In the endless self-repeating
Flows for ever more the Same;
Myriad arches, springing, meeting,
Hold at rest the mighty Frame;
Streams from all things love of living,
Grandest star and humblest clod;
All the straining, all the striving,
Is eternal rest in God.
In any good religion, there should be something utterly unpalatable, something horrifying and blood-chilling; it could not otherwise be the worship of the God who created the universe. Melville brooded on this constantly, and his ocean is an apt subject for such meditations: from it come fertility and beauty, and also tsunamis that sweep the shore of all life. God sends storms to destroy fleets, and He sends sharks to answer the prayers of the sailors bobbing on the waves. His works include viruses, diseases, bubonic plague, ticks, old age, and pains so out of proportion to human capacities that hardly anyone goes through life without at some point wishing to be dead rather than alive. No matter where you look, the same lesson is to be found; there is no living tissue on earth which does not carry with it some special affliction and pain. Here in my pretty little mountains there is a huge hatch of caterpillars every June, followed by a similar large hatch of flies; the flies lay their eggs on these caterpillars; the young hatch and eat the caterpillars alive. The daily tragedies of nature – the worms slowly dying under the bites of ants, the fawns crushed to death in the jaws of bears, the raccoons foaming at the mouth from rabies, the wind storms that blow the eggs from the birds’ nests – present the same picture over and over again. Jung ascribes to St. Clement the belief – though I have not myself seen the evidence – that God ruled the world with two hands, Jesus and Satan, good and evil. However the theologians may work out the details, it is certain that any religion that does not look squarely at the horror of God will over time become a mere fiction, divorced from reality in the mind of the believer, who will learn someday – and may his religion help him through that day – that “it is a fearful thing, to fall into the hands of the living God.”
The holy books are full of indications of this fact; I will call Job to witness for me; but the horrific experience that I wish to dwell on longest, is that of Abraham, as his is the type of modern religion. He was an individualist; he had to make a relationship with God outside of any “organized religion.” And the horror that he experiences is not merely in what he suffers, but in what God requires him to do; he is himself agent of the horror he suffers.
Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac is one of the unpalatable stories of religion. God in this story is unabashedly horrible. The story is also a masterpiece of narrative, unrelentingly horrific and terrifyingly condensed (only twenty-two verses). Look at God’s sadistic use of the word “love” in the encounter with Abraham:
After these things happened, God tempted Abraham, and said to him: “Abraham.” And he responded: “Here I am.” And God said: “Take your only-begotten son, whom you love, Isaac, and go into the land of vision [the fascinating Vulgate reading; in other versions, “the land of Moriah”], and there you will offer him as a holocaust atop one of the mountains, which I will show you.”
The journey to the place lasts three days – horror – and Abraham takes two servants, whom he tells to stay at the foot of the mountain when they have arrived – a superb detail. Then comes the blood-curdling exchange of father and son as they ascend the mountain:
When the two had progressed somewhat together, Isaac said to his father, “Father.” He responded: “What is it, my son?” “Here is the fire and the fuel,” he said; “where is the victim for the holocaust?” And Abraham said: “God will provide for himself a victim for the holocaust, my son.” So the two went on together.
The handling is simply astonishing. If we take it for granted that one of God’s qualities is that He cannot be surpassed in the things he takes it to do, we can prove that the telling of this tale in the Quran cannot be God’s, because the Hebrew version is so far superior. Auerbach famously used this story to contrast Hebrew and Greek narrative in Mimesis. This story is so unrelentingly serious – there is none of the Homeric chatter in this – that Abraham makes Achilles in wrath look as harmless as Nestor in his cups.
We all know the ending, but here it is:
And they came to the place which God had shown him, where he built an altar, and put the wood on it; and when he had bound Isaac his son, he placed him on the altar on top of a layer of wood. And he stretched forth his hand, and took his sword, to slit the throat of his son. And behold the angel of the Lord shouted from heaven, saying, “Abraham! Abraham!” And he responded: “Here I am.” And he said to him: “Do not stretch your hand over the boy, nor do anything to him; now I know that you fear God, and because of me you have not spared your only-begotten son.” Abraham raised his eyes, and saw behind him a ram, caught by his horns among the bushes, and taking him he offered him as a holocaust in place of his son. And he named the place, The Lord Sees. Whence it is said even today: On the mountain the Lord shall see.
This story is supposed to be read in Catholic churches on the Vigil of Easter; but I have seen it repeatedly omitted, no doubt because it is so horrible a story. What would we make of an Abraham today? If a man followed this story to the letter today, he would find very little sympathy in the churches, I think – a fact which Kierkegaard noted a century and a half ago in Fear and Trembling.
But let us not get caught on literalism. The main thrust of the story is that God may demand of us a sacrifice – even one that makes us horrible in our own eyes. This can indeed happen. Abortion is an example: a family can be forced to choose between the survival of the mother or the infant. I know of an instance where a mother with triplets in her womb consented – under great moral duress – to abort two of them (a “reduction”) to save one. These are horrors that are imposed on people, and the head-in-the-sand approach – “I will do nothing, so I will be guilty of nothing” – is a choice as well. If you lose all three children due to your inaction, you know in your heart you are even more of a murderer, because you might have saved one of their lives.
