Abraham’s Dilemma

[Foreword: Though the language may seem abstract and probably pretentious, this piece is aimed at encouraging a possible reinterpretation of religious text in more practical terms. I hope you can bear (with) it!]

This came back to me recently, having touched upon it during my Uni days. The problem is outlined at http://www.slideshare.net/aquinas_rs/biblical-moral-dilemmas and summary below: God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am’. He said, ‘take your son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offerhim as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’ Genesis 22:1-2 In Genesis 22 Abraham takes his son Isaac to be sacrificed as God has commanded (a ram is offered in Isaac’s place). Abraham and his wife Sarah had waited a long time to have Isaac. God had promised them a child in their old age and yet God asks Abraham to sacrifice him! Even if it does not raise moral questions, it is a least counter-intuitive. But Abraham does not falter. He takes Isaac as commanded and it is not until Abraham raises the knife to kill his son that God intervenes. Abraham’s willingness to kill Isaac is enough for God to know that the patriarch would not ‘withhold his only son’ from him. A ram is conveniently found in a thicket and offered in Isaac’s place.

The basic understanding of this story seems to be that it was about demonstrating Abraham’s great faith and willingness to sacrifice his son in obedience to God, who lets him off at the end. i.e. God would never actually demand such a sacrifice as it is patently horrific, but it serves to illustrate the kind of strength of will that faith may require. However, there are other puzzles arising from this scenario if we consider it as a hypothetical situation where divine and mundane morality conflict. i.e. What if God actually demanded such a sacrifice? Comments below from the linked article: Kierkegaard – faith itself is the highest virtue, and that divine morality transcends human understanding.

John Habgood – ‘If morality is supposed to be universal, can it really be discounted, even under such extreme pressure from God?

Daphne Hampson – The command is to encourage moral debate such as: what kind of God do you think you are dealing with? Hampson suggests that God is trying to teach Abraham a lesson that you must challenge even the highest authority on questions of right and wrong.

Philip Tyler – He speaks of Abraham interpreting the horror of God’s commands as a joke- what else could it be? Abraham’s son was the gift of God. His to bestow and his to take away…

Dan Simmons – From his Hyperion books, he suggests that Abraham calls us to reject the sacrifices made in obedience to a god by placing our own lives on the line in forfeit. It seems another way of saying ‘what is it that is worth living for’ and reiterating point 1 below. So, taking the above into consideration I can see a few issues to discuss.

As a post-modern witch, I consider ‘god’ to be another way of referring to an ideal or ideals, so the Abraham dilemma calls us to investigate the relationship of man to the ideals that lead us. A divine command, so interpreted, is instantiated as the requirements placed upon us by the ideals we hold dear and ‘worship’. i.e. A dedication to preserve life, holding the preservation of life as an ideal, will lead us to follow certain behaviours towards that end. The details of these behaviours may not be specific, and the necessary human interpretation and implementations can also be erroneous!

1. Can there be a conflict between god and the good? i.e. are divine commands (dictates of ideals) necessarily good? I remember this puzzle: Is something good because god says it is, or does god say it is good because it IS good? i.e. If god and ‘the good’ are distinct, we can get problems such as Abraham’s dilemma occurring. If the sacrifice of the son was necessary for a greater good, it may well be harrowing for A to do so but his choice is relatively simple from a rational perspective if A defers to the greater good. i.e. It becomes an issue of A’s strength of will to do the right thing when he has a significant but insufficient interest to the contrary.

God could/would not command A to kill his son if part of the worship of God involved not killing one’s son.  [For instance, as if the god is that of family values?  We can still see issues if deciding between saving father/sister/son if it came up, and biological/social underpinnings frequently inform this kind of calculus, such that genetic survival through descendants usually takes priority.]  This is part of the reason for my advocating the ‘god as ideal’ model, because it identifies god with ‘the good’ – by definition an ideal is ‘the good’ for the person who holds it. Thus a conflict can only arise between a person and another person’s ideals/gods, or (see below) the different ideals/gods held by one person. [Possible issue: An ideal that involves not offending people, and encountering two groups that each demand you offend the other group else they themselves will be offended! Avoiding such an encounter would seem the only solution if reasoning the groups out of their internal bias was not possible. ] I leave it as open for consideration how a united godhead conception combining multiple ideals might be useful, or indeed problematic, or whether a pantheistic conception is better. It seems to be another way of presenting the challenge of a united and coherent morality – how do ideals/gods get along?

2. If god is omniscient, what was the purpose of God’s ‘game’? Why issue such a command? Leaving interpretations of perversity aside, if we accept that God does not test us for his sake, it seems that the test was for Abraham’s (and mankind’s) sake. What lesson was mankind supposed to learn? Again, this chimes in with Hampson’s idea that Abraham was supposed to learn something. So, let’s see what we can learn!

