Eric MacDonald on Abraham & Isaac

October 8, 2010

Eric MacDonald is critical of modern theology for its use of “hermeneutics as a way in which to reestablish forms of thought which have been undermined by science and philosophy. It has taken texts which, on the kindest of readings, are texts of terror (as the biblical scholar Phyllis Trible called them), and interprets them in ways that tries to make these primitive and often brutal tales breathe the air of sweet reasonableness.”

To take a simple example, consider the story of Abraham and what has come down to us as “the sacrifice of Isaac,” what the Jews call the Akedah, or binding of Isaac. Many interpreters will tell you that this is an especially important text, for in this text we see a movement from the belief that god requires the sacrifice of our children to the contrary belief that this is not required, and that a substitute sacrifice will do. But this misses, as Richard Holloway points out, the whole point of the story, which is to make it clear that when God commands we are required to obey. The fact that the Jews can read this story as the story of the substitutability of child sacrifice by animal sacrifice, misses the point, that Abraham is shown as prepared to do, in obedience, what god commands, and that what god commands is a horrible, inhuman deed. And it should never be forgotten that, even so, the first fruits are still required, only that now a substitution may be made for children. The reinterpretation of the story hides the more troublesome claim that obedience to god is our first duty. There is nothing in the story to suggest that at some time god might not require of us the full measure of obedience once again, and demand the sacrifice of our children. The story, however interpreted, is still one that carries with it the taint of servility to the unverifiable commands of unverifiable beings telling us to do immoral things, and how we must be willing to obey.

And is it not child abuse to impose such a belief system upon a child, many of whom are told, in all seriousness and horror, that for the failure to obey god’s commands, they will suffer in hellfire for ever? Is this not an abusive thing to do? And the present pope is one who has reiterated the Roman catholic belief that hell is a real place of torment, not just a state of non-being. For if the righteous are raised to everlasting life, the damned must be raised, it seems, to a life of torment. Is it not a form of abuse to teach a child such a horrific thing?

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One Response to “Eric MacDonald on Abraham & Isaac”

  1. ukdonjp said

    Here is Eric MacDonald’s whole comment:-

    “Eric MacDonald
    September 22, 2010 at 5:01 pm

    I think it is important to keep these things in perspective, and I think there is a temptation — I feel it myself — to think of this as a matter of “sides”, in Paula Kirby’s words, “the side of reason and humanism” and the side of those who are opposed to reason and humanism. But, surely, no one can count Richard Norman as someone who is opposed to reason and humanism. And Caspar Melville quotes from Norman to reasonable effect, I think. Not the business about alliances with moderate religionists, but the matter of religion as a human creation, of holding a mirror up to humanity, and seeing themselves reflected in it. Even moderate religionists are scarcely going to be convinced by this interpretation of their beliefs, unless they happen to be like Richard Holloway or Don Cupitt, both of whom see religion as a human creation, and (in precisely Norman’s way) as reflecting something of the nature of what it means to be human.

    I have said before, and I will say again, that I think Dawkins is wrong in supposing that theology is completely empty. He compares it to Fairy-ology, and there may be some truth in this, but even the stories of fairies and gnomes may contain something of human interest, as Grimm’s fairy tales still do. As with any myth, the Christian myth or the Muslim myth, or the myths of the Hindus, reflect something of our humaniy, in the same way that Freud or Jung used the Greek myths to understand something of the structure and complexity of human existence. Dawkins, I think, mistakenly thinks of theology as a matter of proving the existence of god, and most theology isn’t about that at all. It’s a reverent study of the religious myths as told in the religious scriptures. This is perhaps no recommendation for the truth of theology, but it would odd to deny that there is, within theology, a long history of humanity’s wrestling with its own nature.

    What is less forgiveable, however, is Melville’s interpretation of what he calls the “New Atheism”.

