Monday, July 18, 2011

The Binding of Isaac and the Myth of Sisyphus

[I wrote this awhile back and was waiting for a good time to post it. I spectacularly found that time today in an NYT article I will reference at the end.]

We all know the story of Isaac when God tested Abraham and told him to take "thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest," up to the mountain top and prepare him as an offering to God. But when Abraham obeyed all of God's commands, an angel appeared.
And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.
The passage is disturbing enough that alternative interpretations have been offered throughout the years. But, let's face it, the main theme is doing the will of God even when it doesn't seem reasonable.

Compare that to Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus
It is said that Sisyphus, being near to death, rashly wanted to test his wife's love. He ordered her to cast his unburied body into the middle of the public square. Sisyphus woke up in the underworld. And there, annoyed by an obedience so contrary to human love, he obtained from Pluto permission to return to earth in order to chastise his wife.
But when Sisyphus returned he enjoyed the stones and water and sun so much he refused to go back to infernal darkness and he lived many more years until the gods became so angry with him that he was condemned to roll his rock for eternity.

Surprisingly, Sisyphus was condemned for an action that began with his repudiation of obedience contrary to human love, while Abraham was blessed for his acceptance of that same obedience.


Someone else has been thinking of this theme and presented it with much more detail in this Opinionator article in the New York Times.

After you finish the article, I have a comment on Anat Biletzki's conclusions and definition of religion.

[I'll wait]

While she and I both would find more meaning in Sisyphus than Isaac, I take something from both the religious and the philosophic view point. She may call that contradictory; I'll call it inclusive. But I will agree with her that it does make a difference in your motives.

Her definition of religion (Religion is a system of myth and ritual; it is a communal system of propositional attitudes — beliefs, hopes, fears, desires — that are related to superhuman agents) is a decent one if she left out the "superhuman agents". Not only is it unnecessary, but it harkens to the abhorrent notion that god is a super human. It is not as good as the one we unofficially adopted—the eternal struggle for meaning. It is because of that definition that I can embrace the philosophic human love of Sisyphus and recognize the unfathomable mystery of Isaac.


Peter H of Lebo said...

You have lost me a little, need some clarification, you agree with her that differences in motives does make a difference and then go on to say, religion definition is- "the eternal struggle for meaning" How does our continual struggle for meaning have to do with human rights? I may struggle for the meaning of life but that has no impact on whether human beings have fundamental rights. What does unfathomable mystery have with human rights?

Sidenote, the theme I got from Abraham is that God is incredible insecure. Obama actual used this this to highlight American rights and the disassociation from religion saying that, today, if we saw Abraham heading to the top of his apartment building to sacrifice Issac he would be arrested and Issac sent to the custody of child services, booming voice or no booming voice. Following God's will is not the best defense in court.

James R said...

How does our continual struggle for meaning have to do with human rights?
It doesn't. The confusion is mine. As I said, I wrote this before I read the article and I didn't focus on the human rights question. As you know I embrace The Myth of Sisyphus quite tightly and The Bible rather loosely. When I saw the article, I loved her analysis, but I (or rather my ego) felt I had handled the question in a more interesting form. We agree—all three of us I suppose.

At the end, which I suppose may have been a post script, I disagree with her definition of religion. And, while I agree that I "can think of nothing more awe inspiring than humanity and its fragility and its resilience", I also recognize that the universe is a contradiction. We are all we have to figure out these questions and yet, clearly, we are not enough.

Also, she says "Other perceptions of religion that are God-less," would not, perhaps, suffer the same fate[for the need of superhuman agents and, I suppose, a dictation from that God]. Mine is God-less, as we know the most true thing you can say about God is that it doesn't exist. Does this add anything to her discussion on human rights? No, not than I can see.

Big Myk said...

It's interesting that Biletzki says that the philosophical foundations for the notion of human dignity are "complex, or nuanced, or even convoluted," and later "intricate and sometimes problematic." Suffice it to say that I think that there are few indeed who hold fast to the belief that you should treat people decently based on the writings of Kant or Aristotle. From my standpoint, the secular belief in the high regard humans deserve is as devoid of rational underpinnings as the religious belief in the sacredness of humanity.

