Posted by: dacalu | 5 July 2011

The Untamed God

[Sorry for the typos. I’m learning to blog from a touchpad.]

Last week the revised common lectionary dealt us one of the most difficult passages in all of scripture. Worse than the crucifixtion, worse than the invasion of Canaan, worse than Job for most of us.

God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”

Genesis 22 deals with God’s request of Abraham. Take your only son, your hope for posterity and your greatest joy; take him into the mountains and sacrifice him to me.

What are we to make of this account? It seems so horrific at first; why would God ask such a thing? Would God ask such a thing? Would it be right to obey? It has been the source of endless speculation from theologians, most notably by the Christian existentialist Kierkegaard, who gives us not one but multiple interpretations of the same story. The most straightforward interpretation holds that God simply wanted to know Abraham would go all the way for him, sacrifice that which was most precious to him, trust completely. There,s something appealing about such a straightforward approach. Just trust fully in God, do what you’re told, and God will come through with a Hail Mary pass (excuse the pun) and save you in the end. In the story, God does stay Abraham’s hand in the end and provide another animal for sacrifice.

For some Christians that is enough. Abraham had faith and that faith was credited to him as righteousness. It’s logical, painful but a consistent, and very good at reinforcing obedience to authority. And it’s not quite right. It’s nit right because we rarely know exactly what God wants and we do, God often does not come through with a magical save. God frequently carries the story through to redemption only after the game, only after death in resurrection. Abraham as good little boy doesn’t hold up in lit of the chaos of Job and the terrible sacrifices of the New Covenant. God is not a God of obedience and reward.

Other Christians then move in the opposite direction. They say God wo uld never behave like that. It’s a bad story, and because we are so hooked by the drama of it all, it’s ever so important to tell people that it’s a bad story. God doesn’t ask you to sacrifice your children… (and here I think a Hail Mary is called for.). Even if I was up for straight bible nullification (“someone made a mistake and X just should’t be in there.”) I still couldn’t buy this interpretation, because God does seem to act in some very unreasonable ways. God does ask for terrible sacrifices and rarely makes sense. It’s not enough to follow God because we love mercy. That would be idolatry. We must instead love God as an end in Godself, not only in happiness, but in bewilderment and pain as well.

I think both theologies of Abraham – good boy and fiction – attempt to tame God. In the first case we want God to perfectly clear, perfectly in charge, and perfect in rewarding good behavior. In the second, we ask that God be perfectly understandable and consistent. And in neither case are we required to deal with the terrible unpredictability of God.

I am not saying you should follow God no matter what. If you hear. A voice telling you to kill your child, you should seek medical advice immediately. God (usually) does not do such things. I am also not saying that this didn’t happen. Any mature Christian will tell you that God pushes us to do things we could never conceive of and redeemed things we fear can never be redeemed. God is not a tame deity to be bound by our limited hopes and paltry imagination.

So what are we to do with the story of Abraham and Isaac? The same thing we do with Ny good story – bring it to our lives. Ask yourself what it would be like to be Isaac? What does it mean to love someone who loves God more than they love you? Could you live with that? Could you die for it? Ask yourself what it would be like to be Abraham? Is this really trust of God or self delusion? How do you tell divine command from psychosis? How do you live with yourself when you have to choose between obedience and conscience?

Where in your life have you had to answer these questions? (And I genuinely believe that if you haven’t had to do this at some level, you haven’t really been listening. God asks the impossible – so that it may become possible.)

The story of Abraham and Isaac belongs in the bible because it forces us to confront the very real and really difficult questions of true faith – the need to negotiate trust and reason, obedience and conscience. The story holds up before us this most slippery of issues and gives us a language for dealing with it. Abraham had faith – he didn’t give up on God despite God’s incomprehensible and possibly cruel request. Abraham obeys, but also argues. Abraham trusts but also tries to understand. And this is, I believe, this is what is credited as righteousness – that challenging, wounding, growth inspiring dialogue with the untamed divine.
After all, Abraham was not a very nice man. Let’s face it, he lied, practically prostituted his wife, and tried to kill his son. Abraham’s faith was not perfect behavior and it was not adherence to some perennial philosophy of kindness and honesty. He was a friend of God as we are called to be.

We hope that faith will lead us to be better people, the kind of people we wish Abraham had been, the kind of people we wish to be but know we are not – yet. What’s more, we have tried full rationality and it hasn’t worked. Communism makes sense ideally; in practice it sucks. Our lives in this world must be worked out in fear and trembling, in conversation with a God who asks more than (we think) we can bear. Who works in us better hints than we can ask or imagine. I ask you to bear Abraham in your heart.

Ask what it truly means to love God with all of your heart and all of your mind and all of your soul and all of your strength.

And see if you can live in that tension,

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