When Being Religious Means Being Unethical
This past weekend I listened to the tale from Genesis in which God tests the obedience of Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. It’s easy to brush aside the troubling ethical implications of this myth by saying that God never intended Abraham to become a murderer. Too easy: whatever the figure of God ultimately intended is mostly irrelevant. Abraham is put into the position of making a choice between his responsibility to God and the ethical responsibility he has to his son. From our perspective, he consents to murder.*
Abraham could have refused to be a murderer only by saying “No” to God. He has no illusions about his son’s worthiness of love: he loves him as much as is humanly possible. There would be no sacrifice, no test, if Abraham didn’t fully love his son. As Derrida, following Kierkegaard, wrote, “Abraham must love his son absolutely to come to the point where he will grant him death, to commit what ethics would call hatred and murder.” The God of Abraham that we encounter in this story is a God who may demand one act unethically.
This biblical narrative challenges the notion that one can derive absolute ethical norms from biblical exegesis of divine commands: it puts obedience to God and ethical responsibility in opposition. In the words of Kierkegaard, the ethical is a temptation to betray God; it can, in the words of Derrida, make us irresponsible.
To attempt a resolution of this conflict by reducing ethics to a consideration of divine command–a reduction that would lead one to say that murder is morally good and obligatory if commanded by God–leads in practice to ethical relativism: nothing is good or bad but thinking about what God commands makes it so. Such thinking would direct one away from any absolute condemnation of murder as intrinsically immoral. Murder would have to remain on the table. God could command it, making it morally obligatory.
Of course, when God is said to have issued a command, we cannot corroborate this claim as witnesses. All we have before us is some individual’s or group’s unprovable claim about what God has commanded. If we consent to blindly trust the claim, ethics then recedes before the throne usurped by religious authority. Anything can be justified. Even genocide: “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.” Once moral force is located in the proclamations of some religious authority, that authority has only to say the word for murder to become obligatory.
Conversely, removing the voice of God–or the voice sounding from any other visitation of the wholly other–runs the risk of fashioning ethics into an unyielding ideological dogmatism. When this happens, ethics itself can become immoral and cruel, the one who practices it dismissive or forgetful of the very reasons for being ethical. An ethical life uncompromisingly and unceasingly devoted to justice–to giving others their due–has no ear for the cries of mercy and forgiveness that challenge it. Forgiving the unforgivable is anathema to it. An ethical philosophy centered and exclusively focused on the dignity of human persons shuts the gates to any moral claims sounding from the wild. The care for animals and the environment make ethical sense only in relation to the good of human persons.
John D. Caputo was on to something when he came out against ethics. We develop ethical theories to make sense of the moral challenges and dilemmas that cloud around us and render us disoriented and uncertain about where we ought go. The moral life doesn’t always make sense, though. Disasters happen that demand impossible choices. The world is grey, try as ethics might to tinker with our vision. In the end, I sometimes have to act without why, without assurances that I’m acting rightly. And even when my path is seemingly clear, I am a stranger to my own ethical choices, to my own ethical self. Caputo:
The acting subject is something acted upon even in its very acting, for the acting subject is itself a function of the anonymous, presubjective forces by which it is traversed—by language, the unconscious, by the weight and momentum of its own past, of the collective past to which it belongs, by the biochemistry and neurophysiology of which it is constituted, and by numberless (because anonymous) other forces. When the subject acts, we cannot be sure what acts, i.e., what is happening, because the individual subject is an irreducible complex of other events.
Trying to resolve the paradox–either by reducing the ethical to the voice of religious authority, or by shielding the ethical from the voice of alterity–results in idolatry. In the former, one makes an idol of religious authority. In the latter, ethics itself is idolized. I’m inclined, then, not to attempt any resolution. Instead, my inclination is 1) to test every moral claim by religious authority against the ethical as I understand it and 2) to deconstruct every ethical theory with an ear to the “voice of God” or the “voice of alterity.”