3. What happens when gods fight and our ideals come into conflict? This seems the crux of the issue, the thorny problem. Unless man worships a single undivided god, there is the possibility of conflict with the behaviours required by other gods and ideals. When trying to unite ideals under a common godhead, as with the Christian triune God, we run into problems.

This path of unity breaks apart into several approaches:

(a) Appeals to faith as transcending reason (transcending the boundaries). Not sure about this. The idea that faithful obedience can be required despite a lack of understanding has been the tool of many a cult and dictatorship. An army of faith might rely on trained obedience to function, but I believe that faith should lie beyond the scope of reason without curtailing it. i.e. Faith does not preclude rational attempts at understanding, it merely lies beyond, always out of reach of reason no matter how hard we try. The solution is not to blindly accept, but to accept that there are limits we may encounter that resist cognition. Also, the ‘deus ex machina’  resolution, as discussed below under (c), seems more of a last resort than an active solution.

(b) Finding ways to understand conflicting demands so they no longer conflict (redefining the boundaries). If we take the ideal of ‘life is sacred’ as an example, we can see a range of behaviours being possible, from hard line Jainism including all forms of life, to more mainstream valuing of humans, animals and organisms in conveniently different degrees. This is an interesting phenomenon as it draws our attention to great atrocities that have been committed by fairly ordinary people who, for example, when instructed to do so have started to treat a particular group as ‘inhuman’ and thus of a different moral significance. It’s the kind of mental perceptual process that occurs when people are forced to cope with stress and cognitive dissonance (inconsistencies between deeply held beliefs). By viewing the world differently, the problem vanishes, hence the saying ‘I fail to see the problem’ is often indicative of different world-views! In the above example, when you are instructed to do something, it becomes very easy to abdicate responsibility for the action by saying ‘they made me do it’. I’ll discuss this further in section (c)(i) below.

(c) Eliminating or prioritising ideals/demands (reducing the boundaries) I think that the aim of uniting ideals is a noble, necessary, and human project. With wisdom and prudence we seek to harmonise our behaviour with the things we worship and love, and yet when conflicts arise therein are tragedies written. I am referring to direct conflicts between ideals that cannot simply be resolved by doing both (one at a time say), but rather satisfying one fails the other.  There is also great ‘freedom’ to be found when simplifying our ideals. Fewer ideals, fewer conflicts between them.  The commandment about not worshipping ‘false idols’ and holding to no other gods can be seen in the context of avoiding clashes between ideals. [Side note: A ‘lesser ideal’ should not come before a greater, and certainly we can challenge whether such a ‘lesser ideal’ is deserving of the title of ideal in the sense of a god. Perhaps it is therefore necessary to clarify a god/divine ideal as a ‘highest’ or ‘sacred’ ideal, in which case conflicts should only arise if multiple such ideals are held in equal regard.] I can also see situations where the relative standing of ideals in a moral hierarchy may shift, and while our moral systems rush to catch up with the implications and consequences we may find ourself thrust into a dilemma requiring immediate action. However, given the number of deeply held ideals out there, I would be cautious about assuming that only one is the most important out of pure convenience.

Perhaps Abe’s Dilemma can be interpreted as sacrificing one ideal for another – actually instantiating the struggle between them. By abandoning one to save the other we may accept our own personal limitations in that some problems are beyond our capability to solve. Perhaps a solution may present itself from elsewhere – some convenient sacrificial lamb – but what of Abraham when God does not save his son?

Daphne Hampson’s observation about the Abe Dilemma calling into question the nature of god is illuminating. To withstand challenges to your moral system one must be aware of that system’s underpinnings – the ideals at the heart. Without that coherence we risk finding ourselves in similar situations more often. That is not to say that we can always avoid the dilemmas, but having a sound understanding of our ideals and priorities can assist with decisions and give us the courage to stand by them. Relating this to the Christian narrative in which Jesus is sacrificed for the sake of mankind, we could create a parallel scenario (though unlikely) where you might need to kill a beloved one to avoid a great catastrophe: e.g. A full school bus has its brakes fail, and the driver swerves to avoid a cliff edge but in doing so has to run over his son who happens to be standing in the escape route. In these moral impasses we can hesitate, praying for something beyond our control to intervene and spare us the agony of choice, or we can act in preference to one ideal incurring the condemnation as regards the other, or we can actively remove ourselves as moral agents – suicide of the self as agent and possibly physical self – through actual death, madness, injury, or simple abdication of responsibility to another.

We cannot rely on the deus ex machina, especially in cases where inaction involves failure regarding all moral requirements involved, though sometimes it is a last resort – and so we find ourselves becoming moral sacrifices, damned by one ideal as we cherish another. Abdication of responsibility is not the same resolution as faith, as with the latter, responsibility still belongs to us though we have exhausted all our options and started praying. To remove ourselves from the dilemma, as per Simmons’ suggestion, seems unsatisfactory: Moral suicide to avoid the crisis of judgement results in a failure on all counts, not just on one side or the other.

