Discussing various historical works of culture, as well as the broader context of human creativity, these essays focus on illuminating their subjects in a profound way so that the reader will be inspired to engage in a philosophical reflection of said works on their own.
Subjects include Yeats' "The Second Coming," the art of haiku, modernism, paintings by William Blake and Paul Gauguin, T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," the Sheik Lotfollah Mosque, the story of Abraham and Issac, Henry James' "Washington Square," as well as various ideas from Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger.
ACTS OF GOD
Reconsidering Abraham and Isaac
The story of a man willing to slaughter his own son out of a sense of blind obedience strikes most people as rather horrific nowadays. Some especially religious individuals are prepared to offer justifications grounded in abstruse arguments about faith but these aren’t even convincing on a personal level – none of the people who I’ve seen make such arguments have impressed upon me the lack of conscience and mercy necessary to convince me that they proselytize them in genuine confidence. Rather what appears to be happening is that people, eager to retain a personally sustaining belief in the bible, resort to a self-confounding sophistry in order to reconcile something grotesque with their emotionally invested belief in the god of said text. Atheists naturally mock this kind of thing and cite it as an example of the absurdity and moral hypocrisy of religious belief. As far as my own personal experience though, I’ve never seen an atheist, or any skeptic, disagreeing with the standard religious interpretations that prevail here. They seem content to accept the existing religious analysis of the story while merely drawing an opposite conclusion – rather than seeing Abraham as an example of virtuous faith then they see him as symbolic of the intellectual poison that constitutes faith in general. But what if both groups misunderstand the story?
The Offering of Isaac constitutes a very brief episode in the book of Genesis and yet this has provided a continuously renewed sense of moral anxiety for western civilization since the advent of Christianity. For some reason the story troubles many of us. Not only does it elude an easy understanding but even where claims are made to possessing a correct interpretation, these claims tend to be made without equal certainty in their comprehensiveness or definitiveness. Why would God test anyone in such a way? Is God so blind to the truth in our hearts that we must be put on trial? The thread being unravelled from this question threatens to unspool the whole fabric of theology, potentially undermining the concept of any biblically grounded divinity – for an atheist of course such a thing simply confirms their own pre-existing biases. For an atheist, God isn’t a mystery, God’s a delusion – so only a believer can confront the mystery of God. But this doesn’t mean that mere belief in God will necessarily result in a confrontation with the real mystery here. That is to say, we may think that we don’t understand God and still misunderstand the scope of our own misunderstanding. Similarly, I think the story of The Offering of Isaac is so fundamentally misunderstood that the confusion most people correlate with it is a confusion that fails to actually engage the story’s genuine mystery.
What God asks of Abraham doesn’t make sense. Most religious readers will try to make sense of it but, if they can create any “sense” from this, maybe that only shows that they’ve distorted the story’s real significance? Why should the infinite make any sense at all? Should the hypothetical source of all the complexity and wonder in the universe be casually intelligible? Should the motives of the almighty reveal themselves to us without extraordinary effort? Once we appreciate how ridiculous it is to expect the nature of God to be easily understood, the usual objections and explanations slathered over Abraham and Isaac by atheists and theists alike reveal how insipid they really are. Perhaps God is a bit subtle? Perhaps anything that is comprehended in a single afternoon of idle thought is, ipso facto, sufficient proof that it expresses nothing real about the divine? This is the point of departure where my alternative reading of Abraham and Isaac begins. It starts with not assuming that God wanted Abraham to obey.
Is morality primarily a form of obedience? Then it’s merely a submission to authority. How would such an authority be recognized though? Even if you believe in absolute obedience to God, it still raises the question of what can be recognized as an authentic command from them. Some people will make the argument that God wouldn’t allow a false command to masquerade as an authentic one but, supposing that’s true, it would still be a truth arrived at through some form of internal justification independent of an external command. Clearly then a person can only obey a divine command, simply because it’s a divine command, if their own conscience assents to this – if through some self-process they’ve first managed to subordinate themselves to the concept of obeying God unequivocally. Unless of course they’re fated to obeying God but in that case no choice is being made and so the obedience in question has no moral significance. Morality therefore is absolutely grounded within the domain of personal choice, not authority, and no amount of self-subordination can ever erase the underlying foundations of conscience it relies on. We are ultimately responsible for everything we willfully do, no matter what.