Abraham and Isaac

Upon being asked, I recently explained to a student my path from religious belief to skepticism. The student sitting across my office desk reminded me so much of myself at that age. An earnest student, at least regarding those things that he takes to be most important: namely, god, belief, and faith.

I shared a number of stories, and I do not mind admitting that during the telling, there were mutually restrained tears welling up. The experience of the divine, whatever that means/is is powerful and emotional.

At one point, I explained I was so inspired by Solomon, from a very young age, that the consistent prayer from my youth to adulthood was always to was be granted the wisdom to do god’s will. This earnest prayer allowed me to search without great reservation for true understanding; to dig beyond the easy interpretations offered by preachers and others and to seek the more profound truth.

I explained also the experience of being a very poor but faithful tither. Over time, I came to realize the pastor and wife drove new cars and their three kids went to private school. There is of course something like a sect within Christianity that says God blesses his own. But any teenager who can read and think, who does more than superficially skim or allows others to tell him what to think will find in the Gospels that this was clearly not the message of Jesus. When he discussed blessings, he was not referring to new cars and big houses. This was a very successful church. I really became bothered, however, when I heard the church spent god knows how much money to rent out the civic center for a special Sunday service. I sincerely believed that god would rather my money be spent in ways that allowed me eat more than peanut butter, ramens, and eggs and to pay my bills than for the church to rent out the civic center to demonstrate to all how god had blessed this particular congregation.

One night, a guest “preacher” spoke. He was less a preacher than a salesman. He had his books on a small table on the edge of the stage. I was disgusted, and all I could think about was Jesus’s rebuke of the den of thieves, and how he turned over the tables of the money-changers who were defiling the temple. And sure enough, as if the Holy Spirit were there himself, during the sermon, the table somehow tottered over, and all the books and stuff came crashing down. The preacher-salesman took it in stride, but that was the last time I attended church as a believer.

I continued to believe, for a while, but I discontinued church-going. It was probably a year or so later that I sat down in a cafe near Stone Mountain that reminded me of New Orleans. It was my first coffee-house visit in the big city (of Atlanta: for those of us who grew up south of the gnat line, Atlanta begins in McDonough, circles over to just west of Athens, north into Cobb County, and west into Carrolton). I opened up the spiral bound selection of readings for my philosophy of religion class. It was the first class I was to take as a graduate student. I began reading Fear and Trembling. A few pages in, beginning with the story of Abraham and Isaac, my life changed. And I don’t say that flippantly. I really mean that my understanding of the world took a significant turn upon reading those twenty or fewer pages.

Kierkegaard told the story of a man who had become obsessed with Abraham, and who wished for nothing more than to be there with Abraham as he lifted his eyes to Mount Moriah; to understand what this man experienced when he left the donkeys behind and led his young and tender son, Isaac, up Mount Moriah to slit his throat and to burn his still warm and bleeding body on on alter built for that purpose. How did Abraham understand the immoral and barbaric call of God to, “take Isaac, your only son, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on a mountain that I will show you.”

The story is a famous one from the Bible. It is said to foreshadow the coming of Jesus and his death. And with this the barbarity of the story is usually glossed over. The story is usually interpreted to show that Abraham was a man of great faith. Kierkegaard told the story – four or five really short and powerful iterations of it – to make the point that faith is not as easy as those in his society (Denmark, 1843) would like to believe. Everyone, he suggested, claimed to be a believer, but few really attempted to understand.

Kierkegaard was very persuasive for me. I began to seriously doubt that God was a moral being. A few months later, reading Sartre, I would find a word for what Kierkegaard’s micro-stories induced: vertigo. At some point, I began to scour the Bible for accounts of people who stood up to God – who called him out on his immorality – to see how he responded. I still believed. I just wanted to understand. Maybe my regular prayer for wisdom meant that I understood something about morality, and god’s relation to it, that past thinkers missed. But by the time I left the cafe that day, I was convinced that if God asked me to do something like that, I would tell him No – and would accuse him of immorality. I will not kill a child – for any god; and even if I did, it would be for pragmatic rather than moral reasons (for example, because I believed that any god who would demand that I kill a child would have no problem causing that same child to suffer in order to punish me for my insubordination). And we all know the story of Job. What an asshole.

I was in a state of vertigo for some time. I don’t remember how long it took. But I do remember having coffee with a new student of philosophy, before I left Atlanta, who asked me how I lost my faith. I told her I didn’t know and that it happened over time, but the biggest influence was Kierkegaard’s reading of Abraham and Isaac.

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