The casting off of responsibility can sometimes be correct, as when another person (moral agent) would seem better equipped to act than ourselves, but this moral capacity is particularly important and should not be given away lightly: Many terrible things are perpetuated by assigning problems to somebody else’s responsibility, as with the iconic case of Kitty Genovese where nobody intervened to save her because a crowd was watching. Similar cases can be noted of crash victims dying quietly by the road as commuters drive past on the way to work – not because they fail to notice, but because they assume another is/was dealing with the issue.

(i) This leads me to the notion that moral responsibility is precious – just as the Christian notion of ‘free will’ is held in high regard, though it can seem philosophically dubious in a deterministic context. Perhaps the importance of ‘free will’ is really talking about the importance of moral responsibility. It seems to me that even though we may believe our choices and decisions to be resultant from past and present influences, we still need to shoulder the burden of responsibility and all of the existential angst that follows from choosing.

So, let’s imagine Abraham if no sacrifical lamb appears: Perhaps Abraham throws up his bloody hands and knife and cries out to the horrified onlookers, ‘He (God) made me do it!’ This is the cry of the lunatic who ‘hears voices’, but also of the young person, whose will and ego are still growing, and who is transitioning from the shelter of parental guidance to become a self-autonomous agent. It can be noted that many ‘adults’ still demonstrate a childish rejection of responsibility. For the mature moral agent, this is not an option, and perhaps Abraham realises this fact. Abraham cannot delegate responsibility to God for his decision, and remain a moral agent himself. The act of abdicating responsibility to another – even God – means that he is no longer actively following/worshipping his ideals any longer. By blindly following God’s dictates purely out of obedience, Abraham is no longer acting for the right reasons, and in that sense can no longer be seen as truly giving himself, mind, body and soul to the ideal – he is become a slave. [Can one worship the ideal of obedience then, as doing so would seem to equate to subordinating ones will to another? I’m not sure this makes sense, as raw ‘obedience’ without qualification means everyone doing what anyone else tells them too – Only a matter of time until some bright spark tells the others to obey only them, for they are a jealous god!]

From my current perspective, I think that worship involves the active offering up of the will and self to an ideal, and this can only be done by attempting to align one’s behaviour and will with the dictates of the ideal/god being worshipped. Using evocative language: Abraham himself is become the willing sacrifice, but in doing so he becomes a vessel for something greater – the will of God. If, as young people, we are indoctrinated with behaviours and religions, we cannot truly begin to understand worship until we choose for ourselves, and such a choice is unlikely to be a particularly varied one unless we are presented with alternatives. Also, unless we support and encourage young people to exercise their willpower, rather than simply obeying parental or governmental dictates, we cannot be surprised by the ensuing apathy, can we? Without self awareness, young people cannot dedicate themselves to a higher purpose.

The current trend in cutting the youth services across the country and inter-generational paranoia reflected in outdated demands for obedience can therefore be seen as fuelling a growing spiritual crisis. Church based youth services that restrict a young person’s capacity for self discovery and choice by excluding other religions and life options are sorely misguided: Strength of worship is not forged through obedience and ignorance, but by developing fully into a healthy, empowered, informed and self-aware person.

So, in summary, the Abraham dilemma raises several points:

1. God IS good if god is synonymous with the good. i.e. The word ‘god’ refers to a supremely held ideal, and the nature of the ideal is indicated by the nature of ‘god’. e.g. ‘God is love’.

2. The Abraham dilemma of rational choice comes about when equally important supremely held ideals come into conflict. Otherwise it is simply a challenge of willpower to carry out the choice based on the hierarchy of preferences despite negative consequences of a lesser preference.

3. When the commands (requirements) of gods (supreme ideals) come into direct conflict, there can be resolution through faith (abandoning reason), redefinition (changing our perception of the world to remove/ignore the conflict), prioritisation (ranking the ideals differently), and abdication of responsibility.

4. Understanding one’s ideals well can help to avoid situations of conflict via prudent action.

5. Any sophisticated (more than one god) moral agent may experience existential angst through conflicting demands.

6. If we abdicate responsibility, we are no longer moral agents and as such we abandon god. By actively following the behavioural dictates of our ideals we worship them, but being compelled to act that way is not the same.

7. Man cannot worship without having the will to do so, and freedom of choice between gods. If man is denied the opportunity to develop personal will, self-awareness, or make informed choice, then man is denied to capacity to dedicate himself to a higher ideal.

8. The current trend in cutting the council youth services across the country and inter-generational paranoia reflected in outdated demands for obedience can therefore be seen as fuelling a growing spiritual crisis. Church based youth services may not be sufficient if they neglect choice and self-awareness.