So far I can say this: 1) I have no belief in a God who orders what I’ve concluded to be absolutely unethical, murder for example, and 2) I have no certainty that my ethical conclusions have excluded what I ought not to have excluded. The truth is, were I in Abraham’s place, I wouldn’t know what to do. I would have to make a choice for or against ethics, for or against God, but without the surety of either one deciding the undecidable.
* Updated for clarity. My aim in this post is not biblical scholarship or a close reading of the biblical text in its historical context. Rather, my interest is in the paradox that emerges within a particular philosophical reading of the narrative, a reading that assumes certain ethical conclusions that were not necessarily held by the text’s original writers and audience.
The most profound interpretation of Avedah, in my opinion, is that Abraham failed the test. The last time G-d wanted to hurt people, Abraham bargained for them — he stood up to G-d!
But that he doesn’t stand up for his own son… it boggles the mind.
In keeping with another of your posts, I can perhaps best react to this one with (what I like call) art. Here is a poem I wrote on the subject of Abraham and Isaac:
WAITING FOR THE ANGEL
Seek, and you will find
your interior landscape
to be a series of primal tableaux:
You have an inner Isaac.
He scrambles happily
up the mountain.
Your inner Abraham follows
with his sharpened blade.
Your Isaac gathers kindling,
industrious, eager to please.
Your Abraham waits.
He obeys the Voice transcendent.
The voice Isaac obeys is hoarsely mundane.
Back at the tents,
tending the hearth
from which Abraham took
the flame for the altar,
Sarah, the archetypal miracle
mother, is done gloating
over the banishment of Hagar.
She wails with the women,
her clenched claws pounding
at her empty breasts.
She prays to be sent back
to the day before the boy’s birth.
Up on the heights,
your inner Isaac gathers stones
for the construction of his deathbed.
whom your conscience obeys,
cups his tiny flame.
He bites his lips and watches the sky.
Will there be further revelation?
At last some given meaning?
A final explication of the ineffable Verse?
Will your flaming angel descend?
It’s useful to look at Genesis as it was actually written. It emerges first in Babylon during the captivity period, written down from the oral tradition. There seem to be several different writers at work, or at least two different editors.
Genesis is a book of lessons, meant to instruct the people in the virtues of their own faith. The Sacrifice of Isaac was not really about God testing Abraham, but a renunciation of human sacrifice, substituting an animal in its stead. Human sacrifice of the firstborn son, a theme which appears throughout the book, was standard practice with the worship of Moloch, itself something of a portmanteau word, a euphemism combining the characters for King, MLK with the vowels of the word for shame, bosheth, forming MoLeK.
Later, the Law of Moses in Leviticus made the practice of human sacrifice a crime, but people went on doing it.
The Jewish faith with its newfangled monotheism was a very considerable improvement on what was going on around it. It called on mankind to love God and keep his commandments, nothing else was even remotely comparable. The bad historian (and theologian) looks at the past through the eyes of the present: these aren’t people locked into some system of fear and ignorance where the priests demand their children for sacrifice, demand their crops and herds, they were asked. To our eyes, the story of the Sacrifice of Isaac looks brutal and capricious: it was nothing of the sort. Every other interpretation is stupid on its face.
The bad historian (and theologian) looks at the past through the eyes of the present: these aren’t people locked into some system of fear and ignorance where the priests demand their children for sacrifice, demand their crops and herds, they were asked. To our eyes, the story of the Sacrifice of Isaac looks brutal and capricious: it was nothing of the sort. Every other interpretation is stupid on its face.
I’m neither a historian nor a theologian, bad or otherwise, but I must take issue with what you say here. I agree that it would be bad history/theology to make definitive conclusions about the past while considering only present modes of thought and being in the world; however, I would not limit the semantic possibilities of a text to the authorial intentions and historical contexts behind it. The lasting power of Genesis comes in no small part from its surplus of meaning: it can be and has been approached interpretively from myriad angles and perspectives, and these approaches have yielded fruit.
Kyle, the story of Genesis is one of the greatest mythic stories ever written, but there’s only so far you can push some tendentious conclusion about Troubling Ethical Implications. Those implications are entirely yours.
