“Liberal” and “Orthodox” Views on the Faith of Abraham

AbrahamA while back I did a post called The Faith of Abraham where I discussed the considerable challenges surrounding the story of Abraham being told by God to sacrifice Isaac. I have been in conversation recently with a blogger from Wheat and Tares about this story because it really bothers him — to the point where he has come up with ways to discount it as truly having come from God. As the discussion went on we agreed to ‘take it public’ because its such an interesting topic for discussion. His response to my post is found here. He then posted it on W&T today.

One thing I’ve long believed is that this story largely defines the difference between what it generally means to be “conservative” vs. “liberal” when it comes to religion. Maybe I’m over emphasizing this, but this tends to be a pretty good litmus test. Further, this particular story and the discussion that follows is a fairly straightforward example of why I self-identify as a “conservative” despite being quite literally 25% atheist and only 75% believer. Those that know me know that I believe that liberal theology is a rational non-starter. It doesn’t even make it out the rational gate for me and this is a great example of why.

Summary of Liberal Friend’s Argument

First, let me summarize his argument, though I hope you’ll all go read his full post yourselves.

His first argument is that it’s inconsistent for God to command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac when God teaches against this elsewhere. He goes on to say:

If I believe that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, why would he tell Abraham to kill his son, and not tell me to do the same?  This is not a consistent God.

He than quotes Nephi about “likening the scriptures unto ourselves” and draws the conclusion that this is not a scripture we should liken until ourselves because if we actually did kill our own children, we’d be rightly jailed as monsters.

Next he quotes from Jewish Midrash to back up his view that Abraham was not commanded by God to sacrifice Isaac, but made that all up himself and that the key point was really that God stopped him from doing so.

Finally he quotes a scripture to back up his position, namely Jeremiah 32:35 emphasizing a few parts:

And they built the high places of Baal, which are in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire unto Molech; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.

I skip a few of his arguments, but I think the above captures his basic argument. But please review his whole post to be sure you understand where he is coming from.

His Argument is a Non Sequitur

The above argument needs to stand on its own and frankly it does not. The big obvious problem with it is that he has failed to separate the difference between actually sacrificing a child vs. testing someone via a command to sacrifice a child. This is a glaring problem with his argument at a rational level. Indeed his whole argument is an obvious non sequitur if we’re talking about pure logic.

The most obvious example of this — and only scriptural example — is the quote from Jeremiah. My friend, after making this quote, goes on to say:

Did you catch that?  God says that child sacrifice was NOT commanded by him, NEITHER CAME IT INTO MY MIND.  Has God forgotten the story of Abraham?  Is it better to say that God is consistent, and never wanted child sacrifice?  Is Jeremiah lying?  I’d love to hear some orthodox folks interpret this.

But it’s incredibly obvious that there is nothing at all logically inconsistent with this quote — which is about actually sacrificing children — and the story of Abraham which isn’t. Because obviously as per the Genesis story, God never did actaully intend for Abraham to sacrific Isaac and therefore it never actually did come into God’s mind to have Abraham perform a child sacrific. Non Sequitur. End of rational argument. [1]

The Power of Narratives

In all honesty I think what my friend is really trying to do is create a narrative argument. He seems to have mistaken narrative for logic. But so much of what we human beings argue over is narrative and not logic, so perhaps there is nothing wrong with this. [2]

Essentially I think his real argument is that if God would not consider real child sacrifice, does this not suggest the possibility — or even probability —  that God would therefore not consider testing someone on child sacrifice either? (Or more to the point, he is asserting this is the case as an assumption.)

Now obviously the issue here is that Jeremiah 32:35 may imply that God would not testing Abraham via child sacrifice but it also may not imply that. So how is my friend coming up with the idea that Jeremiah 32:35 supports his case? Well, really an appeal to intuition and nothing more. And presumably different people will come up with different answers and all will be equally legitimate if we assume that there is no other scriptural or authoritative way to resolve the question.

The Liberal Interpretation of Jeremiah is Casually Incorrect and Therefore Bad Scholarship

So this presents a bit of a problem for my friend’s argument because he has to first show Jeremiah 32:35 implies God would not test someone via child sacrifice as opposed to the orthodox reading that it actually only implies God would not go through with a child sacrifice. And since Jeremiah lives long after Abraham and presumably is very familiar with that story, my friend’s argument that child sacrifice “neither came into [God’s] mind” is casually backward. God — and Jeremiah — have not forgotten the story of Abraham. It’s a famous story even in Jeremiah’s time. So Jeremiah is actually making this statement in light of the well-known story of Abraham and Isaac.

So if we want to determine if the liberal or orthodox reading of Jeremiah 32:35 is more correct, the proper scholarly approach is not to read Jeremiah as a contradiction to the Genesis account of Abraham but to read it as compatible with the Genesis account of Abrham. So good scholarship supports the orthodox reading, not the liberal reading.

So the Jeremiah passage cannot be marshalled even as a narrative against the Genesis account because the correct scholarly way to look at the Jeremiah passage is to assume the difference between a test and the actual thing — as per the orthodox reading.

This is also seems to be a case of begging the question, by the way. He’s really using Jeremiah 32:35 to decide the correct way to read Jeremiah 32:35.

This suggests to me that what my friend is actually doing is starting with the assumption that God would not test Abraham through sacrificing Isaac and then — given this assumption — he chooses to use Jeremiah 32:35 to discount the Genesis account. Thus the starting assumption and the conclusion are one and the same and the rest of the argument is logically unnecessary. It’s a circular argument.

Appealing to Revelation: What Do the Scriptures Actually Say?

But why is my friend appealing to scripture at all if he’s really starting out with the assumption he is then trying to prove using scripture?

Well, I think the reason is because the question we are really asking is “Would God test Abraham through child sacrifice?” And to answer this question we really need to have God tell us the answer. That is to say, we need a revelation. And so my friend is trying to find the best support possible amongst accepted scripture (i.e. revelation) he can find for his starting assumption that Abraham was not tested by God.

To me his approach seems like post facto justification, but this idea of appealing to revelation for an answer to this question about God’s nature does in fact make sense to me.

Liberal Theological Use of Scripture is Really Non-Use of Scripture

One of the things that I find the most troubling with Liberal Theology is that it cherry picks scripture to a degree that seems to me to undermine they very concept of scriptural authority and appeal to revelation. [3]

As I pointed out, my friend is starting with the assumption God would not test Abraham in this way. So for him, this is a done deal. He has already decided. But what if we are open to that possibility — no matter how improbable it seems. How would we go about finding out whether or not God would test someone in this way?

Well obviously we’d have to appeal to revelation. And where would we look for such a revelation? Well it would sort of make sense to see what the scriptures say. And what do we find when we consult the scriptures? Why we find the story of Abraham being commanded to sacrifice Isaac. In other words the scriptures do teach that God may test someone in this way, at least under some circumstances and the story of Abraham is the scriptural answer to the question.

The New Testament Confirms the Genesis Account of Abraham and Isaac

What makes this even more difficult for the liberal view-point is that it’s not just the Old Testament that teaches that God is open to testing people in this way. If it were only the Old Testament, perhaps we could dismiss it on the grounds of Article of Faith 8. But as it turns out it’s this story is also confirmed as true by the New Testament in Hebrews 11:17-19:

17 By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son,

18 Of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called:

19 Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure.

Did you notice that? Paul (well, psuedo-Paul) here uses this account of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son as a quintessential example of what it means to have faith in God. And did you also notice what he claims Abraham was probably thinking? According to “Paul”, Abraham had so much faith in God’s promises that his seed would come through Isaac that he believed that even if God did have him go through with the sacrifice, Isaac would be raised from the dead and his seed would still come through Isaac. He just knew God could be trust to fulfill his promises and he knew God’s power was even over death itself.

Now we can imagine if the story had in fact gone that way. Instead of God commanding Abraham to not sacrifice Isaac and providing a ram in a thicket for him, what if Abraham had gone through with it and Isaac has been sacrificed. And then Isaac is raised from the dead and lives the rest of his life and has great seed, just as promised. Now this would have made a pretty good story in its own right because it would be a powerful reminder of God’s true power. Even death is meaningless to God.

To me, this is the inherent problem with trying to moralize God in the liberal way. God just isn’t a mortal human being. The same rules just don’t apply to Him precisely because he can do things like raise people from the dead. Given that added assumption — that God can raise the dead — it is much easier to see why Abraham really was right to trust God in this way. Nothing is impossible with God. The laws of physics need not apply for all God cares. And death is not the end for God like it is for us. So the moral calculus of God must of necessity be different from our own because of this.

The Book of Mormon Confirms the Genesis Account of Abraham and Isaac

What makes this Abraham story all the more powerful is that it’s not even just the Old and New Testament that have confirmed this story just as Genesis relates it. It’s also confirmed by the Book of Mormon in Jacob 4:5. This means we can no longer appeal to Article of Faith 8.

5 Behold, they believed in Christ and worshiped the Father in his name, and also we worship the Father in his name. And for this intent we keep the law of Moses, it pointing our souls to him; and for this cause it is sanctified unto us for righteousness, even as it was accounted unto Abraham in the wilderness to be obedient unto the commands of God in offering up his son Isaac, which is a similitude of God and his Only Begotten Son.

Compare the vagueness of my friends use of Jeremiah to the utter clarity of Jacob. Could it be any more clear? God is the one that commanded Abraham. It was not Abraham making something up in his head, as my friend believes. And it even tells us theologically why God did this — as a similitude of Jesus!

The Doctrine and Covenants Confirms the Genesis Account of Abraham and Isaac

But wait! I’m still not done, because the Doctrine and Covenants supports the Genesis account too in D&C 132:36 and its God speaking to boot!

36 Abraham was commanded to offer his son Isaac; nevertheless, it was written: Thou shalt not kill. Abraham, however, did not refuse, and it was accounted unto him for righteousness.

Okay, now we literally have God Himself taking on my friend’s very own argument. God is not only confirming He counted Abraham’s act as a righteous example of faith, but He’s also specifically using a variant of my friends argument — showing that potentially this was a commandment at odds with another scripture — yet it wasn’t for Abraham to make that judgment. It was for Abraham to obey on faith and it was up to God to make everything work out. So just how much more clear could we be here that you can’t just quote a scripture like Jeremiah 32:35 — which mind you doesn’t even specifically state what my friend wants it to state — as a counter to literally every other book of scripture (save only the Pearl of Great Price.)

The Modern Prophets Confirm the Genesis Account of Abraham and Isaac

But in the LDS Church we do not place ancient prophets above modern ones. So if we appeal to modern prophets what do we find? That they confirm the Genesis account, of course! This is abundantly obvious but just as a few examples, the modern prophets have confirmed the Genesis account in primary manuals and seminary manuals. Both recent prophets and the currently living prophet have confirmed it as well in conference talks acting in their priesthood office.

What Revelation Did My Friend Appeal To?

So let’s be clear. The Genesis account of God testing Abraham is quite possibly the single best testified account of any story in scripture. It is confirmed by every book of scripture save only The Pearl of Great Price and has been confirmed probably hundreds or thousands of times by now by modern prophets.

So none of these can possibly be the source of revelation my friend is appealing to. And in fact we knew that anyhow because my friend has already decided in advance that God would not test Abraham in this way and then sought the best scriptural evidence — though considerably weaker than the alternative reading — to support his view.

So if my friend’s revelation is non-scriptural and doesn’t come from modern prophets, where does it come from?

The only option left seems to me to be personal revelation. If that is the case then it seems to me that he is setting up his personal revelation as above every other book of scripture and all modern prophets. This is why I find his argument ultimately undermining to the very concept of scriptural authority.

Further, if I bought in to my friend’s argument, it seems pretty clear to me that the whole concept of revelation as reliable to any degree must also be undermined. To know God’s will on this subject I literally have to ignore every book of scripture and all modern prophets!

Further, my own praying and seeking God’s will on the subject has failed to bring me to my friend’s view-point, so I personally can’t even appeal to personal revelation and find the answer it would seem. Instead, to know God’s will, I have to know to go to liberals and ask their opinion, because that is in fact the single best reliable source of revelation it would seem.

The Problem of Liberal Theology

So this is a perfect example of why liberal theology is a rational non-starter for me. It seems to me that the scriptures and modern revelation are meaningless to this liberal approach. It simply does not matter what the scriptures say. It doesn’t matter what the modern prophets teach either. Within this liberal theological approach, the only thing that matters is personal revelation — and only then if you happen to be a theological liberal.

And because that was the true source of the key starting assumption — which assumption is identical to the conclusion — it is incredibly obvious that there is no possible basis on which to argue with my friend over. He’s either going to accept his personal revelation on this subject and the rest of my scriptural arguments are meaningless — or he’s going to accept the scriptures as true revelations and abandon his personal revelation. The scriptures — with their unanimous support for the Genesis Abraham account — literally leave no other choice here.

Which brings me to my main point about the story of Abraham being commanded to sacrifice Isaac. If you take the scriptures seriously to any degree at all you will have to accept the Abraham account in Genesis and therefore you will find both the scriptures and the modern prophets to be mutually exclusive from the theologically liberal approach.

The Liberal Reading of Abraham Sacrificing Isaac is Actually a Misreading of the Genesis Account

What is interesting about the liberal approach to the story of Abraham is that while it is an appeal to personal revelation, the personal revelation it appeals to is the personal moral sense based on what Jonathan Haidt calls WEIRD sensibilities. (i.e. Western Educated Industrial Rich and Democratic) WEIRD sensibilities are a very narrow slice of humanity both modernly and over the course of history. I find much value in them, by the way, but not the point of deciding they are the prime source of God’s revelations.

In any case my friend does not hide that his personal moral sense is the true source of his argument:

First of all, what’s wrong with making rules to discern revelation based on the morality of the content?  If God tells me to commit adultery, kill someone, do drugs, embezzle money, am I not supposed to question the morality of the revelation?  I see nothing wrong with discerning rules based on morality.  Tell me why I’m wrong here.

Okay, let’s be honest. Compared to his scriptural argument this is really a pretty good intuitive argument, isn’t it? So I feel it should be addressed also. But here I think we need a bit more clarification first, because I’m not so sure using morality for ‘discernment’ is a problem in and of itself.

The idea he seems to be expressing here is that if you ‘feel’ a personal revelation from God and if it tells you to do something immoral, you discount it. Indeed, I get the feeling that this principle is the prime principle of theological liberalisms approach to revelation. Morality comes first and God will never ask anyone to do anything that is (seemingly) immoral.

But does revelation always come that way? (Or is my friend assuming it only comes that way?)

As it turns out, liberals are misreading the Genesis account of Abraham and Isaac. They are making the false assumption that this is a tale about how to discern revelations from God when they come as inspiration as “feelings.” But the account is not about either how to discern revelations from God nor about receiving inspiration through feelings.

In fact, the question of discernment is not present at all! The account straightforwardly tells us that God has in fact told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. That’s because the author of the account isn’t even thinking about the question of discernment — probably because he believes it should be obvious by now that Abraham knows God’s voice when he hears Him. So the author doesn’t even attempt to address the idea that this might be a false revelation precisely because the story is specifically about a true revelation. There is no need to take time on how Abraham knew it to be true because that’s not what the story is about.