Situations like these are rare, of course, but spiritual stories have applications for every life. God requires of Abraham something that violates God’s rules – God does not (typically) demand murder. God himself is demanding from the believer a transgression. What does this mean?
This situation is by no means rare. In fact, it is a normal and perhaps necessary second stage in the religious life. In the first stage you are under the Law – the “babysitter,” the paidagogos, as Paul calls it – and you attempt to be good, in fact better than everyone else. Your desire is to be God’s special person. During this stage you can acquire a great many virtues – can learn integrity, sacrifice, generosity, discipline, and the like.
But in the end, religion is about dissolving the boundaries that separate us from the universe. And one of the most pertinacious and pernicious forces of separation is moral pride generated by religion. If a person balks at this threshold, and desires still to be God’s special person, better than the rest of God’s creatures, then God’s command will be a transgression, something that will break the person’s moral pride and return them to the communion of sinners who need God. The longer this pride lasts, typically the more horrible the transgression needs to be. There is great danger here, especially the situation when the transgression appears so horrible, and the fall so painful, that the person cannot acknowledge it openly – it becomes hidden, and the person begins leading a split life. The only way to grow spiritually through this process is to acknowledge the fall – the true meaning of confession, which must be public – and integrate the new humility into one’s life. Most people would scoff at Abraham – “I would never consent to killing my child” – but people who have been through this absolute humiliation by God know: I could kill my child, given the right circumstances. The people I read about in the papers, who shake their children to death, or the fathers you read about in novels, who drive their children to self-destruction – there, but for the grace of God, go I. I am no better than those people, and indeed, their guilt is my guilt, indeed no guilt is merely personal, it is always the shared guilt of all humanity. “All are guilty before all” was Dostoevsky’s phrasing – he was one of the very few who understood Christianity. Those who resist this idea should consider how many deaths they are systematically complicit in – through war, economics, etc. – those people are his children as well.
Much of the resistance to this idea will be legally based. If you follow the law, it is reasoned, you cannot be guilty. You may be an American, and the American army may have killed several hundred thousand people in the past decade, but the Americans are not guilty for that – instead, there is a system, with U.N. resolutions, Congressional authorizations of force, a military command structure, etc., which ensures that no one is guilty for it, or perhaps only a few dozen people. This entire way of thinking is why Jesus (and Paul after him) focused so much of his attention on subverting the Law, and why, psychologically, God demands transgression as the prime conversion experience for people of this sort.
It is easy to see, but not enough commented on, that to associate God with a Law – which is utterly common in religion – always ends in blasphemy. What is right in one time and place, becomes wrong elsewhere – obviously wrong – and to have attempted to attach God to law, which is always a creature of time and place, is always proved with the lapse of time to be blasphemy and idolatry, shirk and syntheism of the worst sort, and associating a mere created thing with the Creator. We see religions imputing to God, in the name of Law, clothes, postures, diets, court procedures, political arrangements, languages, haircuts, gender roles, grooming practices, hours of the day, and myriad other things, making God war on their behalf, against the clothes, postures, diets, court procedures, etc. of other times and places; thus bringing the Eternal God, Creator of Galaxies, and Lord of the whirlwind, to the pettiest triviality. In the near perspective, this may not be obvious, for the customs of the time always seem near to wisdom; but with the lapse of centuries, the absurdity is manifest.
Something of this sort will probably become clear with time regarding sexuality: sexual purity is almost the textbook example of a moral construct which isolates one from the rest of the universe, and as such true religion always eventually works to undermine it, but working this out can come at tremendous psychological cost, especially for certain religious women. They have a developed textual tradition keeping them within “God’s Law,” which Abraham did not have; so he was free to follow God’s command without constantly referring back to a book.
This is the danger of a Law: it will short-circuit the hardest part of faith, which is knowing God’s plan. There is a fiction found in pulpits that God’s plan is contained in a set of regulations; but this is obviously false. Almost nothing occurs according to the regulations. If you follow them, you may be sure that someone else around you, by not following them, will make your obedience irrelevant. I know this well, as my parents were never married: hence how do I fit into God’s plan? His plan was that I never exist, by the regulations; my father was a priest, who vowed to be celibate. Later I got married; which seemed like “God’s plan for human sexuality;” but the woman I married had other ideas. God’s plan is the least known of all things. It is utterly possible that God intends for you to violate all the regulations you are told are His; to sacrifice every scrap of goodness that you thought was to be your great means of serving Him; to be left with nothing, to be stripped of all the things you thought were of importance. You do not know; and this is why it is called Faith. The true religious life is not in living predictably according to regulations. It is to pitch yourself into mystery, to enter the wood “where it is thickest,” and in place of certainty, you have only faith, that if you live by the highest principles you are capable of, then amidst all the suffering of the way, you will be given the grace to know that it is not meaningless.