Friday, May 29, 2009

3-8-2009: 2nd Lent (B)

Genesis 22:1-2,9-13,15-18/Psalm 116/Romans 8:31-34 /Mark 9:2-10
The Lenten fast is meant to bring us to the Easter feast: it’s a means to an end -- not an end in itself. Elaborating on the analogy: if you’re enjoying the fast more than longing for the feast, you’re probably on the wrong track.

This past week Police Office Dominic Maglione sued the NYPD to get his gun back. It had been taken from him when he had what is described as a psychotic episode, claiming that he saw a demon roaming ‘round police headquarters. He had later been hospitalized because he had starved himself while praying, losing twenty pounds in a few days. It seems to me those in authority made a wise decision in taking his gun for safekeeping – both for him and for the rest of us. The officer, ‘a practicing evangelist,’ received an official psychological diagnosis which included the word hyperreligiosity.

It’s neither far-fetched, nor blasphemous, to wonder whether a similar diagnosis could not be made of Abraham in today’s well-known story of his attempted sacrifice of Isaac, referred to by Jews as the Aqedah – the Binding of Isaac. Abraham is revered among Jews, Christians and Muslims as the premier model of faith precisely because he sought to sacrifice his beloved son (Isaac, according to the Bible; Ishmael, according to the Koran). Why most do not consider this a story of heinous child-abuse lies in the genius of its telling. The author of Genesis cleverly introduces the story by saying God put Abraham to the test. Letting the reader in on that secret immediately frees us from worrying about Isaac because we know (though Abraham doesn’t) that it’s only a test, Isaac will not be harmed (at least not physically). But it would be quite legitimate to wonder about Abraham’s intention precisely because he didn’t know it was a test.

Hyperreligiosity, fanaticism in any form, deserves a diagnosis of sickness, as it seeks to pervert true religion – standing as the emblem of a blind faith. Although the monotheistic religions have cast Abraham as a paradigm of the true-believer, it’s difficult not to question his motivation (and God’s for that matter) in this pivotal story of the Old Testament. Even if only a test, it doesn’t excuse the fact that a father, torturously unaware of that fact, did indeed contemplate the murder of his son. One unconventional interpretation, however, offers (for me at least) an acceptable alternative.

There is some evidence that the Canaanites, Abraham’s neighbors in his new-found Promised Land, were practitioners of child-sacrifice. Perhaps the chosen people, Abraham’s lot, were about to adopt that particularly unsavory custom when they migrated to their new home: the bigger the sacrifice, they might have been tempted to believe, the more assured you were that a particular god would answer your prayers. When the angelic presence holds back Abraham’s knife, and Abraham substitutes an animal for slaughter instead of his son, a significant evolutionary leap in religious belief is signaled. The value of a single human life is weighed against the perceived benefit that its sacrifice would bring for the many – and wins out. Isaac has value: the individual is not a means to an end. If this indeed is the origin of the Aqedah, then Abraham should be revered, for he is the one who was not willing to blindly obey and slay the son he loved – but offered the deity a deal instead. Even faith is not an end in itself, but only a means – and one that need always be tempered by reason.

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