And there is no reason to assume this revelation was an inspiration that came through a feeling. We are just told God made it known by some means that Abraham found authentic. At a minimum we seem to be told that Abraham hears the voice of God talking to him. If we are to go from other scriptural accounts, its possible even more than this was implied (Abraham’s last voice from God included a physical presense, for example). But we are not told this for certain.

To Understand The Point of the Genesis Account We Have to Assume God has Commanded It

The problem here is the difference in sensibilities between ancient readers and modern readers. In the times of the original telling of this story child sacrifice was not uncommon. To the original audience, the idea that a god might ask for a child sacrifice was believable, where as for us it is not. For that matter, the original audience for the Abraham story did not have the millenia of post-Abraham scripture to help ime understand God would not actually go through with a sacrifice of a child. My friend is failing to read the story on its own terms because of this.

How might we modernize this story for today’s audience? Well obviously the question of discerning if this is a revelation from God must be immediately addressed due to our different view of what God may ask of us due to later scriptures (such as Jeremiah 32:35!)

So to rewrite this story for a modern audience that matches the intent of the Genesis account, would be to make the message delivered by an angel who then lets Abraham perform any form of confirmation required to confirm this is a real angel.

Imagine this as a Hollywood movie for a moment. Abraham is disbelieving at first, so he tries to shake hands with the angel (as per D&C 129:4) to make sure it’s not a false spirit or hallucination. And he finds he can in fact shake hands with the angel. The angel is physically real! So Abraham doubts the angel is really an angel at all and figures it must be some sort of trick. (The angel is glowing brilliantly, so it must be some high tech trick!) So the angel proceeds to do miracles for Abraham. Abraham even has the angel perform miracles in front of scientists and the Great Randi and all are completely and utterly stumped. These are real miracles! This really is an angel from God!

And thus, having confirmed that this is a true angel from God, the angel then asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Now we’ve made the story read for a modern audience the way it read for an ancient audience.

The reason this is the correct way to modernize the tale is because this now puts us on par with the point of the original story. The original story isn’t about discernment, as my friends wants to believe, but is about whether you should trust God in all circumstances no matter what.

So I would pose this question to my friend? Replace yourself in the above Hollywood movie. This is now happening to you. Would you obey God to do something you feel is immoral if you knew for certain it was God.

That’s the question this story is trying to get us to ask. Not about how to discern revelation.

And what is the scriptural (in all books of scripture as I pointed out above) answer to this question?

The scriptures teach that the correct answer is to obey God!

Theological Liberalism is Rationally DOA

To summarize my point then, the story of Abraham can’t be discounted in the way my friend is trying to do it. While he appeals to Midrash and scripture, Midrash is not recognized as authoritative and the scripture he picks is best interpreted as compatible with the Abraham account in Genesis. The Abraham story is confirmed by all books of scripture and by a long string of modern prophets. So for my friend to throw all that out as nothing more than ‘prophetic fallibility’ is really to place his own personal revelations above fallibility in the most dramatic way imaginable. You simply can’t get a better attested story in scripture with a better attested to interpretation of it coming directly from God.

And this undermines the key point my friend keeps making — that God is consistent! How much more inconsistent could God possibly be than for my friend’s interpretation to turn out to be correct? It would mean the same God that teaches us to read the scriptures and liken them to ourselves suddenly only allowed his true will to come through WEIRD sensibilties. In what sense is this a consistent God?

But my friend is unsatisfied with this answer and I guess I don’t blame him. The whole point of my original post — which he claims is a ‘thud’ in its conclusion — is that there is no satisfying answer available.

The problem is that this story isn’t meant to be comfortable and thus is not supposed to have a comfortable answer that my friend will ever find acceptable. I cannot change that fact. The fact is that the scriptures strongly teach us that obedience to God trumps our personal moral feelings. This is either true or it isn’t.

If it’s true, then theological liberalism has no foundation at all and is simply a false notion. If it isn’t true, then frankly revelation is wholly unreliable and so religion has no foundation at all and is simply a false notion — theological liberalism included.

That is why theological liberalism is a rational non-starter for me personal. My brain is incapable of believing in it because it seems wholly irrational to me. It’s wrong either way as far as I can tell. Because when I view theological liberalism through the eye of my personal atheism (that 25% of me that is in fact an atheist) theological liberalism seems like an obvious case of simply papering over the utter bankruptcy of the notion of revelation and thus the notion of God.

And indeed, I suppose that is one of the reasons why I believe the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac actually exists in scripture — to challenge theological liberalism. So the story does have a purpose after all.

Why Might God Have Done This? Answers to My Friends Questions

In his post, my friend lists a number of questions for orthodox believers that he believes are challenging. I will not answer them directly.

  • Question: Is God consistent?  Is God the same yesterday, today, and forever?  If so, why would God make such an inconsistent demand of Abraham?

Answer: As I’ve pointed out in this post, you have misread and misunderstood the scriptures. The point the scriptures overwhelmingly make is that we are to obey God period. As God says in D&C 132:36, it doesn’t matter if you can find a scripture that you think contradicts God’s new revelations to you. Because what the scriptures are teaching is that God is consistent in that He wants us to always obey current revelation to us! Besides, your view of God seems profoundly inconsisent to me by comparison. Your view of God would have us entirely ignore all scripture, all modern prophets, and even my own personal revelations in favor of a modern liberal “WEIRD” view-point. Please show me any case of God teaching this previously. How was I to know God meant for me to abandon every prophetic means to find His will?

  • Question: If this story is true, why would God be so cruel to Isaac?  Can you imagine the psychological trauma Isaac must have felt?  How can a loving God be so cruel to Isaac?

Answer 1: This story is not meant to be comfortable. It does (as does all scripture), for certain, teach that God does and will test us in ways we find morally unacceptable. It does not attempt to morally justify this to us, it just tells us this is the case. Because you are refusing to accept the story unless you are first given a moral justification for it, you are, of course, never going to accept the story as true and there is no possible way to rationally change your mind because your starting with the assumption that God would never do this.

Answer 2: Actually, there is a more straightforward answer here. The fact is that we live on this earth and it’s full of trails of faith equivalent to Abraham’s. People have all sorts of evil things happen to them in mortality. I, for one, have not always had a very joyful life, I’m afraid, and have my faith sorely tested. Unfortunately we’re here on earth living a moral life and that’s a fact. So either God does test us in this way or there is no God. That’s what the ‘problem of evil’ is all about. God has,  however, told us through modern revelation why he’s doing this and why it is morally justified. To receive the ultimate reward we must be tested in ultimate ways. There is no other way to reach the ultimate reward. You will either find that answer satisfying or you won’t. There is no other possible moral justification for the fact that we are here being tested just like Abraham — in psychologically traumatic ways. I believe that is why the story of Abraham is given no moral justification other than that Abraham was to be rewarded by God and that was enough for Abraham.

  • Question: Why is Isaac completely ignored in the interpretation of the story?  Some biblical commentators note that Sarah dies quickly after this incident–they speculate that Sarah might have died of a broken heart for Abraham’s senseless act.  Such a god does seem to be cruel, not loving.  Such a god seems to act capriciously like Zeus, or Molech, or Baal.  Is this really the revelation of our Heavenly Father?

Answer: I see no reason to respond to wild speculation, so I won’t. I will say, however, that the story of Abraham and Isaac is drastically different from Zeus or Molech in at least one important regard: God did not have Abraham go through with it.

  • Question: Is there a point where this example of Abraham’s faith is too extreme?  If it is not too extreme, would you kill your son if God told you to do it?

Answer: This is the question God is asking you to answer for yourself. You will not be called upon to go through this particular test in this particular way. But you may be asked to “sacrifice” a child in some other way due to tragedy or circumstance. These sorts of losses and sacrifices are part and parcel to life in morality. God is trying to get us to think about that in advance. That’s the point of the story.

Notes

[1] The difference between a test and the actual thing. This happens in life in parenting contexts. It is not uncommon for a parent to tell a child they can go do something that the parent knows they will not choose to do or to tell a child they must now do something that the parent doesn’t really intend to force them to do more than to get a small taste.

For example, I’ve seen as a suggested parental technique for getting a child to say in their bed at night to tell them that if they get up again, they’ll have to sleep on the porch. When the child inevitably does get up again, the parents then put him out on the porch with a pillow and blanket. The child now realizes they really do prefer their bed and the parents let the child back in.

I have done something like this ibefore. One of my children, when he’s lashing out, loves to say he’d rather live with different parents. To which we call my parents and have him talk on the phone with them and start to make arrangements for him to move in with them. If he were to ever go through with it, we’ve arranged with my parents to take him for a while and parent him to prove the point that no parent is going to let him do whatever he wants. It would not take long for him to change his mind and come back home. But obviously we do not really intend to have him permanently move in. It’s really just a way of testing his resolve and proving to him that he has no intentions of finding new parents.

Now maybe you disagree with this parental approach, but that’s not the point. The point is that you in no way confuse the test with the actuality and they are not the same in your mind. Thus my friends conflation of a test of a sacrifice with actual child sacrifice is logically incorrect from the get go.

[2] Making narrative arguments: The problems of my friends scriptural argument is also a really good example of how the vast majority of arguments we humans make are non-rational and instead really about a story or narrative. This is so universally true that I feel this needs to be addressed.

At some level, the argument my friend is making isn’t really a logical argument at all, it’s a narrative. He’s trying to take a story that makes him (and everyone!) uncomfortable and he’s trying to figure out how to deal with it in a way that fits his moral worldview which does not allow for God to test someone in this way. In fact, this is the premier rational assumption he’s actually starting with. Give that rational assumption as true, he’s then building a narrative to make it sound as viable as possible. That narrative is to show that others besides himself have reinterpreted this scripture and then he conflated a test to the actual thing to find a scripture that (given that conflation) possibly — but not necessarily — can be interpreted to be at odds with the original Genesis account.

At some level, we have to understand that he’s actually begging the question. He’s starting with the assumption the Abraham story can’t be true and then making an argument based on that assumption that the story can’t be true.

Again, it is incredibly common for people to make arguments like this. Pay attention and you’ll see that probably 99% of all political arguments are non-rational arguments but really just form moral narratives like this. A prime example of this is the abortion debate. If we start with the assumption an unborn fetus is a person, then abortion is murder. If we start with the assumption that it’s just a part of the woman’s body — morally equivalent to any other body part — then abortion is not murder and stopping a woman from having an abortion is the moral equivalent to passing laws that say women can’t do their nails or cut their hair. The whole argument is contained within the assumptions and since there is no rational basis by which to decide which assumption is ‘correct’ (not including an appeal to revelation, of course) there really isn’t anything to argue about. Yet people will spend their lives arguing over it anyhow and not once will it occur to them that they are really not having a rational argument at all.

[3] Chery picking scripture. I will grant that even conservative readings cherry pick to some degree. But the battle cry of liberal theology has long been the over literal readings by conservatives, so clearly we’re talking about largely differing degrees. And for that matter, the Brethren Aligned approach (a most common form of religous conservatism in the LDS Church) is to interpret scripture in light of the teachings of modern prophets. So the belief is that we’re dealing with prophetic cherry picking, which is believed to not be the same as human cherry picking. The New Testament authors, for example, do amazing amounts of Old Testament cherry picking. But they’re authorized to do so and I am not personally authorized in that way.

143 thoughts on ““Liberal” and “Orthodox” Views on the Faith of Abraham

  1. The first post was meant to ask the hard questions and ask for discussion. This one is my own thoughts on the subject all the way laid out in response to your post.

  2. I would submit that mortality is psychologically traumatic, and since mortality is a test, mortality is Exhibit A for the claim that God may sometimes test His children in psychologically traumatic ways.

    But since God is the Great Healer, and His Spirit can heal even the most heartsick soul, can soothe even the most troubled heart, and provide order and reason to even the most confused mind, I don’t think He views it as the same moral crime that we do to “traumatize” someone. Now we, without those godly tools at our disposal, would be committing crime by doing such. But not God.

  3. Insofar as we try to place our own “sophisticated” 21st century moral ethics upon God and pigeonhole His actions, we fail to understand God and miss out on achieving a true intimacy with Him. Sometimes the only way for Him to reveal Himself is to simply shock us out of our complacency and laziness.

    Now, what I just said makes folks go ballistic. But why should we expect God to adhere to *our* ethical constructs?

  4. This is what I posted on the W&T thread prior to seeing this article:
    The sacrifice of Isaac was part of Abraham’s Calling and Election Made Sure, the actual training and testing done by God himself in order to know predictably how Abraham will respond to any situation (not the temple ritual).

  5. Howard, please tell me we didn’t just agree on something, cause I’m wondering if hell just froze over. ;-)

  6. Just…wow. You are brilliant. It’s almost like I can visualize you calmly moving around an entire argument/concern, healing all the holes in the dyke created by mortal minds/concerns. Your thoughtfulness and clarity of rational thought are, to me, quite healing and calming. Thank you for putting an amazing frame around how to view God in a culture where WEIRD sensibilities make many issues and concerns about God, like this, very difficult to accept.

  7. I agree with Michael. I don’t find any arguments that appeal to the morality of God terribly helpful, because it starts from the assumption that the morality of 21st century WEIRD culture = the morality of God. I suspect that today’s morality would be considered outrageously immoral at other different times and in different places, and I can see no reason why our day’s morality would be superior to any other’s. Surely it is only our own arrogance that assumes it is.

    A rational appeal to which parts of scriptural stories are likely historically “accurate” (whatever that means), versus where they may have been adapted to teach a spiritual lesson I can certainly find interesting and helpful. But not an appeal to morality….

  8. Many of the points you make here Bruce N were the same points that Michael Towns made in his post saying that God often does things that offend our worldly morality.

    If only you had chosen a different title to this post that was more provocative. We could have gotten yet another scathing article on Patheos willfully misrepresenting the arguments of M* writers.

  9. Bruce, while I find the -Abraham story is held up in all our scrptures! – argument compelling, I often forget that you’re actually a Mormon and not an Evangelical inerrantist. In fact, the traditional Mormon view of scripture is highly liberal, thanks to the JST, BoMoses, BoAbraham. And I’m not playing semantics here – there’s nothing in Mormon teaching that defines a static interpretation method.

    Its true that scripture should mean something to any believer – it should hold some authority over their lives, but that doesn’t mean every verse is eligible for life application. And traditional Mormons are much more prone to proof-texting and imposing 19th C. views on the Bible.

  10. ” And traditional Mormons are much more prone to proof-texting and imposing 19th C. views on the Bible.”

    First, I would argue that everybody proof-texts. Lack of proof-texting is, itself, a form of proof-texting.

    Secondly, a “19th C.” view on the Bible is no less valid than a 22nd C. gender-neutral queer-positive progressive midrash view.

  11. Christian J, the actual LDS scriptural interpretation model is more or less like legal precedent. The more scriptures confirm it, the more modern prophets confirm it, the more it is treated as correct doctrine.

    While that does leave some room for possibly drastic changes in interpretation — particularly if a new revelation is received — so you’re right it is not ‘static’, this isn’t an unworkable nor difficult to understand model. I was intentionally laying out that the precedent for this story is overwhelmingly strong. It’s literally a super precedent. So choosing to reinterpret it is undermining to the entire LDS view point because of that.

  12. A few years ago the Ensign had an article by an ex-Catholic convert talking about how she was able to bring many of her Catholic values into Mormonism and build on them.

