Abrahamic Tests

Abraham Isaac

 

OK, let’s get this out of the way right up front: if God ever tells me to whack someone, the answer is no. Just no. I don’t care if he speaks to me through a still small voice, or a burning bush, or a thundering command from the sky. And I don’t care if he wants me to learn how to sacrifice everything and is planning to pluck a ram from the thicket at the last minute. I’m not taking that chance. If somebody has some brass plates that God wants or needs, He can do His own smiting. He knows how. He’s done it lots of times. I don’t smite.

I’m talking about direct voice-of-God commands here. I’m saying no even if He shows up on my doorstep with brownies. If somebody else tells me that God wants me to kill someone, I’m not just going to say no; I’m going to call the police, alert the newspapers, and make sure that I never have anything to do with that person or anybody they have ever met.

I know that I sound defiant and irreverent when I say things like this. After all, Abraham and Nephi are revered as prophets, and whole civilizations have been built on the premise that they represented God on earth. But let’s be serious here. Plenty of people since Abraham have killed other people—members of their own family and total strangers—because they heard voices. We call these people “criminally insane.” We do not take seriously the notion that the voices they heard might have belonged to God. But we still have a bad habit of presenting, as praiseworthy examples, ancient people whose voices told them to do horrible things.

When I hear the phrase “Abrahamic test” in a description of a modern ethical dilemma, I invariably flinch. I want to say, “Dude, you’ve got it wrong. God was testing Abraham to see if he would be dumb enough to do something stupid and evil just because someone in a white robe told him to. Abraham was part of an ancient Milgram Study. And he flunked.” In most cases, I think this is exactly the right response.

But some line drawing is in order here. From what I have been able to tell, people who talk about “Abrahamic tests” mean two distinct things. Sometimes, it is used to describe giving up everything for the Kingdom of God, as Jesus asked the rich young man to do in Matthew 19:16-22. This usage focuses on the difficulty of Abraham’s sacrifice (treating Isaac more as property than as a flesh-and-blood human being). Used this way, the metaphor of Abraham’s sacrifice is appropriate. Building Zion requires that we sacrifice everything that is not the Kingdom of God for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

But there is another use of “Abrahamic test” that has become increasingly disturbing and prevalent. In this version, the said trial is not a test of our ability to do something difficult, but of our willingness to set aside our own moral beliefs in favor of someone else’s (usually someone claiming to speak in the name of God). In these kinds of Abrahamic tests, we are asked to give up deeply held ethical positions because they do not conform to those supposedly held by the Lord.

Here’s the problem with that kind of “test”: the argument that we should do what the Lord commands is an ethical position that depends on the same moral reasoning responsible for our other beliefs. My core moral beliefs — that I should not kill people, or cheat, or rob, or act in ways that devalue other human beings — come from the same place as my belief in obeying God’s commandments. Thus, the kind of “Abrahamic test” that I am describing appeals to and subverts my capacity for moral reasoning at the same time. Ultimately, the only thing that can be measured by such a test is loyalty.

I love the Book of Genesis, and I love the story of Abraham. But the more I read the stories, the more I realize that the prophets and patriarchs of the Old Testament teach us as much by what they get wrong as they do by what they get right. For centuries, Jewish and Christian scholars have recognized that the Akedah, or the story of the binding of Isaac, is a rich and deeply problematic text that raises more questions than it answers. It is not a simplistic morality tale whose unproblematic moral is: “do whatever God says, even if it means killing your child.” We disrespect the text and the experience when we get this wrong.

Comments

  1. “Smiter, no smiting!”

  2. This interpretation of the stories asks us to accept that something is good only by giving up many other things that already are. It’s no test – it’s a form that evil takes.

  3. Thanks, Mike. That’s an important realization, one that we too often miss as we take the scriptures both literally and as if they were written by the finger of God himself.

  4. John Harrison says:

    If an aim of Mormonism is to get Mormons to develop their own agency and moral reasoning (and I think this has to be the part of the core of Mormonism) then eventually there will be a crisis when simple obedience is not enough.

    While we often hear that “obedience is the first law of the gospel” it certainly isn’t the complete gospel and it isn’t the end either.

    At some point the training wheels have to come off and you have to grapple with complexity. To have your own wrestle before God.

    We are at a moment when many are subcontracting out their moral compass to others. I wonder if that is our test, in some perverse way. To see if we will quietly allow something God has told us is wrong to happen because the people doing it claim greater authority.

  5. D. Fletcher says:

    We are asked to confirm for ourselves the revelations given to the Prophets, and if we ask with real humility, the confirmation will come. Always in the affirmative. The revelation is real, and right, from God Himself. But if the confirmation doesn’t come, we haven’t asked with real humility. There is no greater paradox in the Church than this simple task — ask for yourself, but always obey, regardless. In the current controversy, I’m encouraged to seek confirmation of a revelation which condemns my life as apostasy and sin. I’m in a no-win situation.

  6. Please point to any prophetic statement regarding the lesson we need to learn of Abraham is that he got it wrong.

    Also consider the words of the Lord himself with regard to Abraham:
    Abraham received all things, whatsoever he received, by revelation and commandment, by my word, saith the Lord, and hath entered into his exaltation and sitteth upon his throne.

  7. Gerry, if the parallel Nelson used is going to work, there needs to be a ram in the thicket. What is the ram in the thicket in this scenario?

    If we go against our moral judgment and support the policy excluding married gays and their kids, what’s the escape plan like what’s referred to in D&C 132:50? “Go, therefore, and I make a way for your escape, as I accepted the offering of Abraham of his son Isaac.” Will we in the end not have to follow this policy after all, because God says “just kidding,” as he did by providing the ram in the thicket?

    Looking forward to that. Maybe that will be how they justify dropping the policy later.

  8. Two Bible scriptures to think about:

    Matt 13: 16-17
    16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear.
    17 For verily I say unto you, That many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them.

    and 1 Corr 13:8-18
    8 Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. 9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.

  9. “the argument that we should do what the Lord commands is an ethical position that depends on the same moral reasoning responsible for our other beliefs.”

    Well stated.

  10. cookie queen says:

    There is a good chance I will turn up with brownies. No strings.

  11. EB – I’ve said nothing about Pres. Nelson. I’ve said nothing about whether you should listen to voices or visitations telling you to sacrifice your children. I didn’t even realize this post was supposed to be about Pres. Nelson’s portion of the talk about the baptism policy.

    Not having heard the entire talk, and only being able to scan the quotes I find online, Pres. Nelson references Abraham with regard to obedience by God’s covenant people in difficult circumstances. I don’t think that’s a poor way to use Abraham.

    But what I’m looking for any authoritative statements that says Abraham was wrong. I don’t think you’ll find them with any substance. It’s virtual nonsense. This post is philosophically a stones throw from the atheist who declares there is no God after looking at all the suffering and injustice in the world. It turns blinders to the hard realities of life in the midst of extreme adversity. It embraces the eternal companion of the prosperity gospel, the theological saccharine twinkie, under the guise of the superiority of moral reasoning (as if nearly everyone who was ever wrong about an issue didn’t think they had a good and moral reason).

    You also skipped an important component of that verse you cited – “I have seen your sacrifices in obedience to that which I have told you.” But more importantly, this post is generally arguing against the accepted scriptural narrative, and now you’re twisting the narrative to suggest that we should be disobedient first, or not even make any kind of sacrifice because of the ram in the thicket.

  12. These stories bother me too at times. If we place them in contextand use them allegoricly we can learn from them. First, remember Abraham lived in a vastly different world than we do. It was an eye for an eye and quite a bloodthirsty time, so examining these events by our frame of reference is anything but exact. Second the author of these books are scribed from oral stories passed down through time. Each voice will re- tell the stories accoding to their own temperment and value placed on those events until they were finally written by an educated man to be read by the few educated men that were there. And finally our interpretation. How does this apply to me snd my life. Like the scriptures say….liken it unto ourselves. I, as well as everyone I know, face challenges. Some are easy to see the lesson learned as we struggle. Sometimes understanding comes only as we look back and see the Lord was there all along, and the confirmation that we did indeed grow through that trial. But sometimes we are asked to give more, let go more, struggle more, sacrifice more than we feel capable of doing and certainly goes against all we have righteously desired for ourselves or even against our very nature, and we read Abraham’s story and cry out in heartbreaking, gut wrenching, never ending pain” Where is my ram in the thicket?” Yet the heaven’s seem to remain silent. Though I hate to sound patronizing or shallow offering cute platitudes or repetitive mindless dribble; perhaps just perhaps our fatted ram is waiting for us in the eternities where, as Joseph Wirthling, and so many others so fervently promises “The Lord compensates the faithful for every loss. That which is taken away from those who love the Lord will be added unto them in His own way. While it may not come at the time we desire, the faithful will know that every tear today (every dacrifice made) will eventually be returned a hundredfold with tears of rejoicing and gratitude.” As much as I reject this message of hope when I’m the depths of despair I know it is true.

  13. This is a minor point, I guess, since it wasn’t the focus of what you wrote, but Nephi having to kill Laban was not an Abrahamic test. Being commanded to kill a man who is trying to murder your family (and who would have hunted you down and slaughtered you all for having taken the brass plates) and being commanded to kill your only child who has done nothing wrong are two entirely different things.

