Dear Rich - A Response to my Atheist Youth Leader
|You get an 'A' just for participating in this discussion|
Rich is a former pastor and youth leader of mine who has deconverted from Christianity. He is about 9 years my elder and was one of those ‘cool Christian leaders’ I admired as a youth, so it is something of an honour to address the issues he raises in his deconversion blog (Here). I am thankful to God for allowing this meaningful interaction online – addressing an issue that is important to a lot of people. I’m also thankful to Rich for being willing to engage in the public forum like this.
Rich, in your first post you recount the role that Genesis 22 – the account of Abraham being tested with Isaac - played in your deconversion. You argue that only a grossly immoral and evil God would ask a man to sacrifice his son. As a father of two boys myself, I could feel the emotional force of your objection and sympathise with the moral dilemma you found yourself in. As you wrote,
At that moment my innate moral sense came into direct conflict with the presumptive authority of the received moral laws that I had learned at the knee of faith.
But my empathy soon gave way to incredulity as I examined your reasoning from that passage – a reasoning you call your readers to share.
First of all, you call upon your readers to embrace the historicity of the event. You remind us that this is a supposedly ‘historically accurate account’ and try to get us to imagine what it must have been like to hear God make such a request. Your premise seems to be that if we could only caffeinate our imaginations adequately, we would stand in Abraham’s sandals, our jaws would drop and we would utter, ‘Gee God…. That’s not very nice. I think I’m heading back to Ur.’
But if we’re going to play the history game – and I’m glad you want to – then we need to play it all the way. No semi-historical musings will do. If we’re going to go back to the Ancient Near East (ANE), let’s grab an espresso and go as far as we can.
Taking off Modernist Spectacles
|Buckle up boys and girls,|
travelling back in time can be a shaky experience.
A man in the ANE would’ve had a very different reaction to hearing this account then the reaction you describe and call us to experience with you. It’s an understandable a priori reaction for a 21st Century Westerner, but not an adequate conclusion for one claiming to present the account in its historical context. For that claim to have integrity, we need to take our cultural lenses off and travel back in time.
Child sacrifice was normal. Jesus had not yet uttered ‘let the little children come to me’. The Psalmist had not even penned ‘children are a blessing from YHWH’. There was no modern sentimentality towards children and sacrificing a child to one of the various gods of the ANE Parthenon (Marduck, Baal, Tiamat, etc) was normal.
If we don’t attempt to read the text with the ANE worldview in mind, then we are doomed to be ideological imperialists in our interpretation. An ancient reader would have seen nothing unusual in Abraham’s god asking him to sacrifice his son.
Oh, the story was indeed shocking to its audience. But not for the reasons you describe. The unexpected twist in the story comes – not when YHWH makes the request - but when YHWH stops Abe. The original ANE ears would’ve tingled when they heard that it was God – not Abe – that will provide the true sacrifice. Gods don’t provide the sacrifices, people do. Right?
Not Abe’s god. He’s different. Which, of course, if the whole point of the story.
In addition to your commentary on Genesis 22, you tell your deconversion story on your blog. In it, you recount how after an unfortunate experience in the world of Charismania you made a decision. You wrote ‘that night I became an individual, much to the detriment of my faith.’ But what type of individual? An ANE individual? A 9th Century Mongolia individual? A 21st Century, post-Enlightenment, Western individual? There is no generic, individual with a mind unaffected with cultural presuppositions and values. Your reading of the Genesis text betrays any pretexts to objectivity you may claim in your blog - no matter how sincerely you may believe you have it.
Of course, this story isn’t a standalone. When Moses gives the law, it includes a law forbidding child sacrifice - the only sacred law in the ANE to do so. In the wider canon of Scripture, we understand that God is making a theological point: the slaughtering of our flesh and blood children cannot save our souls. God alone will make that provision. He, himself, will take on flesh - specifically so that it can be slaughtered.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we talk about your redemption and reconversion, we need to address the need for intellectual repentance. ‘Repent, and you shall be saved.’ So first things first. This brings us to our second and main point: short but important.
You condemn YHWH for asking Abe to make this sacrifice – even if you may concede that it was just a test. My question is, on what basis do you condemn Him? You say that your objection to this passage is a moral one. Quite. But what pulpit are you standing behind when you pontificate to YHWH? You say that it’s wrong for YHWH to ask for the sacrifice of a child, but given your atheism, how?
I look forward to your response.