    And that would be a very effective tactic for proselyting too. Cherry pick parts of Catholicism and show how Mormonism enhances those, gradually leading to the conclusion that the parts of Catholicism that aren’t compatible with Mormonism are not literally true, though maybe symbolically true, or at least well-intentioned.

    Progressivism is a religion. It’s not surprising that some of its adherents with Mormon roots cherry pick scripture to support their arguments with Mormons. It’s also not surprising at all that they already have their conclusions before they come to the scriptural arguments. Of course they do, they believe in progressivism.

    *note: one of the adaptive features of progressivism is its insistence that it isn’t a religion, which is a fit, evolved response to the death of God and antibodies to religious domination that the polities have evolved. A side effect of this is that progressives are remarkably good an entryism. But it explains why progressive converts continue to identify as Mormon: it’s an act of fidelity to their new faith.

  13. Many thoughts on this, but in general I think that your “friend’s” issues largely come from some common misunderstandings about the story. Just a few thoughts:

    1. The story is much more about Isaac than it is Abraham. It is about Isaac being a willing sacrifice as a type of Christ. Consider that most likely (if not certainly) Isaac was not a child. Flavius Josephus puts his age at 25 or 27 (I forget which). Jewish tradition puts him between 12-35. But he had to carry enough wood up to the altar to burn a human body. Not the work of a child, but more likely an adult. The story of Isaac is not child sacrifice, but a true type of Christ, willingly accepting his father’s will even though he could reject it.

    2. Along those lines, Abraham is old. Isaac likely in (or near) the prime of his strength. Abraham could not force this sacrifice. Again, the story is really about Isaac. However, it is about Abraham in the sense that at this point in his life he is a proven “Good and Faithful servant.” In my opinion, God is giving him the chance to really get John 17:3. He gets the opportunity to know what Heavenly Father truly felt to watch His Son willingly become a sacrifice. So it is about Abraham too, but just not as much as it is about Isaac in my opinion.

    3. By the way, I think that your Jeremiah reference is 32:35, not 32:25. Along those lines, Abraham and Isaac differ dramatically from Molech and similar heinous idol worship where with Molech or Baal:

    First, it was not a voluntary sacrifice.
    Second, it truly was child sacrifice.

    4. What is the definition of “shortly” as to when Sarah died? If Isaac was only a child, I think that the time lines would show still 15+ years after the event. If he was an adult, then it would be shorter, but she would also be very old at this point. Supposing that this trauma pusher her over the edge is a stretch in my mind.

    5. I believe that I read somewhere that the Hebrew version of Genesis 22:2 (or the Hebrew word translated as “now”) would read more as a request, than a command. Something along the lines of “Take, I pray thee, thy son…” With agency being paramount, that makes sense. I would have to find the reference again, but that is my recollection.

    6. When one looks at the whole story under the light that it is about Isaac and it is voluntary as a true type of Christ, this story becomes far more poignant and beautiful. Especially the part where Isaac asks if there is a ram. When viewed as an adult who understands what is happening, it ties to Gethsemane clearly and with great depth.

    In my opinion, those that seek to find fault with the story of Abraham and Isaac and view it as a sign of a cruel or inconsistent God are simply missing the mark. They have not taken the time to truly look at the patterns that flow throughout the Gospel and instead seek to assign their own culture and mores to the Gospel.

    I have more thoughts and examples about this story, but have already spent too much time on this already and likely bored the majority of you, so that’s it for now.

  14. Progressivism is a religion. This is a carry over from conservative political talking points. The fact is religion especially Mormon religion is progressive in nature. Do you really believe humankind has not progressed since Adam, Moses or even Joseph? If there were no progression to religion what need is there for additional new scripture (BoM, sealed portion) or for continuing revelation. Religion itself is progressive because humankind started so low and still has soooo far to go.

  15. Side note: the Abraham story really is troubling, though. It’s sort of like an ethical and doctrinal singularity, the black hole where everything goes to break down. But its also scripture. And there is very little about life as we experience it that should make us think that the ultimate reality is a comfortable thing.

  16. I love how your response is a list of dogmas, Howard, beginning with the dogma that your cohesive, community-constituting belief structure that gives meaning and morality is somehow not a religion.

    I don’t want to get on a sidetrack from Bruce N.’s excellent post, so I’ll just say this: consider that not all change is progress, and not all progress is Progress. The minimal conditions that make the doctrine of continued revelation coherent are conditions where things change. The changes don’t need to be for the better on the average. They don’t need to be for the better at all. They could even be entirely negative. We have examples of this in scripture, like with Moses on Mt. Sinai.

  17. In the lectures on faith we read, ” It is in vain for persons to fancy to themselves that
    they are heirs with those, or can be heirs with them, who have
    offered their all in sacrifice, and by this means obtain faith in
    God and favor with him so as to obtain eternal life, unless they,
    in like manner, offer unto him the same sacrifice,”

    We read that Abraham desired the blessings of the Fathers, desired to be a great nation – not just mortally, but eternally. It would make sense that if we want to inherit all that the Father hath, we have to in some way and at some point in our eternal existence become like the Father. The way to that is through the son. So Abraham was being asked to offer a sacrifice in similitude of the only way possible for us to become like our Heavenly Father.

    Maybe God won’t ask you or I, but what if part of becoming like God in the eternities it was expected of you (in a future exalted sense of being required to sacrifice *your* only begotten). I certainly don’t suggest that’s doctrinal, but I think we would be missing out on a heart wrenching, God-like empathetic to avoid contemplating what it would be like for us to be in God’s position.

  18. “Religion itself is progressive because humankind started so low and still has soooo far to go.”

    Quite to the contrary. It is man that continually chooses to fall away from religion that leaves us with distance to cover. I think that people fell away from the teachings of Adam. I am confident that the City of Enoch had things pretty well figured out. As did the initial generations among the people that Christ visited in the Americas.

    Humankind in not a linear advent of “progression” in the Gospel. The concept of an Apostasy clearly belies that notion.

  19. What a fantastic post. I think this post clearly shows how much mental gymnastics “liberal” church members have to engage in to deny the clear word of the scriptures. For me, the story of Abraham is meant to be shocking and to challenge us to question if we truly have the faith that Abraham had. It helps me to question whether I am putting something (or someone) before God’s will. As such, it is one of my favorite stories.

  20. Do you really believe humankind has not progressed since Adam, Moses or even Joseph?

    Of course it has–in technology. But in morality and humanity? I’m not so sure. Yours and my lifestyles may better fit twenty-first-century western mores than those of Joseph or Moses or Adam; but I think it would be quite bold to suggest that I or, respectfully, you, are better people (or that our lives are more pleasing to God) than any of them.

    As I understand it, progressivism paints human nature as evolving, inexorably, in the direction of progressivism’s key values (and once we get there, we are promised–promised!–the evolutionary process will stop; and the slippery-slopists be darned). Mormonism, by contrast, utilizes models like “the pride cycle” and “gospel dispensations/apostasy” to paint humankind’s “moral history” as the swinging (lurching?) of a pendulum between good and evil.

  21. Bruce, I think you are mistaking MH’s reading for “liberal” when it is actually “apologetic” and more orthodox than a liberal reading.

    A liberal reading is simple: the sacrifice of Isaac is some sort of myth or allegory, not to be read as literal history.

    But MH’s reading is apologetic because he is trying to retain a historical Abraham which coincides with modern humanist notions of goodness as we might expect to be embodied in God.

  22. In fact, as I understand it, what precipitates the Millennial Kingdom in Mormonism isn’t an evolutionary process of continual betterment. It’s mankind reaching a state of maximal wickedness.

  23. Good post. I’m surprised nobody has mentioned what seems to be the 2nd most controversial command of God to man: the command to Nephi to kill Laban in cold blood in 1 Nephi 4. I vaguely recall running across a posting from someone who thought that Nephi was just rationalizing his own actions in hindsight.

  24. I’m having a hard time keeping up with the comments, and Bruce, I do hope you’ll stop by and add to our conversation as well. (I hope we are enough of a safe zone that you won’t be dog-piled.)

    Your point about narrative arguments is a good one. In order for 2 competing sides to win an argument, they must be arguing on the same assumptions. If you assume that something is God-commanded and I don’t, we’re not going to have a meeting of the minds. The arguments break down based on underlying assumptions. If we can’t accept each others assumptions, well, we can argue till the cows come home and probably just make each other mad. It all does come down to faith and reason.

    “God never did actaully intend for Abraham to sacrific Isaac and therefore it never actually did come into God’s mind to have Abraham perform a child sacrific.”

    Well, I think you make a compelling argument here. But for me the question is this: why did God intervene in the story of Abraham, and not intervene in the child cemetery in North Africa? Why isn’t it just as compelling of an argument that Abraham was following incorrect customs? Because the prophets said so? Well, what if the prophets are all wrong? The prophets of the Old Testament all thought the world was flat and God would roll the earth up as a scroll. That’s not a strong testament to their seership. Galileo, using logic and science, seems a lot smarter than Isaiah 34:4 or Revelation 6:14.

    Furthermore, as another example of the inconsistent God, why did prophets frequently condemn people “until the 7th generation” when modern Mormons believe that we’re punished for our own sins, and not Adam’s or Cain’s, or Ham’s or Noah’s or Judah’s transgressions? I don’t buy that prophets are always right. Sometimes they are mean, vindictive, and prejudiced, especially when they are convinced that God agrees with their sometimes heinous acts.

    And why are we supposed to study it out in our minds if we simply can open up the scriptures and see the answer? I mean even Bruce R. McConkie spoke with limited light, despite his strong condemnations of blacks and curses of Ham and Cain. Now the church says “we don’t know why God stopped blacks from the priesthood.” Isn’t it more likely that God didn’t prevent blacks from the priesthood, but man did?

    I mean it seems logical to me, but I’m a heretic, so what do I know? I like my God to live by the same rules he expects me to live by. “Do as I say, not as I do.” I like consistency, or God seems no different than Zeus or Molech, and I don’t want to worship Zeus or Molech. I don’t like a God who plays head-games and makes me think I should kill my son.

  25. I’ll just add that I think that many liberal members think the orthodox have plenty of hoops to jump through to maintain that God wanted black Mormons denied from the priesthood. I don’t find such “hoop-jumping” characterizations helpful to dialogue and seem more of the line of “we attack/you defend” model that I know Bruce isn’t a fan of.

  26. I think the big problem is we attempt to judge both Abraham and God by our modern standards. God deals with mankind within the culture they live in. Lehi’s Vision of the Tree of Life gave strong desert themes, with the Tree of Life and Waters of Life representing the Oasis in the dark and dreary wilderness/desert.

    Such is missed by many readers, because they attempt to liken things too much to themselves, and not try to understand things from within the original context and culture.
    Abraham lived in a world of human sacrifice. For God to ask Abraham to do that demanded of other gods, was to give him the utmost test of fealty.
    While the Bible shows it to only have been a test, many early texts state that Isaac was killed, and then resurrected/brought back to life by God.

    Today, we wish to judge/describe God by our own morals: murder is evil and God does not murder/kill, and so this story is plain wrong. God is about love, and so free love must be okay with God.

    God is about eternal things. Life and death are part of the mortal experience, and so God will do what is needed in order to accomplish his eternal purposes. Liberal views not-withstanding, to refuse to understand such concepts is to not allow us to truly understand God and His nature. We remain one-dimensional with cliche feel-good phrases and Utopian dreams that keep us from ever becoming the deep beings God would have us become.

  27. I didn’t say: all change is progress, and not all progress is Progress or that it is linear. I said “religion especially Mormon religion is progressive in nature.”

    Did the Old Testament contain the fullness of the gospel? No? Why not?
    Did the New Testament contain the fullness of the gospel? No? Why not?
    What is the purpose of the BoM if it brings us nothing new?
    What is the purpose of the sealed portion of the plates if it brings us nothing new?

    Don’t these scriptures each add something to those that went before? Is this NOT a progression? Why wasn’t it all given at once?

  28. “I think the big problem is we attempt to judge both Abraham and God by our modern standards.”

    Isn’t this “moral relativism” decried by so many orthodox? Does God have standards of behavior or not? Are we not to judge the marijuana smokers in the Netherlands (or Colorado) because it is considered acceptable? Are we to say that lynchings in the 1950s were ok because they lived in a different era from our “modern standards”? Was slavery in the U.S. morally acceptable, or should we condemn slavery as reprehensible practice in one of our less enlightened days in the United States? Is repression of women by the Taliban in Afghanistan acceptable because of the different culture there?

    This statement makes no sense to me. Because it does sound like God make different rules for different people. God is not consistent.

  29. Mormon Heretic’s last post brings up the issue that’s been bugging me all day and is now drawing me out of lurkdom for the first time on Millennial Star. I truly do not comprehend arguments that we cannot judge God according to our morality, that our moral standards are somehow interchangeable with those of any other time and culture. If it is the case that all human moral standards are equally fallible, that we cannot comprehend God’s moral standards, that our moral directions from God are just temporary rules he is not expected to adhere to himself, what do we mean when we talk about every human being possessing the Light of Christ, or a conscience, by which we are able to discern good and evil and feel the power of eternal truths? If I cannot trust my own conscience to tell me that murder and slavery and rape are wrong, what can I trust? I am sure that as a group, we humans have not progressed towards being better in all areas, but I do believe that we now have a more correct view of God, the loving father of the entire human family, than did the ancients, who viewed him as tribal. I also think we have a better understanding of the worth of a single soul.

    What this means for the Abraham story, I’m not entirely sure. There are so many possible influences–Abraham’s own culture and understanding of who God was, the culture and understanding of the people who wrote and edited his story much, much later, God’s actual intentions, the Christ symbols present in the story, and on and on. It’s a tough story and many of us wrestle with it, but I for one am not ready to conclude from it that God’s morality is incomprehensible to my spirit. There are just so many other possible interpretations that better preserve my relationship and trust in God in the here and now.

    Please don’t eat me ;)

  30. MH – I really have to take issue with your statement about OT prophets.

    “Well, what if the prophets are all wrong? The prophets of the Old Testament all thought the world was flat and God would roll the earth up as a scroll. That’s not a strong testament to their seership. Galileo, using logic and science, seems a lot smarter than Isaiah 34:4 or Revelation 6:14.”

    First, these two references are not reflective of all OT prophets, especially since 50% of the references came from John in the NT.

    Secondly, I would still really like to see a quote from an OT prophet stating that the earth is flat. Because neither of these versus do. Instead, they speak symbolically about the heavens (not the earth) disappearing AS IF rolled up like a scroll. So really, it says nothing to impune their seership. So, in this case the OT prophets are not the ones that appear to be wrong. So, using similar logic, who should we be listening to?

    If you want to look at the world that believed that the world was flat, you should be looking at the post-Great Apostasy European states, not the world of the OT prophets.

    But then again, I still do not think that God requested child sacrifice of Abraham, but rather provided both he and Isaac an opportunity to learn more about the Atonement in a completely voluntary manner for both of them that allowed them to exercise faith. This story has nothing in common with the violent murder of children associated with idol worship. Those that try to equate it have not looked at the story other than superficially, in my opinion.

    Interesting comments by everyone. Thanks Bruce for starting this.

  31. I’m surprised that nobody has mentioned kierkegaard’s take the story, a perspective which has a strong overlap with my own. Very briefly, he thinks that Abraham’s story is a clear example that the religious life can never be fully compatible with the moral life as understood by any kind of worldly morality.