The story of Genesis is one of Righteous Herders and Immoral Townspeople. It’s a microcosm of the story of the Fertile Triangle itself, the rise of the city at the expense of the nomad, written by those nomads. That’s the big picture of Genesis. There really isn’t any other big picture. Every time Abraham gets into town, something bad happens.
All the cultures of the area had a Sky God, the Hurrians had Ea, which gave rise to El, from thence to Elohim/Yahweh. The story of Noah comes straight out of the ancient flood myths: there was some sort of flood, every culture in the area seems to have such a myth, Gilgamesh is just one and it’s far more ancient than the Babylonians.
The proto-Jewish religion was a huge improvement on anything of the time. It abstracted God away from idols. It abolished human sacrifice. It made laws. It had health codes, some of them quite sensible and entirely progressive. To take the Sacrifice of Isaac story out of context and make of it some craven subservience to divine command, that’s what Judaism calls pilpul, some overly-sharp tendentious argument.
As for this business of wiping out the Amalekites, they had been murdering Jewish stragglers in the Sinai all through the journey to Canaan. Again, more context is required before you can pull a verse out of context.
No, the implications are not just my own. You write of Genesis as if it has one meaning locked in time, but the myths of the “book” have a history of being interpreted in a variety of ways by a variety of religious traditions. If you want to discern the original meaning of the text, then your approach makes sense, but there’s more to the story than that original meaning. The story comes to use by passing through a history of interpretation. Within that larger context, my “ethical reading” of the story makes sense, even if it wouldn’t make sense to the original authors.
But that doesn’t change the idea of G-d telling Adam to bugger all the animals.
The Torah cannot be reduced to a few conclusions. Those who study it at length believe it cannot be pulled apart in strips, reducing it to trivial conclusions. It is quite literally sewn together.
You invoke the name of Jacques Derrida, a man I’ve studied at considerable length as a linguist of creoles and patois, for he had a great deal to say about words and their implications. Derrida believed he who would go in search of meaning in philosophy must come to terms with its internal reserves and internal connections, I suppose the word is Relays in English. The Torah is history’s first draft of Man’s relationship to an abstract God, including all the gray areas thus implied. I have not said the Torah is locked in time: the Talmud continues to evolve around it. Now I am not a practicing Jew: I am my own sort of animal in this regard, but the Torah must be taken in its own context, Derrida’s Relays are in operation and have been for thousands of years.
I wouldn’t dare reduce the Torah to a few conclusions. One can draw conclusions without a reduction to those conclusions. Nor would I seek to approach it ruptured from its context. But the context includes more than the text’s internal reserves and connections; it also includes the history of the text’s being interpreted by multiple faith and non-faith traditions. Derrida, for example, draws philosophical conclusions from his reading of the autonomous text in light of Kierkegaard. I’m attempting to follow in his footsteps. “My implications” are more his than they are mine.
Look, Derrida was a marvelous scholar of language but his sugyot are frankly bizarre. If you’re interested in Torah scholarship and its derived ethical constructs, start with Pirkei Avot and you’ll see what I’m talking about here. There simply is no substitute for reading Torah, in Hebrew. Tens of thousands of men devote their whole lives to its study and interpretation and yes, deconstruction. Derrida is no scholar of Torah and his interpretations essentially so much pilpul. He points at one hair and would tell of of the whole body.
He points at one hair and would tell of of the whole body.
No. I really wouldn’t. You’re misreading me. All I’m doing is considering the story from one angle within the framework of a particular philosophical approach to it. I do not submit my reading as the only legitimate reading or even the best reading of the text. Arguably it’s not even a very insightful one. My reading is no substitute for biblical scholarship. To be sure, what I’m doing here isn’t biblical scholarship. I’d at least have to quote the text for that! 😉 My interest is in the paradox that emerges in a particular reading of the narrative.
Derrida is entitled to his views about any subject. Look, here’s Derrida’s fundamental problem, it was his problem with Hegel and Husserl as well. Let me lay this out in terms of AI, that’s what I do know.
