Friday, November 21, 2008

Called to do the irrational

Lately I've been thinking about the story of Abraham and Isaac. For those who are unfamiliar, or need a refresher, here's the story in the first part of Genesis 22 (emphasis mine):

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!"
"Here I am," he replied.

Then God said, "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about."

Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, "Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you."

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, "Father?"
"Yes, my son?" Abraham replied.
"The fire and wood are here," Isaac said, "but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?"

Abraham answered, "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." And the two of them went on together.

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, "Abraham! Abraham!"
"Here I am," he replied.

"Do not lay a hand on the boy," he said. "Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son."

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, "On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided."

The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, "I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me."

The reason I bring this story up is because I want to highlight an important contrast, one I've been struggling with. Faith and reason do not seem to belong together. In fact, I don't think they can speak to each other at all. You can't honestly ground religious faith in rationality (including philosophical theology), nor can rationality exclude it. Something is amiss about comparing them. A blind person would not call a song yellow, nor would a deaf person say a painting is out of tune. The inapplicability of the one to the other does not mean that either is deficient in any meaningful sense. We don't say sight is deficient for not being able to hear a melody. Rather, we don't think hearing applies at all to our sense of sight. I think something like this may be going on with faith and reason, though saying this does give me pause.

Kill Isaac. Sacrifice him. This is what God commanded Abraham to do. Under no circumstance, short of some absurd utilitarian justification, could this ever be the morally right thing to do. God commanded Abraham to sin, but sinning is disobeying God. Nothing about that makes sense. No rationalization makes it okay for Abraham to kill Isaac, nor does it seem right for God to ask him to. Yet, strangely, I still believe that Abraham did as he should, even if what he should have done was not right. This is where I'm struggling. If God says φ, you φ. If φ is morally wrong, what does that make God? I realize that theologians have been thinking about this story for centuries, and yes, I plan on revisiting my favorite Christian existentialist soon, but I do think there's something to be said about puzzling this out on a personal level.

Part of my struggle has to do with, in general, squaring up my faith with stuff I encounter in philosophy. Philosophers worship reason, in a way. I hesitate. Reason is fantastic, but it can't be enough. You can't be complete if that is all you have. We've been talking about reasons for action in class quite a bit, and it worried me that people may not have a reason (independent of themselves) to do the morally right thing. What is that about? But on the other hand, something is missing from morality if it really boils down to what is rational for a person to do. And then there's this other dimension where both reason and morality are subordinate to faith, something totally unjustifiable yet simultaneously authoritative. You believe in what you do not see, and you act accordingly. What can that mean? Reason can't speak to this, for or against. It's a whole new dimension.

I like being reminded of Abraham and Isaac whenever I start rationalizing God. God says do this because ... x, y and z. God would only have commanded this for x reason, etc. Something is wrong about that. If God is anything like who we think he is, then he's way above whatever we could possibly comprehend. He says φ, I φ. There's something liberating about that, but scary at the same time. There's a deep level of trust there. That's what Abraham had, trust. Abraham didn't ask God how his sacrificing Isaac would bring the greatest aggregate utility to society, nor could Abraham will that every father sacrifice his son. Abraham trusted, and then what happened? God provided. There is something really cool about that, something I can't understand.

God didn't make Abraham kill Isaac. But God sacrficed his son. For us, for a bunch of selfish slackers. That is irrational. That is grace. Grace surpasses the right. Grace surpasses reason.

(excuse the ramblings today. mulling this all over is difficult. since it had been so long, I figured I'd take a few minutes to type out the thoughts, just so I don't completely fall out of habit --and this forces me to think more about it. some political philosophy soon!)

Saturday, November 15, 2008

New layout

So I may be toying with the layout/colors for the next few days. If white on black is hard to read, let me know, and I'll make it easier. I just wanted to somehow incorporate this picture I have (now in the title) of some mountains in the alps that were covered by clouds. It seemed fitting.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Obama on Religion and Politics

Watch this video of a speech given by the new President Elect:

The speech is from 2006, transcript here, actually, you really should just read it all. Whoever edited the video took out a lot of good stuff (perhaps because the video on youtube is titled: Obama versus religion). But even edited it'd be hard to come to that conclusion. Here is a good part not in the video:
In fact, because I do not believe that religious people have a monopoly on morality, I would rather have someone who is grounded in morality and ethics, and who is also secular, affirm their morality and ethics and values without pretending that they're something they're not. They don't need to do that. None of us need to do that.

But what I am suggesting is this - secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King - indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history - were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their "personal morality" into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Moreover, if we progressives shed some of these biases, we might recognize some overlapping values that both religious and secular people share when it comes to the moral and material direction of our country. We might recognize that the call to sacrifice on behalf of the next generation, the need to think in terms of "thou" and not just "I," resonates in religious congregations all across the country. And we might realize that we have the ability to reach out to the evangelical community and engage millions of religious Americans in the larger project of American renewal...

...[Conservatives] need to understand the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy, but the robustness of our religious practice. Folks tend to forget that during our founding, it wasn't the atheists or the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of the First Amendment. It was the persecuted minorities, it was Baptists like John Leland who didn't want the established churches to impose their views on folks who were getting happy out in the fields and teaching the scripture to slaves. It was the forbearers of the evangelicals who were the most adamant about not mingling government with religious, because they did not want state-sponsored religion hindering their ability to practice their faith as they understood it.

The part in the video about translating religious values into something universally acceptable makes me think someone has been reading Rawls (or, I suppose, almost any modern political philosopher). Do I think doing this compromises religious belief? Not at all. In fact, I'm glad of it. I've written about the role of religion in political life before, esp for Christians. This isn't new, though sometimes I struggle with just how much my personal convictions should influence how I participate in our political system (the short story: I care when there is negative interference with non-consenting others, where others can be human or, more broadly, animals and the environment). In essence, I think we are called to stand apart from society, not take it over. We are to be lights, not tyrants. We are to love, not discriminate or spread hatred. Etc.

As an aside, this is the 4th time in the course of 2 days that I've come across the Abraham and Isaac story. Once was after class with a fellow student. And then the chapters I happened to get to in my nightly read through the Bible were about it, and the devotion for the day in My Upmost. I feel like maybe I should be thinking more about it, what do you think? I'll probably try and revisit Kierkegaard's discussion about it too.

So, really soon I will have a post up about Abraham, God, and the irrationality of theism (and for the less religiously inclined, morality). I will try and magically tie it in with a paper I'm working on about Williams' Internal and External Reasons (and a response by Scanlon). I have high hopes.

In the meantime, you should read this if you haven't already. It's a letter from Jim Wallis contra Dobsons' idiodic scare letter (about what America would turn into if Obama got elected). Obama is left of the right, so he's no danger. What I'd really like to see is real wealth spreader in office (wink wink).