    Because entertainment value aside it is surely false, as well as politically unwise and, well, pretty impolite, to say that “all theology” is irrelevant (some of it is moral reasoning, isn’t it?), still worse to say that “religion poisons everything”, or that without religion there would be no war, or that bringing a child up within a faith is tantamount to child abuse, or that moderate religious believers are worse than fundamentalists because they prepare the ground for extremism, or that “all” religion is this, or that, or “all” faith is misguided, or to suggest that those who believe in God are basically stupid, or that science, and only science, can answer our questions.

    As I say, I think perhaps Dawkins, for polemical reasons, mischaracterises theology. But surely it is not wrong to say, as Hitchens does say, that “religion poisons everything,” in the sense in which Hitchens says and means this, namely, that religion, understood in a reasonably normative way as belief in supernatural entities and their intervention in human affairs, opens itself at once to the criticism that it encourages belief in entities for which there is no evidence, using forms of thought which seriously undermine people’s ability to think rationally and critically. For the problem is, if there is no critical basis upon which to hold any particular religious belief true, how does one go about making distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable forms of belief? Some might suggest basing acceptance of belief on the basis of the religion which provides the most morally acceptable face of belief, but if you tie morality to belief, how is this to be done?

    No one is suggesting, as Melville does, that only science can answer our questions, if by that is meant physics, chemistry, biology and the other natural sciences. But they are suggesting that critical thought, which is reliant on evidence, even the evidence that can be required of someone in their interpretation of a poem, for exmaple, is the only reliable basis upon which to found our lives. Even theology must restrict itself to this, and if it chooses to go beyond it, to make claims for which there is no reasonable or critical evidence, then it is right to hold it up to severe criticism.

    And this is precisely where the question of the foundation of modern theology comes in, for modern theology, insofar as it seeks to be a critical discipline, uses interpretation or hermeneutics as a way in which to reestablish forms of thought which have been undermined by science and philosophy. It has taken texts which, on the kindest of readings, are texts of terror (as the biblical scholar Phyllis Trible called them), and interprets them in ways that tries to make these primitive and often brutal tales beathe the air of sweet reasonableness. As Hector Avalos points out, it would be quite possible to take Mein Kampf, and with clever hermeneutics, show it to be relevant to our times. This has been done with some of the most bloodthirsty passages from the Hebrew Bible or the Christian New Testament, so it is not an absurd proposal, but if it is not, then it shows that theology itself is without any critical basis.

    To take a simple example, consider the story of Abraham and what has come down to us as “the sacrifice of Isaac,” what the Jews call the Akedah, or binding of Isaac. Many interpreters will tell you that this is an especially important text, for in this text we see a movement from the belief that god requires the sacrifice of our children to the contrary belief that this is not required, and that a substitute sacrifice will do. But this misses, as Richard Holloway points out, the whole point of the story, which is to make it clear that when God commands we are required to obey. The fact that the Jews can read this story as the story of the substitutability of child sacrifice by animal sacrifice, misses the point, that Abraham is shown as prepared to do, in obedience, what god commands, and that what god commands is a horrible, inhuman deed. And it should never be forgotten that, even so, the first fruits are still required, only that now a substitution may be made for children. The reinterpretation of the story hides the more troublesome claim that obedience to god is our first duty. There is nothing in the story to suggest that at some time god might not require of us the full measure of obedience once again, and demand the sacrifice of our children. The story, however interpreted, is still one that carries with it the taint of servility to the unverifiable commands of unverifiable beings telling us to do immoral things, and how we must be willing to obey.

    And is it not child abuse to impose such a belief system upon a child, many of whom are told, in all seriousness and horror, that for the failure to obey god’s commands, they will suffer in hellfire for ever? Is this not an abusive thing to do? And the present pope is one who has reiterated the Roman catholic belief that hell is a real place of torment, not just a state of non-being. For if the righteous are raised to everlasting life, the damned must be raised, it seems, to a life of torment. Is it not a form of abuse to teach a child such a horrific thing?