  14. ” if God ever tells me to whack someone, the answer is no.”

    Sadly, you cannot know this in advance. According to a psychiatric metastudy [1], your very ability to answer this question drops significantly [2] once you actually do hear voices. In other words, the Abrahamic test is rigged for us to pass. Let’s all pray we are not ever put to the test.

    [1] http://www.jaapl.org/content/37/2/225.full
    [2] relative to not hearing God speak. Overall, most delusionals are nonviolent.

  15. Nancy,
    “The Lord compensates the faithful for every loss. That which is taken away from those who love the Lord will be added unto them in His own way. While it may not come at the time we desire, the faithful will know that every tear today (every sacrifice made) will eventually be returned a hundredfold with tears of rejoicing and gratitude.”

    I really don’t think this quote was meant to justify hurting other people.

  16. This post […] turns blinders to the hard realities of life in the midst of extreme adversity. It embraces […] the theological saccharine twinkie

    On the contrary, the post explicitly states that the story of Abraham “is not a simplistic morality tale whose unproblematic moral is: ‘do whatever God says, even if it means killing your child'” (or as you put it: “obedience by God’s covenant people in difficult circumstances”). You are the one who elides the “the hard realities of life in the midst of extreme adversity” into “whatever; just be obedient”.

  17. “If somebody has some brass plates that God wants or needs, He can do His own smiting. He knows how. He’s done it lots of times. I don’t smite.”

    First of all: I agree on all points of this statement. Seriously, I’m struck by how uninventive diety is in this scenario. Like Paul Simon’s 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover, even I can come up with 50 better ways for the Lord to deliver the plates to Nephi than to command his young prophet-in-training to behead a guy passed out in the gutter. And I especially hate it when apologists try to spin this, using everything from a twisting of Mosiac Law to “character development” as justification.

  18. larryco, “smiting” isn’t even necessary for Laban. Why couldn’t the spirit simply say “Nephi, I’ve put Laban in a coma for 40 days. Take his clothes and get the plates. By the time he comes to, your family will be long gone” ?

  19. “Ultimately, the only thing that can be measured by such a test is loyalty.”

    Spot on, Michael. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that to many Church leaders, President Nelson included, loyalty is the *only* virtue. They don’t want to deal with the messiness of people having their own consciences.

  20. God commanded Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit, then required them to eat it, then punished them for breaking the commandment.

    God commanded Abraham not to kill, then required him to kill his son, then rewarded him for (attempting to) break the commandment.

    God sure is confusing. It would sure be nice if we knew which commandments He actually wants us to break or keep

  21. I used to have serious issues about the Lord asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. In fact, so far the only time my wife and I have had a serious argument so far was when we discussed this topic (we haven’t been married for very long yet). Here are some scriptures that have helped me confront the issue: Jacob 4:5, my absolute favorite “obedience” scripture; Hebrews 11:17-19, where we learn that Abraham believed that this test didn’t really have any serious consequences because of his faith in the resurrection; James 2:21-23, where Paul teaches that Abraham was indeed righteous.

    If you feel weird about Abraham & Isaac, I completely understand.Thankfully, I don’t believe that the Lord has ever asked anyone to kill anyone since the New Testament was officially put into force. Nevertheless, I think it’s important to confront the doctrine of Abraham and try to understand it, as it is an inseparable and important part of our religion.

    Here are more of my thoughts on the subject: http://oneamongthem.blogspot.com/2015/11/obedience-doctrinal-apophenia-pt-2.html

  22. “On the contrary, the post explicitly states that the story of Abraham “is not a simplistic morality tale whose unproblematic moral is: ‘do whatever God says, even if it means killing your child’” (or as you put it: “obedience by God’s covenant people in difficult circumstances”). You are the one who elides the “the hard realities of life in the midst of extreme adversity” into “whatever; just be obedient”.

    Why the personal attack?

    Also, the idea that obedience is a way to avoid harsh realities or adversity is silly. It is difficult to be obedient. And obedience, even when difficult, is not a cop out.

    If people choose not to go along with a controversial policy or doctrine then they deserve respect for their choice. But so do the people who choose to have faith in the brethren. I just disagree with the concept that choosing to not undergo an Abrahamic test is somehow intellectually superior than choosing obedience.

  23. I want to say, “Dude, you’ve got it wrong. God was testing Abraham to see if he would be dumb enough to do something stupid and evil just because someone in a white robe told him to. Abraham was part of an ancient Milgram Study. And he flunked.”

    I guess the corollary then, if we assume the Abrahamic test was a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice, was that God failed when he allowed his son to die.

  24. A hearty “amen” to everything in the OP. Seriously. Everything.

  25. Why the personal attack?

    I disagree with your argument, but I don’t see where I attacked your person.

  26. Elizabeth says:

    I come lately agree with you in principle!

    But.

    This will always be a challenging position to uphold in Christian circles because the core of Christian theology – namely, redemption via atonement – is Inherently built upon the premise of human sacrifice.

    The death of Jesus is the death of a God and the death of a Man enacted to save humankind. A non-Christian is more free to reinterpret the story of Abraham as Abraham failing the test, but a Christian embraces human and God sacrifice as the absolute core of the metaphysics of his/her own salvation.

    To a Christian, Abraham is an archetype of God, Isaac an archetype if Jesus, and the Akedah a primer on atonement. Who could be a better patriarch than the man who knows most what God goes through in sacrificing a son? In this sense, Abraham is the most like-God patriarch there is because he almost enacted a human sacrifice.

    I have my own theories on the atonement that don’t depend on human sacrifice, but at the end of the day, disturbingly, members of Xhristian religions embrace human sacrifice, at least implicitly.

  27. The thing that has always bothered me about applying the Abrahamic Test is that God stopped Abraham before he killed his son. So Abraham had to be willing, but he didn’t actually complete the ‘act’. The moment we are asked to not just be willing but to also go thru with an ‘act’ the situation is no longer an Abrahamic Test. Which I suppose validates the previous comments about the Abrahamic Test really testing loyalty. It also destroys most of the modern usages of the term.

    It also rather ruins the idea that the ‘ram will appear in the thicket’ after we are all dead. That’s just not what happened to Abraham. He didn’t kill his son, finish his own life living with the circumstances of his act, and then receive a ram after his death. Totally different scenario for me (which I now feel the need to find a scripture story to match…).

    The only modern equivalent of the Abrahamic Test I can come up with off the top of my head is Joseph Smith going to Heber C. Kimball and saying God had told him to take Vilate in marriage. Heber and Vilate struggled, agreed, and only then did Joseph say it was only a test.

  28. It is not a simplistic morality tale whose unproblematic moral is: “do whatever God says, even if it means killing your child.” We disrespect the text and the experience when we get this wrong.

    This is such a wonderful, and true, post. It is virtuous, lovely, of good report, and praiseworthy. Church stuff that complies with the admonition of Paul can be hard to come by these days.

    What does it say about us that the “loyalty” interpretation is the one that controls in our cultural understanding in the Church today? That we’re not even aware of the Christian and Jewish traditions that realize that the Abraham story of sacrificing Isaac raises far more questions than answers and problematizes everything?

  29. I am very sympathetic to the views expressed in this post. I wonder though about your priors. What would you do if the POTUS showed up at your door, conscripted you to fight in a war and ordered you to kill enemies of the state? And if your answer is that you would do what the POTUS asks, then I wonder what the difference is. Is it a lingering skepticism over one’s ability to distinguish between the supernatural and the delusional? Is it greater confidence in the rules and institutions we use to regulate state-based warfare as compared to the heavenly analogue? Is it a suspicion that God is really not being serious in that scenario but is instead just testing you because he can do whatever he wants by himself whereas that’s not really an option with the POTUS? Of course, if your answer is that you wouldn’t kill for the POTUS either, then that’s interesting too.

  30. Mike, zjg apparently thinks this is a political rant and all your moral reasoning would be chucked out the window if only President Obama were the person telling you to kill someone and not the voices in your head. Ha!

  31. I agree, from “Just no” (me too) to “the prophets and patriarchs of the Old Testament teach us as much by what they get wrong as they do by what they get right.” Equally or more important, it needs to be said. A part of the gnosis of Mormonism (the secret ‘knowledge’, which I reject) is that “I will kill or be killed for the faith.” Unfortunately that idea, in one or many forms, is too common and needs to be rejected or countered regularly and loudly.

  32. John F — Actually, no, that’s not at all what I meant, although I guess I can see how it might have been read that way. I really did mean what I said (I usually do incidentally) — I agree with the “just no” position that Michael Austin very eloquently articulates. But at the same time, I’ve never thought of myself as a pacifist. If I were conscripted to fight for my country, I would do it. (Although if my country needed me of all people to fight, then things would have to be very dire indeed.) To be honest, I’m not entirely sure why I take these different positions, although I listed a couple of possibilities in my comment. In other words, my “just no” position is certainly motivated by moral intuitions, but for me at least, I don’t think it’s as simple as the prohibition against killing. (And to be clear, I’m not saying that Michael Austin’s moral intuitions can be reduced to that either.)

  33. So your contention is that Abraham failed a test…and then was rewarded with the Abrahamic Covenant?

    Elder Holland gives a very enlightening talk on this subject called “The Will of God In All Things”. Worth a listen/read.