  32. When looking at the scriptural record of Abraham, I was enlightened by the idea that the Deuteronomists actually didn’t much like Abraham. So they left all the ugly in his story, rather than sanitizing it.

    This story of sacrificing a child appears to be what they believe led to the heresy of Moloch, the idea that sacrificing your first born to God would bless your subsequent life. This was brought home to me viscerally when I was a missionary on the Island of Sardinia. There is a lovely museum there in the city of Sant’Antioco filled with anchient artifacts, including hundreds of delicately carved boxes. The fellow at the museum explained that there were many thousands of the boxes in the museum holdings, but these hundreds were the best examples. The boxes were used to enshrine the ashes of the infants sacrificed to Moloch, and were treasured by their families as the symbol of the sacrifice they had made to ensure the prosperity of their subsequent family.

    Interesting to consider that in our WEIRD sensibility, many people sacrifice their children to bless their subsequent life, if you open your aperture to consider elective abortion as child sacrifice. In modern practice, the child sacrificed need not be the eldest, need not be only one child per family, and is certainly not honored by being encased in a delicately-carved alabaster box in the center of the family home.

    I think God’s use of Abraham and Isaac to create the mental bridge between animal sacrifice and the eventual sacrifice of the Son of Man as rather parsimonious of human pain, actually. God appears to have very effectively communicated the idea that His Son would sacrifice his very live, with the willingness of God to allow Him to do so, to safe us. But also that animal sacrifice was all that was required of us (the ram in the thicket miraculously demonstrating that point).

    This discussion seems to forget or ignore the idea that Abraham himself was raised in a culture which practiced human sacrifice. However perhaps that is ignored because it appears to only arise from scriptures unique to Mormonism.

  33. Timidly, you write: “If it is the case that all human moral standards are equally fallible, that we cannot comprehend God’s moral standards, that our moral directions from God are just temporary rules he is not expected to adhere to himself, what do we mean when we talk about every human being possessing the Light of Christ, or a conscience, by which we are able to discern good and evil and feel the power of eternal truths? If I cannot trust my own conscience to tell me that murder and slavery and rape are wrong, what can I trust? ”

    Timidly, you are welcome here and nobody is going to eat you. We may sacrifice you on an altar (figuratively), but no eating. :)

    I think you are creating a straw man argument above, however, because Bruce in his post does not claim that we can have no moral anchors and that there are no eternal truths. What makes you think that Bruce is saying this?

  34. Nate, you make a good point. I struggled with this quite a bit. MH throughout his post took my view and likened it to the whole ‘orthodox view’ which probably isn’t all that inaccurate. But he also wanted to concentrate on ideas rather than people and asked me to not use his name direct (even though he knew people would quickly figure it out.) So I just wasn’t quite sure how to write the darn article knowing plain well that there probably isn’t a single liberal approach here. But I do think MH is at least a common liberal approach to the story.

    And I’ll let MH himself address whether or not your approach of making it just a story actually solves his concern or not. I’m thinking not, but I don’t know.

  35. I said this over at W&T, and I’ll say it again here. I just don’t understand Nate’s point of view generally. I’m more fluent in orthodox thought than the “all the Bible’s a-historical” approach of Nate. In fact, I would say I have more in common with Bruce’s ideas than Nate’s.

    I really like Timidly’s questions. Why exactly is it fair to assume that God lives by different laws than the ones he gives to man? Didn’t Joseph Smith say that God obeys the same natural laws of man? Perhaps Bruce didn’t say it, but Rameumpton did, and Bruce hasn’t said if he agrees or not. His previous post seems to imply agreement with Rameumpton when Bruce said in him previous post “Every Theological liberal I’ve talked to … would prefer that we make a rule that we can discern revelation based on the morality of the content. This story specifically undermines that desire.”

    I’m not a fan of WEIRD. I’m sure I could come up with an acronym that makes Orthodox sound odd and dumb (perhaps I just did–ODD sensibilities.) ;) I’m not a fan of name-calling. Using a WEIRD or ODD acronym isn’t helpful if we’re trying to really have a conversation. The continued use or WEIRD is the “We attack/You defend” model and divides up M* and W&T into safe zones for orthodox or heterodox people. If you like your safe zones, then by all means don’t change your behavior and maintain the faithful-liberal boundaries. If you want true dialogue and better access to liberal sites, then pick better acronyms.

  36. Is there a difference between “God never commands a child to be sacrificed” and “God never sacrifices children?” How does killing the first born of Egypt come into play? How does allowing the torture, pain, and death of thousands of children a year come into this? I just think any kind of blanket comment of the nature of God is simplistic and too cardboard character for an all knowing, almighty, divine being.

    “Isn’t this ‘moral relativism’ decried by so many orthodox?”

    No, because we are talking about God who is vastly different than Humans who don’t have the right to moral relativism unless through proper channels of revelation. The difference is, I believe, that liberals see God having a moral compass that “surprise” is the same as theirs. Conservatives believe that God *is* the moral compass that might change directions according to where we are as mortals to the Eternal destination. He teaches us right and wrong, even with the Light of Christ (using that name for a reason) that only points us to the teachings – and isn’t the teachings themselves.

  37. Mike, If you take any class in the Old Testament, there is general agreement that the ancient people of the Bible all took it for granted that the world was flat. I pulled out a couple of quick references to reinforce the point. It’s pretty common knowledge. I’d challenge you to show any references that show a Copernican view of the solar system. There’s a reason why Galileo was so persecuted for his views about planets, and it is rooted in millenia of biblical understandings of the earth’s place in God’s universe. I mean as late as Christopher Columbus, people thought he’d fall off the edge of the earth. I don’t know why you’re disputing that point.

  38. Because it does sound like God make different rules for different people.

    He does. The scriptures plainly manifest that God has made different rules for different people. That is a matter of record. Pork was forbidden, now it is not. Polygamy was in, now it is out. No preaching to gentiles, now we preach to gentiles. Circumcision was the law of God, now it is not. It happens *all the time.*

    The issue is: does this conflict with the state that says that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever? No — because we can believe that it is the same God who commandeth, even when the content of the commands differ from time to time. In addition, we can believe that God is the same (as in utterly reliable, trustworthy, promise keeping), without believing that He is the same across every measurable dimension at every point of time.

    After all, some days God is pleased with His children, and other days He is not. That’s change. We believe in a God of passions, an embodied God who can be at one place at a specific time, and then another place at another time. A God who can sit down and eat dinner with your family, if He so pleased. A God who can be pleaded with to change His mind on occasion (multiple stories of this happening).

    Just like any mortal parent — mortal parents will establish different rules for children as they grow older, or as circumstances change. The curfew may loosen as they start dating. The curfew may tighten when they violate their trust. The parents may put the child on a restrictive diet from time to time for health’s sake. The parents may interrupt the children’s school to take them to a dentist. Schedules change, rules change, relationships evolve, but that parents can still be utterly reliable, dependable, and loving throughout all of that change — the one constant in the midst of a sometimes chaotic and changing world of a child’s life.

    MH, your question about whether or not there are moral standards hides a more basic question: are there moral standards that you and I can discern without the help of God (e.g., through reason)? I don’t think so. Everything we think know about right or wrong ultimately comes from God (to the extend that we are right). I don’t think we can Platonize our moral belief system, and believe that it is something rigid which even God cannot bend. To do so is the ultimate act of hubris on the part of man, to think that we know moral truth so well that we begin to hold God to it.

    MH, there is a reliable moral compass — God. He is the reliable moral compass. Maybe someday, when we’ve surpassed this mortal sphere, we’ll no longer depend on HIm. I doubt it, but maybe. But I have no doubt that in this sphere, we always will. Even our conscience, we are told, arises from our relationship with God as His children (the light of Christ), and when it directs us right, it is He that takes credit.

    I will invite you to consider whether what you think is moral right and wrong — which you magisterially measure God’s actions against — is really a reliable metric. I mean, most of us acknowledge that ending someone’s life is a pretty substantial moral crime. But you and I are different from God — we don’t have the power to bring someone back to life. But God does. Not only does God have the power to bring someone back to life, He sees the end from the beginning. He sees that death is only temporary.

    God sees two rooms, whereas we only see one — He sees mortality and post-mortality, and death is the door in between. To us, death is the end. To Him, death is simply a transfer of one’s energy from the mortal realm to the next, where there are reunions aplenty, and where all currently in mortality will eventually go. To Him, it might not matter nearly so much as it matters to us whether that transition takes place now or twenty years from now.

    And so while ending someone’s life is a substantial moral crime for you and me, for Someone with that kind of Eternal perspective, it might not be so at all. And so when the scriptures depict God as a seeming a little callous about death (Abraham and Isaac, Nephi and Laban, the massive destructions that God takes personal credit for in 3 Nephi 9, “go kill all who live and breath in the land,” etc., etc., etc.), we might have good reason to acknowledge that His perspective grants Him quite a bit more authority over life and death than any of us can claim on our own.

  39. Jettboy, I agree with you! (See there is it again!)

    The difference is, I believe, that liberals see God having a moral compass that “surprise” is the same as theirs. Conservatives believe that God *is* the moral compass that might change directions according to where we are as mortals to the Eternal destination. He teaches us right and wrong, even with the Light of Christ (using that name for a reason) that only points us to the teachings – and isn’t the teachings themselves.

    What causes me so great concern is that if an orthodox person assumes that God is the moral compass without questioning (as Abraham did), then we get things like the Mountain Meadows Massacre. I mean John D. Lee says that they actually prayed to God and received confirmation that God wanted the Fancher party killed! Why didn’t that group of men question that revelation more? (I did a post on that, but my server crashed and I need to restore it from backup. I’ll provide a link when it gets restored.)

    I just think that unquestioned obedience can lead us to some really bad outcomes. When people assume that God is on their side, they do things like MMM thinking they are God-sanctioned. Hindsight makes us really question John D. Lee’s revelation. Unlike Abraham, no angel stopped Lee from executing these men, women, and children. Lee was as faithful a Mormon as anyone in BY’s day. Why did God stop Abraham and not stop Lee?

  40. MH: The Prophets are given what they are given in order to perform their callings. If Joseph didn’t need to know the world was a sphere in order to interpret Pharaoh’s dream, why do we assume that the Lord necessarily enlightened him as to its nature. Might as well complain about Alma the Younger not giving a discourse on quantum mechanics or the transistor radio. It wasn’t given because it wasn’t needed — the Lord inspires within our stewardships, and the rest comes line upon line.

    Timidly: We cannot understand the consequences of our actions in mortality. I cannot say, when I get up to go to work, which of three routes to take to work will be the best. I can come to a logical conclusion, but that lacks sufficient information to make a truly informed decision because I don’t know traffic, whether I will get in an accident, etc. Because we don’t know the end from the beginning, we are constrained by moral rules that God is not. We are all (God and man) constrained by moral principles, but until we are properly developed, we are also constrained by moral rules. So if God sees that commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac will abolish the sacrifice of infants (or at least severely curtail it) among the Hebrews, then He is able to command it because He knows the end from the beginning (including, of course, the presence of the ram). If He orders Nephi to kill Laban, He can do that because He knows that the brass plates will save the souls of countless Nephites, Lamanites, and all the world who will accept in the modern era. We could not, in our limited wisdom, set out to sacrifice our children or kill our rivals without our conscience demanding we stop. But God, knowing all things, can work out His righteous purposes in ways that we cannot.

    It is no different than any parent with a child. I walk out my front door without telling anyone all the time. When my three year old son does it, it is a calamity and we have tried to impress upon him how wrong it is that he does that. Does that make me a hypocrite? Of course not. Righteousness is righteousness, but the means to achieve righteousness are dependent on many things. Lest you argue that I am promoting moral relativism, however, I will also stated that this dependence is beyond our capacity at this stage of our existence to judge and so the only safety lies in keeping the commandments at all times.

  41. One interesting point is that the D&C quote you rely on doesn’t actually say that it was righteous for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, it says that it was “accounted unto him for righteousness.” To me, that suggests the possibility that Abraham’s choice to go ahead and sacrifice his son (until he was stopped) was not the right choice, but that, in his mercy and in recognition of Abraham’s obedience, the Lord chose to treat his obedience as righteous. I think it is valuable to consider the possibility that the angel was a correction because Abraham had failed to reach the right conclusion on his own. I don’t think that’s the only reading, but I think it is a valuable reading that should be considered along with the more dogmatic reading that Abraham was 100% righteous.

    My personal take on the story is that the test God gave Abraham was not a simple “let’s see if you are obedient.” The test was to force Abraham to struggle with the idea of balancing obedience against conscience, to teach Abraham the lessons that he would learn from such a struggle—in other words, to force him to decide what kind of a man he was or wanted to be: a man who put obedience first, or a man who put mercy first (a gross oversimplification). In my view, Abraham would have failed the test if he had obeyed without question, just as he would have failed if he had refused to obey without question. I suspect that the conclusion that Abraham ultimately came to was less important to the Lord than the struggle itself, and that as long as he struggled with the test and reached a deliberate conclusion, it would have been “accounted unto him for righteousness” no matter what the conclusion was.

    I could imagine an alternate universe where Abraham ultimately says “Lord, I cannot do this thing. I know that if I do not obey, I am giving up my exaltation and all the blessings that you have promised me, but I will freely give that up for love of my son,” and the scripture later is written “It is written: thou shalt not kill. Nevertheless, Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham, however, did not kill his son, and it was accounted unto him for righteousness.” Now of course all of that is speculative, and it may very well be that such a conclusion would have been a failure of the test. For one thing, Abraham appears to have faith in God’s mercy, and he may have believed that either God would stop him (as he did) or that God would raise Isaac from the dead, if necessary, because he says (prophesies?) to this servant that he and Isaac would go up and worship and that “we will return again.” But I think it is a nevertheless a valuable perspective to consider.

    I think that many of the “liberal” and “conservative” readings of the story fail the test of Abraham. The “liberal” readings are too often just outright rejection of the story (akin to Abraham saying “nope, not gonna do it, get lost, Lord”), while the “conservative” readings are too often akin to Abraham saying “sure, where’s the knife?” I think we are meant to struggle with the story just Abraham must have.

  42. I would also say that while I think looking at the way the story has been used by other prophets is useful to understanding what the story teaches us, it’s not always a reliable way of discerning what actually happened. It all depends on context. If Joseph Smith is writing a revelation to Emma to convince her that it is God’s will that she assent to polygamy, he’s going to emphasize the obedience angle. That doesn’t mean he is wrong, but it also doesn’t mean that obedience is the whole meaning of the story. Paul, writing to new Jewish converts, trying to strengthen their faith in this new Christian religion, is going to emphasize the “faith of Abraham that God had power over death” and “similitude of the sacrifice of Christ” angles. It doesn’t mean that he is wrong, but it also doesn’t mean that resurrection and Christ-prefigurement are the whole story.

  43. Timidly, none of us will eat you.

    That said, God does dwell on a moral platform that is significantly different than ours. “I God will forgive whom I will forgive, but it is required of you to forgive all men” is an example in D&C of God being different than us.. Through Isaiah, he tells us that our ways are not his ways, and that his ways are higher.

