Testing God

Let’s go back to robots (as all theological discussions ultimately must). In Dan Simmon’s SciFi masterpiece, Hyperion, one of the main characters Sol has a reoccurring dream in which he hands over his daughter (who has been aging backwards due to Merlin’s disease) to a spatial and temporal shifting mechanical creature called the Shrike.

In the dream, Sol resists with the following dialog:

“Sol! Take your daughter, your only daughter, Rachel, whom you love, and go to the world called Hyperion and offer her there as a burnt offering at one of the places of which I shall tell you.”
Sol’s arms were shaking with rage and grief. He pulled at his hair and shouted into the darkness, repeating what he at told that voice before:
“There will be no more offerings, neither child nor parent. There will be no more sacrifices. The time of obedience and atonement is past. Either help us as a friend, or go away.”

The Shrike, covered with spikes and blades, is terrifying because it attacks without reason or rationality (Why my fascination with bladed automatons you may wonder?). It stalks trough time and space, and is apparently invincible. In the end, as a desperate act of faith, Sol places his daughter on an alter (as his daughter was about to age to her pre-birth condition and wink out of existance) and she is taken away by the Shrike.

The book continues:

Sol waited.

It had been hours since had handed his only child to the Shrike. It had been days since he had eaten or slept.
. . .
For most of his life and for all his career, Sol Weintraub the historian-cum-classicst-cum-philosopher had dealt with the ethics of human religious behavior. Religion and ethics were not always or frequently-mutually compatible. The demands of religious absolution or fundamentalism or rampaging relativism often reflected the worst aspects of contemporary culture or prejudices rather than a system which both man and God could live under with a sense of real justice. Sol’s most famous book, finally titled Abraham’s Dilemma when it was brought out in mass-market edition in numbers he had never dreamed of while producing volumes for academic presses, had been written when Rachel was dying of Merlin’s sickness and dealt, obviously, enough, with Abraham’s hard choice of obeying or disobeying God’s direct command for him to sacrifice his Son.

He reflects on Abraham sacrifice in light of what he has just done in offering his daughter to the Shrike

With a sudden clarity which went beyond the immediacy of his pain or sorrow, Sol Wientraub suddenly understood perfectly why Abraham had agreed to sacrifice Isaac, his son, when the Lord commanded him to do so.
It was not obedience.
It was not even to put the love of God above the love of his son.
Abraham was testing God.
By denying the sacrifice at the last moment, by stopping the knife, God had earned the right—in Abraham’s eyes and the hearts of his offspring—to become the God of Abraham.
Sol shuddered as he thought of how no posturing on Abraham’s part no shamming of his willingness to sacrifice the boy, could have served to forge that bond between grater power and humankind. Abraham had to know in his own heart that he would kill his son. The Deity, whatever form it then took had to know Abraham’s determination, had to feel that sorrow and commitment to destroy what was to Abraham the most precious thing in the universe.
Abraham came not to sacrifice, but to know once and for all wither this God was a god to be trusted and obeyed. No other test would do.

The idea of testing God is not something we talk about but there are lots of scriptural precedents.

Gideon and the fleece test.
scriptures like, “Prove me herewith . . .”

In any case, this interpretation of Abraham was something that I had never considered before. Kierkegaard reenvisions the Abraham / Isaac story in many ways. So does Jung. But I have never thought of it as a story of Abraham testing God before to find out if He were really worthy of worship. Interesting idea. Is there room for that interpretation in our LDS view? Can we test God? And if we can in what sense? In classic theology one of the things that makes God God (unpack that if you want) is that He is worthy to be worshiped. Can we test that assumption in furnace of experience like Sol above speculated that Abraham did? What would that mean (Say, beyond the Moroni 10:4-type test)?

Comments

  1. --I am I-- says:

    Hmm..

    I’ll have to consider this one a lot before I can comment cogently on it.

  2. Chris P. says:

    Wow…
    An idea like that had never really occurred to me. The Moroni 10:4 test, for me is not testing God in nearly the same way. That, to me is testing on whether an individual should test if he/she should worship him in a certain way. To see if they should stop worshiping him as a Protestant, or Catholic, etc., and worship him as a Mormon. This to me, is whether it is to worship him at all. And while I feel I have prayed about whether this is the true religion or not, and have gotten an answer, and in that answer comes the knowledge that he is the true and living God, to me this somehow seems different. Abraham must have believed in God in order for him to even consider doing this to his son…

    So in that light, if we are to see if Mormonism is the correct religion, shouldn’t we also need to ‘test’ to see if Heavenly Father is the correct God? Maybe not need, but it would seem possible to test this.

    This idea is very intriguing to me, and like #1 commented I am going to need time to consider this more, before I leave a comment on how I exactly feel on this.

  3. Steven,

    Have you read Jack Miles’ book _God_? It also suggests that Abraham was testing God — that in agreeing to sacrifice Isaac, he is able to force God’s hand for the first time.

  4. Beautiful and deep viewpoint on sacrifice, in particular that of Abraham and Isaac. Thank you for sharing it.

    I think that the gospel as outlined and authorized by God offers countless ways for us to test Him. God promises us numerous blessings based upon prerequisite actions or circumstances and surely a God that honors His end of the agreement every single time that we honor ours is worthy of our trust and devotion. Of course, we often want God to prove Himself to us before we will prove ourselves to Him, and when the blessings so not come we point to Him as the one who failed the test rather than ourselves.

