject at any point in the story. The entire narrative, at least the Archangel's part, is a concatenation of purely declarative sentences of form: "This shall happen", "That shall happen", etc. No one's concurrence with anything is ever requested. The most obvious inference, using this "first approximation" reading of the text, is that Mary was made pregnant with Jesus without her consentNow, what do we usually call the act of getting a woman pregnant without her prior knowledge or consent? Normally, we use terms like "sexual assault," "rape," and cognates thereof.  Now, in the conventional reading of the Annunciation narrative, we are usually careful, and commentators are usually careful, and perhaps most of all, homilists / preachers are usually careful, to read the story as though / as if, at some point, Mary's concurrence was solicited. The problem is that there is no justification for such a reading in the text as it actually stands. For the actual as-written text does not contain a solicitation of consent, but is simply an after-the-fact notification of a fait accompli, i.e., of what is already in the process of being accomplished.  Bottom line:  a case can be made that the story of the Annunciation is the story of a Divine Rape.

There are precedents, both in the biblical text and in the classical world. The Bible, especially the tanakh, seems to take a more laissez faire attitude toward rape than we are accustomed to by treating women essentially as chattel property, especially during time of war, not essentially different from any other kind of goods an invading army might expropriate after winning a battle. See, e.g., Judges 21:10-24, Numbers 31:7-18, Deuteronomy 21:10-14, Judges 5:30.  More immediately relevant in terms of the Lukan author's theological agenda, however, would be persistent Greek legends about gods raping human women, e.g., Zeus's rape of Danae and of Europa. The author of Luke's Gospel is concerned to establish Jesus' bona fides as the Divine offspring of a union between a god -- in this case, the Hebrew YHVH -- and a mortal woman, and as such on an equal par with Caesar, who was also believed to be divinely conceived.  The long version of the Annunciation and the Birth narratives in Luke's Gospel serve this theological purpose. So it is not surprising that the Gospel writer might appeal to classical myths as precedents, i.e., if this can happen with the Greeks, then why not also with the Jews?

o The Crucifixion Of Jesus

But perhaps the most problematical example is the Crucifixion itself -- which may be read as a reversion to the practice of human sacrifice ... if ... one accepts the dominant, traditional, orthodox, reading of the Narrative usually associated with St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury. That prevailing Anselmian reading is culturally dominant, but the biblical support for it is far from being iron-clad. St. Anselm's Cur Deus Homo dealt with the dual questions:  "What does Jesus save us from?" and "How does Jesus save us?" Anselm lived and wrote during the middle of the 11th century, when Europe, including England, was ruled by feudal lords. When a peasant or knight committed a serious offense against his liege, the lord could recover his (the lord's) dignity by exacting retributive vengeance in compensation for his besmirched dignity. The punishment was usually death. Anselm reasoned that the Christian God, as the ultimate sovereign Lord of all Lords, deals with sin basically the same way:  the offense of sin demands a retributive sacrifice in order to restore God's compromised honor. But Jesus, the radically innocent Son of God, steps in, interposes Himself between God's wrath and the offender, and takes upon Himself the terrible penalty that would otherwise rightfully be visited upon the sinner. The righteousness of Jesus is imputed to the sinner, the sin of the offender is imputed to Jesus, God punishes the Latter, satisfaction is made, and the moral equilibrium of the Universe is restored. You know this story as well as I. In fact, I expect you grew up listening to it at church or during Billy Graham crusades.


The problem is that St. Anselm's theology of retributive justice as an explanation of how Jesus saves us is subverted in critical ways by the biblical text. For example, in Leviticus, the Israelites were sternly admonished to not participate in the Molech cult, which demanded the immolation of children in obedience to the god.  One could also cite Leviticus 20:2; Deuteronomy 12:31; Ezekiel 20:24-26; Jeremiah 7:31; and Jeremiah 7:22. Perhaps most important is Jesus' own repudiation of the "eye-for-an-eye" paradigm of the lex talionis, the very ethic Anselm cites as the justification of the Crucifixion. (In any case, the original purpose of the "eye-for-an-eye" principle was to limit vengeance, not authorize the beginning of a retributive cycle:  the person  who blinds one of your eyes may be blinded in one eye, but his head may not be chopped off.) There are other ways of answering the original questions Anselm was dealing with, e.g., Peter Abelard's depiction of the Crucifixion as Jesus' Example of the lengths to which radical love may go -- without being required to go -- for the sake others' welfare. I strongly suspect, in fact, that if some other, less sanguinary, account of the Crucifixion had become the theological coin of the realm, the subsequent history of Europe would have been at least somewhat less bloody. Vengeance begets vengeance begets vengeance. Retribution begets retribution begets retribution. Problem is -- let's face it -- violence and vengeance can be great fun ... all the more so when God is believed to practice it. Violence and vengeance ... dammit all, anyway! ... just feel so good, especially in the lawless 11th century CE, that even God cannot resist!