    We judge things from a temporal and temporary existence. God judges things from an eternal perspective, knowing intimately all the past and present, and being able to see the future much better than any of us. As Paul noted, we “see through a glass, darkly”, meaning we do not understand all things. Socrates would have us understand that we know nothing, compared to all the knowledge available in the universe (and he is right!).

    As we seek to judge earlier societies, we could just as easily be judged of them for our avarice, slaying of hundreds of millions of aborted babies, child sex slavery, child neglect and abuse, etc.

    Jesus and several prophets warned of those who insisted they were better than their forefathers, because they surely would not slay the prophets as those of old had done. Yet, we tend to crucify prophets all the time for issues like ordaining women, gay marriage, etc.

    And in this sense, we definitely have no right to be judging ancient issues. God understands each culture and deals with each according to the amount of truth they are ready to receive (Alma 29:8).

    And I agree fully with what Meg said above.

  44. “First, I would argue that everybody proof-texts. Lack of proof-texting is, itself, a form of proof-texting.”

    Not everyone. Most scholars and historians of the Bible may have their obvious biases and agendas, but the whole idea behind the historical critical method is you look at what is facing you on the page and what you gather from other historical sources (through artifacts etc.). Instead of interpreting the Bible with pre-conceived dogmas, worldviews or prophetic pronouncements. Proof-texting does not subject itself to peer review.

    “Secondly, a “19th C.” view on the Bible is no less valid than a 22nd C. gender-neutral queer-positive progressive midrash view.”

    I agree, but that’s not what I’m suggesting. And this is where we should all acknowledge that Mormon views of the Bible cannot be contained in the lazy progressive/conservative camps that much of Protestantism can. Looking at the place of child sacrifice (among other archaeological and textual comparisons) in the ancient world and allowing that to inform our view of the text is only progressive in that it attempts to question traditional views of the Biblical narrative in light of new information (a very Mormon thing to do I might add). But how that process of gaining better understand of (in this case) a sacred text is somehow a left wing American endeavour is puzzling to me.

  45. Thanks for the welcome, Geoff B. Your point is fair–I don’t think Bruce is saying we have no moral anchors. I was reacting more to some of the comments from Jeff C, Michael Towns, and rameumptom. I’m not trained in logic and I’m a feeler–our way of seeing the world often drives thinkers nuts!

    Jonathan, I can get on board with so much of you said, especially your reasoning about God’s higher purpose in using Abraham to end the practice of child sacrifice. This is one of the alternate interpretations that I was hinting at that allows me to preserve a favorable view of God. I also resonated with explanations offered by Meg Stout (similar to yours, Jonathan) and JKC. Like I said, there is so much going on with this story that there are many possible interpretations, some of which will appeal more to different personality types.

    I think MH’s point about Mountain Meadows is relevant, though. While I can see God’s higher purposes at work in incidents like Abraham’s sacrifice, I have a much harder time with the wholesale slaughter of innocents. I tend to interpret incidents like MMM and disturbing episodes of Biblical genocide not as true manifestations of God’s will, but as human misunderstanding and justification. For although God does see a bigger picture than we do, I still believe that he cares deeply for the suffering of every human soul. I’m probably projecting my values again, but I think God cares not only for the suffering of the ones raped and killed, but for the poison that is planted in the soul of the person who does the act. I think the Israelites thought very tribally–Jehovah was their god, fighting on their side against the gods of other peoples. We have a radically different view of God, that he is on all of our sides individually in our progression towards more Christlike behavior. I believe that change is for the better.

  46. MH,

    First of all, I’m not sure I agree with Jettboy entirely. I don’t think conservatives believe God *is* the moral compass per say so much as they believe God is good and that he created everything and knows everything, so he knows what is best for us. Because of his superior knowledge, it would stand to reason he might at times ask us to do things that — given our limited knowledge — seems immoral. But once “all the facts are in” it will no longer seem that way.

    I think The true underlying concern that liberals are getting at is exactly what you just said, that if we accept the story as it it might lead to greater violence.

    To fully address this point of view and why I believe it to be a substantial misunderstanding of human nature would require a whole series of posts where I have to demonstrate that human morality is taboo based rather than well-being based, that liberals are assuming false causes to effects, that human being — on average — understand the differences between myth and everyday life, that liberals and even atheists are just as susceptible to violence in the name of “morality” as religious folks, and that you can’t use anecdotes like the Mountain Meadow Massacre and draw conclusions.

    Since I don’t have time to get into these, I have some questions for you instead:

    1. Please explain to me why I have any reason at all to believe the Mountain Meadow Massacre was primarily a religious faith-based problem. Frankly, I highly suspect that pretty much any persecuted minority that you march an army on has a high probability of doing the same. That a persecuted religious minority used religion to justify their actions seems about as uninteresting a point as I could have imagined. Why are you assuming religion was the *cause* rather than the post facto justification?

    2. You are so worried that if we tell this story of Abraham that it will *lead* to the MMM, but why are you even assuming this? Are you aware of some sort of evidence I am not aware of that religiosity correlates with violence once other factors (such a wealth, education, and culture) are factored out? I would assume you know that if there is no correlation then pointing to a single example (MMM) or even many examples and assigning a cause is pure anecdote and therefore unscientific and irrational. Is it possible this is precisely what you are doing?

    3. Why are you assuming that people can’t tell the difference between a mythical (but presumably true) story like this in the Bible and their everyday life? It honestly seems absurd to me that you’d even worry about this at all. If you’re right, shouldn’t we be equally concerned that people will never cut their hair to gain great strength, push down pillars, or stone their kids on the Sabbath? It seems to me that you’re making a completely wild leap of logic here that people don’t “get it” that this was a miraculous exception to the general rule.

    4. Why are you assuming a liberal like yourself is not equally susceptible to killing your own children compared to a religious person? Presumably this happens because of some sort of sever mental issue. Do you honestly think that because you happen to be religiously liberal and have explained away the Abraham story that therefore you would be immune to the types of mental issues that currently cause (on VERY rare occasions) to kill their own children? To be honest, this seems like a rather ludicrous assumption to me. My guess is that it simply makes no difference whatsoever what a person does or doesn’t believe about Abraham and Isaac as to whether or not they’ll start killing their own children or go out on murderous rampages. My guess is that this is more of a factor of how the person, having done so, therefore chooses to justify it. If they are religious, it becomes a revelation from God. If they are not, it becomes some sort of demand of morality or justice or necessity. Do you have some reason to believe otherwise?

  47. Since this touches on the last conversation I had here, I’ll chime in briefly:

    If it is not too extreme, would you kill your son if God told you to do it?

    Answer: This is the question God is asking you to answer for yourself. You will not be called upon to go through this particular test in this particular way. But you may be asked to “sacrifice” a child in some other way due to tragedy or circumstance. These sorts of losses and sacrifices are part and parcel to life in morality. God is trying to get us to think about that in advance. That’s the point of the story.

    You’re sidestepping the issue here. If the prophet asked you to sacrifice your child would you do it? Alternatively, could you ever trust yourself sufficiently to believe that you received a personal revelation to kill your own child? (In this case there are no rational reasons for you to kill your own child.)

    I invite anyone who thinks less of this so-called liberal position described in the OP to weigh in.

  48. Hey MH, you’re only a “so-called” liberal now! ;-)

    SmallAxe, I take it you didn’t really read the whole post since I explained how to change the story to address “could you ever trust yourself sufficiently to believe that you received a personal revelation to kill your own child?”

    The real question isn’t that at all. The real question is:

    SmallAxe, if you knew absolutely for certain that God was good and then God asked you to sacrfice your child and you knew for certain it came from God and you knew for certain God had already promised you great things about your child and you knew for certain God had all power, what would you, SmallAxe, do?

    Please answer that first before you tell me I’ve side stepped the question. Because I am of the opinion that you side stepped the question being posed by the original story and turned it into a different (and more comfortable to answer) question. Further, I believe already addressed the question in my OP in uncertain terms.

  49. ” If the prophet asked you to sacrifice your child would you do it? Alternatively, could you ever trust yourself sufficiently to believe that you received a personal revelation to kill your own child? (In this case there are no rational reasons for you to kill your own child.)”

    This is not the issue at all, because the story didn’t involve Abraham being asked by a prophet to sacrifice a child. The story involves the actual God of the universe telling Abraham to perform an act. That is an entirely different thing by several orders of magnitude.

    Also, the issue isn’t about trusting *oneself*. The issue is trusting God.

    All of this ground has been covered in my Misogynistic God post.

  50. SmallAxe,

    Just to make it clear that I have no problem answering your questions — even though they are irrelevant to the story of Abraham.

    “If the prophet asked you to sacrifice your child would you do it?”
    This is such an incredibly easy question. Of course not. No one would. It’s also NOT the question the story of Abraham poses as I pointed out in my last comment to you. I’d like to see you not sidestep the question and answer it directly.

    “Alternatively, could you ever trust yourself sufficiently to believe that you received a personal revelation to kill your own child?”

    I directly address this in the OP as to how a revelation could come such that you could completely trust the source came from God and making such adjustments are necessary to rework the story for modern sensibilities. But the rework can be done and the question is still a valid question. You’re simply switching out the difficult question posed by the Bible story and replacing it with a super easy one so that you can sidestep having to ever answer the original question. But how would you answer the original difficult question? That’s what I want to know.

  51. Bruce, frist I apologize for not reading the OP carefully. You did engage this in the part about discernment. Second, I don’t think you sufficiently dealt with the issue. I believe you’re right to say that questions of discernment aren’t central to the story. I think there’s a much more simple explanation though. A major point of the story seems to be that God will ask us to sacrifice important things, and that he will not always give us clear reasons for this. In this sense he wants us to trust him. In Abraham’s culture context people were treated like “things,” rather than individuals of incalculable worth (we see this pretty clearly in Job, for instance). Isaac is a thing, not unlike livestock inherited from my father, or a jewel passed down from my grandmother. IMHO, injecting questions of morality into the story is probably as much foreign to it as injecting questions of discernment are.

    That said, if you want to make it a moral issue, the discernment issue is relevant as well. So here’s a serious question: Could you ever trust yourself sufficiently to believe that you received a personal revelation to kill your own child? Before you (or primarily others) start running around decrying the way in which liberals assert their 21st century standards of morality onto God, let’s hear an answer to this question. Once you start discussing morality, this goes beyond the Abraham and Isaac story.

    So, in answer to your question, I do not trust myself sufficiently to be certain that such a commandment came from God. Does this mean that I disparage Abraham? Not necessarily, but I do believe that contemporary standards of morality are better than early Israelite standards of morality.

  52. There seems to be a common assumption on the part of progressive Mormons, that if a Mormon (or a scriptural figure) obeys, that obedience was by definition unquestioning. But I’m not convinced that’s really what Abraham did. Whether we question or not, is a bit of a red herring. The issue is the manner in which we question. It’s not enough just to say “well, God would never give a revelation like that”; because Joseph Smith’s claimed that

    That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. God said, ‘Thou shalt not kill'; at another time He said, ‘Thou shalt utterly destroy.’ This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.
    Dean C. Jessee (ed), The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, p. 507-509

    In trying to determine whether the Lord did command a thing, we’ll waste a lot of time if we indulge in a game of whether the Lord would command that thing. The latter is what happened in the aftermath of the Great Apostasy–theologians, in the absence of revelation, tried to distill down the key characteristics of God, and then patterned their lives and institutions in accordance with those notions to such a degree that they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) recognize honest-to-gosh revelation when it slapped them in the face. Hence, the need for an illiterate fourteen-year-old Yankee farm boy.

    Aside from the obvious inhumanity of their deed per se, the MMM perpetrators made at least two major blunders when they evaluated their “revelation” (assuming, for the purposes of this discussion, that they believed they had received such a revelation). First, they ignored the fact that their impressions rather conveniently overlapped with what their own paranoia/hysteria/war mentality was telling them. And, second, they failed to utilize existing channels of priesthood authority that, if consulted, would have overruled the revelation (as I understand it, a message requiring instructions from Brigham Young had been sent; but the MMM ringleaders elected not to wait for a response).

    By contrast, Abraham’s decision to sacrifice Isaac most certainly did not align with his personal desires; and–so far as we know–there was no higher authority nearby to whom Abraham could submit his revelation for priesthood review.

  53. Michael Towns, I commented because of the ground covered in your previous post. I’m happy to pick up where we left off because I don’t think you’ve picked up what I was putting down.

  54. SmallAxe,

    Forgive me, but the idea that the story of Abraham was assuming people were only things and therefore there was an assumption that this wasn’t a moral issue — did I understand that correctly? — seems about as patently false a reading of the story as is imageable. Yes of course the story was meant to pull on our heart strings and yes of course it would pull on the biological moral heart strings of people form all cultures and all times. There is no way it couldn’t because the biological moral sense pre-exists this story by a long shot.

    I also note that you STILL sidestepped the question. You are still trying to avoid answering the real question being posed and are trying to replace it with a question of how to discern personal revelation (presumably inspiration of some sort.) And given your rewriting of the question, of course EVERYONE would answer the question the same way you just did. Because its a patently easy question to answer now because it’s no longer the same question.

    Here’s the question to answer:
    “SmallAxe, if you knew absolutely for certain that God was good and then God asked you to sacrfice your child and you knew for certain it came from God and you knew for certain God had already promised you great things about your child and you knew for certain God had all power, what would you, SmallAxe, do?”

    My post covers how you know for certain its coming from God. But the key point here is that you get to make up whatever means the revelation comes and whatever means of confirmation work for you — but the end result has to be that you have confirmed it come from God. Make that adjustment and let’s see if you are capable of not dodging the question.

  55. The person who was asked to sacrifice his child was a prophet of God who had seen Jehovah and spoken with him several times. This same Jehovah had saved him from being sacrificed on an altar in Ur. Unless anybody here (including Smallaxe) has been saved from the altar by Jehovah himself, perhaps we should have the humility to consider that we are a bit different than Abraham. Any appeals to what we would do are a huge waste of time because we are not Abraham. The question is incredibly irrelevant.

    The question that is relevant for us is: are you willing to sacrifice important things (not your child) to the Church. For example, are you willing to sacrifice a fishing trip to go to the temple? Are you willing to do your home teaching rather than watch the latest, really important football game? These are relevant questions for us that have to do with obedience and sacrifice.

    Another relevant question is: will you follow God’s commands even when the rest of the society says you should do the opposite? As President Monson said in the most recent conference, are you willing to “…do… the right thing even though we may be afraid, defend… our beliefs at the risk of being ridiculed, and maintain… those beliefs even when threatened with a loss of friends or of social status.”?

    These are very relevant questions. Pretending that we are Abraham is not a relevant question and completely misses the point.

  56. “Mike, If you take any class in the Old Testament, there is general agreement that the ancient people of the Bible all took it for granted that the world was flat. I pulled out a couple of quick references to reinforce the point.”

    Hi MH – Oddly enough I did take classes in the OT and that did not come up. And again, a reading of your references do not reinforce the point. However, Abraham 3 and the visions that Moses had of the creation would indicate that there were prophets in the OT that new of a spherical earth. And just because the “consensus” of the time was that the “science was settled” and that the earth was flat, I see no evidence that prophets taught or agreed with the consensus. Rather, I have found that prophets often preach against some prevailing philosophies of the world.