Alterity, this business of Otherness, over and against the Self. I am confined to the language I’m speaking at the time: all my utterances must conform to some known vocabulary. This seems to be a limit of sorts on the sorts of things I might say. Even talking to myself, I still mutter in French, though I haven’t spoken the language to anyone else with much frequency lately. Who am I talking to? Derrida made a very big deal of this dichotomy.
But this much we know about perception, not from philosophy but from simple biology: most of what we call consciousness is a process of ruthlessly discarding all extraneous perceptual data in search of meaningful information. One layer of the retina is dedicated exclusively to motion. One whole region of the brain is specialized to finding the words, a second area to sentence assembly and a third, larger and more general region, applies politeness and applicability filtering. When we get emotional, as happens so often around here, rude things get said.
In short, our self-image is almost entirely an artificial construct, a synthesis of reason, objectives and situational awareness. The present is already the past by the time we process our situation and it’s not immediate. The military doesn’t trust reason to guide troops, it screws its lessons into what they call Muscle Memory, reducing the need to unsling the weapon, fall forward and chamber a round into a single unthinking motion. Here, Derrida fails utterly and completely. His concept of the self, his reading of Descartes, his absurd statements about European metaphysics, the whole thing is a train wreck of bad thinking, commencing with his attempts to redefine the self.
Blaise, thanks for this. That does answer some of the questions I had below. I hadn’t heard this interpretation of Abraham and Isaac in which what Abraham was ‘commanded’ to do was not completely bizarre and horrifying, but rather unfortunately common. That does end up making this a story depicting this new God as different if not radical in his capacity for mercy, and the matter of Abraham’s faith just an assumption of already existing practice. That explains a great deal to me.
Thank you for your kind words. This isn’t my original interpretation, it’s a pretty standard reading of Torah in this regard. There’s a whole rabbinic tradition surrounding the practice of sacrifice, embodied in what Talmudic scholarship calls Beit HaMikdash, the Temple itself. The RamBam, the great Torah scholar, talks at length about the nature of how the Divine manifests itself in the Mikdash, the Temple, in the Hamachon. Because there is no extant Temple, there is no more sacrifice of animals, but without the Mikdash, built upon the site of the Sacrifice of Isaac, there was no progress from the vile practices which preceded Hashem’s intervention. It’s all quite complex.
Oh, no. I didn’t take it to be yours. Just thanks for leading me out of a bit of ignorance there.
The question is, though: is it unethical to follow God’s commands? Considering that, in the Biblical tradition, God’s commands are where ethics come from.
You say that you’d never sacrifice your son to God? What if your son says that he wants to join the Army, and there’s a good chance that he’d be sent into active conflict? Do you lock him in a closet to stop him joining the war, or do you let him be sacrificed to the gods of Nation and Freedom?
The reverse is rather truer. Judaism has a tradition, an emergency brake on its legalism called pikuach nefesh: to save a life, religious considerations are moot.
Whose ethics are in play here, yours? The Bible’s? Society’s? Your son’s?
Which part of my comment are you replying to? (if any.)
This part: Do you lock him in a closet to stop him joining the war, or do you let him be sacrificed to the gods of Nation and Freedom?
Do I lock him up? On what grounds? Ethical considerations? If so, whose?
Then that is his choice. Is it any easier to tell him to stand there and get punched?
I come from a faith where people sang hymns to G-d as they walked into the gas chambers.
Pacifism is a faith like any other.
It’s easy to brush aside the troubling ethical implications of this myth by saying that God never intended Abraham to become a murderer.
It was a case of entrapment. I’m sure one of the League’s resident lawyers could have persuaded a jury that Abe was not guilty.
I’d be worried that Keanu Reeves would show up.
Wha….? My cultural knowledge of Keanu Reeves is limited to Speed, The Matrix, and, of course, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
He was in The Devil’s Advocate. Played a lawyer for a demonic law firm.