OK ... I'm done dropping cow patties into the hermeneutic punch bowl.  The bad news:  you may have to throw out this batch of punch. The good news:  the punch you concoct to replace it just might be a lot better. Cheers!

James R. Cowles

Image credits

 Sacrifice of Isaac ... Juan de Valdés Leal (1622–1690) ... public domain
The Annunciation ... Matthias Stom (fl. 1615–1649) ... public domain
The Crucifixion ... Simon Vouet ... public domain
Kierkegaard ... Utrecht / Boomker Haren BV ... public domain


  • Good cow patties. Make for good fuel. Right? That’s what some people traditionally used cow patties for. 🙂

    But it is good fuel for faith discussions. I’ve deconstructed these texts and asked similar questions. And that’s why I read the Bible the way I do…the best expression of an ancient people’s faith experience. And pull it forward to make meaning in so far as the overall scope of promise, covenant and re-promise and re-covenant are examined. Through the lens of love.

    • I think that nostalgia also has a lot to do with why, despite a PhD, 3 masters, and teaching at Harvard, Oxford, and Brandeis, and self-describing as a “skeptic” and “atheist”, the old, OLD hymns like “The Way of the Cross”, “Where the Soul Never Dies”, “Camping in Canaan”, and “Victory in Jesus” can break through that shell and reduce me to a blob of tear-blubbering pure affect in just a few seconds. Somewhere inside me, I think that, on a deep pre-rational level, I actually do WANT all that stuff to be true.

    • Back from the Opry … Here’s a thought — not a critique, not an argument, just a rumination … We read stories like the “akedah”, the rape of Mary, etc., and we (1) ascribe the barbarism of the stories to a primitive people’s concept of God, and so (2) feel free to elide such actions / attitudes / tendencies from our own theology. Is there not a danger that, by nipping and tucking one’s theology to comport with 21st-century sensibilities one can end up conceiving of God as a human-being-writ-large? (Samuel Taylor Coleridge said the average Englishman’s conception of God was “as of an immense Clergyman”. ) On what great Cosmic Cue Card is it written that God’s sensibilities and humans’ sensibilities necessarily have to be consistent and congruent? Why could God NOT be such as to order a father to sacrifice his son, or a virgin to endure a Divine rape? Because God is a God of love? But that response just pushes the question back a step: where is it written that God’s concept of love and humans’ concept of love are, not necessarily identical, but consistent? I think I feel a future “Skeptic’s” column, a sequel to the one above, gestating here.

      • There may be a temptation to make God into human writ large, but that is where we’re starting in this theology. The God that is the rapist is imagined as a human being writ large. Releasing that returns quite the opposite, the mystery.

      • There is no reason God cannot be everything. Trickster God that pulls a bait and switch with Jacob and Esau, Vengeful God that punishes children for the sins of their father, Non-Consent God that puts Bathsheba and Mary in harms way. These are all possible. It is not written anywhere. So we all have to make up our own minds. When I read the textual evidence and add my own experience, I see a God whose qualities include relationship and never giving up (hello! how many covenants were renewed?). I start there. And if God is Non-Consent God or Violent God or Trickster God and I haven’t been following that God but I’ve been following Relational God, then so be it. I guess the Vengeful OG will have an opportunity.

    • It seems to me that describing God as “ganz andere” — AND TAKING THAT DESCRIPTION SERIOUSLY ENOUGH TO REFUSE TO CONFRONT ALL ITS IMPLICATIONS — is theological dynamite. If God really is “ganz andere”, then ALL bets are not necessarily off, but something arguably even worse: MANY bets are off, BUT THERE’S NO KNOWING WHICH BETS ARE OFF AND WHICH ARE STILL ON. There’s no knowing which aspects of God are congruent / consistent with human sensibilities and which are not. God may well NOT be in the business of ordering fathers to sacrifice their sons. But God may equally be in the business of raping virgins. And there’s no way to know how and where the fault line runs.