    Regardless, you are correct that this is somewhat off subject. My main point still is, the story of Abraham and Isaac is not one of child sacrifice comparable to those found in idol worship. Efforts to paint it as such are simply attempts to explain it through the eyes of a cultural view rather than a gospel view. Furthermore, I must agree with other posts that trying to tie this story to justifications of mass killings is illogical. Thanks for the interesting discussion, though.

  57. I apologise if I’ve offended anyone in using the acronym WEIRD. I would like to clarify that my use of it was intended to apply to ALL of us regardless of where we are on the liberal-conservative spectrum because I think we are all highly influenced by our modern culture’s world-view paradigm whether we like it or not, but if there is something better that describes the same thing then I’m happy to use it.

    On the issue of God’s morals versus ours I think rameumptom and others have described it well, to which I would just add that the Light of Christ that Timidly refers to I think can, and often does, get suppressed by the powerful cultural influences we face – that is why we end up with people calling good things evil, and evil things good. The Light of Christ gets smothered.

    A specific example, there is a local secondary school near to where we live (equivalent to High School in the US), where the teachers actively encourage the teenagers to go out and experiment with their sexuality – “give everything a go to see what you like best”. This gets reinforced with the media, pop-stars, the books and magazines they read, the internet pages they watch, politicians, etc. It’s then no surprise that by their early twenties they genuinely believe that anyone who believes in monogamous marriage is an anachronistic crack-pot. It’s not that long ago that the opposite would have been true. If we get taught anything for long enough we may end up believing it regardless of its truth. Laman and Lemuel ended up “past feeling” and were unable to distinguish the truth as a result, so while I suspect they genuinely thought their father was crazy, and Nephi was out to get them, they were still wrong.

    The school above maybe an extreme example, but I don’t for a second think that I would hold all of the same opinions on a whole host of issues if I had been born 100 years ago. I like to think that I have a balanced view of life, and I do my best to receive revelation for me and, together with my wife, for my family, but the reality is that I am almost certainly influenced by today’s society far more than I think, and many of those influences are spiritually regressive, not progressive. I just don’t think we can say that today’s moral values are superior to those of 1,000, 3,000 or 5,000 years ago – they’re different for sure, but not necessarily better. When we then make a case for or against the near-sacrifice of Isaac based on an argument of God’s *morality*, I think we are instead super-imposing our own modern-day morals on God, and I just don’t think we can safely do that.

    On a separate point, Bruce I’m fascinated that you say you are 25% atheist. For me atheism is the *least* logical position to take, because to state “there is no God”, is to state something that can’t be proven. Agnosticism I can see as an entirely rational position, but I just don’t get atheism. That could just be because I’m coming at it from a scientific perspective though. I’m not well-versed in philosophy and maybe there is a rational philosophical argument for atheism?

    Back to this post, it’s curious that no-one has yet posed the question as to whether it matters whether the Abraham-Isaac story is historical fact or not. I have a view, but this comment is already long enough.

  58. So let’s be clear here, and separate out two issues: 1) Interpreting the story of Abraham and Issac. 2) Whether or not we foist our ethical categories onto God.

    Regarding 1. Abraham seems to be certain that the commandment to sacrifice his son came from God. One should trust in God when certain, even if it is difficult. Regarding 2. No one here is willing to claim that they would trust in themselves receiving a revelation such that they would sacrifice their own child. Why not? What happened to the faith of Abraham? How are you any different than these so-called liberals that foist their ethical conceits on to God?

    Notice the way those such as Geoff B. compare Abraham to us: God won’t ask us to sacrifice our child, but he might ask us to sacrifice things such as a fishing trip. Why won’t God ask us to sacrifice our children? By what means are these limitations placed on God?

    Here’s another attempt to more directly answer your question. I believe that God will ask that we make sacrifices. Sometimes these requests may seem odd. We need to trust him in these circumstances. I’m not sure I believe that God would ask us to do anything unethical; and I think this is a big difference (which is one reason why I say that seeing the Abraham story in light of ethics is problematic). If we say that God, ultimately speaking, is ethical and whatever he commands is ethical (even if it seems to contradict our ethical sensibilities); then we cannot but fall back to the question of discernment. And if it comes to the question of discernment, the more significant the breach of our ethical sensibilities, the more certain we should be. (This doesn’t address the questions I raised in Michael’s post regarding how the community should treat ethical breaches when an individual claims that s/he is doing it on the basis of revelation.)

  59. Great post, Bruce.

    I think you really hit the nail on the head regarding how “progressive” Mormons cite scripture or prophetic statements. I see this all the time. They readily dismiss all kinds of scriptures and prophetic statements by chalking them up to fallibility but then grasp onto a handful of scriptures or statements that seem to support their favored views and promote them as if they were unassailable and authoritative. And the only measure by which they decide which is which is by their own fallible self.

    Anyhow, regarding Abraham, I find it frustrating that this story is frequently analyzed in isolation from the context of the rest of the story. People like MH tend to start with the command to sacrifice and end with the ram in the thicket.

    To understand Abraham’s willingness to obey you have to take into account what he has already experienced.

    The story has to start with Abraham winning his wrestle and obtaining a covenant that his posterity will be as the sands of the sea. It has to include the miraculous circumstances of Isaac’s birth. Abraham had already seen that God was capable of causing his wife, who had been unable to conceive for her entire life and was now well beyond menopause, to miraculously conceive and bear a son in her extreme old age. Such a miracle proved that God would keep his covenant of posterity to Abraham even if it meant doing it in apparent contradiction to the very laws of nature.

    That context is significantly different than the “God told me to kill my children” stories that periodically make the news today.

    Abraham had good reason to believe that God would keep his promise of posterity through Isaac even if it meant raising the son from the dead because Isaac’s very existence was already impossible. He had already obtained a level of connection to God to make the issue of how he knew it to be a true revelation or not irrelevant. Abraham’s experience with revelation was way beyond still struggling with whether it was really God with whom he was communicating or not. Issac’s birth itself was plenty of proof already.

    So to compare Abraham to John D. Lee is like comparing apples and raisins.

  60. Jeff C,

    To give you a full answer is a long conversation. It is, in part, a matter of epistemology. It a bit hard to explain without a big explanation, but the bottomline is that our current theories and explanations don’t really require “God” anywhere (if they did, of course that would mean we could prove God’s existence), so there is definitely a rational line of thought that drives one towards atheism instead of truly agnosticism.

    However, it can’t *prove* there is no God, so you are probably technically correct. But saying “25 % agnostic” sounds every bit as wimpy as it is. So saying “25% atheist” better captures my true view point.

  61. “No one here is willing to claim that they would trust in themselves receiving a revelation such that they would sacrifice their own child. Why not?”

    SmallAxe, I went to a lot of effort with the whole “Hollywood movie” analogy with the angel that is completely confirmed as coming from God. So it is possible to at least imagine a revelation that is known for certain to come from God that is also asking you to do smoething you feel is morally wrong. You may not personally believe God would do that, but that isn’t an answer to the question. I’m asking you what you would do if God *would* do that.

    You keep avoiding this. You then claimed: “No one here is willing to claim that they would trust in themselves receiving a revelation such that they would sacrifice their own child.”

    But wait, you haven’t been willing to answer the question either! You only said you wouldn’t do it if you *didn’t know for sure the revelation came from God.* And then came up with a whole lot of justifications for not answering the question actually posed: what if you *did know* it came from God.

    So can you say it, SmallAxe? Let’s ask the question again:

    “SmallAxe, if you knew absolutely for certain that God was good and then God asked you to sacrfice your child and you knew for certain it came from God and you knew for certain God had already promised you great things about your child and you knew for certain God had all power, what would you, SmallAxe, do?”

    Go ahead, SmallAxe. Show us how its done. Show us that you can in fact answer this question in the negative before you start pointing out that no one was willing to answer definitively in the positive. Tell me point blank without a dodge: “Bruce, I would not sacrifice my own son even if I knew God was good and even if I knew the commandment came from God and even if I knew God had all power — even power over death.”

    Because frankly, SmallAxe, I think the reason you keep sidestepping the question — even while pointing out that no one is willing to answer you as directly as you wish — is because YOU CAN’T DO IT EITHER WHEN PHRASED THIS WAY!

    Prove me wrong, SmallAxe. Or at least show me how it’s done before you start making claims that no one will answer the question for you.

  62. SmallAxe, I would be happy to sacrifice any of your children if God told me to do so. ;)

    That said, it is a very powerful message to us, and something to ponder. When Joseph Smith called upon the Twelve to live plural marriage, many of them had very powerful and mixed feelings about it. Brigham wished to exchange places with a dead man in a funeral procession. Others promised to pray about it, and if Joseph were wrong and a fallen prophet, they would return and kill him. Perhaps that kind of thoughtful consideration is what is being asked of us in this Abrahamic test that we may also someday have to face.

  63. ” but I do believe that contemporary standards of morality are better than early Israelite standards of morality.”

    SmallAxe, I respect your opinion. And you’re entitled to believe that we humans, now in 2014, are sophisticated compared to our human predecessors from three thousand years ago. That’s your choice.

    I choose to think of it another way. I look around the world today and I see the following things:

    1. Contemporary child and young woman sex trafficking — the modern slavery. Rampant in both first and third world countries, particularly by the rich.
    2. A massive drug trade that enslaves millions of people to addictive habits.
    3. Globally, hundreds of thousands of third trimester abortions. (And in some cases, the babies are born live and then their necks are snapped.) In case anyone needs a refresher, babies born in the third trimester are viable human beings.
    4. Global indifference to genocides raging in Africa (including some going on right now).
    5. Global indifference to an entire nation-state starving its people: North Korea.
    6. In the past 100 years exactly, two world wars have been fought and dozens of limited wars, with some estimates of about 200 million souls destroyed.

    Shall I continue?

    I am just not convinced that we contemporary humans are really all that better than our Israelite brethren from 1500 BC.

  64. One thing that I have noticed, in the discussion of this topic, is a desire to have this conversation be a mortally-linked conversation. We look at morality from our mortal perspective, as if that really is all that there is. But we should know better.

    Am I the only one who can say that if the Lord called me to sacrifice my son (and I knew — absolutely knew — that He had done so), that I would do it? That I would do it because I knew the Lord and understood that He loved my son more than even I did and that I trusted Him to do right by my boy? That we could trust that even if there was no ram in the thicket in this life, there would be a ram in the thicket in the next, and all would be made well in the resurrection?

    That being said, I don’t think Abraham ever thought that Isaac would be lost. He told his servants that he and Isaac would go up to give sacrifice, and that they both would come back down. Abraham knew that the Lord’s promises to Isaac would be fulfilled. I am very glad that we are not put in the position that Abraham was, but I worry if we are prepared to hold anything back from the Lord. The talk of Mountain Meadows is appropriate, as we must be ever more cautious and certain of any revelation that we receive, especially when it deviates from our moral compass, but if we know that the Lord has spoken on a subject we are compelled to obey regardless of what is asked of us.

  65. As a follow-up, reading my previous post I realize I came out a little self-righteous. I intended the statement “[a]m I the only one” as a rhetorical call for others who I expect feel the same, and not because I actually believe I am the only one. My apologies.

  66. I hope Smallaxe answers Bruce’s question, but in the meantime I cannot let this pass:

    “I’m not sure I believe that God would ask us to do anything unethical.”

    This is of course depends on the ethics of the person involved. For modern-day liberals there is nothing more unethical than “discrimination” against gay people, yet God is clearly asking us not to allow government-approved same-sex marriage and is asking us to follow the prophets on this issue. So, God is clearly asking us to do something that some people feel is unethical. And this is precisely the point: we are asked to adopt God’s sense of ethics, not try to mold God to our sense of ethics. Morality comes from God, not from us or the world’s currently politically correct standard of morality.

  67. Geoff, good point to SmallAxe, but really I think it needs to be pointed out that SmallAxe is dodging here.

    No one is claiming God would ask someone to do something unethical. What they are asking is if God would ask someone to do something that *seemed* unethical to us, but was in fact ethical once we see all that God knows. Lack of information of course means that it is not always obvious what is truly ethical or not ethical. SmallAxe’s insistence that he believes God would not ask us to do something unethical as a contrast to the (false) notion that conservatives believe He would is simply a strawman argument.

    And no one is even claiming that God would ask someone to sacrifice their child — since the story specifically has God stopping Abraham. So the true moral question is really only if God would test someone in this way. But its hard to seperate the two, and I think that is SmallAxe’s point.

    But did Abraham believe he would kill Isaac or did he think God would stop him, but wanted to show God he’d trust him? Did Abraham think he’d kill Isaac but that it wouldn’t matter because God would instantly fix it. We have the conservatives here constantly pointing this out and it is unfortunate that SmallAxe is not addressing these points and is instead worrying about a strawman argument instead.

    SmallAxe, how does this change things if Abraham honestly felt he knew that Isaac would be spared and he just wanted to show God he trusted him. And how does it change things if we assume (and it’s not a bad assumption) that Isaac was older and thus willing? You are single mindedly going after a point of view no one here holds and probably no one holds period.

  68. Here you go, Bruce. But I expect the same favor in return, from all of your associates supposedly waiting for my answer.

    Yes, but I do not believe in a case with the stakes this high that such a thing as “absolute certainty” is attainable.

  69. I am just not convinced that we contemporary humans are really all that better than our Israelite brethren from 1500 BC.

    I completely agree with this statement. But given the choice between then and now, with some reluctance I’d choose now; and part of my choice would be because of the ethical standards that we’ve adopted that create better opportunities for women, children, and at least non-white men.

  70. “and part of my choice would be because of the ethical standards that we’ve adopted that create better opportunities for women, children, and at least non-white men.”

    As long as they don’t live in Chicago or Detroit, I take it? :)

  71. “the ethical standards that we’ve adopted that create better opportunities for women, children, and at least non-white men.” Yes that is true, but I wonder whether the Israelites of 1500 BC would agree. They might look at the disintegration of families and the absence of respect for any of the 10 commandments other than the one against killing (and even that might be debatable), and argue that on balance the ethical standards of their day were far better than the standards of our own

  72. Now I noticed, SmallAxe that you STILL didn’t answer the question but got out of it by claiming there was no certainty.

    But here honestly, you are being a bit silly. Since this is a pure hypothetical question, we can literaly imagine ANYTHING as a possiblity. So imagine its the millenium and you meet with Jesus every day and you KNOW it’s Jesus and he’s everything you ever hoped for. So, yes, it is possible for you to know for certain. And you are dodging, sir, because you know as well as I you can’t answer the question.

  73. JeffC, I’m fairly certain that America (even in 2014) beats ancient Israel on its best day every time. And of course they would be appalled by our current society. Not only do we allow people the freedom to determine for themselves what the commandments of God actually are, we also have almost no legal means of punishing the breaking of most of them. Seriously, they would be much more at home in modern day Iran than in the most conservative state in the Union. And I’m ok with that.

  74. The reason this story doesn’t make sense to you is because you are viewing it with a rational mind. People who are going through a spiritual awakening or shamanic initiation (Joseph Smith – see D&C 85:6) are for a time in an altered state of consciousness which to others appears to be a delusional state. So, you think God is telling you what to do??? This delusion is very convincing to the person experiencing it and that makes it extremely useful to simulate situations that can’t otherwise be safely acted out. The difference between this state and true mental illness is you can’t talk the schizophrenic out of his delusions but you can the person who is experiencing the spiritual awakening.