Ah. I wouldn’t feel so bad except Tod stumped me on a cultural reference at the same time. I feel like you guys are picking on me. I think I’ll go sulk for a while, or hang my head in shame…depends on much I drink.
Nowadays, if we saw someone trying to kill his son because God told him to, we’d lock him up and administer anti-psychotics.
In most circumstances, yes, but what if the father were using socially legitimate methods of killing? What if he were a judge condemning his son to suffering the death penalty under the law, choosing “justice” over mercy because he believed that was God’s will? What if he were the commander-in-chief, initiating war on others’ sons because he believed God was calling him to bring and end to evil?
I think that’s a different question. If the principles which I consider to define God’s law lead to something as horrifying as filicide, what to do? I know my answer, which is to sin if required to prevent something worse. You might object that this is the hubris of substituting my judgment for God’s. It’s a fair cop.
Well, you have to wonder about someone who would value the will of God above his own son’s life even if God was real and really told you to do that. Personally, I’d tell him to fuckoff.
There’s a catch in this legend. Isaac, the boy was something of a miracle, the child of an elderly woman. God had already promised to make a great nation from Abraham, so Isaac was the only way that could happen. So Abraham’s taking Isaac up the hill, Isaac asks him where is the lamb. Abraham replies, God will provide the lamb.
God did not ask Abraham to sacrifice his son. He said, in Genesis 22, to take Isaac and offer a burnt offering sacrifice. Abraham trusts God to keep his promises. That means Isaac cannot die, or if he does, he will be raised to life again.
The child Isaac is already a miracle baby. God tells Abraham, literally beginning calling Abraham by name and Abraham responds wayomer hinneni, I am here. God then says literally, do not stretch out your arm to harm this boy. Now I know you fear God and would not withhold even your son from me.
The ram is already there, trapped in the bushes. Abraham hasn’t even seen it. God has to point it out to him. Abraham is doing what every other parent who had sacrificed his child to the gods had done, it was a common enough thing in those days. There’s one crucial difference. Abraham knows God will provide the lamb.
One dynamic that showed up a lot in my circle (when my circle consisted of young earth creationists) was the argument over whether or not God ought to have put a fence around the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil… whether just putting that tree there was some form of “entrapment” that could have been avoided through judicious use of prior restraint on His part (heck, maybe putting the tree somewhere else entirely). We could still be in the Garden of Eden!
Assuming the stuff I’d need to assume to truly run with (or against) this argument, it seems to me that there is a basic assumption there that rubs me the wrong way… specifically, that we should have had a choice that important withheld from us because we might make the wrong one.
In the modern era, without Young Earth Creationist assumptions, I still see, far too often, this idea that choices need to be withheld from people lest they make the wrong one. In God’s absence, they’ll stack the deck the way that He ought to have. Sure.
Yeah. Original sin is such a godawfully stupid concept.
Which, incidentally, Judaism disagrees with vehemently.
I think G-d wanted us to eat, to learn, to grow. Rules are needed, but there are also rules that are meant to be broken.
Before, we were but beasts. After we knew of good and evil, we became men.
The Talmud says God evicted Adam and Eve from the garden, not so much as punishment, but to keep them from eating of the Tree of Life, which would freeze them in their sinful state. He gave them a method of atoning for sin. But within that story is a far older myth, the birth of agriculture itself. Man used to roam the once-dense forests of the Fertile Crescent, gathering as he went.
b’zoth aphik lechem od shubk al-eadme. From the sweat on your nose shall you eat bread until you return to the ground.
Not a pretty picture. Yes, man came to know good and evil and the consequences of free will, badly exercised, would oblige him to farm where once he had been free to wander.
Is the story of Abraham and Isaac not the story at the very heart of all religious fanaticism in the three Abrahamic religions?
