No Greater Love
There is no greater love than this; than a man sacrifice the life of his child... wait, that's not how that goes is it?
It's taken me a few weeks to sit down and write this, because honestly, writing about Christian theology and ideology is much lower on my priority list than it used to be. I guess my priorities now are what brings more peace and love into my life and it's rare for those two things to align. However, I was recently reminded of one of the more troubling Bible stories and it's common evangelical interpretations, and I realized the deeper implications in how we experience life, faith, and relationship. I also need to get it out of my head so it can live somewhere else, so here we are.
I recently heard a sermon on Genesis 22, the story of Abraham, the first patriarch of Christianity, almost but not quite sacrificing his miracle child because he heard God tell him to. This is one of those stories that just seems like a normal part of the Bible (maybe even something heard in Sunday school, fun) until you grow up and get some distance. And then you're like wait - no - we are actually talking about child sacrifice here. Which, like, is super common in ancient societies and religions so from a historical perspective makes sense, but when we try to still tell it in the context of a supposedly loving God that hasn't changed since then seems way more fucked up (at least to me.)
The common interpretations of this I've heard focus on 1) God testing Abraham's faith and love, and 2) Everything being cool since God doesn't actually follow through with letting Abraham sacrifice Isaac. There's also a third narrative about how this can be a nod to God sacrificing Jesus and how horrible it would be to give up an only child. (Except Isaac wasn't an only child since Abraham also did some handmaids' tale shit with Hagar, but I digress.)
My feelings and views about this story are based in a few discoveries and beliefs that have becoming guideposts for my spirituality. The first is that I very deeply believe in a faith and spirituality that is embodied. It's something we act out and do, something we can experience physically as well as spiritually. Peace and love are both ideas and very real things I feel and know in my body. Our beliefs about peace and love directly impact how we carry them out in our lives and actions. The outcomes in the world of our actions taken in the name of peace and love should always be peaceful and loving. So if an action taken in the name of love causes disconnection, dissociation, or trauma, we should go back to the drawing board. The second is that God is Love. When nothing seems to make sense or align, I always go back to what Love says and does. The last is that when it comes to Christianity specifically I interpret everything through the lens of Jesus life, teaching, and actions.
It's possible that this story of Abraham and Isaac bothers me so much because in it's traditional telling it feels deeply unloving of both God and Abraham - and of course we ignore the feelings and experience of Isaac in this story. I mean can you imagine Isaac as an adult casually telling his therapist about that time his dad almost sacrificed him on an altar to prove that he loved God most, but then an angel stopped him? With my personal therapeutic experience I imagine this is the kind of thing that leads to realizing the childhood you thought was entirely normal, if not a little eccentric was actually traumatic. I'm imagining Isaac being like "maybe THAT'S why I've felt a sense of impending doom when I see mountains my entire life."
But all kidding and sarcasm aside, this is one of those scriptures I find really harmful to interpret literally. I'm going to side step a rabbit hole that goes to the other side of the world in the discussion of biblical literalism - but what if we shifted the lens of this story? What if, from Abraham's perspective, he thought he was following God's will, doing a thing that his and other neighboring cultures had baked into their practices? What if Abraham misread the signals and that was what put him on the road up the mountain with his son, and kindling strapped to Isaacs back? What if the supernatural event here is not Abraham proving some convoluted idea of love and commitment, but God taking supernatural action to be like WOAH we actually don't do child sacrifice here. I have deep cognitive dissonance with what I know of God asking anyone to prove themselves by sacrificing another human life, or prove love of God by killing a beloved. However, from what I've read about Abraham this shit totally tracks. From lying about Sarah being his sister to save his own ass to the whole debacle with Hagar and Ishmael, it totally makes sense to me that Abraham was like ya know, this seems like the thing to do.
I was talking with my husband, Chris, about how disturbing I find this story, and he made the comment that it was a one time example, and obviously God doesn't ask people to sacrifice their kids as a regular part of the Christian faith. When he said that, I realized why this story still bothers me on such a deep level.