  75. I wanted to chime in on the our morality vs. theirs discussion.

    The issue here is that it would make sense we’d prefer our morality over theirs (on average) since we were shaped by it. It would also not be suprising that they were shaped by theirs and would likely hold the reverse opinion. (The example of Iran is probably apt here to some degree, since they wouldn’t morally switch with us for the most part, though the difference in standards of living muddles the comparision quite a bit.)

    So obviously we’d have to have some sort of objective perfect moral standard to compare moralities over or else obviously its just a matter of opinion and everyone will always believe their time is, on average, superior to everyone elses’.

    That being said, I’m not so sure we can’t come up with a decent standard — let’s say drop in violence — and that we moderns probably ARE superior to all other ages and that even these other ages might well envy us in this moral regard.

    But does this mean we’re morally superior? Well, it depends on what you mean. The issue here is that a huge amount of our ‘moral progress’ (I suspect pretty much all of it, though that is debatable I suppose) is really just improvements in political technologies — like the invention of democracy or capitalism. The underlying human nature has probably not improved in the slightest on average.

    Now this being the case, it seems a little silly to make the comparison at all. Yeah, sure, we’re morally superior to them but its pretty much for the very reason we’re richer than them — introduction of new technologies.

    And that’s the real point. Religion is about changing the actual individual and political morality is about engineering a peace. I would not *expect* religion to try to improve upon things we see as moral evils today — due to our ability to do away with them due to our improved technology — if they were necessities back then. So our comparisons really are for the most part silliness. We would almost assurely be them in all the ways we think we wouldn’t if we have to live their lives. And that probably true even if you knew about how things could be better — but lacked the knowledge on how to implement the necessary institutions to get there.

    I suspect many of the evils we bemoan from the past were actually necessities at one point and therefore had very different moral ramifications since the next best alternative was even worse.

    I think the most straightforward example of this is warring with your neighbor. Our modern political insitutions have allowed people to live in larger tribes and not have to see your neighbor as the most dangerous animal out there. So of course war between, say, neighboring states, isn’t likely to happen now where it was unavoidable prior to the existence of the necessary institutions. So if war is unavoidable prior to the necessary technologies — and it was — it should be clear that a huge number of moral choices associated with war must of necessity have very different moral ramifications prior to the existence of the war reducing technologies. Yet in general, we’d just look at our ancestors and say “Glad I’m not as warlike as them… and what horrendous things they did to their neighbors! I condemn them!” Yet remove the necessary political inventions and you’d of had no choice but to mimic their behavior out of basic need to survive.

  76. I suspect many of the evils we bemoan from the past were actually necessities at one point and therefore had very different moral ramifications since the next best alternative was even worse.

    This – and your overall comment – is why I withhold judgement on past peoples and try not to assume moral superiority, but also allow myself a great deal of editorial flexibility when applying their experiences in my own life. I’m actually not terribly troubled by the Abraham story – or much else I read in the OT – when I understand a little of the ancient world. What troubles me is a culture of assuming that the story is meant as a life application on obedience for me in 2014. Not all scripture is applicable or was meant to be. Mormon may have seen our day. I don’t believe any author in the OT makes that claim.

  77. Christian J,

    My own attempt in OP to explain how you’d have to rewrite the story to make it equivalent for modern audiences was my attempt to bridge that gap.

    You seem to me — I’m not trying to put words in your mouth though — to be saying that you feel the story can be discounted all together, and I’m not sure i can agree with that. There is so obviously a transferable lesson here even if the specifics are now difficult for us because the question of discernment never comes up. But many people in this comment thread have easily found ways to grasp a hold of that intended lesson and reapply it to themselves.

    I would also point out that this story is in the Book of Mormon.

    I also think once this story is really understood for what it is really meant to be it’s still uncomfortable (it undoubtedly was at time of origin else it wouldn’t be a good story), but maybe not nearly so horrific as we read it today either.

  78. Smallaxe, with the testimony I have of the living prophets, if President Monson were to call upon me to sacrifice one of my children, I would do so. If I had a personal witness of Christ, as did Abraham, and then I had Christ command me to sacrifice a child, I would do so.

    That said, I think that today the Lord will require a different sacrifice from us. Abraham’s trial was based upon his culture, where many sacrificed children to other gods.

    For Joseph Smith’s day, the apostles and members had to accept plural marriage as the sacrifice of Abraham.

    For us today, the Lord expects us to sacrifice by refusing our culture, as our prophets are telling us to do. Are we willing to follow the Proclamation on the Family, rejecting sexual sin, gay marriage, and ordination of women, as long as the Lord commands us to follow the living prophets in this manner? Are we willing to listen to the prophets, when they tell us to be kind to illegal immigrants in establishing our laws? There are problems for both liberals and conservatives in sacrificing their cultural beliefs and give heed to the prophets today.
    If such is our test of Abraham today, I think many of us would fail.

  79. Bruce, it would be hard for me to discount the story, considering its scriptural cross examination. I’m simply in favor of a contextual reading of this very ancient text. Not through modern sensibilities, but through the eyes of ancient Israel.

  80. Now I noticed, SmallAxe that you STILL didn’t answer the question but got out of it by claiming there was no certainty.

    But here honestly, you are being a bit silly. Since this is a pure hypothetical question, we can literaly imagine ANYTHING as a possiblity. So imagine its the millenium and you meet with Jesus every day and you KNOW it’s Jesus and he’s everything you ever hoped for. So, yes, it is possible for you to know for certain. And you are dodging, sir, because you know as well as I you can’t answer the question.

    Um, okay Bruce, yes. (But you know we’re not living in the Millennium, right?)

    Now let’s hear what you and yours have to say.

    Additionally, do you think Rame represents the orthodox position?

  81. Christian J

    That was my point. I wouldn’t trade living now with then either, but as Bruce says, that’s primarily because I’ve been shaped by the culture I’ve been born into, and not because of any inherent moral superiority of our age over theirs. No age would be able to measure their morality against another because we’d all be using different measuring sticks. So I think we agree on this point.

  82. By coming here, in some respects we’ve already done just that. We trusted God and put our loved ones into a world of certain death. That being said, knowing what I know now, I would act as Christ and take the burden of my loved one(s) upon myself in their stead.

  83. That’s not to say I wouldn’t allow loved ones a mortal existence, but I would place myself on the alter before anyone else. Interestingly enough, I still can’t manage to do consistent home teaching…so much for altar bravado.

  84. As long as they don’t live in Chicago or Detroit, I take it?

    I agree with Bruce regarding the impossibility of comparison; and I agree with you that we have no business thinking that we’re any better than those that have come before us. But I would say that something like the recognition that slavery is wrong _is_ an improvement. We might still struggle with creating a just society; but we live in a society that no longer believes it’s right to own other people as property.

  85. “We might still struggle with creating a just society; but we live in a society that no longer believes it’s right to own other people as property.”

    Okay. But we still live in a society where some folks believe that being mired in inter-generational welfare is “freedom”. My point is that slavery is still going strong, we just call it by different names. See also the international human trafficking and sex trade. Rampant.

    I’m sorry but our society *says* all the right things but we’re still *doing* all the shady stuff that past societies did. Mere rhetoric doesn’t impress me.

  86. This is in response to Geoff B.’s point about ethical perspectives as well as Bruce’s follow-up comment:

    No one is claiming God would ask someone to do something unethical. What they are asking is if God would ask someone to do something that *seemed* unethical to us, but was in fact ethical once we see all that God knows. Lack of information of course means that it is not always obvious what is truly ethical or not ethical. SmallAxe’s insistence that he believes God would not ask us to do something unethical as a contrast to the (false) notion that conservatives believe He would is simply a strawman argument.

    I never said that anything about conservatives. This could be a very complex discussion, but for simplicity’s sake, yes, I agree that whatever God asks of us would be ethical; and yes, what God asks of us can conflict with what seems ethical to us. So we have “Ethics” (from God’s perspective) and “what seems ethical” from our perspective.

    The situation becomes more complex when we see that “what seems ethical” is not simply human construct, but can also be part of a larger tradition of moral thinking and moral becoming that is (and has been) tied to religion/God, so I think the dichotomy a bit misleading, for one. Additonally, Ethics still entails the problem of discernment. And this problem exists on three level: A) How do I personally discern the commandments of God? B) How does a faith community discern the commandments of God? C) How does a faith community in a pluralistic society justify/explain their ethics to those not of their faith?

    So I don’t think the issue is as simple as “liberals limit God according to their own 21st century moral conceits.” So far, only Rameumptom has said that he would sacrifice his child if President Monson asked him to. Is anyone else willing to affirm such a position? Or perhaps explain whether or not this is the so called orthodox position? If no one is willing to stand by Rame, then on what grounds do you place limitations on God (or at least on God’s prophet)? Alternatively, what would it take to establish “absolute certainty”? I’ve already come down saying that the Millenial appearance of Jesus would have to do it for me. But since we aren’t living in the Millenium, I don’t see how absolute certainty could be established in this circumstance. This doesn’t mean that absolute certainty couldn’t be established for other cases. I think the bar is much lower, for instance, on whether or not God could inspire you to cheat on your taxes.

    It should be pretty obvious where I’m going with all of this: liberals and conservatives both place limitations on the kind of things we ought to believe God is asking us to do. We might disagree about the extent of those limitations, but without limitations we plant the seeds of fundamentalism (sorry Rame).

  87. “liberals and conservatives both place limitations on the kind of things we ought to believe God is asking us to do.”

    While I’m not really sure that the liberal vs conservative is terribly helpful because we’ll all be somewhere slightly different on the continuum between the two, and where is the line drawn…? In response to your point above, well, yes, kind of.

    I would probably be on the conservative side of any invisible line on the spectrum (although obviously don’t speak for conservatives), and I would argue that we *shouldn’t* place limitations on the kind of things we can believe God is asking us to do; although in practice I’m still a product of 21st century western culture with all of the biases, prejudices, etc that brings with it, albeit the vast majority of them subconscious. Consequently it is inevitable that in practice I will almost certainly place limitations, even though theoretically I shouldn’t, and I probably don’t realise that I’m doing it. But acknowledging that enables me to consciously try harder not to. Is that a difference with the “liberal” position?

    In relation to the challenge as to whether or not we would sacrifice our own child, I think the way you’ve included several questions in one makes it difficult to answer.

    *IF* I was 100% certain that it was a commandment from God, then yes we *should* – it would be the right thing to do. Would I actually be able to do it? I don’t know, and thankfully I’ve never been put in the situation to test it (and doubt I ever will for reasons that others have outlined).

    What would give me 100% certainty? Again, I’m not sure it is an easy, or even possible, question for me to answer. I think the Lord can give certainty to us in different ways, although it would have to be something far more substantial than the traditional inspiration to visit someone whose name has popped into my head. I think that for me nothing short of a personal visitation from a bona fide angelic messenger would do it, but again I haven’t been in that situation.

    What if the prophet told me I should do it? I don’t think the command to “Follow the prophet” absolves us of personal responsibility for decision-making. I don’t have any problem just following the prophet without question when he says we should read the Book of Mormon, or give more service to others, or share the gospel, but if what he is asking appears to be something that will severely harm my family, then I will seek and expect my own revelation on the matter commensurate with the enormity of the “command”. I am ultimately accountable for my own family’s welfare (with my wife of course). If I don’t follow his counsel and I’m wrong, of course, I’ll expect at the very least to be in trouble at the judgement day. I don’t consider that placing limits on the prophet, though, but rather my taking personal responsibility for my decisions and actions. So if I do follow him and it’s not God’s will then I can’t say “But he told me to do it!” Does that make me “liberal”?

    In all honesty though, I just can’t imagine a situation where the prophet would issue such a requirement (Abraham received the commandment from God, not from his spiritual leader Melchizedek).

  88. Christian J

    That was my point. I wouldn’t trade living now with then either, but as Bruce says, that’s primarily because I’ve been shaped by the culture I’ve been born into, and not because of any inherent moral superiority of our age over theirs. No age would be able to measure their morality against another because we’d all be using different measuring sticks. So I think we agree on this point.

    Jeff, I don’t look down my nose at previous generations, because I realize that we’re all human and need to learn and grow by experience – individual or collectively. I still hold that fundamental American ideas like freedom of religion and conscience are divinely progressive. As in, I believe that they are ideas that God has always wanted his children to embrace, but needed us to exercise our agency in growing into them. I don’t believe that previous generations and societies should be judged by our moral standards (at the judgement seat). But I absolutely believe that God’s law to his very American servant Joseph Smith should be counted as progress.

  89. And not to jack this thread, but I’m frankly surprised to read so many conservative Americans who are unwilling to declare the objective moral superiority of our founding ideals in relation to every other society in history. Fascinating.

  90. Well, I’m not American (although I lived there for the best part of 10 years), and while the US Constitution is a terrific document, actual current lived 21st century american/western ideals I would put anywhere *but* on a pedestal. I appreciate most Americans/westerners think differently, but that is another example of values being shaped by the society/culture we grow up in.

    The two specific examples you give, of freedom of religion and conscience are both in the Book of Mormon so are hardly exclusively modern US values. In fact they’re quite ancient and the fact we lost them just shows that as a human race we regress at least as often as we progress.

    Let’s not forget that the early Saints when leaving Nauvoo wanted to get *out* of the US, and while modern prophets have interpreted some of Nephi’s prophecies to be about the US (which I totally accept in case there is doubt), we could easily read into prophecies in 3 Nephi to be about its demise (at the very least a dramatic spiritual demise) along with that of all other gentile nations (so no this isn’t America-bashing, it’s critique of all of us in western culture).

    Across the world there are billions of people today who think our western society’s values are appalling. In some areas they’re probably right, and in other areas they’re probably wrong. But I don’t think they can objectively compare their ethics/morals against ours because having not grown up in our culture they can’t understand where we’re coming from; and the reverse is also true. So I still maintain that we can’t possibly say that our morals or ethics are superior to those of another age. And maybe therefore we don’t agree :-)

  91. Christian J, a few thoughts:

    1)American ideals are based on English common law. For several hundred years, the founding ideals were actually being practiced in England, which is why we found them “self-evident.”
    2)There have been many societies, some mentioned in the Bible and Book of Mormon, that have been significantly more free and progressive than we are now. Modernity has brought a raft of good things mentioned by you and Smallaxe but also many horrendous things, such as world wars, over taxation and universal spying. I think you could make the argument that the last 60 years have been unusually peaceful in world history, but nobody would have thought that in 1944 and most people think it is inevitable that really bad wars will break out again soon.
    3)I don’t buy the claim that 2014 is the worst period for general immorality, but I note that it is, in many important ways, significantly less moral than other times in history. I simply don’t see any evidence that we have progressed — as a whole — to some marvelous utopia. We have become better in many ways and worse in others.

  92. Bruce, I have a boatload of finals to correct, so I haven’t been able to keep up with the conversation. But here are a couple of short thoughts.

    Since I don’t have time to get into these, I have some questions for you instead: Sounds like an orthodox dodge to me. ;) I’ve left a bunch of questions you are avoiding, and now you pile up some for me. I’ll tackle them when things settle down, but I’d love to hear your answers to my questions. They weren’t just rhetorical.