And, isn’t the problem illustrated in the story even further complicated for Jews and Christians today because they have the Commandments of God to try to work into their assessment of the rightness of what they think God may be calling them to do? What is the lesson of the story? I always took it to be just an admonition to put all your faith in God, and He will see that things come out okay for you. But it seems greatly overdrawn to only leave people with that message. Obviously, it’s absurd to second-guess what stories made their way into Pentateuch, but for modern purposes, a story in which a family chose to forgo such medical care as there was in the day for an ailing child and put all their faith in God, who then healed the child (the kind of thing that, when they do it today, I think people are accurately applying the lesson of A & I). But that’s not the story. The story is not one of passive faith like that, but of active embrace of a commandment to perform a seemingly psychotic act. Had God not stayed Abraham’s hand a the last moment, Isaac would have been sacrificed. It’s hard to see how that will not result in some people believing they are receiving a command from God to murder – and perhaps their hand will be stayed, perhaps not – that’s not the point of the story – the point is the faith itself (they think). Abraham didn’t have a tablet pre-commanding him not to kill, so other than personal conscience, he had no God-given reason not to kill his son, if that was the commandment of God. But what of today’s faith-murderers? Should they understand the Ten Commandments to override whatever contemporaneous message they believe they are receiving from God? I mean, obviously, we know they should, but that’s partly because we know, or are pretty damn sure, they’re not actually being commanded to kill. But from someone’s perspective who truly believes they are being commanded by God to kill, can we say to them, look, you’re simply ignoring the Sixth(?) Commandment – you’re just wrong? Or would we think that a true, Abraham-style interaction with God in which he commanded us to do something that broke his previous Commandments would supercede them. I don’t think it’s clear that the fanatic who thinks he is being spoken to by God should logically conclude that, nevertheless, the Ten Commandments would take precedence. But it’s complicated, isn’t it?
BlaiseP nails this really well, but just to sound agreement: I think what you’re missing here is that it seems fairly clear in the context of the story that what God asks is not something that initially seems shocking or immoral to Abraham. Rather, human sacrifice is a fairly standard thing for a god to ask for in the first millenia BC.
Thus, it seems to me that the story more emphasizes that God does not demand human sacrifice than the reverse.
In this regard, while we can, in our modern context, talk about God demanding of us what we do not want to give up, I don’t think it makes sense to see it as a case of God demanding that which we think to be immoral. Abraham, in context, did not take this as God asking him to do something immoral, but rather God asking him to do something legitimate, but which he really didn’t want to do.
If in our modern world you heard a voice asking you to sacrifice your firstborn son, you would know that it was not the voice of God, because God does not ask us to violate his commands.
Abraham, in context, did not take this as God asking him to do something immoral, but rather God asking him to do something legitimate, but which he really didn’t want to do.
Hence my focus on the love he has for his son and not, say, some moral principle that would be violated. And yet, while Abraham would not have taken the request to be something immoral, and the initial audience to the story would not have taken it this way either, readers since that time have. The ethical problem only arises in the context of seeing murder as something intrinsically immoral.
If we are focusing on context, it does not even make sense to call this killing murder. That implies a certain illegitimacy which was not present in the culture, as others have noted.
Clearly I’m not focusing on context.
After reading all this I can only conclude that it is folly to attempt to adhere to a religion whose texts were written millennia ago by authors of a vastly different culture. More recently divined religions like Scientology are likely much easier to follow. At least we (Americans, that is) are not that far removed from the time and culture of the text’s author requiring less thought as to its original intent. Unless this whole moral debate is actually the end and Christianity the means?
I’ve found the Golden Rule to be pretty a good guide. It’s what most religions say, once you strip away the mythology and dogma. I don’t always adhere to it, but it is what I TRY to make my decisions based on.
-which- golden rule? There’s both a positive and a negative formulation — the contemplation of which I find interesting.
I really enjoyed this post, Kyle. You raise a lot of interesting points! I agree that it’s difficult to come up with a hard and fast rule regarding ethics vs. moral authority. If we choose moral authority, do we forgive those who violate our codes of ethics? I just finished a really good book called “Forgiving the Unforgivable” by Master Charles Cannon (http://forgivingtheunforgivable.com/) that discusses radical forgiveness of those who murder. Their actions are unethical, but God calls on us to forgive others. So do we condemn those who are unethical or honor God by forgiving?