Mythology on (and off) My Bookshelf, Part 3: Thoughts on Ethics by way of BigThink.com and Jacques Derrida’s “The Gift of Death”

Seems I’m not the only person currently pondering the story of Abraham and Isaac.

Three weeks ago, Adam Lee, author of the blog Daylight Atheism at BigThink.com, posted an essay titled “The Abraham Test,” in which he summarizes the story of Genesis 22 and explores the ethical contradictions at its heart. Specifically, Lee poses the story as a test to modern believers: “I have a question for every religious believer, based on the Abraham episode: Do you believe that violence in God’s name is wrong, or do you merely believe he hasn’t personally told you to do violence? If God appeared to you and spoke to you, commanding you to commit a violent act – to murder a child, say – how would you respond?”

My impression is that Lee is attempting not just to promote critical thinking here, but to point out the inherent absurdities of the impossible position that Abraham is placed in–and by extension, all people of faith are placed in–by a divine command to kill another person. Lee concludes this post by saying, “The Abraham test may be a useful way to highlight the chasm between the morality of the Bible and the better, less violent and more humanistic morality espoused by most citizens of the modern world.”

Two weeks later, after his first post had elicited 225 responses from readers, Adam Lee followed up with “Replies to the Abraham Test,” in which he sums up some of those responses and draws an even more pointed conclusion: “There’s a profound disconnect in the morality of most religious believers, and I think the Abraham test highlights that. When you press at the join, you can see exactly where it is: even though they mostly hew to the more enlightened morality of the modern age, they still worship and revere a dark-age text that treats bloody, even murderous obedience to a primitive war god’s command as the highest virtue. (I use the term ‘war god’ advisedly, since one of the Bible’s most common titles for God is ‘Lord of Hosts’, or in more modern language, ‘Lord of Armies’).”

And the discussion there continues:  as of yesterday, Lee’s follow-up post has garnered 172 more comments. His blog’s agenda becomes more apparent not only via the vitriolic tone of most of the commenters who agree with him, but also in that post’s closing exhortation: “It’s evidence like this that atheists ought to put forward as our Exhibit A in showing that faith is far from a harmless or beneficial personality trait: it can be profoundly immoral and dangerous, which just goes to show why our rhetorical attacks on it have never been more necessary.”

For the record, I should say here that even though for much of my life I shared Adam Lee’s atheism–albeit without the impulse to proselytize–I currently find the view much more interesting from my perch on the fence, where I lean just to the opposite side. To be honest, I still have to agree with popular atheists’ claims that the Bible does a mostly terrible PR job for God. (I’d add that if God wants to convey a message of love and forgiveness more effectively, He should fire those committees who’ve been bollixing the job for the past 2,700 years and contract with the geniuses over at ICanHasCheezburger to write His pitches.) My own faith is characterized by doubt, wrestling, and constant questioning–and is energized by my struggle to square the God who’s loved me up with the actions attributed to God in much of the Bible.

But I’m getting distracted here. Let’s return to the cheerful subject of Abraham and ethics, shall we?

I’ve just finished re-reading the first, and longer, part of Jacques Derrida’s two-part book, The Gift of Death and Literature in Secret (second ed., trans. by David Wills, University of Chicago Press, 2008). I can’t remember what source, exactly, steered me toward Derrida, whom I’d managed to avoid entirely in grad school. But at some point in early 2009, at the height of my first round of obsession with the story of Abraham and Isaac, I ordered this book and began reading it. I returned to it this winter having forgotten its usefulness, and wondering whether it has any explanatory power for this story that both fascinates and horrifies me.

The bulk of The Gift of Death consists of Derrida’s detailed readings of Czech philosopher Jan Patočka, Lithuanian philosopher Emmanual Lévinas, Martin Heidegger, Søren Kierkegaard, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Derrida summarizes their efforts in search of a basis for an ethics  in the narrative of Abraham and Isaac (in part, to advance the philosophical discussion of ethics in Europe subsequent to the Holocaust and the devastating wars of the 20th century). This Biblical narrative makes an appropriately knotty case study, given, as Derrida’s analysis of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling emphasizes, the utterly unethical actions–by all human measures–of Abraham towards Isaac and Sarah. Derrida traces the notion of “responsibility” through these philosophers, examining, for example, (in the pun-rich language characteristic of French high academic style) how Abraham “responds” to God’s summonings, how Abraham’s “irresponsibility” to his family violates all human standards of justice, and what “responsibility” might mean when a culture’s concept of individuality is in flux.

