We -- for once, I am including myself in the culture I'm essentializing -- don't like this Abraham story. When Americans read about parents mattering, and children not mattering, most of us get outraged and sentimental. It is easy to target as intolerable the idea that a parent could move to obey anyone, even God, by hurting his child.
If we have children, we undoubtedly have hurt them over and over, out of ignorance or selfishness or indifference; but that isn't deliberate. And then, of course, in our efforts to care for our children, to present them with the best food and stimulating toys and cute overalls, we participate in a system that also produces the deaths of children (and adults): what I have and enjoy is related to things that someone else's child does not have and has suffered through. But that's because the world is not fair; it happens far enough away that we can forget that each action that maintains this world order is itself deliberate. Killing your child is an unimaginable sin; turning a blind eye to the preventable deaths of other people's children is an unavoidable reality.
We can ignore kids who die as long as the reason for their death remains large, vague, and unrelated to our standard of living, as long as the kids remain far away and speak different languages, or are nearby, but different enough from ourselves to be somehow at fault. Abraham doesn't get an out like ours. God says: kill him. And Abraham says nothing; he just gets the knife. And that, more than the child abuse we could address and the poverty and abandonment with which we could interfere, makes a neon focal point of our self-righteousness. It costs us nothing to feel, in 2010, that this whole dilemma should have cost Abraham more. To assume that, because he was willing to do it, it couldn't have really cost him that much at all.
Abraham's violence here is the kind that post-modern Americans are conditioned hate and fear most: the deliberate violence that believes it is acting out of mission. Judging from the fact that yesterday, kids died because they didn't have clean water, and I enjoyed a tasty latte, I, for one, am much more comfortable with the passive violence of living in a system in which children die and I can afford to buy more stuff. It's normal to be too busy earning money and buying stuff to think about how this might affect other people, to wonder where all this wealth is coming from. It's inhuman to look at your child and kill him, whatever god is telling you to do so. Who could do that?
Maybe more to the point: who would want to do that? I wanted to drink that latte; I want to feel good about myself but still be able to afford what I need and what I want. Basically, I don't want to sacrifice anything, so it's really a lot better for me if this man, who will sacrifice everything, is actually crazy or selfish.
But this isn't a story about a religious fanatic or an indifferent father. It's not that Abraham doesn't love his son. He does -- the text points it out so that that small, painful fact isn't lost in less sympathetic aspects of Abraham's sacrifice. Abraham's life, with respect to his own ego, but also with respect to his God, has always been about this child, and the entire nation that will come from it. This is not just what Abraham loves most, the only real family he has left, on the alter, it is who he is and who he is meant to be. However patriarchal the society, I don't believe that you slaughter your son like an animal and still want to live with yourself.
So: why? Why do we have to give up what we love most to be a blessing? Why test us at all, when you're God and you know the outcome?
I think it's because we don't know the outcome. We can't, or it would defeat the purpose: Abraham is willing to kill Isaac, not because he has faith that God will intervene, but because he can suspend his own understanding of the world in favor of a worldview in which Isaac can die and things can still be all right.
I think this is our project on Earth: to live until we get to the point at which we no longer believe that life is about getting what we want. You start out wanting basic things, move on to wanting selfish things, and then learn to want progressively more "noble" things. But what's meant to happen, I think, is that you learn that happiness does not consist of getting the things you want, however admirable and understandable those things are, however sympathetic you appear for wanting them.
If life is about having the things you want, then it is profoundly unfair to most of us and ultimately kind of pointless for all of us. If, through having and loving and valuing something, I can learn to give up what I love for something deeper, something I can't objectify and claim, then I can understand my life in terms of a purpose that doesn't become entirely arbitrary when I die and can't have anything anymore. We are given things, I think, so we can learn that giving them up won't kill us -- or, that if it does, it won't rip the meaning from our lives.
This, I think, is how God provides: He gives us a lifetime, however long or short, to learn to reach Him. To learn that we can only do so through that process by which we learn to stop trying to hold onto the things we have or go after the things we want.
It's hard to do: a lack of ambition doesn't make you seem peaceful or spiritual. It kind of makes you seem aimless and lazy. It's hard to believe that shutting up about your own mission and goals can be the right thing to do when everyone we learn to admire, we admire precisely for what they accomplished, and since the function of self esteem seems most often to be: see yourself as as good as other people.
But I do believe that my own life is most meaningful when I can stop trying so hard to determine my next step and can listen and obey. Even when it seems to put at risk the things I value; even when other people don't see or respect what I am doing; even when I'm left with less to say at my high school reunion. There is freedom, as well as pain, in recognizing that anything I can pursue on my own -- however deeply I may love it -- ultimately has no permanent place in my life. It hurts, and it is also a blessing. I think.