      • There is know what to 100% know. There are ways to receive evidence. Instead of bogging down in the individual stories of the Bible which run from horrible to gracious, looking at the overarching story about the character of God which, for me, I see as one of relationship and not giving up on people (and I would extend that to the whole world).

        • Hello Hannah and thank you for your very insightful and thoughtful comments. My wife and I have just returned from 2+ weeks of vacation and I’m still in the process of “rebooting” life in Seattle. Will reply more fully next week.

          • Oh I know … My reply was addressed to Hannah, who I thought did raise some legitimate points, especially pertaining to evidence, an issue I’ve written about in the past. Diane and I really are still buried — by now, only partially — in issues we had to let slide on vacation. But next week, the decks will be clear, and I can return to these and related issues, and Hannah’s comments.

          • James, those comments from “Hannah” are from me. I wrote them. For some reason, wordpress put Hannah’s user name with them not mine. There is no Hannah. Hannah was the character I created at the beginning of this sojourn to do testing.

            No worries.

  • In Nashville, TN, getting ready to go to Grand Ole Opry tonight at the old Ryman Auditorium. Spent the afternoon at the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum. Hypnotized by the old recordings & videos of country / bluegrass, music I grew up with in the wilderness of NW AR / Ozarks. My eyes misted up heavily at the “old-timey” music & twangey accents of the people.

    Anyway … yeah … this is why it’s important to read the Bible critically without abdicating one’s rational faculties.

    More later, but for now … YEE-HAW!!!

    (For some reason, ever since we got to Nashville, I’ve developed this persistent habit of calling Diane “leetle darlin”.)

  • OK … I don’t know to whom I’m replying now, but I’ll take a chance that it is Terri … When you refer to getting “bogged down” in the stories, I would refer to that, instead, as “assessing evidence”. I labor under a severe limitation: I think all stories have evidentiary value, even — arguably especially — the ones that run counter to what we would want to believe … not just about God, but about everything. I don’t see that as getting “bogged down,” I see it as avoiding cherry picking, which is otherwise almost guaranteed to happen. (Remember my old analogy about how to give the Mariners a perfect baseball season: ignore the losses, and only count the wins.) Frankly, what I see when I look at the biblical text makes me glad I’m an atheist, albeit a practical / pragmatic atheist. What I see is a God with a HIGHLY unstable personality, a God Who, at one moment, is brutalizing and abusing, e.g., the nation Israel, and a God Who, the next moment, is crawling up his own asshole backwards to make up for / compensate for the previous acts of abuse. It’s a personality all too familiar to marriage counselors: the husband who beats his wife one day, then suffers remorse, and buys her diamonds and roses the next day. This is basically the narrative arc of, e.g., “Angela’s Ashes”. Also the narrative arc of the OT about Israel and God: cycles of abuse followed by cycles of loving-kindness, and the 2 alternating.

    Frankly, the “overarching” language makes me nervous because it makes me wonder what is being “arched over,” i.e., what is being left out in order to preserve belief … I mean just belief in God, not any particular theology. I could say that the “overarching” story of the United States is a history of liberty and liberation. But to get to that conclusion, I have to “arch over” slavery, the abuse of indigenous peoples, Vietnam, govmnt and big business in collusion, etc., etc., etc. The only way to avoid cherry-picking-through-arching-over is precisely to get “bogged down” in “counter-narratives” that argue against what would otherwise be a foregone conclusion. The problem with much — I won’t say “all” — Christian theology is that it is NOT “BOGGED DOWN” ENOUGH. Jewish theology, especially post-Holocaust Jewish theology, does not have that problem. E.g., Blumenthal’s “Facing the Abusing God”.

    And if, contrariwise, I actually REFUSE to “arch over,” if I allow those “counter-narratives” a voice, what I end up with may be a God of mystery, even a God of majesty, a God of awe, but it is not a God I have any desire — simply out of an instinct for self-preservation, and forget theology — to know or to allow in my life. If Diane and I had kids, I would not allow that God to baby-sit them, any more than I would allow OJ.

    I think I feel a “Skeptic’s” column gestating.

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