To reason is to actualize unique human potential. Abraham actualized this potential in a significant way when he questioned God’s soon coming action. In this paper, I submit that Abraham’s reasoning (In Genesis 18) should function as an early human example of actualizing significant human potential. Given his great eminence in monotheistic traditions, I submit he should be just as much the Father of Reason as he is the Father of Faith. Even more, this perspective effects how we look at other interactions with God and Abraham.
For monotheists, at least those who affirm being made in the ‘image of god,’ and even more those having a heritage of progressive revelation; reason is on the way toward more maturity. With more revelation of God and knowledge of the world around them, humans are expected to grow in reason’s utilization. This growth is of course always a potential one. I do not mean to imply an eventual paradise on earth where reason is always in play. That is a vision of heaven. I do mean to point to one of God’s goals for humans; the pervasive use of reason.
Reason as a human potential often goes underutilized. Life creates opportunities for actualizing or subverting reason. We witness Abraham respond well in some circumstances and poorly in others. C’est la vie. The case I want to highlight is when Abraham’s knowledge of God’s forthcoming judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah affords him such a moment of actualization.
Abe had an honest awareness that the plan God revealed (destroying Sodom and Gomorrah) was potentially unjust. Abraham had no difficulty thinking that those who lived unrighteous lives over a long period of time were deserving of punishment. But could God punish all people, including the righteous?
The key text is Genesis 18, and reading the text illustrates Abraham’s near scolding of the Lord as he questions if such non-discriminatory punishment would be just. Abraham is convinced of his conclusion. Even though it seems from the text that he knows God’s eminence and therefore he would normally tread carefully (vs. 32), he simply must keep questioning till he brings God’s answer out clearly. No, God would not destroy the righteous with the wicked.
Abraham forcefully reasoning with God reminds me a bit of Richard Dawkin’s forceful reasoning with theists (See note below). This line of questioning should be a catalyst for people of faith to self-examen. All ‘supposed’ divine action does not have to be seen as just, or even action of God. This includes those actions of God pictured in Scripture. Even more, it includes the words and actions of those who claim to know God’s action in the world today. How might the Hebrew people, and those Christians and Muslims who share the same heritage, have developed if all or most of Abraham’s interactions with the divine were so clear eyed? Regardless, for a man who lived over 4,000 years ago, Abraham can function as an early (and faulty) Father of Reason. He is certainly no Locke. Yet, he did chart new religious territory for people in the region and forever more.
Considering the Abrahamian argument, it is quite tempting to take a full-scale detour and begin examining all the acts of God in the Old Testament. What about Noah and the flood? Was it just for God to destroy the people of the world (region) in a flood? The narrative has a very early and accommodated (to the people of that time) understanding of God. God is pictured as learning and regretting. Both experiences would be foreign to an all-knowing being. It is clear that humans, in their writing, are ‘bringing God down’ into their categories as they write about the world around them and their great ancestors. The same could be repeated for numerous other Old Testament passages, albeit with slightly different pictures depending on the time period.
The central challenge to Abraham and reason comes from his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac for God. Reflecting on this from my own time, a time after much more scripture came over many centuries, I am reminded that Abraham was not so privileged. Abraham existed with less knowledge of God or the developed moral tradition from the Judeo-Christian worldview. He was not aware of Moses, the Prophets, Psalms, Jesus Christ, the Apostles, or the developed theologies of the first centuries of the church. Our judgment of the person Abraham should take into consideration his own time and culture. It is precisely this consideration that makes Abraham’s use of reason in Genesis 18 so valuable. It’s bold.
The way the story is supposed to function is that Abraham was willing to give everything for God. This central idea, taken as a spiritual-religious-liturgical insight has been of much aid to followers of God who keep relinquishing control of all things in their life to God.
Shifting to the moral question though, what in God’s name was Abraham doing? How could he be willing to sacrifice his son Isaac and call that just? He recently questioned God about a city and now he fails to do so about his son? Was not Isaac righteous? Innocent? Why didn’t Abraham ask, “How could the judge of all the earth command wrong?”
Moreover, God’s stated reason for why he was asking this of Abraham seems weak. “I had to know if you would hold anything from me.” Again, all-knowing beings already know the hearts of their creatures. Thus, the stated reason does not ultimately make sense. The writer/s of the text were either oblivious to the matter or more likely were still driving home the main idea about Abraham. “The man who trusted God through and with all things.”
It is easy for Christians to jump ahead to what their progressed traditions tell them about this event. God offering his son Jesus Christ on the cross for all was being prefigured in these early and misdirected actions of Abraham. Given the following two points, 1) God is all-knowing and 2) The Christian angle about God being love; we are directed to think that God could not be said to have been serious about this act (besides his longer-range purposes for it to function with symbolic power and perhaps social cohesion around Abraham, someone whom God would deliberately stop).
I think the Old Testament Scholar Bill Arnold’s mention is accurate about this account. In his commentary on Genesis, he mentions that God stopping the hand of Abaham, forever stills the Hebrews from taking part in childhood sacrifice. It even serves to offer an explanation (in their history) as to why the Israelites do not practice it (p. 201). Finally, it also must be said that there is plenty else going on in the literature of Genesis 22 that deserves attention. Bill Arnold’s work is top-notch and well worth the time for those interested.
What might Abraham have been reasoning to go forward with sacrificing his son? The New Testament book of Hebrews takes a stab at an answer. The unknown author mentions that Abraham knew that God promised him a son as well as generations as numerous as the stars. From this vantage point he must have “reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death” (Hebrews 11:19).
Still, we may conclude that Abraham was ‘reasoning,’ but it was not Reason with a capital R. Every was muddled human reasoning’s that did not cohere with REASON itself. In the case of Sodom, Abraham gets it right. In the case of child sacrifice, wrong.
Theists who are trying to maintain God’s perfect goodness, have several routes before them with this passage.
God really did ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. God, knowing Abraham would follow through, planned this to still the great Father of Faith’s hand and stop such wicked actions in the name of God/s forever more. This could preserve God’s perfect goodness.
God did not really ask Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham perceived this to be the case, and then interpreted the ram in the thicket as an act of God in exchange for his son. The history of the event was passed down from a God’s eye view. God being incorporated into histories was common in ancient religious literature. This could preserve God’s perfect goodness.
To conclude, Abraham was no Aristotle. Yet, his meme power is extensive and likely always will be. He can still inspire the world over to ask critical questions about faulty situations and ideas. He can also serve as a warning to the ramifications of uncritical religious (or otherwise) motivated action. May the monotheists take this story as justification and inspiration of questioning supposed divine action and avoiding blind faith. It is in this place, where human potential is actualized and where we come to know the Actualized One.
Arnold, Bill T. Genesis (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2008.