  34. “The moment we are asked to not just be willing but to also go thru with an ‘act’ the situation is no longer an Abrahamic Test.”

    Not all who go through such a test are delivered. The point of an Abrahamic test isn’t whether or not you are delivered, but the requirement to submit your desires, your ideas of morality, your will to God. Not to the brethren, but to God. It’s about humility and submission. And it can be big and flashy, or small and unnoticed by anyone but the disciple.

    For those of us with a testimony that the brethren speak for God, that is often a meaningless distinction. But don’t assume just because we support the brethren of the Church, that we don’t struggle. We do. We just don’t usually advertise it the same way.

    Of course, no one expects anyone who hasn’t been through that kind of test to understand. It’s not a secret knowledge, it’s nothing particularly special, it’s just a trial that takes you to the rock bottom of your faith in order to teach you priorities. It changes you forever. Denying that such a test is part of Christianity requires denying not only the living prophets, but a huge chunk of scripture. (Which is a completely valid decision to make, entirely personal between an individual and God, but definitely requires rejecting a significant part of Christianity.)

    Abrahamic tests are microcosms of Gethsemane, a moment when we as disciples plead to be delivered, and (without any promise of delivery) are faced with the choice to follow God or not. To be an Abrahamic test, it requires 1) knowing that God is the one asking, 2) possessing no confidence in deliverance, and 3) being presented a clear choice that challenges the core of who you are. It is a small way we can become like Christ, and is at least one necessary point on the path of discipleship.

    It’s not something that can be understood through any other lens.

  35. Isn’t it also possible that Abraham was so entrenched in a culture that associated religion with human sacrifice that he mistakenly thought that his God required the same, thereby necessitating the angelic intervention to correct him? In that case, this would be a story about how easy it is to misconstrue divine commands and how God allows us (even prophets) considerable leeway to make such mistakes, although every once in a while he might intervene if we really screw things up bad.

  36. Kirsi, your comment presupposes that God does immoral things. That is one of the premises I read Mike as questioning.

  37. I love this OP. I think this line is key: “Plenty of people since Abraham have killed other people—members of their own family and total strangers—because they heard voices. We call these people “criminally insane.” We do not take seriously the notion that the voices they heard might have belonged to God.” When it comes to someone claiming that God commanded them to harm others we assume that they are, insane, wrong, deceived, (pick your adjective there are many). But we never suggest maybe God did tell them to commit the crime because that would go against what we believe about God. Why is it then when The Prophet tells us God told him that we should hurt others it is suddenly believable when it still goes against our own understanding of God and morality?

  38. I don’t read Kirsi’s comment as presupposing the immorality of God at all. I think we are here to be tested. Was God immoral if He commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac knowing that a ram was in the thicket?

  39. So much OT taken far too literally. I’ll go with the symbolism.

  40. Nice, post.

    It seems to me, however, that you’ve left out a very important category of Abrahamic test: when you have a personal conviction that something is right, but you can’t (convincingly) explain it to others. This, it seems to me, is the case that Kierkegaard has so famously analyzed.

    (It also seems that the case I mention is what Job is struggling with. I haven’t read your highly praised book yet, Michael, but I’m a bit surprised you didn’t mention this given your familiarity with Job. Isn’t one of his primary struggles the fact that he’s convinced he’s suffering innocently whereas his friends are arguing that he must not be innocent–analogous to the case of Kierkegaard’s Abraham?)

  41. Kevin Barney says:

    Michael’s characterization of the Akedah, to the effect that God did indeed test Abraham but Abraham failed the test by being willing to kill his own son as a sacrifice (especially since the Torah elsewhere forbids human sacrifice) is actually a venerable Rabbinic approach to the passage. And I assure you that the Rabbis do not criticize Abraham lightly (but better to criticize Abraham than God himself).

  42. And I assure you that the Rabbis do not criticize Abraham lightly (but better to criticize Abraham than God himself).

    And, in addition, the viewpoint of those medieval rabbis is anything but “liberal” — they are if anything extremely conservative in trying to rescue the Abraham story from its obvious problems because of their sincere, if not fanatical, devotion to the primacy of the OT text itself, a very conservative viewpoint.

  43. Polly Aird says:

    The story of Abraham and Isaac has always been problematic for me. Why would God ask any father to slay his son, his only son? Does not sound like a God of mercy to me. I know it is one of the oldest stories in the OT and at the time animal sacrifices were common among the neighboring religions. I also know that some theology says it points ahead to God’s sacrifice of Christ. I know that many just see it as a command for obedience to God no matter what—or to trust in God no matter what. But that seems like blind obedience, and I don’t find that very satisfying. I can see that part of the story is that God does not want human sacrifices, now and forever more. Maybe offering up Isaac was offering up his life in the sense that he would then serve God throughout his life. Thus maybe the translation should be not “on” the altar but “at” the altar. After all, God had promised Abraham that his progeny would be as numerous as the stars or the sands of the sea.

    Maybe it means that God can lead you places in life that you don’t understand and don’t know the reason for. And thus the story has to do with living with uncertainty but trusting in God, and that is the point—we need to be able to live with ambiguity, with not knowing everything.

  44. The most difficult part of an Abrahamic test, it seems to me, is figuring out what God wants of me. I like to think I’d be willing to do whatever God asks of me (but, honestly, that might be wishful thinking). My challenge is wrestling with God, really listening for an answer, and being willing to accept the answer. Once the answer is found, the degree to which it is difficult for me to act on it corresponds with how greatly the answer varies from my own preconceived notions of what God wants (or has wanted from me in the past). In the case of The Policy, it’s difficult and disorienting to figure out how to proceed because if the answer is “yes, it’s from God” then I’m compelled to rethink what I thought I knew of God and love. If the answer is “no, it’s not from God” then I’m compelled to rethink what I thought I knew of prophetic authority. (I acknowledge this is a simplistic binary approach and that real life is messier.) In either case, the test requires a re-examination of beliefs and a change in behavior. Maybe all the grappling and re-examining results in growth, regardless of the answer.

  45. Let me point out the fundamental inconsistency of the article, to which others have eluded.

    You say that under no circumstances will you ever “whack” someone if God asks you. You also say you are willing to incarcerate someone for asking you to kill someone. Is not incarceration much harsher than a “whack”? Of course, this depends on what you mean by “whack”. It sounds like you are willing to “whack” for society’s sake, but not for God’s.

    In the first paragraph you sound like you wish to do no harm to anyone, but in the second paragraph you sound ready to wage a long campaign to harm individuals that do not agree with your moral views. Which are you trying to promote?

    This logical inconsistency says nothing to the fundamental doctrinal inconsistency in your position. If you believe God can justifiably “whack” someone to harshly reprimand them into repentance, but you still refuse to ever “whack” someone, then the highest kingdom you can reach in Mormon Theology is the Terrestrial, is it not? If we must become gods, then we must also gain God’s ability to reprimand harshly, right? Usually, gaining this ability isn’t the problem, it is the restraining part that is difficult.

    I don’t think we can really discuss killing until we logically straighten out the lesser extremes.

  46. The main point that I’m taking away from this is that human reasoning is supposed to judge God’s commandment…. The exact opposite of “I know not, save the Lord hath commanded me.”

    “Here’s the problem with that kind of “test”: the argument that we should do what the Lord commands is an ethical position that depends on the same moral reasoning responsible for our other beliefs.”

    This entire argument presupposes that “moral reasoning”, aka human reasoning, inevitably lies at the heart of such choices. I find little, if any support for such an assumption in the scriptures.

  47. Jeff,
    The scriptures are inherently a human argument that God should be listened to. I’m a bit bumfuzzled that you think Michael has gone out on some limb here.

  48. Stories like this are probably not literally true, but their existence as stories serve as a kind of vicarious Abrahamic test for the reader as they consider their own faith. Do we, the reader and the believer, accept a God who presents Himself in absurd and irrational ways? Do we embrace God even in His foolishness, or even in His seeming immorality? Like Job, after God refused to answer Job’s questions and instead gave Him an incongruous and terrifying vision of His awesomeness, do we humble ourselves in sackcloth and ashes? Or do we “curse God and die” like Job’s wife?

    Religion is absurd, not just in Abraham’s sacrifice, but most especially in Jesus’ sacrifice, which is the most absurd of all. And embracing an absurd belief is an Abrahamic test. We have to kill our own wisdom and embrace the foolishness of God.

  49. Deep Think says:

    Maybe we should assume that God’s voice asking to kill or do other evil will only be given to a prophet of God, and not the people. The burden is too big.

  50. What made Nephi a prophet in the moment he was commanded to kill Laban? There was no orderly succession, generally agreed upon by the people he would presume to preside over, that made Nephi into a prophet.

  51. Returning to the original post, you wrote “If somebody has some brass plates that God wants or needs, He can do His own smiting. He knows how. He’s done it lots of times.

    This is a very good point — if God wanted Laban dead, why did God not simply turn Laban into a pillar of salt? There’s Old Testament precedent for that. Then Nephi could have taken the clothes off the pillar and impersonated Laban to Laban’s household to kidnap Zoram and steal Laban’s property. Or God could have just had Laban stop breathing or choke on his vomit as he lay there drunk.

