Saturday, June 12, 2010

Fear and Loathing in the Holy Land

God is love. Fear God. The two antithetical sentiments are pervasive in Judeo-Christian culture. How do we reconcile them?

Growing up, I was often told that the key difference between the portrayal of God in the New Testament vs. the Old Testament centered on this issue: That the New Testament we see God as loving, while in the Old Testament we see Him as angry and vengeful.

Certainly, the Bible gives us ground for such an interpretation, but, as is usual with such extreme distillations, the truth is somewhat less simple. And, I would add, a hell of a lot more interesting. It shouldn’t be surprising that a work as rich and complex as the Bible can’t be boiled down to a black and white statement, but, depending on the way we live our lives, we may be tempted to categorize God in one way or the other.
I’d like to personally thank God for not being so easily compartmentalized. Because if things were so black-and-white, we might be missing a few of the legacies the Bible has handed down to us: Literature, art, music, drama, just to name a few examples. And I don’t think our lives would be better for it.

It is a fact that in the New Testament, we read that God is love. We see this expressed directly in documents like 1 John (“He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love” 4:8) and Paul’s brilliant and moving 1 Corinthians: 13, but also through the entire ministry of Jesus.

And, in the Old Testament, we have the famous stories of God’s anger and vengeance: The Flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the tribulations of Job and many more (Personally, a story that has always gobsmacked me is that of Uzzah, struck dead when he touched the Ark of the Covenant to steady it during transport. It just seems so unfair, so outsized a punishment for a mistake that was intended to be helpful).

On the other hand, we can find plenty to be fearful about in the New Testament (many careers have been built on scaring people about the visions in Revelation), while evidence of God’s mercy and compassion abound in the Old. And often, the two poles are brought together in ways that illuminate our own mixed-up natures.

Nowhere is this more true than in the patriarchal stories that comprise the mid-section of Genesis (roughly, chapters 11-36).

Because I tend to let my thoughts about the Bible guide and inspire my other reading, I often find Biblical significance in works of other authors. I began reading Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom last winter, because I had read a reference to his interpretation of the Fall, and I’ve progressed slowly through Fromm’s famous analysis of the appeal of fascism as a  political movement, putting it down and picking it up as the mood strikes me.

On a recent morning I read the following in Escape from Freedom:
“The fact of human individuation, of the destruction of all ‘primary bonds,’ cannot be reversed … We have seen that man cannot endure this negative freedom, that he tries to escape into new bondage which is to be a substitute for the primary bonds which he has given up. But these new bonds do not constitute real union with the world. He pays for the new security by giving up the integrity of his self.”

My thoughts went immediately to Jacob, oscillating between the poles of danger and servitude, fleeing first from the wrath of his angry twin and finding solace in a life of servitude with Laban, and then, 20 years later making the journey in reverse, escaping the security of his life in Laban’s service by heading to the long-deferred confrontation with Esau. In each case, Jacob is destroying primary bonds with family members; ultimately he comes into self-actualization by, in rapid succession, striking a pact with Laban and making peace with his estranged brother.

I thought about Esau as a self-actualized man, someone who overcomes rejection by his family to build a successful life, one that allows him to forgive his brother’s hurtful deception and embrace him. Esau has moved naturally to the state that Jacob comes to through slow and painful evolution of his thinking.
And my thoughts returned to the story that has occupied my attention for a couple of weeks now, that of Jacob and Esau’s grandfather, Abraham, who is honored as the founding figure of the world’s three great monotheistic religions.

Abraham is a traveling man. When we first read of him, he is traveling from Ur, an ancient city on the Persian Gulf, toward Canaan, with his wife Sarai, his father Terah, and his nephew Lot. The family settles first in Haran (usually equated with the Turkish city of Harran). God urges Abram (as he is called at that time) on southward to Canaan. We are told that he goes on to Egypt – where he first presents Sarai as his sister out of misguided fear for his life -- and then back to Canaan, which God has promised to him and his heirs.

Fear is a driver for Abram/Abraham, as we see in several places.

