I just heard a radio interview with an ex-missionary who talked about his church’s taboo on both reason and doubt. His elders weren’t stupid, he said. In fact, they might have been extremely canny. The elders knew that factors such as reason, intuition, and compassion might lead a person to challenge the elders’ version of divine truth. So to answer such questions, the elders said that reason, intuition, and compassion are human faculties that fall prey to demonic influence. Only faith is godly–and faith demands we neglect our best impulses when they work to challenge divine will. 

This, dearies, is an exquisite defense. It makes a virtue of blind obedience. It says, “You don’t have to understand, as long as you do what you’re told.” And let’s face it; sometimes people have be that compliant. Doesn’t the military function this way? Doesn’t a parent at least occasionally demand such a thing from a child? Of course, the same strategy is also the recourse of cults, inquisitors, and dictators. 

The situation pits obedience vs. reason, loyalty vs. compassion, humility vs. love. And notice how it is so very accommodating to lunatics. A person can switch in any type of “truth” while still maintaining the defense’s invulnerability. “God told me I’m an eggplant; your faculties and mine might tell me otherwise, but to believe them would be weakness. God told me that all others will go to hell, except those who share my beliefs. God told me to blow up a rival shrine.”

Once somebody makes skepticism taboo, it’s almost impossible to topple their stance. In fact, I don’t know if we really can argue with a person who considers all disagreement as a kind of dark temptation. Reason doesn’t work; the mind is subordinate to the soul. Scholarship doesn’t work; even the devil quotes scripture. The only thing that has a chance of taking hold is an appeal to the devoted’s sense of God. “This thing you’ve heard. Does it sound like your god to proclaim it? Does it fit the spirit of divinity’s other sayings–or does it sound like someone else? If this proclamation has more than one interpretation, are you sure you’ve go the right one?” These questions could be helpful. After all, the Jews use the Torah to judge even itself. But then, the devoted might just as easily answer by saying, “Who am I to judge God?”

I keep thinking of the near-sacrifice of Isaac. Abraham is in the nigh-singular position of hearing God’s direct command*. Abraham says, “Who am I to judge God?” and he takes his kid on a walk. One believer might say that Abraham chose the right virtue. After all, even God told Abraham that the near-sacrifice passed an obedience test. Another person, say the author of the apocryphal Book of Jashar, might say that Satan issued the command to sacrifice Isaac, and that God had to intervene at the last second. A third person might say that the test never really happened, and the fact of God’s intervention shows that the Jews shouldn’t sacrifice their children the way the Canaanites famously did. Still another thinker might wonder what would have happened if Abraham said, “Lord, you are the god of love. I know you. This request of yours doesn’t sound true.” Would Abraham have passed the test then? Would Abraham have pleased God by seeing through to His intent? Would God acknowledge that Abraham’s reaction to the command came not from the fear of a servant but from the heart-knowing love of a child?* 

It’s hard to say. Is there more than one way to do God’s will? Let’s hope so. Let’s hope that whatever God is, she accepts the goodness of our intent while throwing out the tragedies of the outcome.

*Mind you that in this case, we’re talking about a sacred story, where–unless you’re in Jashar’s camp–God is unmistakably there, giving unmistakable commands. His mouthpiece isn’t an elder. It isn’t a Church with political ties. It isn’t even millennia-old book that has wound through history, language, and humanity in general. For most of us, in other words, this is an other-worldly example.

(Originally posted July 5, 2015)

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