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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Abraham, Isaac, and the Heresy of Reason

In Scripture, Abraham is tested by God. God asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, as a burnt offering to the Lord. Most of us know this story and most of us can recognize that Abraham is also a type of God the Father sacrificing God the Son. (If you'd like to read it yourself, it can be found in Genesis 22:1-19.)

I believe that this story actually happened. I believe that it is not only true as a type or a parable but as a factual occurrence in history. I believe the story is true.

If we understand the story, we can recognize that the "testing" of Abraham isn't a testing of his integrity. God is not trying to see if Abraham is willing to violate universal morality (such as "do not kill"). Instead, God is testing Abraham to see if he's willing to sacrifice his legacy. Isaac is the only chance for Abraham's life to go on through his offspring and as confirmation, the reward for Abraham's passing of the test is that he will be blessed through descendants "as numerous as the stars."

But if we hold up this story to morality, God's morality, we must instantly be quite horrified. I don't know how to reconcile the factual nature of the story with a morality that states murder is wrong, something almost every culture at every time has known. But whatever Abraham must have thought or felt, we know how we would think or feel in this situation. The difference is that reason must play a vital role in our faith.

Many Christians view reason as the enemy of faith. But reason and even common sense have been an aid to Christians throughout the ages from St. Augustine to St. Aquinas to even contemporaries like C. S. Lewis (apologetics is merely reasonable argumentation). Pope Benedict XVI stated famously that faith and reason are not at odds and that if it appears they are, then you're misunderstanding at least one of them.

In the tradition of Augustine and Aquinas we can affirm that "all truth is God's truth." We need not fear what Christians at times have thought stood in opposition to their faith and interpretation of Scripture - a heliocentric solar system, women learning and in leadership roles, the belief that slavery was wrong despite its presence in the Bible, and, in our modern day, things like evolution.

You don't have to believe in evolution, of course, but don't be afraid of science. We continue to push back against reason because we feel threatened. Rather than giving reason license to inform and enrich our faith, we wish to banish its authority altogether. This is because doing so is easier than having to negotiate reason's influence on us. We might not like where reason leads us.

Imagine for a moment that you are in Abraham's place. You hear an audible, physical, divine voice asking you to kill your child, or your spouse, or your parents. You believe that it's God. Would you go through with it? I do not wish to and cannot say that Abraham was wrong because I am neither an exegete nor do I fully understanding the cultural and religious attitudes of the time. But I can say, without a doubt, that in our own hypothetical scenario, you would be absolutely wrong to go through with it. Here is where reason must inform faith and we would all have to say, "No."

Reason easily leads us to the realization that killing is wrong - grossly wrong - and that our faith confirms this time and again. The point I'm trying to make isn't really about an impossible hypothetical situation or that killing is wrong, which we all know. The point of all this is that we must not shut out reason when it comes to faith. We must let it have a voice and the power to move us from positions we previously thought immovable. In the above scenario, we need not claim that God is wrong or immoral. We need only take reason, "killing is wrong," and apply it to our situation. We would have to conclude that the voice we heard wasn't really God or that it was imagined or something else that can reconcile the situation.

Many Christians continue to feel threatened by reason and arguments, by facts, and by science, and Evangelicals are leading the way. Evangelicals are almost twice as likely to disbelieve evolution as Catholics or Mainline Protestants. Broadly speaking, Christians seem to be generally averse to reason (and science) affecting their faith. In another poll, Christians were asked to imagine a scenario where clear evidence was presented that actually proved, clearly beyond any doubt, that some of their beliefs were false. A clear majority responded that in such a scenario, they would continue to believe those things anyway.

Almost the exact same question was once put to the Dalai Lama, who, in his usual style, gave a simple yet profoundly brilliant answer. A reporter essentially asked His Holiness what he would do if tomorrow his religion were proven wrong. He responded that if that were the case, he supposed he would have to give up his religion. But then he returned a question to the reporter by asking how someone could possibly show such a proof. The reporter, of course, had no answer.