    The idea that God didn’t do either of these things so that Nephi could learn some kind of lesson is somewhat incongruous as well. Elsewhere, God teaches not to trust in the arm of the flesh but that God will fight his followers’ battles. This teaching implies that Nephi could have or should have not killed Laban himself but rather relied on God to kill Laban or provide some other way to obtain the brass plates (a ram in the thicket). It’s very puzzling.

  52. JohnC,

    Despite my strong approval of the word “bumfuzzled”, I just as strongly disapprove of your argument. Projecting the argumentative reasoning of the post-Hellenic stripe back onto the Hebrew scriptures seems quite obviously unwarranted. To be sure, the scriptures are aimed at persuading others, but to say that they just are an embodiment of human reasoning is just wrong. My argument for this is simple:

    1: The scriptures say to trust the scriptures.
    2: The scriptures say to trust not in human reasoning.
    Thus, the scriptures are not human reasoning.

    One could just as easily substitute “men in white robes” for “the scriptures”. The idea that any and all types of persuasion should be read as if they were good/bad arguments only comes when we take the Greek side of the Euthyphro dilemma where “men in white” are only as good/bad and what they say. If, however, we take the Hebrew side by saying that something are good/bad at least partially because of who says it, then the consistency in moral reasoning that the OP presupposes is no longer quite so imperative.

  53. If, however, we take the Hebrew side by saying that something are good/bad at least partially because of who says it, then the consistency in moral reasoning that the OP presupposes is no longer quite so imperative.

    This argument takes a very fundamentalist/scriptural inerrantist approach that ignores the different issues that arise from the composition and compilation of what we now know as the Hebrew scriptures. Although this is the trend over the last half century among our people, at our founding we had reason to doubt the veracity of some aspects of the authorship of the Bible. Plain and precious parts/as far as it is “translated” correctly (a very loaded phrase that *necessarily* implies human error or even outright corruption in the text that we now have), etc.

  54. Isn’t it a little too easy to characterize the narrative as Abraham hearing voices in his head?

  55. Johnf.

    While we both objection to scriptural fundamentalism, I see two counter-points to your objection:

    1. The idea that biblical scholarship ought to constrain our reading of the Bible begs the question entirely against somebody who has so little respect for human reasoning.
    2. LDS believe that living prophets, not living scholars are to be trusted with sifting through scriptural threads. Thus, we fall squarely on the Hebrew side of the Euthyphro divide.

    I full agree that this can be used for unbounded and blind obedience by some…. but the proper antidote to such dangers comes from personal revelation, not human reasoning.

  56. Contiued….

    The problem is that OP is explicitly arguing that human reason ought to trump personal revelation, the latter being an unsatisfactory antidote to unenlightened obedience.

  57. “Ultimately, the only thing that can be measured by such a test is loyalty.”

    Really? Not trust? Not faith? Learning to trust God and have faith in what He says is pretty fundamental. Developing a sense of morality independent of that or presuming that it’s grown to the point where we can tell when God’s bluffing seems dangerous and arrogant. It means you either really believe in a God who tricks and lies or that you know better than Him. Either way, it means you must not have much use for Him.

    The real question is whether the directive to do something really comes from God. I find a lot of the Old Testament suspect. Many here clearly find the recent policies put in place by our church leaders suspect. But it’s an entirely different thing to say that one would reject ANY commandment of God out of a superior moral sense.

  58. Martin, we’re talking about killing your own child. If you think God is telling you to do that, best practice might be to argue a bit and see if God will do it himself.

  59. I’ve read a few comments that explain the Abraham story in terms of God sacrificing Christ. There is a glaring difference in these two stories. Christ willingly sacrificed himself and God did not stop him. Abraham lied to Isaac and pretended like he wasn’t going to kill him. Isaac had no choice in the matter. We always talk about the story as if it were just Abraham making a sacrifice of his promised blessings of having a lot of progeny, or sacrificing his moral reasoning. No, instead he is making a decision for someone else. This is why the new policy is an Abrahamic test. It basically requires us to harm children and then rationalize that we are the ones being tested by seeing if we will bow to authority. The assumption is that God is testing me, when relatively speaking, I am suffering no harm!

  60. EBK, but how can it be an Abrahamic test if (A) it’s not our own children we’re harming and (B) there’s no ram in the thicket?

  61. Jeff,
    You are just so incredibly wrong. No matter what the divinity of the revelatory origin of scripture, people are still the ones copying, interpreting, writing, singing, narrating, telling, persuading (with love unfeigned), and channeling revelation. You do not get revelation without humans (or Gods). And scripture uses human reason (note I didn’t say Greek reason) to argue its own positions. It is why the scripture says God speaks to the heart and the mind.

    Note: part of the reason why I oppose the new policy it because I’ve had spiritual intuitions regarding it. I also don’t think it makes logical sense, but it just feels wrong. YMMV.

  62. I’ve sort of come to the tentative conclusion that the “test” was not to see *what* Abraham would do, but rather to see *how* he would do it. In my very fallible opinion, if Abraham had just said “sure, where’s the knife?” without giving it a further thought he would have failed the test just as much as if he had just said “no, I’m not doing that” without givign it a further thought. In a certain sense, it was a loaded test; no matter what he did, he would have been doing something wrong (disobeying God, or murdering). It wasn’t a choice of whether to obey or not obey, it was (like Eden) a choice of which commandment to obey and which to disobey. So I don’t think the test was about the result, but rather about the process. Either he had to decide that murder isn’t evil if God commands it, or he had to decide that disobedience isn’t evil if God commands something evil.

    It’s like in law school where you can get the wrong answer, but still pass the test, because you engage in the right kind of reasoning. The way I read it, Abraham may have gotten the wrong answer, and maybe that’s why the angel had to step in and correct him, but even though he got the wrong answer, he passed the test, because he poured his soul into figuring it out and did the best that he could do.

    I think that’s why Paul says not that Abraham’s choice was righteous, but that it was “counted unto him for righteousness.” And I half suspect that if Abraham, after a sincere struggle, had decided that disobedience was the lesser evil, that would also have been “counted unto him for righteousness.” Abraham passed the test because he chose obedience, but because he struggled with the commandment, and he even though he knew that no matter what decision he made would result in a broken commandment, he trusted that God would repair the brokenness.

    I’m not totally satisfied with that, but it’s the best I can do. Most other answers feel like a cop-out on one side or the other.

  63. Tyler,
    I read the post you linked to. Well articulated.

  64. john f.
    I agree with your points. Mostly I was just trying to point out how the flaw in the Abraham story is that Abraham was not the one making the biggest sacrifice. Isaac was, and he was not consulted nor given any sort of choice in the matter. The new policy is similar in the sense that I am being “tested” by seeing if I am willing to harm others without their consent or choice, and then I pretend like I’m the one who sacrificed.

  65. It pretends that children are not real people. They are just commodities that fill the desires of adults (Abraham sacrificing his blessing to have lots of progeny, the idea that gay parents would only want their children baptized as pawns in some sort of lawsuit instead of because they are real people with real souls that the parents care about.)

  66. JKC, thank you for that — really enlightening. I need to think more about that but really like it on first blush.

    An early, divine Kobayashi Maru, of sorts.

    Maybe it’s really a teaching about free will — meant to show us that God allows us real choices and that he doesn’t know 100% what we will do because we are free, even if he can predict with near perfect accuracy because he understands all of the complex inputs that form the bases for our decisions, including mental health, upbringing, environment, past experiences, IQ level, nutrition and physical health — basically all the things that we never take into account when we’re judging an individual for a choice he or she has made, things that to some extent “predetermine” what the choice will be.

  67. EBK, yes, that’s right. Another way the new policy commodifies children is that an admitted reason for the policy is to “force” or manipulate individuals not to choose to be true to their innate sexuality by marrying someone of the same sex because before doing so, they will have to consider this new consequence that the Church will lay on their children if they do so.

    So if they want their children to be able to receive the saving ordinances without waiting until they are adults and first renouncing their parents’ sins, then they will choose not to marry or live together in a marriage-like permanent relationship. Instead, they will either have to languish in misery for their entire lives, denied that monogamous companionship of marriage to the one they love, or live promiscuous gay lives, never settling down in a monogamous gay relationship.

    The glitch is that this new consequence that is placed upon the children is not a natural consequence of the marriage-like gay relationship. Christ, in his ministry, forbade the leaders of his disciples from preventing the children to come unto him to receive his blessing. Normally, following this scriptural example and doctrine, we would not forbid children the support and strength of receiving a name and a blessing at birth or the ordinance of baptism at age 8, both as commanded in the D&C without carve-out or exception, because we want all children to advance through their teens strengthened by the Gift of the Holy Ghost. But this policy changes that age-old scriptural doctrine and places this consequence on the children for the sins of their parents. So it is not only not a natural consequence of the marriage-like gay relationship but it is also a departure from established doctrine and previous practice.

  68. JohnC,

    I never denied any of those things… Thus, I am left wondering where I went so incredibly wrong.

    Again, the paradigmatic example of my position is “I know not, save the Lord hath commanded it” – an example which stands in stark contrast to the OP wherein “who commands it” is totally sidelined as irrelevant. The attempt to sideline “who commands it” is exactly what I called the Greek side of the Euthyphro dilemma – nothing deeper was meant by the term.