    Even in the story, Sol believes that the deity requiring the sacrifice could read Abraham’s heart and soul and therefor KNEW that Abraham had genuinely committed to the death of his son. In other words, even though the author is claiming that Abraham agreed to sacrifice Isaac so he could test God, the fact remains that the deity proved Abraham first.

  5. Hmm. So if God had failed the test and was unworthy to be Abraham’s God, there is Abraham, sans child, sans God. But if God passes the test and is worthy to be Abraham’s God, there is Abraham, with both child
    AND God.

    With that much at stake and no way to run a second test on any possible future candidate, why would Abraham be willing to try it if he were not already absolutely certain that God was God?

  6. Steven, given the entity the Shrike turns out to be in subsequent texts, doesn’t he fail Sol’s test?

  7. Steven P says:

    Yes, Steve I think that’s right. I won’t give away who/what the Shrike is in case someone wants to read this, but the Shrike does fail Sol’s test!

    Ardis, Good point but then after Abraham gets to have faith that this is the right god.

    And yes for me this story doesn’t seem to address what happens if God fails. As Chris P and U.H. points out this is a rather Maybe they are testing each other?

    I’m going to look at Miles!

    Are there smaller ways to test God?

  8. tesseract says:

    I am eagerly awaiting to read Hyperion once my husband finishes it. I just read Dan Simmon’s historical fiction / horror novel, The Terror. Seriously, arctic expeditions and monsters?! I couldn’t ask for more.

  9. #7 – Rhetorical question?

  10. Researcher says:

    To Steven P #7:

    “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this,” says the LORD of hosts, “if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows.”

    Malachi 3:10 New American Standard Bible

  11. Researcher says:

    About #10: The reason why I used a different version of the Bible was because the word “prove” as used throughout the KJV instead of “test” is a little foreign to us. If you search on the word “prove” in the lds.org sriptures, it shows 61 instances. If not a common concept, at least not an obscure one.

    Here’s one that might work with the point you are trying to make:

    When your fathers tested Me, They tried Me, though they had seen My work. (Ps 95:9 also New Am Standard)

  12. Steve Evans says:

    Researcher nailed it.

  13. What happens if one is testing God and He does not stop the descent of the knife? What if one expects God to intervene at some point, but He never does? What does this say about us? And what does this say about God?

    What is it that makes God intervene in certain situations with certain people? But at other times and with other people in dire circumstances, why does God hold back his hand? Some people seem equally sincere and equally well-intentioned, but it sometimes seems like God is a respecter of persons.

    Any thoughts?

  14. The tests may be proffered by God — not the other way around. Omniscience is very hard understand from a “common sense” perspective. It is as though there is no future, no past, and no present. Even more baffling — it is as though there is no self except as defined through omnipotent will — and that self does not correspond to your consciousness. Trying to redefine God from an Apologist perspective just makes it harder to handle any real interaction with Him when the time comes. My advice is to simply acknowledge immense ignorance and incompetence — rather than look for rational explanations to things which have none in the context of this existence.

  15. I think the idea of Abraham testing God is both provocative and also dangerous from the sacrificer and sacrificee’s perspective. It seems to me that much of human sacrifice is testing God. Human sacrifice is done to gain some reward, some positive change whether it be a stable community, or some material blessing. In a sense this is all a test to see whether God will come through. I have no doubt, however, that a culture, in the event of a failed test, would likely see the failure in an improper sacrifice rather than God’s failing.

    What makes a sacrifice to Elohim and better than one commanded by Baal? If a person truly believes that God commanded them is the difference simply a matter of who is actually real and has power? That difference would tell us nothing of the morality of what is being demanded.

    I have been very intrigued by Rene Girard’s assertion that the Abraham story is a mythic story which shows us one man and culture’s break with the violent human sacrifice of their day. It is the showing that God does not require human sacrifice.

    Interesting quotes. I will need to read the book.

  16. So, God commanded the sacrifice because it was a common assumption of the culture in which Abraham had been raised (and, therefore, part of Abraham’s “religious baggage”) that such things were pleasing to the gods (and perhaps as a test of Abraham’s real conviction within his current paradigm), but He stopped it before it happened to show that the assumption was wrong – that such things had no place within the proper understanding of His nature that Abraham was being called to understand as the new Patriarch of God’s chosen people?

    I’ll have to think about that some more, but my initial reaction is very positive.

  17. Ray,

    I am certainly doing Girard’s idea no justice. But it seems that “God” or what people held to be God or the Gods were felt to have commanded human sacrifice. It was very common.

    What is unique about Abraham’s story is that as far as I understand it is the only story in world history of a man/culture moving away from human sacrifice. And the reason seems to be that God does not want it.

  18. Researcher says:

    Oh my goodness. I’m just getting back to this post and I’m wondering if Steve Evans’ comment in 12 is a compliment or a subtle jab involving the themes of sacrifice as developed throughout this conversation. Am I reading too much into it? Should I go take a nap?

  19. Steve Evans says:

    Researcher, you’re reading too much into it! It was a compliment. Naptime for all.

  20. 10 and 12
    So what do we then do with all those full tith payers who file for bankruptcy, or who lose their house to foreclosure…?

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