Because while I don't believe God actually asks us to do this, yes, many parents still sacrifice relationships with their kids for their chosen religious beliefs. Many parents believe that in order to be true to their God and their religion they can't fully accept and celebrate their kids for who they really are. Many parents continue to vote against the human rights of their own kids and families because they believe it's The Right option. They still believe in a God of ultimatums. And maybe that's why hearing this story preached in terms of "God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac" feels so incredibly wrong. Because that's not love, and God is above all else, Love.
There was also a heavy focus on idolatry in the (primarily Baptist) theology of my childhood. This tracks with the traditional understanding of this story because hey, maybe Abraham in getting the lifelong dream and promise fulfilled in Isaac became enamored and loved God less. Isaac became an idol. The lesson I took from this as a child was if I loved anything in life too much God might get jealous and take it away. This led to suppressing my emotions and desires for years, until I wondered why I couldn't escape depression even in the best of circumstances. I couldn't trust the blessings and love in my life because it could all be gone at any moment God decided that I cared too much. And I have always cared, so much, about everything. This only changed for me as I learned more about love - a deeper and more comprehensive love than is portrayed in this story of jealousy and ultimatums. I am so grateful to be learning that real love benefits everyone. There's not a limit on how much we get, loving my husband doesn't mean I love my parents less. Loving God doesn't mean I don't have love left for the earth. In fact, the opposite is true. The goals of loving myself, others, and God are never at odds, they continually support and fulfill each other. The more enamored I become with nature and growing things, the more I see Divinity in them. The more compassion I have for myself, the more compassion I hold for my friends, family, and coworkers. The more I love God, the more I love myself, people, and the earth.
One of the most famous scriptures about Love is 1st Corinthians 13. "Love is patient, love is kind, love does not envy, it does not boast, it does not rejoice in evil, but rejoices in the truth." How does this align with a God who asks his follower to take the life of a beloved who has no say in the matter as proof of devotion? There are lots of disturbing stories in the Bible if you dig deep enough, but what bothers me so much about this one is that so many Christians still practice this twisted version of love. In Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul John Philip Newell talks about a tenet of ancient Celtic Christianity - the little book and the big book. The little book, the Bible, was always to be taken in the context of nature and the world, the big book. This is even echoed in more modern theology like the Wesleyan quadrilateral - which acknowledges that a well rounded and mature faith takes into consideration scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Denying reason and experience, or the big book to make sense of the little book, is at best limiting and at worst dangerous.
In The Naked Now Richard Rohr talks about how Jesus teaching style is distinctly contemplative. Jesus spoke in parables and riddles and stories. Jesus was asked question on question throughout the New Testament and rarely did he give an easy answer. There are of course many possible reasons for this, but one that resonates for me is that maybe the point wasn't the answers - maybe the point was to encourage growth in compassion, understanding, and faith. I have a complex relationship with scripture, but a verse I come back to over and over is Matthew 7:7: Ask and it will be given to you, Seek and you will find, Knock and the door will be opened... which has a lovely parallel in Jeremiah 29:13: You will seek Me and find Me when you search with all your heart. I love these verses (and other parallels in Proverbs and throughout the New Testament especially) because they affirm a search for resonance and lifelong spiritual journeying. This is not a faith about blind obedience, love does not require leaving reason and experience at the door, but it is a continual immersion in deeper understanding, both in our brains and bodies.
Which is why the celebration of blind obedience in this story of Abraham and Isaac has also always bothered me. (Don't get me started on the hymn Trust and Obey.) Abraham is rewarded by not actually having to kill his child. But maybe this story is actually challenging us to listen for harmony in our heads and hearts when we hear the voice of God. Maybe Abraham actually failed this test as a warning that love and God will never ask us to kill parts of who we are. That love is always expansive, never constricting or limiting. And that we always can learn more about Love and God.