  69. Are you seriously objecting to the idea of turning down, on moral grounds, an invitation by a Mormon church leader to kill someone?

  70. Still beating the “abject submission to religious authority for its own sake” drum, I see?

  71. JohnF,

    Are you seriously misreading me like that? If you’ll kindly re-read my comments, I specifically anticipated your willful (and tiresome) misreading by saying that the antidote to such dangers lie in personal revelation rather than in reasoning.

  72. From your comments I see that you believe it is wrong to reject such a command if it comes from a particular source — the “who commands it” parts of your previous comments. Are you suggesting that one could receive personal revelation not to kill someone a Mormon Church leader has told you to kill? (But not moral reasoning using the intellect with which God has blessed us to come to the conclusion that such a command must be per se wrong?)

  73. I doubt many of us will ever face the kind of dilemma that Abraham faced. But I would guess that many of us have–and will–be called upon by a well-meaning relative to give a “releasing” blessing to their chronically ill family member. Or, apparently more problematic, be asked to give a healing blessing to someone who fully expects to be healed, only to have the words given to us that no, their illness will be terminal. Does the OP mean that he won’t give others priesthood blessings, knowing that such outcomes are possible? If God can kill and heal, why does He ask us to exercise priesthood abilities that He could just as easily do Himself?

  74. “Are you suggesting that one could receive personal revelation not to kill someone a Mormon Church leader has told you to kill?”

    Absolutely!!!! I 100% hope that personal revelation or any visitor in white robes would tell me to disobey such an order. Anybody who doesn’t have a strong-inclination against killing others is just a bad person, plain and simple.

    Where I disagree with the OP is in:

    1. I allow for the possibility that such an angelic visitor or personal revelation would *confirm* such a distasteful and morally unreasonable commandment.
    2. I reject the idea that “moral reasoning” has any right to over-turn such an angelic visitor or personal revelation.
    3. I reject the idea that my personal revelation – whether it confirms or disconfirms such a command – is a matter of public concern in *any* morally relevant sense.

  75. JohnF,

    To put it differently, OP basically says:

    church leaders < personal revelation < moral reasoning = public.

    By contrast, I say:

    moral reasoning < church leaders < personal revelation = private.

    I full expect most people here to disagree with my placing church leaders over moral reasoning. No surprises here. What really shocks me about the OP, however, is that it places moral reasoning above revelation! I think that is going WAY too far. I think the Nephi's killing of Laban is a strong counter example to any such attempt at granting consistency in moral reasoning the last word.

  76. I think you part from many Mormons there, who believe, as we’ve seen all over social media since Sunday evening and Nov. 5, that personal revelation cannot overrule a dictate from a Church leader, because those Church leaders (they believe) cannot be wrong. So it is a paradox in their mind for anyone to suggest that God could or would give them a personal revelation that a statement or policy or dictate of Church leaders is wrong.

  77. They also don’t appear to believe that Church leaders can or should be accountable for their actions, that is, subject to scrutiny for their statements, policies, or dictates, or that those statements, policies, or dictates are subject to moral testing based on objective morality available to each of us through the light of Christ, i.e. our conscience and intellect working in tandem.

    So many of our core beliefs as Mormons are being turned on their heads, aren’t they? Accountability (of children and people in general, including people who happen to have callings in Church leadership); Christ’s New Testament command that all should come unto him through baptism, as supplemented by the D&C clarifying that this should happen at age 8; the absolutely essential nature of the Gift of the Holy Ghost, which the Church taught up until Nov. 5 was indispensable for all people from age 8 (as commanded by the D&C) as they make their way through this mortal probation; etc.

  78. Johnf,

    I think you’re right that the mainstream does not consciously draw the private/public distinction that I do. Nevertheless, I think the mainstream does follow my model very closely in practice.

    I think that almost all members would disobey church leaders is they “prayed about it.” I also believe that most would not publicly legislate against church leaders when they disobey in this way. This is exactly what my model suggests.

    In other words, they fully recognize that church leaders can be wrong… they just don’t recognize any living person’s right to declare them wrong. I think this is very close to the mainstream.

  79. Wow, step off line for a few hours and miss a lot! Not much to add to all of the excellent discussion here, except one quick response to Jeff G., which is this: why in the world do you think that being guided by revelation, personal or institutional, is something separate from “moral reasoning”? This formulation suggests that we have unfiltered access to the mind of God, which we don’t. All we have is moral reasoning; the only question is how we are going to deploy it.

    If you decide that the leaders of the Church are divinely guided and that you will follow what they say because you think it represents God’s will, you are exercising moral reasoning.

    If you decide to label your own subjective feelings as “personal revelation” (be they still small voices or thundering voices from the sky) and determine that you should follow that inspiration because it is morally correct to do so, your are exercising moral reasoning.

    If you decide that the Bible and the Book of Mormon are inspired documents (while the Quran and the Dhammapada are not), and determine to pattern your life after these scriptures, you are exercising moral reasoning.

    And if you decide to follow your own conscience, aided by your logical analysis, which tells you that it is wrong to do certain things and right to do other certain things, you are exercising moral reasoning.

    At the bottom of all of these examples of moral reasoning is a completely subjective determination to accept certain premises and reject others–followed by the exact same cognitive process proceeding from your initial assumptions. You can’t get away from this. You can’t NOT base your conclusions and your actions on the results of your subjective moral reasoning process.

    There was a plan once that would have allowed us to do just that–to simply obey our way through life secure in the knowledge that we were doing God’s will and never develop the spiritual capacity to reason about moral things. But we all voted against it. I have never understood why so many people are so anxious to take back their vote.

  80. Ethics be damned. The two Great Commandments are what matter. And their order is of no small significance — and maybe that ‘s one of the messages of Abraham’s sacrifice: Don’t get the order mixed up.

  81. Michael there’s a big difference between God teaching us moral reasoning with a nudge here and there to guide our intellect, and us using our developed moral sense to disobey His direct command, which is what you stated you’d do.

    john f, I understand you’re raging against the machine, but I’m not sure what you want. Elder Nelson stated the policy changes came from the Lord and that the brethren are unified on the matter, and you clearly state that you’ve had spiritual witness(es) to the contrary. That’s an impasse I can deal with personally — I can accept that the Lord’s told you the policy is not ideal, and that He’s not requiring you to defend it, while I can still sustain the brethren and believe the policy is the Lord’s will right now. I do not accept that the brethren are morally bankrupt or that the church members should rise up in opinion against them – is that what you mean by saying we should hold them accountable? If they’re claiming prophetic inspiration and you know it’s not, what then?

  82. “Michael there’s a big difference between God teaching us moral reasoning with a nudge here and there to guide our intellect, and us using our developed moral sense to disobey His direct command, which is what you stated you’d do.”

    This is only true if you are absolutely certain that what you perceive as “God” is actually God. And you can only arrive at this certainty through the exercise of moral reasoning. Ultimately, it is not a choice between “God” and “moral reasoning.” It is a choice between which subjective inclination you are going to accept as the ground upon which you exercise moral reasoning.

  83. “you clearly state that you’ve had spiritual witness(es) to the contrary.”

    If you have to resort to inventing stuff then it’s no use discussing things with you.

  84. Michael, I think so many people are anxious to take back their vote simply because it’s so hard to develop the capacity for moral reasoning. To me developing that capacity is the entire purpose of this life, but even then, it’s unbelievably hard to do. So many times I’ve begged God to tell me what to do, but over and over, his response is something to effect of “figure it out”. We’re all naturally lazy; working that hard is so much more difficult than simply outsourcing our moral reasoning to others, especially when those others suggest we should do just that by “obeying”.

  85. “Michael, I think so many people are anxious to take back their vote simply because it’s so hard to develop the capacity for moral reasoning. ”

    Factoring out differences in religion and life experience, this is the core argument of Eric From’s book, _Escape from Freedom_, which I consider one of the really indispensable books of the 20th century.

  86. It is also a key point in the “Grand Inquisitor” section of Dostoyevsky’s _The Brothers Karamazov_, from which the following:

    “I tell Thee that man is tormented by no greater anxiety than to find some one quickly to whom he can hand over that gift of freedom with which the ill-fated creature is born. But only one who can appease their conscience can take over their freedom. In bread there was offered Thee an invincible banner; give bread, and man will worship thee, for nothing is more certain than bread. But if some one else gains possession of his conscience—oh! then he will cast away Thy bread and follow after him who has ensnared his conscience.”

  87. Not a book I’m familiar with, something I’ll be sure to rectify soon :-)

  88. I love the grand inquisitor section, as well as that whole book. One of my favorites.

  89. Michael,

    If you honestly see no difference between God, his duly elected representatives or everybody else telling you to do something, then I don’t know what to say.

    That said, my position is totally indifferent to how filtered our communication with God may or may not be. If ever there was a case of scholars trying to position themselves between us and God it is post-structuralist literary theorists with their appeal to cultural filters… as if the mutual understanding between them and us was any less mediated. Where in the scriptures are cultural biases ever presented as an obstacle of any kind? What I find instead is that certain people are set apart along with their biases to lead us and, if anything, God is able to anticipate such biases when He talks to both them and us.