Do you see? The Dalai Lama was open to reason and yet it posed no real threat to him or his beliefs. Again, all truth is God's truth. Some of us fear reason because we believe it challenges God or that it's human pride to think human things like "science" know best. But ours is a faith that accepts all of reality. The problem comes when we see a conflict and decide, "No matter what evidence comes, I'll believe the way I believe until I die." We mistake immovability for faith-filled courage.

I am not arguing that religious belief needs to be supported by the scientific method or formal logic. I am not saying that reason will guide every facet of your faith (how could it ever explain the Trinity and a thousand other mysteries?). But reason needs to be given a voice for informing your faith. If something is not true, reason doesn't have the power to prove that it is true. And if a religious belief is indeed true, reason cannot damage it. Like the Dalai Lama, we should adopt an attitude of openness to reason, knowing we have nothing to fear. 

It's important to remember that many spiritual realities transcend reason. Note: they don't contradict reason, they just overcome it. And we must remember that reason is ultimately an aid to our faith. Be wary of anyone who says reason, facts, and the natural world are dangerous to your faith. While an exultation of reason as the only way of knowing is certainly dangerous (as with the New Atheists), a banishment of reason makes for a shallow faith, easily shaken by the slightest disturbance. Those who can't hold a faith informed by reason aren't in a position to hear anything but what they want to hear. And that's a decidedly bad hermeneutic for anyone.

Related Posts:
When Christian Doctrine Fails Us
God in Evolution


  1. Out of curiosity, why do you say that one does not have to believe in evolution? Is this because, by definition, it is still a theory? I think one of the best explanations I have found about theories is "In the scientific world, 'theory' has a specific and more-or-less value-neutral meaning. It covers a wide spectrum, from the more speculative, such as at the wilder end of theoretical physics, to the firmly established and pretty stable, such as electromagnetism."

    Or are you perhaps saying that you can choose to not believe in anything, just at your own risk...for example, one does not have to believe in gravity, but they will appear to be a fool/imbecile for denying such a fact/truth. Any scientist worth their salt would not dispute the general underlying themes of evolution.

    1. The latter, AW, and yours is a very good way to phrase it. I don't think you're risking salvation or anything so extreme as that by not believing in evolution. I know plenty of loving Christians living out the gospel who don't. But I do think a lot is gained by acknowledging scientific discoveries. Again, it's giving reason a voice and not silencing it.

  2. So why didn't Abraham conclude that the voice he was hearing must not be God? You said that's what we should conclude in that situation, correct? Does this not apply to Abraham? Why not?

    I was raised evangelical, and there was not only great emphasis on reason, (and a real love of and commitment to science) but actually an over-emphasis on reason. In fact, that is why I've chosen to distance myself from that movement - it over-emphasizes reason. It appears we've had different experiences and/or different insights?

    I don't think evolution and science should be so tightly combined. Can't we talk about one without the other?

    I wish I could write more but I'm out of time. This was quite thought provoking and there are several points I would wish to challenge. My view of reason/faith is this - they are inseparable. It's simply the way humans make decisions/think. And it's a dangerous thing to try to understand, but necessary.

    1. I completely agree with this: "My view of reason/faith is this - they are inseparable. It's simply the way humans make decisions/think." Well said. It's difficult to say if my experience growing up evangelical or your experience growing up evangelical is more reflective of the group as a whole. I think now, I look at things like Ken Ham's debate with Bill Nye or the fact that evangelicals are the least likely Christian group to believe in evolution and I conclude that reason still doesn't have the authority in evangelical circles that it does in other Christian circles. I'm afraid I'm limited by my own experiences growing up where reason was a challenge to faith. I'm glad to hear that's not universally true for evangelicals, though.

    2. As for Abraham, I really don't know why he did not conclude, "This cannot be the voice of God," though I have my suspicions. God did reveal himself slowly throughout the Old Testament. We hear hints at monotheism, God's universal love, and that God looks at the heart, but the Hebrews/Israelites/Judahites continued to believe that God was violent, that they were more dear to him than other peoples, and that Yahweh was one of many gods. So we see a progress of *sophistication* in understanding God that is fulfilled with Christ's revelation. I can only assume that Abraham's view of God was not as sophisticated as ours (how could it be) since we now know the fullness of God through the person of Christ. To my mind, his doesn't make the story untrue; it only makes understanding the context important.