    And, have any New Atheists ever said — and, if so, where have they said it — that “moderate religious believers are worse than fundamentalists because they prepare the ground for extremism”? Or what New Atheists have simply said — and I am speaking of those who have written books on the subject, that all believers in god are basically stupid? Caspar Melville, while defending and attacking, should get his facts right, and if they have said these things, he is bound to provide evidence for the claims being made.

    When, in 2006, the Archbishop of Canterbury argued before the House of Lords, what I consider to be a shockingly misguided speech, full of non-sequiturs, and slanderous claims about those who support assisted dying, that those dying in misery should not be allowed to choose to receive assistance in dying, the faith that I had held, deeply wounded as it already was, after many years of trying to play the hemeneutic game, simply disappeared like mist in hot sunlight, and the first act that I performed, the very day that I read the speech, was to cut up into little tiny pieces my theological Master of Divinity diploma. As I did it I said that, since theology is clearly not a field of knowledge, no degrees in theology can be valid. I no longer acknowledge that degree, and I think I am right. I will not say that studying biblical hermeneutics and theologial morality and other things taught me nothing, but it cannot teach what it propose to teach, namely, knowledge of god, which is what the word means. To this extent Dawkins is undoubtedly right, and since he did not propose to do anything called theology — though it might justly be called philosophical theology (and how well or ill he did it might be subject to debate) — it is ridiculous of Eagleton to have rebuked him for not having read Scotus or Occam. In this connexion let me quote from PF Strawsons masterful book on Kant, The Bounds of Sense. He begins his chapter succinctly entitled “God” thus:

    It is with very moderate enthusiasm that a twentieth-century philosopher enters the field of philosophical theology, even to follow Kant’s exposure of its illusions. The quality of Kant’s presentation of his own doctrines seems to suffer some deterioration as he appoaches his subject. (207)

    This has always struck me as richly entertaining, even when I read it first in 1966. The point is an important one. There is nothing here for philosophy to say. Of course, there are all the very detailed arguments worked over by philosophers ever since Plato, which still forms a significant seam in contemporary philosophy, which, because of a resurgence of religious belief is still not able to shake off this incubus. But surely Dennett is right in supposing that there really isn’t much here that is going to convince either side in the argument. It is doubtful that the arguments have ever led anyone to faith, though they may have led many away. This seems to be the implication of the success of Dawkins’ book. But to suggest that he should have added to his book a subtle disquistion on the theological riches of Scotus of Occam is really silly, and Melville should be able to see how silly it is. Eagleton, as is his wont, was showing off, but he didn’t tell us what he thought a divagation through the entrails of Occam would do for Dawkins’ book, and until he has done this, it is just a little piece of fizzling academic pyrotechics that didn’t really work.

    What does all this text amount to? Well, to this. Melville is enormously unfair in his characterisation of what he calls the “New Atheism.” And of course, obviously, we can’t go on regurgitating the same things that Dawkins, Harris, Grayling, Dennett and Hitchens have already said. We need to work out new paths to explore, and new ways to recommend unbelief to the enormous numbers of people for whom faith has simply died. There are already such ways available, by the way. Humanism is not a bad option, where people can learn, not only about non-belief, but how non-belief can provide a basis upon which to live a good life. Grayling’s books, What is Good?, and To Set Prometheus Free, are not bad places to start, as is Richard Norman’s book on humanism. I am particularly taken with Peter Cave’s Humanism, in the “Beginner’s Guide” series of books published by Oneworld. For the editor of New Humanist to suggest that the “New Atheism” is simply a ceaseless recapitulation of the views of those who made atheism a household word is silly. This was just the beginning, and some of the fruit of that very successful beginning can be seen in the great protest against the pope in London, where there was clear evidence of large numbers of people who want to stand up and insist on the continuing value of secularism at a time when religion is increasingly insisting, not only on having a voice in public affairs, but in receiving a kind of respect that it does not deserve.”

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