    Finally, and to repeat (yet again) I say “moral reasoning” in the exact same way that the scriptures teach us to be suspicious of human reasoning. If you really think that such reasoning is inescapable, then you have far bigger fish to fry, since we have been commanded to do the impossible.

  90. john f. – I cannot find what I thought I’d read. I didn’t think I had just made it up, but… I can’t find it now. That’s pretty unforgivable, but my sincere apologies.

    Michael, I disagree that the only way to identify what comes from God is our moral sense. It’s a useful check, but I believe revelation can be indisputable at times, something different from the more common spiritual nudging. If the story about Abraham is real, I think an angel could have given Abraham such an experience, where he could have known with a certainly that the angel was from God.

  91. Ah, not so unforgivable. It was John C. above. Off by one initial.

  92. “That said, my position is totally indifferent to how filtered our communication with God may or may not be”

    This is simply not true. Your position completely depends on communication from God being unfiltered. Nothing that you say makes even basic-level semantic sense if the people you call God’s “duly elected representatives” are not, in fact, representing God. You are engaging in moral reasoning all through your arguments on this thread; it just happens to be completely circular reasoning that assumes the truth of the premises upon which it entirely relies.

  93. Jeff G,
    You seemed to argue there was some definable difference between divine and human reasoning. I said we’ve had human interlocutors using some form of human reasoning interposing themselves between the human and divine in every instance of the revelation of divine will, scripture or no. So Michael is not out of bounds to claim that the assumptions of Divine Command Theory or whatever justification you have for the Abrahamic Test comes from human reasoning. Even saying, “I just don’t know,” is a kind of justification, because it usually supports an assertion that this is unusual or atypical behavior for God (God wouldn’t normally do this, so I’ve no idea what he’s up to).

  94. “Michael, I disagree that the only way to identify what comes from God is our moral sense. It’s a useful check, but I believe revelation can be indisputable at times.”

    What I am saying, though, is that accepting revelation is just as much an act of moral reasoning as using one’s conscience. At some point, you have to decide what subjective experience you are going to count as “revelation,” which is essentially the same process as determining what subject experience you are going to count as “moral reasoning.”

  95. I recently read an interpretation of the Abraham story that I hadn’t heard before. In this interpretation, the purpose of the story is to teach us that God can do what seems to be impossible. God made promises to Abraham about his posterity. If Isaac died, those promises could not be fulfilled. Abraham chose to do what God asked, even though it appeared to mean that God’s promises would not be fulfilled. The message of the story is that God is bigger than the contradiction. In this case, he provided a ram in the thicket. The setting of the story is sacrifice, in part, because animal sacrifice was familiar to the audience and in part to foreshadow Christ. Again, God was bigger than the contradiction. It appeared that Jesus could not be the Messiah if he died. But God had a bigger plan in mind.

    Applied to the topic of same-sex marriage: if a same sex couple receives revelation that God wants them to get married, that appears to cut them off from the promise of celestial marriage and eternal increase. But God is bigger than the contradiction. I suspect there is a lot we don’t know about what it means to be like God and the nature of eternal family. The message of Abraham is — have faith and do what a God is asking you to do and trust that he is bigger than the contradiction. On this interpretation of Abraham, the argument that same-sex marriage is wrong because it is inconsistent with our understanding of eternal families and the plan of salvation is wrong.

    Of course, one has to be confident about what God is asking you to do. If you think that he is telling you to kill people or engage in an armed takeover of government property, you’re probably wrong. I suspect that if you believe that God is asking you to do something that will increase the amount of love in the world, you’re more likely to be right.

    The Abrahamic choice is to decide whether to do what is right, when doing so appears to undermine God’s promises and plan.

  96. JohnC,

    Fair enough. My primary point is against any attempt to define any type of mental processing as “reasoning,” which is exactly what a couple people have done in this thread. This definition of reasoning is purely ideological, no different from the 18th/19th century economists who insisted that subsistence wages were natural and inescapable.

    What is clear and non-negotiable in any definition is that the scriptures condemn a trust in human reasoning. I feel like as long as I’ve got this premise, my claims here are solid in that 1) trusting human reasoning is NOT inevitable, and 2) using human reasoning to trump angelic visitors is wrong.

    That said, I am willing to risk a partial elaboration of the sense in which I happen to think human reasoning is bad. The basics of human reason lie not in their “mentality” but in the rules which morally (not neurologically) regulate and define good and bad claims. The rules by which we morally evaluate claims are basically the “logical fallacies”. For example, the Greeks invented the idea that an appeal to authority is wrong. This was an invention that quite obviously had no place through out most of the Old Testament. There are several places where an appeal to authority is considered perfectly valid.

    Perhaps the definitions that most influence my own thinking on this matter are Jurgen Habermas’ and (especially) Alvin Gouldner’s conceptions of reasoning wherein the defining feature is that one’s social status or position is totally and completely irrelevant to the justification any claim. This dovetails with the Platonic side of the Euthyphro dilemma in that people are good because of their access to impersonal reasons rather than the other way around. The rise of modernity, then, consisted largely in the rejection of kings’, priests’ and other traditional authorities’ asymmetric privilege to legislate truth and rightness.

    My position is that Mormonism does not go all the way with this modern rejection of authority and it is this failure to fully delegitimize appeals to authority that constitutes the “righteous” rejection of human reasoning. In other words, Mormonism rejects the idea that appeal to authority are a logical fallacy. When a properly authorized person – be it God Himself or one of His duly ordained representatives – tells us something (assuming there is no unrighteousness at play) our own thoughts or moral reasoning on the matter aren’t supposed to matter. We are supposed to give up what seems reasonable to us and trust to our Lord.

    Again, I’m largely willing to give ground on my own particular definition of human reasoning, so long as the proposed definition squares with those passages that tell us to distrust it. I just think that Gouldner’s definition is the clearest one that I’ve yet to come across.

  97. I guess it should not be particularly surprising that Mormonism, with its focus on prophets and other Old Testament borrowings, pushes folks toward a divine command theory ethic. But surely it can’t be the case that Mormonism commits us to this position. Especially considering our focus on progression and the need to learn to be more like Christ, I would think that Mormonism would be particularly amenable to a certain type of virtue ethics centered on the character of the Savior. In that case, I could imagine that the motivations of the individual in taking a particular moral action would on occasion trump obedience to the law, even if handed down by God’s prophets.

  98. “An early, divine Kobayashi Maru, of sorts.”

    Yes. Well said. I think that actually sums up my thoughts pretty well. Almost like, the only winning move is not to play. Except that’s also not a winning move.

  99. Kevin Barney, the idea that Abraham misunderstood God may be a venerable rabbinic teaching, but it is very different to what Michael Austin is arguing. The idea is encountered when Abraham expresses confusion, indeed, frustration with God for changing his mind all the time. You will have a son, then sacrifice him, now stop and don’t do anything to him. One imagines Abraham thinking make up your mind already. God responds by informing Abraham that he misunderstood, and that want was meant by olah was not a burnt-offering but an ascent to the mountain. This wordplay – a bit of a technicality – was misleading by God’s own admission, allowing him never to contradict himself even when testing Abraham. That Abraham failed the tests run counter to the whole point. God says that he placed this test before Abraham out of love for him. This was also how Rashi understood it, and his was probably the most important medieval use of that midrash.

  100. It’s not that God is amoral, it is that He IS morality. If he asks it, it is moral. Life is His.

    I know for a fact that God sometimes asks things of us which are not moral to us, and are against His own doctrine, because He has asked it of me. But the doctrine is His, and we are accountable to Him, not to others’ ideas of morality, for how we listen to Him.

    It is not safe, it is not predictable or repeatable, or controllable. But, then, God isn’t.

  101. I’ve been following the discussion between Jeff G and John C and john f with interest. While it is above my pay grade intellectually speaking, I have the impression that both arguments are valid, and that God has given us contradictory revelations. God ordained that there should be a tension between authority and autonomy: we are expected to obey divine authority, but we are also expected to be true to our divine conscience. When these contradict, we must choose for ourselves. One is not necessarily greater than the other.

    Abraham chose authority over conscience. But Eve chose conscience over authority. She knew God had forbidden the fruit, but she also had a divine conscience craving light and knowledge, and she chose the divine conscience. We celebrate Abraham’s obedience, and Eve’s disobedience. Both are valid options. We are free agents.

    Divine authority MUST present itself as having precedence, in order for it to be a strong authority. It must punish with consequences, like Eve being cast out of the Garden. The General Authorities will always present their authorised revelation as superior to individual’s personal conscience. That is their job. But it is the job of our conscience to fight for its own autonomy, to argue for it on blogs like this one. There must be a paradox, there must be a contradiction. That is the design. The church’s job is not to reveal the paradox. It is to present the truth as if there were no paradox. The paradox is revealed by the contradictions which arise from the doubts of our conscience.

  102. Really enjoyed that comment Natete. Thank you.

    It got me thinking that this state of affairs can only exist in a system that robustly protects the separation of church and state, the freedom of conscience. If Church leaders, tasked with teaching what they believe to be the Truth as if there weren’t any contradiction, had the power of the state behind them to enforce their view of the Truth, including by stifling different views not just through cultural domination but also by legal enforcement because they thought that would be best so that different views don’t detract from what they think is the only right view, then conscience would never be able to exercise its autonomy in proving contraries inherent in this paradox.