What bothers Biletzki is when religion invokes its authority to make moral proclamations that, to a less biased observer, appear to be not in the best interests of all humans concerned. That's why she says that religions, even when they give lip-service to human rights, actually have another agenda.

It's interesting in this context to examine what Bultmann says about the ethics of Jesus. Bultmann says that Jesus' ethics amount to a great protest against Jewish legalism. According to Bultmann, Jesus rejects the idea that God's demand for good is a purely formal demand to be followed like Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, without asking the reason. Rather, ethics is wholly human centered. "There is no obedience to God which does not prove itself in the concrete situation of meeting one's neighbor" as demonstrated in the narrative of the Good Samaritan. In other words, for Jesus, ethics has no other agenda.

Further, "Jesus teaches no ethics at all in the sense of an intelligible theory valid for all men concerning what should be done and left undone," says Bultmann. Rather, ethical decisions must be made in concrete situations which are so varied and numerous that no single rule or theory could ever cover them. "A man cannot in the moment of decision fall back upon principles, upon a general ethical theory which can relieve him of the responsibility for the decision. . . man does not meet the crisis of decision armed with a definite standard; he stands on no firm base, but rather alone in empty space."

I think that the secular humanist would have little objection to Jesus' approach.

Peter H of Lebo said...

Wait, Jesus and his ethics doesn't have an agenda,

“I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life."

"And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:27).

Isn't Jesus agenda for people to be close with God, the moral arbiter. That the foundation of morality is the threat of eternal darkness, "Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, "I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." John 8:12

In short, don't follow God, i.e don't love your neighbor, no grace of God for you. "Not every one who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven." Matthew 7:21

So followers of Yahweh is driven by being close with the divine, with the side effect of being nice to people because God decreed that eternal bliss is achieved by being nice and meaning it. Thank god, god didn't say the requirement was to watch the twilight saga, I wouldn't have made it.

Secular humanist on the other hand have no arbiter, its much harder to argue that rights are a fundamental part of human existence when they are man made. Thats why rights explained with a religious foundation is a sort of cope out to secular humanists, stating higher authority than man makes them fundamental. Secular humanist, I believe, do not need a god/higher existence in order to have human rights and morals.

Big Myk said...

Pete, you actually raise an excellent point, and one to which there is no easy answer. Bultmann calls Jesus' attitude toward reward and punishment “paradoxical.” On the one hand, as you point out, Jesus seems certain that God will reward faithful obedience and, indeed, uses the idea of recompense as a motive for obedience.

On the other hand, it’s pretty clear that obedience for Jesus is love of neighbor. That presents us with a bit of a problem. For, in Bultmann’s words, if we are to follow God’s command for an ulterior motive of reward, “How would the command to love be possible? For with the secondary motive of reward, love with a backward look on one’s own achievement, would not be love.” Therefore, personal reward cannot be our motive if we truly want to be obedient to God. The fact is: love is being disposed toward your neighbor. A show of love is not love. You cannot be disposed toward your neighbor, if all you are thinking about is saving your own skin.

At various times, Jesus makes this explicit. As Bultmann says, “The parables of the servant who had no claim to the thanks of his master (Luke 17:7-10, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’) and of the workmen in the vineyard (Matt. 20:1-15, ‘Is it against the law for me to do what I want with my money?’) distinctly oppose all human calculation of rewards from God, and expressly deny that man can have any sort of claim before God.” And then, the Pharisee proud of his virtue also has no standing to demand reward but must take a lower place to the guilt-ridden tax-collector. (Luke 18:9-14). Indeed, Jesus goes on to say that, “Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it.” (Luke. 17:33)

At this point, we can simply say Jesus presents us with a paradox and something to ponder. (“How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.” Niels Bohr). Bultmann, however, attempts to resolve the conflict, as follows:

The motive of reward is only a primitive expression for the idea that in what a man does his own real being is at stake – that self which he not already is but is to become. To achieve that self is the legitimate motive of his ethical dealing and true obedience, in which he becomes aware of the paradoxical truth that in order to arrive at himself he must surrender to the demand of God – or, in other words, that in such surrender he wins himself.