We aren’t told in the Bible why his father Terah chooses to uproot the family from Ur and head westward; Thomas Mann muses in Joseph and His Brothers that political oppression is the catalyst. But Abram/Abraham’s parallel actions in the court of the Pharoah and the court of Abimelech – each time he presents Sarah as his sister out of fear for his own life if his hosts lust after his beautiful wife – demonstrate his willingness to sacrifice his integrity in the face of fear. And the stunning story of his attempt to sacrifice his beloved son, Issac, shines a harsh light on his fearful behavior.

I grew up being told that the sacrifice of Isaac was meant to show us the rewards we earn for obedience to God. But when I read the episode at this stage in my life, I see it differently.

We all know the outline of this story, related in Genesis 22. God decides to test Abraham, ordering him to take his son to a mountain in the land of Moriah and to sacrifice him as a burnt offering. Abraham, who has been happy to question and negotiate with God on previous occasions (see Genesis 18, where he bargains with God on the conditions for destroying Sodom and Gomorrah), for some untold reason blindly follows the horrifying instructions this time. He leads his son to the mountain, ties him up and places him on the woodpile and is about to slice him open with a cleaver when a messenger of God stops him.

Here’s what the angel says to Abraham (in Robert Alter’s translation): “Do not reach out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him, for now I know that you fear God, and you have not held back your son, your only one, from Me.”

This is what I hear in those words: “Hold on there, fool! Do you have any idea what the hell you are about to do? This is what fear drives you to, and you’re damn lucky I’m here to stop you before you do something you will regret for the rest of your life.”

Now I know I am taking a leap here, but I think it’s a reasonable interpretation of the story.

I want to cite the following passage from Escape from Freedom:
“In watching the phenomenon of human decisions, one is struck by the extent to which people are mistaken in taking as ‘their’ decision what in effect is submission to convention, duty, or simple pressure.”
Abraham’s behavior in Genesis 22 is, I think, perilously close to what Fromm describes as “automaton” behavior, the kind of blind obedience that can lead to the rise of fascism (a word I want to use sparingly, because of its overuse in what passes for contemporary political discourse). Fromm contrasts this automaton behavior with “positive freedom,” which he describes as “… the realization of the self [which] implies the full affirmation of the uniqueness of the individual."

I think that’s what the patriarchal stories are all about: The development of the individual, of individual consciousness and, ultimately, self-consciousness.

The strange little story of the Tower of Babel, which serves, in literary terms, as a prelude to the Abrahamic stories, abstracts the theme of individuation, which is then explored in haunting detail through the three generations of the patriarchy and the culmination in the story of Joseph and his brothers.

From Fromm again:
“Men are born equal but they are also born different. The basis of this difference is the inherited equipment, physiological and mental, with which they start life, to which is added the peculiar constellation of circumstances and experiences that they meet with. This individual basis of personality is as little identical with any other as two organisms are ever identical physically.”
I’m drawn here to the promise that God makes twice to Abraham and once to his grandson Jacob. I want to quote all three passages:
Genesis 13:16: “And I will make your seed like the dust of the earth – could a man count the dust of the earth, so too, your seed might be counted.”
Genesis 22:17: “I will greatly bless you and will greatly multiply your seed, as the stars in the heavens and as the sand on the shore of the sea, and your seed shall take hold of its enemies’ gate.”
Genesis 28:14: “And your seed shall be like the dust of the earth and you shall burst forth to the west and the east and the north and the south, and all the clans of the earth shall be blessed through you and through your seed.”
It’s a promise of great fertility, of course. But there’s also a suggestion that with those great numbers comes a certain anonymity, a lack of differentiation, at least from a certain distance. Looking at the dust of the earth, the stars in the sky and the sand on the shore, we may see them at one scale as a solid mass, at another scale as a collection of indistinct particles. Upon very close examination, we may begin to see that each particle is unique.

That’s what we do in the patriarchal stories: At a broad scale, we read about the birth of many nations (and while Israel is in some sense chosen, it is not strictly privileged – these other nations are powerful and prosperous, worthy adversaries on the earthly playing field), then we move in for the extreme close-up, and see, for the first time in the Bible, the complexities of character in each individual. And fear -- fear of bodily harm, fear of retribution, fear of isolation, fear of abandonment, fear of God – plays an important role in those characters.