  103. The OP seems to want to raise a case for being a moral absolutist wherein he would not kill for God and would seek to incarcerate those advocating for such. Other’s have asked if he would kill for country or other reasons? I would ask even another angle on that, what is your stance on abortion in connection to this non-smiting theme? Wouldn’t the “voices” telling anyone that abortion is the better way out of an unwanted pregnancy fall under the delusional category since killing should be a repugnant choice whether God, our significant other, parents, peers or society tell us? If moral consistency is to be lauded as a higher position than God’s request that we violate that then the whole cloth must cover all degrees of voices telling us to kill.

  104. I tire of hearing people misuse this story to justify not obeying God. There is NO textual evidence that this was a test that Abraham failed. God asks complete obedience and submission to his will. This was always a test to see how much Abraham trusted God. Did he know the Lord loves him? Did he know the Lord loves Isaac? Did he trust the Word of God more than his own heart? Yes. And God spared Isaac. It was never in the plan for Isaac to die. It was always a symbol of Christ being a sacrifice in our stead as a ram was for Isaac. As for Abraham, he knew with no uncertainty that this directive was from the Lord. How could he lead nations if he didn’t trust God completely? We need to quit comparing this to following leadership unquestioningly. This commandment wasn’t from a church authority. It was from God and Abraham knew it. We follow the leadership in the Church when our relationship with God has revealed inspiration that they are his servants, not the other way around. I’m not saying I could do the same in his position. But if I can’t, it will be because I haven’t reached a relationship with God where I have completely submitted my will to his. It would be a trust issue- on my end. God loves us. He always counsels us to do what is best in our eternal interest and in the interest of all his children. We can never fail with God. Abraham understood that. He passed the ultimate test of trust with God and as a result, he is the Father of all nations. Isaac grew to be an unstoppable force in building the Lord’s Church. Luckily, none of us is in a position where as much as asked of us. What is our takeaway? Build an unwavering and close relationship with your Heavenly Father, one built on trust. When your mortal understanding and his will come at odds, choose his way as the Savior did in Gethsemane.

  105. Yes, one reading is that Abraham wasn’t sufficiently broken enough so God wanted to break him. Break his heart. Tell him to sacrifice the son who was miraculously born to a menopausal women after the elderly couple had been childless their entire lives. Tell him to perform a human sacrifice when Abraham had very publicly denounced his father’s involvement in performing human sacrifices.

    In the end, what do we believe about God? Is he actually a demon that he does these evil things, plays these games?

  106. Anon for this says:

    I hate the fact that Sarah plays no roll in this story. Isaac was her son too. Why didn’t her feelings or consent matter?

  107. It is sad that there’s nothing in the Hebrew scriptures about it but if I’m not mistaken there’s midrash examining it.

  108. Natete — Thank you for that comment. I think it really adds something valuable to this conversation.

  109. john f., you are citing an interpretation, not textual evidence. The textual evidence all points to a test of obedience. “…for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son: That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice” (Genesis 22:16-18). You can see that Abraham is first praised and then blessed because of his obedience. This fits one of the major themes of the Old Testament: we must be obedient to the Lord. When we are obedient, we become the Lord’s people and He blesses us and protects us. There is lots of textual evidence to support this, but I cannot think of any evidence that God is an evil demon who plays games with his children.

  110. Job?

  111. Natete your comment is interesting and in some respects I agree but I disagree that Eve’s choice to eat the fruit was exclusively motivated by desire for light and knowledge since we know that Satan “beguiled” her into believing that breaking a commandment was the ONLY way to get the light and knowledge she sought. They were told you may choose for yourself so she had some measure of encouragement if not the spark to desire it given at the outset. We don’t know if they pleaded with God to partake at some point and were told no or if there was any discussion about wanting it before falling for Satan’s ploy of doing it now.

    Adam offered sacrifices without really knowing why except that the Lord commanded it. Which as an aside may reveal much as to why men and women are commanded to be together and may hint at another aspect of how same sex unions frustrate God’s plan. Eve’s thoughtfulness in spite of her premature eating of the fruit was essential to help Adam see that this must be.

    Abraham’s test was directly – go sacrifice your son not much room for interpretation. In Hebrews it says that Abraham had faith that God could raise up Isaac to be able to fulfill his promises about Isaac being the key to having seed as numerous as the sand.

  112. Again, it is your interpretation that it is a game. Satan denies a man’s ability to be obedient and love God in the face of adversity. God allows Job to face excruciating adversity and Job maintains his integrity. Job’s wise friend, Eliphaz explains that we find happiness through test, “Behold, happy is the man whom God correcteth: therefore despise not thou the chastening of the Almighty: for he maketh sore, and bindeth up: he woundeth, and his hands make whole (Job 5:17-18). It takes some breaking for God to make us anew better than before but this brings unsurpassed joy in the end. This is no game. This is not evil. It is love. Job passes his test. He says, “But he knoweth the way that I take: when he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10). The Lord blesses him by restoring more than was lost, “So the Lord blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning…” (Job 42:12). This is the promise of the Atonement: whatever we sacrifice in obedience to God will be restored to us tenfold.

  113. Natete:

    “we are expected to obey divine authority, but we are also expected to be true to our divine conscience”

    Depends on what you mean. If by “divine conscience” you mean personal revelation then you are still talking about obeying divine authority…. and since God obviously outranks any mortal, there is no deep contradiction to really worry about.

  114. I love Job’s story because I have lived a microcosm of it. My mother died when I was 14 and my grandmother died a short 3 weeks later. I hated God and felt that He didn’t love me. I struggled with my faith for a long time and with the trauma of watching my family disintegrate. In the end, I decided to maintain my faith and build my relationship with my Heavenly Father. It was some twenty years later when I realized the blessings of the Atonement in my life. I had lost my nuclear family. That was true. But here I am happily married with a family of my own. My father has remarried a lovely woman who is strong and faithful and who loves us as her own. My in-laws are wonderful people who genuinely love me and care for me. In place of the one family I lost, I gained three. I truly believe this is God’s power at work. He does have a plan for us and sometimes that plan feels so unbelievably cruel and unfair. But in the end, whether in this life or the next, we can have indescribable joy if we put our trust in him.

  115. I think Natete’s comment was insightful. This portion especially:

    “Abraham chose authority over conscience. But Eve chose conscience over authority. She knew God had forbidden the fruit, but she also had a divine conscience craving light and knowledge, and she chose the divine conscience. We celebrate Abraham’s obedience, and Eve’s disobedience. Both are valid options. We are free agents.”

    I think that fits in well with my notion that Abraham’s test is a Kobayashi Maru. Perhaps the lesson of both these stories is that if he will trust in God, rather than in our own righteousness, God will look upon our actions with mercy, in the best possible light, judging us by our deeds but also our motivations (the desires of our hearts). One thing that the test must have made painfully apparent to Abraham was that no matter what he did, he would be a sinner, and relying on his own righteousness was no longer an option. The accuser would call Abraham a murderer if he offered the sacrifice, and rebel against God if he didn’t. But God looked upon Abraham’s sin with mercy, found the good in Abraham’s motivation and counted it as righteousness–and mercifully prevented him from going through with it.

    On the other hand, taken to the extreme, and oversimplified, my notion might be reduced to the idea that God will justify your actions as long as your motivations are good. And that is a dangerous doctrine.

    In other words, Ivan Karamozov says that if there is no God, everything (including all kinds of evil) is permitted, but I think if you believe in a God that is not bound my moral law, then the reality is just the opposite: (to ironically quote the angel Gabriel), with God, nothing (not even evil) shall be impossible. If you believe in a God that is sovereign even over morality (and I think if we are going to believe in the atonement and forgiveness of sin, then we necessarily do believe that God is sovereign even over moral law), the dark side of that belief is that he can command his followers to do evil. And once you believe that, it becomes possible to justify all kinds of evil, which is only compounded by the fact that it is so hard to distinguish between the Holy Ghost and our own ideas, and the fact that the human capacity for self-rationalization and self-justification is apparently limitless. So this doctrine is dangerous. But I don’t think that means it is untrue; it just means that the way to salvation is itself dangerous, a strait and narrow path as sharp as a razor’s edge.

  116. Great comment, JKC. Especially this: “And once you believe that, it becomes possible to justify all kinds of evil, which is only compounded by the fact that it is so hard to distinguish between the Holy Ghost and our own ideas, and the fact that the human capacity for self-rationalization and self-justification is apparently limitless. So this doctrine is dangerous.”

  117. Also, the fact that God prevents Abraham’s sacrifice only leaves hanging the question, why has he not prevented so many other deluded people from killing when they thought God had commanded it? Maybe, as Alma says to Amulek, while witnessing such an atrocity, he allows it so that their condemnation will be just. But what is the difference?

    I don’t know. But I suspect that it might be that Abraham knew he was a sinner, and trusted wholly in God for mercy, while the Zoramites (and others like them) believed that they were righteous and trusted in their own righteousness rather than trusting in God. Abraham trusted in God and reconciled himself to what he believed was God’s will, no matter how terrible, while the Zoramites trusted in themselves and reconciled what they believed was God’s will to their will, no matter how terrible.