A key principle I take from this essay concerns the recurrence, though hidden, of beliefs and practices from the past. Following Patočka, Derrida asserts that when a culture replaces an old narrative, myth, or ritual with a new one, a trace of the old narrative/myth/ritual remains embedded in the new: “the mystery that is incorporated then repressed is never destroyed. This genealogy has an axiom, namely that history never effaces what it buries; it always keeps within itself the secret of whatever it encrypts, the secret of its secret” (23). This secrecy is the essence of the mystery of Christianity, a belief system centered on a sacrifice that mimics and suppresses the earlier, almost-sacrifice from which dawned Judaism, which itself replaced multiple local religions based on human sacrifice.

Suffocating under all these layers yet? I feel like I am, but this analysis also seems to be helping me edge closer to the important weirdnesses at the heart of these religions.

Derrida returns to this idea–of the past’s suppressed rituals appearing as open secrets in the rituals and narratives that replace them–later in the essay, when he brings in Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality. Derrida quotes Nietzsche at length in this section, interpolating his own explanations and responses. In one of these exchanges, Derrida quotes Nietzsche thus: “Justice, which began by saying, ‘Everything can be paid off, everything must be paid off,’ ends by turning a blind eye and letting off those unable to pay,–it ends, like every good thing on earth, by sublimating itself … by raising itself or by substituting for itself” (114-15), and Derrida elaborates: “Christian justice denies itself and so conserves itself in what seems to exceed it; it remains what it ceases to be, a cruel economy, a commerce, a contract involving debt and credit, sacrifice and vengeance” (115).

You may notice that Derrida is moving pretty freely between Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac and God’s sacrifice of Christ. By this point in the essay, he has already established a close parallel between them by arguing that Abraham is sacrificing himself (via his legacy) in consenting to sacrifice Isaac, and that God is sacrificing himself in sacrificing Christ (who is also God). As well, Derrida is following the lead of Kierkegaard, who in Fear and Trembling shifts from the earlier story to the latter, and to a guiding metaphor of economics, which provides a further connection to Nietzsche here.

Derrida again: “[W]hat Nietzsche calls ‘Christianity’s stroke of genius’ … is what takes this economy to its excess in the sacrifice of Christ for love of the debtor; it involves the same economy of sacrifice, the same sacrifice of sacrifice” (115). With this, Derrida prefaces another quote from Nietzsche, whose repetitions and  metaphors convey the surprising reversal enacted by Christianity’s central sacrifice: “Christianity’s stroke of genius … [is] none other than God sacrificing himself for man’s guilt, none other than God paying himself back, God as the only one able to redeem man from what, to man himself, has become irredeemable–the creditor sacrificing himself for his debtor, out of love … out of love for the debtor!” (115-16).

Derrida’s interpretation–that in Christianity God cancels out sacrifice by sacrificing sacrifice itself–intrigues me. Certainly, it echoes explanations I’ve heard from the pulpit regarding Abraham and Isaac, in that the earlier, interrupted sacrifice is meant to signal the end of human sacrifice in a region where it was common among many other, older religions. It implies that in removing all human guilt onto himself, God collapses the distinction between judge and sacrificial victim, and thus, via this sacrifice of himself to himself, is changing the very nature of his relationship to humans.

Thanks to Derrida, though, I’m able to articulate why I can’t help but read this sequence in the other direction:  the earlier sacrifice of Isaac, though superseded and canceled out by the later sacrifice of Christ, resonates through that later sacrifice, leaving a residue upon it that I can’t ignore.

To be continued soon, with thoughts on the second part of Derrida’s book, Literature in Secret.

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