As a dedicated 12-stepper, I’ve learned – and come to believe – that fear is a dangerous driver, that it leads us to make bad decisions. And that’s what I see happening here. But, in good 12-step fashion, I don’t think the point is simply that Abraham must ignore his fear. It’s that he needs to stop and look at the consequences of fear, and examine his decision to follow it to its grisly climax.

In one of those strange coincidences that I can only attribute to spiritual guidance, I picked up the other day a book that I had purchased several months ago and had set aside: Mark C. Taylor’s Altarity. I had purchased this book while I was rapidly reading through several other works by Taylor (well, as rapidly as you can read Taylor, whose prose, while clear and lucid, is rather dense with meaning). But at the time, I felt the need to spend time with some other sources – chiefly Freud and Fromm. Picking up Altarity, and opening to the spot where I had inserted a bookmark, I was struck dumb by the image on the page: a Rembrandt sketch (it later became a painting) depicting the sacrifice of Isaac.

Taylor uses this illustration as the jumping-off point for an explication of Hegelian philosophy, and in particular of Hegel’s characterization of the three stages in the development of consciousness: Primal unity, separation, reconciliation. Hegel matches these three developmental stages to three cultures: Greek, Jew, Christian. And while I will steer clear of challenging Hegel on his characterization of these cultures – I don’t think I’m ready to argue with Hegel – I do want to say that I see the three stages playing out in the narrative of the patriarchy, both in its overall arch -- beginning with the disruption of originary unity at the Tower of Babel, then personalized in the story of Abraham’s departure from Ur and completed in the reconciliation of Joseph with his brothers and father in Egypt – and in the individual stories of Abraham and of Jacob (Joseph is not considered a patriarch, although his story is continuous with that of his ancestors).

These stories are all about identity and difference, and their reconciliation in the recognition of identity in difference and of difference in identity. By this I mean (as Hegel meant) that the two notions are inextricably bound to each other. Neither means anything except in relation to the other. And the recognition of that relationship is necessary to the development of the self-conscious individual and the emergency of the philosopher.

Taylor writes:
“For Hegel, spirit is ‘pure self-recognition in absolute otherness’ … Within Hegel’s panoptical system, difference always returns to identity.”
Taylor further cites Hegel’s reference to a moment of “fear and trembling” that is a necessary precursor to the emergence of self consciousness, an instant where these paradoxical notions seem utterly irreconcilable. To get to the other side, we need to work through that moment. That’s the function of art, of writing, of creativity which, as I have written before, allows us to criss-cross the boundary between earth and heaven and to behave as the image of God in whose spirit we were created.

There’s a certain parallel between the Hebrew story of the sacrifice of Isaac and the Christian story of the crucifixion of Jesus. In the first, an earthly father prepares to sacrifice his son out of fear, and is stopped before he takes the fatal action; in the second, the heavenly father completes the sacrifice of his Son out of love (see John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”)

Why the difference in outcomes? The difference between acting out of fear and acting out of love is part of it. So is the stage of consciousness. The father Abraham is at this point not fully self-conscious; although his son is part of him, Abraham sees him as other, as an object suitable for sacrifice – at least he does until God wakes him out of his stupor. In the New Testament, especially in John, father and son are different manifestations of one, universal spirit, which God of course recognizes because, well, He’s God.

In Hegelian terms, love privileges identity over difference, while fear privileges difference over identity. There are a number of ways we can process this. We can, for instance, accept the contradiction that God is love AND God is fear. We can look at fear as a necessary way-station on the path to true love. We can focus on one and ignore the other. We each make our own choices, and our choices may evolve over time.

I don’t have a conclusive statement on this, because I’m still working through the complex of paradox and contradiction myself. Instead, I want to close this rumination with another couple of quotes from Altarity:
“Identity, in itself difference, and difference, in itself identity, join in contradiction, which Hegel defines as the identity of identity and difference. Inasmuch as identity and difference necessarily include their opposites within themselves, they are inherently self-contradictory … In Hegel’s System, such contradiction is the root of all movement and vitality; it is the pulse of life universal.”
“Since every living being is a concrete embodiment of universal life force, nothing can be fully comprehended until it is conceived as an integral member of an intricate totality. Inasmuch as life is all-encompassing, its divisions are internal differentiations, which, in the final analysis, must be taken up within the whole of which they are necessarily parts.”