Respecting Beliefs

Respecting Beliefs June 22, 2014

I came across this image on Pinterest, on the same day that the Pope excommunicated the entire Mafia from the Roman Catholic Church. Religion can be a powerful force to do harm or to combat those who do harm. And the line between the two sorts of religion is not one that lies between different religions or different sacred texts, but rather one that cuts through each and every one of them.

I was talking just the other day with local rabbi Sandy Sasso about the story of the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22. Sandy has been running a seminar that brings together local artists to explore the story in music, sculpture, painting, and in other media. The approach is one that has been embraced much more fully in Jewish tradition than it has by Christians – one that sees the text as an opportunity for conversation and as something to wrestle with, not something to be embraced as a definitive answer.

Paul made Abraham a type of faith. James made Abraham a type of works. In our time, we can see the character of Abraham as, on the one hand, an attempt by an ancient author to combat the practice of child sacrifice, but on the other, nonetheless an example of fanaticism, someone whose seemingly unquestioning act probably led to the death of his wife and the estrangement of his son.

Abraham is not an example to be followed unquestioningly, any more than someone who thinks they have heard a voice from God ought to follow it unquestioningly.

Not all beliefs can be respected in a society that has chosen to safeguard life and freedom. And not all beliefs should be respected, and that includes when those beliefs happen to have a connection with the Bible.


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  • Larry Logan

    I do not understand the last sentence.

    • Wonder

      What was unclear about it? Just because a belief claims to be Biblical doesn’t make it beneficial.

  • I think I have an idea what you mean by the last sentence, but I also want to ask for clarification along with Larry Logan.

    • I don’t think that our own beliefs, or those of others, ought to be automatically exempted from criticism simply because they are categorized as religious beliefs. We may want to enshrine freedom of speech, and we certainly want to teach people to respect one another. But sometimes this goes too far in the other direction, so that we think that anything that we happen to believe, no matter what it is or what its consequences, ought to itself automatically be respected. We need to be able to respect people and yet be able to disagree with one another vigorously without losing that respect for one another.

      I see now that the short phrase could be understood in many ways. Thank you for asking for further clarification!!!

  • Peace Man

    This story is one of the most powerful in biblical history. The spiritual question is: Are you willing to do away with the most precious thing you have on earth if God requires it? There is a reference in the new testament that says Abraham believed that his son would be resurrected by God even if he did actually kill him. Such faith is not the faith of a blind fanatic. We may never ever be tested to such an extent as Abraham, nor do we know the reason why God expected such an extreme demonstration of Abrahams faith. Never the less the lesson is still a good one. God must be first, and if He’s not there will be spiritual problems that come of it.

    • That is perhaps part of your faith tradition but not all would share those beliefs. I like your commentary on it, though. However, if the New Testament states that accurately, that particular belief could be seen as an example of radicalness, especially by those who do not share it. A friend shared with me how that Isaac is never mentioned again in that same chapter, and that there was perhaps a literary tradition where Isaac was actually sacrificed or thought to have been sacrificed, which might also explain the New Testament commentary in Hebrews 11:19 (had to look it up) though in the NIV it shows that the author of Hebrews did not view Isaac’s sacrifice itself as literally fulfilled to the point of the death of Isaac.

      • Bethany

        I was just reading about this in Richard Elliot Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible. It’s not that Isaac is never mentioned again in Exodus, but that he’s never mentioned again in the parts that come from the E source, the source the story of the sacrifice came from. Also, apparently the bits about the angel stopping the sacrifice call God “Yahweh” while in the rest of the story God is called “Elohim”, suggesting the part about stopping the sacrifice was a later edition to the original text.

        Also, Genesis 22:6: “Abraham took the wood of
        the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried
        the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together.”

        Genesis 22:19: “19 So Abraham returned to his young men…”

        Notice how two men enter, one man leaves?

        • My friend had read the same book and pointed that out to me.

    • blueD

      To sacrifice anyone, even go through the motions, because of a psychological disorder or perhaps heavy opium usage telling you that a higher power (God, Gods, Allah, Universe, Aliens) told you to do so, is not only fanatic, but sick. So you are saying, then, that if “God” asked you to kill or sacrifice someone, you would? Even your child??? Spiritual problems if you do not listen to God? No. Absolutely NOT. There is NOTHING spiritual about this story. Your sentiments are scary.

      • Peace Man

        Naturally it IS scary to be told to do something out of the ordinary.

        There is no doubt that such a request is an extraordinary event that ought not to be considered by most people today. However the spiritual principle behind it often plays out in life with any number of choices we make. We make “sacrifices” all the time in order to make something else in our life the greater priority. When faced with a tough choice are the things we love physically more important than what is important spiritually?

        • OK, great. But it’s very difficult in our modern morality to “spiritualize” a command to slaughter a fellow human from an invisible being that only you can hear. Being told to do something out of the ordinary, or outside of your comfort zone, is one thing, but being told to premeditate a human slaughter of one or more human persons for the requirements of an invisible divine being who sees fit to communicate this purpose and necessity only to you is quite another. Personally, I think this made much more sense in that primitive barbaric culture than it does today.

          • Peace Man

            I am not advocating a literal imitation of many Old testament practises. The Old testament is not my literal guide to living life now. Jesus teaching was progressive in comparison

            There are lessons that can be taken from the narrative in other ways.

          • I agree, and I am glad to hear you say that.

        • blueD

          It ought not to be considered by MOST people today? Who might be the least of those who could perform this behavior of sacrifice? I understand sacrifice, but not of others lives for any cause spiritual, other than potential immediate defense. There is nothing spiritual in that. Loving our children, friends, significant others, to me, IS spiritual, and not necessarily physical. The corporeal state holds within it spirituality and many potentials – and that is beyond physical. I am thinking of this as a literal story, since you say that God must be first no matter what is “asked” of one to do (sacrifice). Confusing to me, you see, as I find all of us to be a >potential< extension of God. Making sacrifices for the greater good, sure, but not taking the life of ones son because "God" told them to do so. There are people still to this day that blow themselves up in the name of. Religion does help in some regards, but it also hinders. Occam's Razor would simplify, in this case, that religion is not needed. We can be spiritual, but without religion (and old teachings that people will not let go of for the human race to spiritually advance).

          • Peace Man

            Perhaps we can miss the point of the narrative. The story actually concludes that a substitute was provided in the form of a ram. Abraham was NOT permitted to kill his own son. In the end it was just a test. The substitute pointed to Jesus voluntary sacrifice. You may also say that Jesus would have to be crazy going into Jerusalem knowing full well they would kill him. But he did what God wanted because his death brought about a greater good, and death is not really death if you believe in a resurrection.
            Sure there are plenty of crazy people thinking God is telling them to do crazy things. These are special stories where the outcome is not as crazy as it first seems

          • ” Abraham was NOT permitted to kill his own son.”

            The passage presents no obligation on God’s part to NOT require the human sacrifice, or to stop the sacrifice from occurring. Your sentence almost makes it sound like it was more Abraham’s idea to kill his own son than God’s, when it was clearly God’s idea at first, which Abraham was in the process of carrying out and willingly obeying (for which obedience he is credited with spiritual blessings). I believe your sentence should instead read, “Abraham was not REQUIRED to kill his own son.” Personally, if I were Abraham, I would have told God, “no thanks, find someone else. It’s not happening.”