  118. it's a series of tubes says:

    (and I think if we are going to believe in the atonement and forgiveness of sin, then we necessarily do believe that God is sovereign even over moral law)

    Some readings of Alma 42 and elsewhere seem to imply that certain laws exist that God is subject to, rather than sovereign over.

  119. That’s true, tubes. Certainly there is a way of understanding the atonement that does not depend on a strong concept of sovereignty, and is consistent with the idea that God is bound by natural law. I’m not as persuaded by it, but my earlier comment probably overstated it by saying that we *necessarily* believe in a God that is sovereign over moral law.

    But if God is not sovereign over moral law, but subject to it, and did in fact command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, then why did God not “cease to be God” when he issued that command? Surely there are answers, but I’m not sure that there is a satisfying one.

  120. “But Eve chose conscience over authority. She knew God had forbidden the fruit, but she also had a divine conscience craving light and knowledge, and she chose the divine conscience.”

    I think Eve’s disobedience was the wrong choice. She didn’t trust that God had a plan which may have included partaking of the fruit when the time was right. Adam also failed in similar manner, not believing God could work out what to do if only one of them had eaten. This would could have been immeasurably better if they both had chosen obedience and trust over their own logic and conscience.

    Excellent post, doing well to lay out the problem in a way that doesn’t lead to one conclusion or another.

  121. it's a series of tubes says:

    But if God is not sovereign over moral law, but subject to it, and did in fact command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, then why did God not “cease to be God” when he issued that command?

    I think this question presupposes that we know the full scope of moral law with certainty. I’m not convinced that is the case.

  122. I agree, tubes. Philosophically, I see a difference between saying that God is sovereign over moral law and saying that Gos is bound by moral law but that we just don’t understand moral law. But functionally, I’m not sure there is really much of a difference between, on the one hand, saying that if God commanded what appears to be evil, then God is apparently not bound by our moral law and, on the other hand, saying that if God commanded what appears to be evil, than moral law is apparently not what we thought it was.

    In either case, believing in such a God (and I do) means also believing in a God that can command his followers to do what is evil, or what would be evil but for the fact that God commanded it. I think that should make us uneasy.

  123. It’s Nate, not Natete, accidentally spelled my name wrong. Frank Pellett, I agree that Eve’s transgression can be interpreted as a “sin,” which I’ve often done myself.

    But I think you can trace this contradiction in all the major female characters of the early Old Testament. Adam obeys blindly “I know not save the Lord commanded me.” Eve questions and disobeys. Abraham is ready to give Ishmael the birthright, as he is the oldest, and it is lawfully his. But Sarah follows her heart (or her passion), and kicks Ishmael out of the tent. Abraham is told to “hearken to his wife” and allow Ishmael to be pushed away.

    Isaac obediently and lawfully wishes to give the birthright to Esau, his eldest son. His wife Rebecca, following her heart, which knows Jacob would be better, conspires to fool her blind husband. Even after Isaac becomes aware of his wife’s subterfuge, he also “hearkens to his wife.”

    Leah follows her heart, fooling Jacob to become his first wife, and thus secures birthright authority for her sons over Rachel, Jacob’s lawful choice.

    In every case, the women followed their own reason, their passion, their heart, and in every case, God supports the women, commanding the more blindly obedient man to “hearken to his wife.” Adam follows Eve, Abraham kicks out Ishmael, Isaac gives the birthright to Jacob, and Jacob marries Leah.

    If Sarah had been asked to sacrifice Isaac, she would have said no. But Sarah’s passion trumps Abraham’s obedience.

  124. “In this version, the said trial is not a test of our ability to do something difficult, but of our willingness to set aside our own moral beliefs in favor of someone else’s (usually someone claiming to speak in the name of God). In these kinds of Abrahamic tests, we are asked to give up deeply held ethical positions because they do not conform to those supposedly held by the Lord.”

    Which is exactly the inner turmoil I felt as a young woman obtaining my endowment and agreeing to a covenant which went against everything I believed about my personal relationship with God. Except in my case I was surrounded by supportive friends, family, fiancee, and future in-laws. And I had to make that decision in a split second before I really processed what was going on. And I had absolutely no warning ahead of time tipping me off to the covenant I would be making. I consoled myself later by chalking it up as an Abrahamic sacrifice, but with time it feels more like a bait-and-switch that put my integrity on the line and I failed.

  125. When I had to teach this lesson to my 10-year-old Primary class, I asked them to think about each person in the story individually and what we can learn from them. They all ended up deciding that the person they wanted to most be like in the story was the angel who told Abraham to stop. I hadn’t really thought about it that way before and I loved that was where their minds went. If there is an Abrahamic test involved here, I fail as an Abraham. But maybe as an angel I could hope to be aware and listening when God requires me to say, “Stop, this is wrong.”

  126. BREAKING NEWS: Mormons divided over whether or not human sacrifice is okay. Film at 11!

    Don’t miss our exclusive interview, with an area Mormon who is confused that no one wants to be like her or have anything to do with her.

  127. In all honesty, Bethany’s comment is spot-on; you can tell a lot about a person by who they sympathize with in that story, and what parts of it they consider irrelevant.

    The OP considers it irrelevant that God was the one who asked for the sacrifice. Most Mormons I’ve talked to seem to consider Isaac’s personhood and consent to be irrelevant. “Consent” is a dirty word to them, and “personhood” is only a good thing if you choose to sacrifice it to God. Whether it’s yours, or someone else’s that you rob from them.

    Women and children aren’t even considered to have it, or to be able to consent or not. To anything. And don’t get me started on gay people or those icky, filthy transgenders.

    Nothing posted in this thread so far has persuaded me otherwise. It’s only shown me that some Mormons are really, really imaginative when it comes to finding moral loopholes for God to jump through, and painfully dense when it comes to having a freaking heart.

  128. (I am not saying kids can consent to sex, which I realize could be read into my comment. I am saying the fact that Isaac was tricked into coming up there on the mountain, then tied down and had a knife held up over his chest, doesn’t seem to register with a lot of you creeps.

    Every weekend, it seems, another LGBT-ish Mormon kid decides to sacrifice theirself. And you wonder why they felt they had to.)

  129. Glenn Thigpen says:

    When any of you actually have a visit from God and tell him to shove off, that you are not gonna do what He says, please let me know.

  130. eponymous says:

    Why do we speak of it as simply an Abrahamic test? Many of you are aware of this but I’ll state the obvious for the sake of those commenting here who still think of Isaac as a small boy. Because that is how much of Christian art portrays this encounter. And I realize that is a convenient comparison because the current issue of the day deals with children between the ages of 8 and 17 but let’s be completely open about how the story generally is understood.

    The evidence shows that Isaac was probably in his late teens all the way up to possibly 37 (the latter age is according to some Rabbis) based on language used and the calculation based on ages used in earlier text as well as Isaac’s ability to carry the wood. While Isaac was likely horrified at his father’s decision and his questions demonstrate from the author’s (Moses) perspective a desire to understand exactly who or what will be the sacrifice. But the point is you have a strong young man, arguably strong enough to have overpowered his own father or fled of his own accord who made a choice of his own to be offered at God’s command and to trust in his own father.

    Now that may demonstrate blind obedience in a culture where the patriarch rules all but it might just also demonstrate spiritual recognition of what is important when God makes impossible demands. Could it possibly be faith on the part of both Abraham and Isaac that God, as Abraham stated, would provide a lamb? Could both have held out hope that God would not require this ultimate sacrifice and yet both were willing to go through with it if such a sacrifice was required? Some midrashic traditions believe that Abraham actually followed through with the act and killed Isaac and the later he was resurrected – else why would it only speak of Abraham descending from the mount? Others believe the true test was whether Abraham would listen to the merciful message from the angel calling upon him to stop once he was committed to the act.

    So then how does this change when it becomes Isaac’s sacrifice along with that of his father? It might perhaps offer a different understanding that God is asking his children to wait and be patient and that all things will be given to them in their patience. That no blessings will be withheld from them in spite of their lack of access to the blessings of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost in their early years? Is this any different from the blessing that Lehi offered to the children of Laman and Lemuel and the promises that God made to those children throughout the Book of Mormon? That they would be held to lesser expectations while at the same time be blessed in spite of the traditions of their fathers?

    I don’t know that I subscribe to this view but I think it’s important to consider here. Up until now all I have heard is a comparison to sacrificing children. At no point has anyone looked at it as God recognizing challenges of what is being asked and offering additional blessings and not allowing a specific circumstance to hold back the child.

  131. A Happy Hubby says:

    eponymous – I was taught that Isaac wasn’t a child. But the story still makes no sense. If I were Isaac and my dad said this then the next call on my cell phone would be 911 and I hope if I were to say this to one of my kids, they would do the same.

  132. Here’s the thing though Happy Hubby. When we make declarations like that we put ourselves in a situation where we completely discount the potential for revelation from God to be something we find distasteful. I wonder if that places us in a position where God simply allows us to encounter our own fates rather than receiving the greater insights that could be ours if we were to open our hearts completely to Him? We live in a day and age where members complain because what we have are functionaries who submit half-baked policies in response to cultural encroachments rather than visionaries who breathe life into a Church that claims the rights of revelation and the ministering of angels.

    I wonder if we’re harvesting what we’ve sown?