    (2) In your previous post, you complained about the “we attack/you defend” model. Jettboy has left the lair of security here at M* and commented at W&T and he didn’t get eaten. Why don’t you venture out of your safe zone if you’re really interested in dialogue at liberal blogs? (I know this second point is off topic, but that discussion is what led us to Abraham.) I’d love for you to add to our conversation, instead of staying in your safe zone. I mean I am commenting both places after all…. It does appear you aren’t really practicing what you are preaching. Just sayin’.

  93. “And not to jack this thread, but I’m frankly surprised to read so many conservative Americans who are unwilling to declare the objective moral superiority of our founding ideals in relation to every other society in history. Fascinating”

    I understand where you’re coming from and at first blush I would agree with you that what happened in 1776 and 1787 was a huge leap forward for humanity. However, I don’t agree that human nature has changed. We are still brutish. The miracles of the American founding (and having just read an excellent biography of Washington, I am convinced that true miracles took place) happened in spite of human nature, not because of it. I think that is where we part ways.

    Think of it another way. How many times do you hear about Washington’s and Jefferson’s rank hypocrisy about their slave ownership? To some folks, the fact that they owned slaves overshadows and negates any political good they did to create a framework for a stable and more just society.

    I can acknowledge some “epistemology humility” regarding our place in human history. Also, in the year 2607, how harsh will they judge us of 2014? I think they will judge us with total and utter contempt.

  94. I was waiting to see if anyone else would respond, but it seems unlikely.

    JeffC, I’m largely in agreement with regard the limited assistance terms such as liberal and conservative offer (which is actually why I began my comments using “so called liberal”).

    *IF* I was 100% certain that it was a commandment from God, then yes we *should* – it would be the right thing to do. Would I actually be able to do it? I don’t know, and thankfully I’ve never been put in the situation to test it (and doubt I ever will for reasons that others have outlined).

    What would give me 100% certainty? Again, I’m not sure it is an easy, or even possible, question for me to answer. I think the Lord can give certainty to us in different ways, although it would have to be something far more substantial than the traditional inspiration to visit someone whose name has popped into my head. I think that for me nothing short of a personal visitation from a bona fide angelic messenger would do it, but again I haven’t been in that situation.

    Certainty is the key issue. Here’s how I see it.

    These are a list of (roughly) incresingly unethical acts, or at least seemingly unethical acts from our perspective: Not showing up for my child’s basketball game after I promised to attend, not returning a wallet dropped on the ground, beating up an innocent stranger, cheating on my spouse, killing (or attempting to kill) my innocent child.

    IMO, being _certain_ that God wants me to do any of these acts is going to vary depending on how serious they are. Even Bruce’s account in the OP with the potential angel glowing, shaking hands, and performing miracles; it would not generate sufficient certainty for me to attempt to kill my child. If someone told me that they were going to try to kill their child because an angel told them to do it, I would call the police; and I hope you all would too.

    What if the prophet told me I should do it? I don’t think the command to “Follow the prophet” absolves us of personal responsibility for decision-making. I don’t have any problem just following the prophet without question when he says we should read the Book of Mormon, or give more service to others, or share the gospel, but if what he is asking appears to be something that will severely harm my family, then I will seek and expect my own revelation on the matter commensurate with the enormity of the “command”. I am ultimately accountable for my own family’s welfare (with my wife of course). If I don’t follow his counsel and I’m wrong, of course, I’ll expect at the very least to be in trouble at the judgement day. I don’t consider that placing limits on the prophet, though, but rather my taking personal responsibility for my decisions and actions. So if I do follow him and it’s not God’s will then I can’t say “But he told me to do it!” Does that make me “liberal”?

    The same goes in the case of the prophet: I would not trust myself to properly interpret such a revelation; and neither would I trust the prophet.

  95. “Even Bruce’s account in the OP with the potential angel glowing, shaking hands, and performing miracles; it would not generate sufficient certainty for me to attempt to kill my child.”

    How do you know this?

  96. It sounds like epistemic hubris from where I sit. :)

    It does, in fact, come down to an issue of trust. You say you don’t trust yourself to properly interpret an issue like this. Fair enough. But how do you know, then, that you’re properly interpreting this issue? If you can’t trust yourself enough to declare that you would obey God if God told you (and let’s pretend, just for the sake of argument, that it really was God that was talking to you) to do something, then how do you know you can trust your lack of confidence in yourself? Again, how do you know?

  97. That’s a fair question. I imagine we would agree that any revelation (whether it be a feeling or an encounter with a divine being) requires interpretation. So you ask, how do I know I’m interepreting this issue correctly? IMO, no act of interepretation is perfect. It’s always culturally/historically situated, somewhat subjective, and based on limited information. So interpretation always has an element of risk (or perhaps even hope/faith). We’re talking here, of course, about potential revelation that asks me to do something seemingly unethical. The harder the revelation to interpret, the more risk in the act of interpretation. The more seemingly unethical the act, the more at stake in the situation. Attempting to kill my own child is an extremely high stakes situation; the risk I would have to take in accepting such a command as coming from God would have to be extremely small. I recognize my own limitations in the act of interepretation. Given the stakes and risks, I’ll rely on what seems ethical since I have more confidence in that. If this is hubris, then I suppose there’s no difference between humility and pride.

    If you’re interested in continuing this conversation, I have a question: Is there any way that Rameumptom’s view (which seems to be the only alternative put forth so far) does not open itself up to fundamentalism?

  98. “If this is hubris, then I suppose there’s no difference between humility and pride.”

    Pride is almost always clothed in the habiliments of humility. (Please take no offense, I’m not calling you out personally on pride; I’m just arguing the case. We’re all — all of us — afflicted with various degrees of pride.)

    “Given the stakes and risks, I’ll rely on what seems ethical since I have more confidence in that.”

    So if God literally told you, in a vision, or personal appearance, “Go put thy child upon the altar”, you’re saying that you’ll flee to your ethical comfort zone? Take refuge in western civilization’s ethical constraints? Okay, if that’s your argument.

    ” IMO, no act of interepretation is perfect. It’s always culturally/historically situated, somewhat subjective, and based on limited information.”

    Granted. I mean, I can’t take myself out of being “culturally situated” as a 21st century American. But you lose me when you suggest that this would somehow prevent God from effectively communicating His wishes to me. I don’t like placing artificial limitations on God. I know you’re not saying that explicitly, but you implicitly require it if you think that my cultural upbringing would somehow not understand God giving me a clear-cut revelation to perform an abhorrent act.

    “Is there any way that Rameumptom’s view (which seems to be the only alternative put forth so far) does not open itself up to fundamentalism?”

    I’ll have to think about it some more. But at the outset, let me ask: Why is the implicit default that somehow *all* forms of fundamentalism are wrong? I’ll grant that much if it is harmful. I’ll even concede that most of it is. But does it logically follow that *all* of it is?

    Regarding “fundamentalism”, it is hard to argue that this phrase “follow the prophet” isn’t fundamentalist. Or this one: “Be not afraid, only believe”. “Pay your tithing first” — fundamentalist. You get my drift.

  99. SmallAxe,

    The issue here is that you are insisting on undoing one of the key assumptions — that you know it came from God — along with the full context that you know God has all power (even over death) and is wholly good.

    The way the story is written, the assumption is that it came from God. When you try to turn it into an act of interpretation (even in an extreme case where the need for intepretation is clearly removed) that you are concerned about, you really switch it from one question to another question. So we are no longer talking about the same ethical question nor the same story at all.

    For emphasis — here is the stories assumptions:
    1. God is completely good
    2. God is all powerful (even over death)
    3. God has promised you your son that he’s asking you to sacrifice will have infinite seed.
    4. You KNOW its God asking
    5. And he has asked in a way where there is no lack of clarity.

    You are insisting on an entirely different question:
    1. God is completely good
    2. God is all powerful (even over death)
    3. God has promised you your son that he’s asking you to sacrifice will have infinite seed.
    4. You do NOT know completely for sure its God asking
    5. You aren’t 100% sure what God’s intent really is.

    So long as you are insisting on a different set of assumptions, yes, you you’re going to get a different answer.

    What’s interesting is that you aren’t willing to take the assumptions I’m asking for. As I pointed out, if we adjust the story to be in the millennium, we can easily come up with a way to craft the narrative such that even you would really and truly be able to accept the original assumptions. My point being here that the idea that you can’t accept those assumptions simply can’t be the case. You just need a bit more imagination is all.

    Now all you really have to do is say “yes, even given the original assumptions I still wouldn’t do it.”

    We had two ‘conservatives’ on this page say ‘yes, they’d sacrifice their own son.’ (You apparently only saw Rame’s, but there was a second one: Jonathan.)

    SmallAxe, I have to agree with Mike that there is no way you could possibly know that if the angel appeared as per my story and asked this that you wouldn’t feel very differently. You might indeed find yourself willing to go through with it even. And the fact that you won’t take that set of assumptions without negating some of them suggests that this is in fact the case. But in any case, your point of view that ‘you have to interpret it’ so you will ‘flee to your morality’ actually would evaporate if suddenly God made Himself known and you knew it was God. You may or may not go through with it, but your defense of why you wouldn’t based on the two negated assumptions would literally be gone and you’d have to rethink everything in such a situation and then test your own faith.

    Also, it becomes impossible for disentangle the assumptions of the story and our own current worldviews. As a liberal, you have based a great deal of your life around correcting fundamentalism. So to be honest, an acknowledgement that you actually agree with them given the right set of assumptions is to some degree undercutting your personal moral/religious worldview here and now. There is no possible way for you to disentangle this situation now — where you *really* want to find a way to make this story a morality play against fundamentalism — and how you’d actually react if it happened to you and you actually were in the story created by the first set of assumptions. Since you don’t expect to ever find yourself in such a situation (and none of us do) it makes a certain sense that given your liberal stance and the need for this story to be a fundamentalist morality play that you’d simply refuse to take the first set of assumptions rather than answer the question under the first set of assupmtions. That is what I expected you to do and that’s what you’ve done.

    You have tried to make the point several times that no one (save two) have been willing to say they’d go through with it. However, I’d point out that a totally consistent ‘orthodox’ answer would be “I should trust God that much, but I don’t have the faith of Abraham.” I saw at least one other person say this.

    My own answer is that I honestly don’t know if I have that kind of faith or not. I would hope that if I take the first set of assumptions (and NOT your second set), I’d have the courage to trust God, yes.

    And honestly, I suspect everyone (except maybe Rame) would answer the same as you given the second set of assumptions.

    The “orthodox” viewpoint — far from leading to fundamentalism — is really very likely the same as your viewpoint minus the unwillingness to accept the story on the first set of assumptions. Few people here are willing to say “yes, I know I’d go through with it” but plenty are willing to say “yes, I can see going through with it would be correct given those assumptions.” (This is implicit in the conservative defense of Abraham in the story. They feel it is theoretically correct given the first set of assumptions even if they aren’t sure they have that kind of faith.)

    And, I’ve already made this point: what reason do you have to believe this story leads to fundamentalism? Its seems pretty obvious to me that everyone here honestly understands the difference between an undeniably exceptional circumstance meant to teach a principle and how they’d handle ‘inspiration to kill their own child’ as you keep trying to turn it into. Far from this story and the ensuing discussion supporting fundamentalism – as you and MH have supposed – it has pretty much denied any connection as far as I can see. People ‘get it’ that if there is any need for discernment, you should fall back upon your morality. Any assumption on your (or Mormon Heretic’s part) that this isn’t the case was a false assumption. Period.

    I think you could argue here that that is only true of those here and there might be others elsewhere that is not true of. I’m thinking that probably isn’t the case unless we’re talking about the mentally ill (in which case, it won’t matter if your religious or not). I also could see someone deciding to murder their own children – this happens in all societies and amongst people with all worldviews including religiously liberal ones – and then post facto deciding to justify it with the Abraham story. Obviously an atheist that decided to murder their own child *would not* cite the Abraham story but would justify themselves through some other moral means. (I.e. “I couldn’t handle it any more” or “I knew I needed to live my life” or whatever.) In other words, I think your conclusion that this story leads to fundamentalism is premature and you’re a long ways off of making the case.

    One obvious way you could make the case would be a proper statistical study of how often religious people murder their children vs. liberals vs. atheists. Obviously this would have to adjust for economic circumstance, though that would be easy to do. I am not currently aware of any such study. But if you had one and it showed religious people DO murder their children more often, even I would have to being to wonder if maybe we need to take a seriously look at removing the Abraham story from the Bible. But mere assumption that – surprise – happens to match your religious worldview isn’t even slight evidence.

    So I’m going to challenge you directly on this, SmallAxe. You have left me no reason so far to suppose that your view is at all different than mine and instead I have this strong impression (though you can change it with one very clear statement!) that the reason you won’t take the first set of assumptions is really because it doesn’t serve your current purposes and that your answer (of insisting the first set of assumptions is impossible and transplanting it with a second set) probably has little to do with how you’d really feel or act if this actually happened to you where you really did have the first set of assumptions. And I really don’t doubt that God CAN handle things with you such that you DO have the first set of assumptions.

    Another example of this: God removes the veil of forgetfulness on you while simultaneously using his powers to cause you to understand His perfect goodness. Then he reassures you that He has power over death and even allows you to see several examples first hand of Him resurrecting the dead or raising the dead. Then he tells you that He needs you to trust him. That he promises all will turn out well. But He needs you to sacrifice your son.

    It becomes increasingly obvious that it is possible to create the first set of assumptions and also that there is only one possible correct answer there. And your refusal to answer really is a pretty strong sign you know what that answer is. Indeed, I honestly can’t see why you’d keep insisting on using the second set of assumptions other than that taking the first set ruins your ability to use the Abraham story as the morality play of discernment you wish it to be. Which, if I’m right, means the ‘orthodox’ and ‘liberal’ views are actually identical. The real difference lies in how we wish to use this story. The ‘orthodox’ want to take the first set of assumptions and use it as a morality play of having faith in God and the ‘liberal’ want to take the second set of assumptions and use it as a morality play of discernment. And, yet, it seems that if we actually do take each other’s assumptions, we actually agree with each other.

  100. MH,

    I’m sorry I didn’t comment on your thread. I had intended to. I had a personal health crisis that interfered. I’m still not feeling the greatest — though I’m doing better. That response to SmallAxe was about all I could muster. I feel like my last comment was a fairly definitive explanation of why I feel the liberal position and the conservative position are actually one and the same and that the difference is really contained in how each side wishes to use the story. (Along with an argument that I have little reason to believe the liberal use of the is all that useful. Though I might be wrong about this.)

    Is it too late for me to maybe link to that comment over at W&T and we’ll consider that my attempt to communicate to both sides?

  101. Has anyone mentioned the Book of Mormon story of the killing of Laban in relationship to Abraham?

    In order to convince Nephi to kill Laban, the angel has to appeal to Nephi’s cultural sense of morality and reason, citing all those who would “perish in unbelief” unless Nephi obeyed.

    Nephi’s moral sense happens to correspond exactly with our 19th to 21st century moral attitudes, so we can identify and sympathize perfectly with Nephi’s dilemma.

    It’s ironic that this story is a sticking point for some Mormons, given that it is sort of the simplified baby version of God’s commandment to Abraham. Yet even Nephi struggled to pass the test.

    If righteous Nephi had to be rationally convinced in order to obey his Abrahamic test-lite, what does that say for those of us who insist on viewing Abraham’s sacrifice in a fundamentalist way, and criticizing those who can’t seem to fit it within their gospel paradigm?

  102. So if God literally told you, in a vision, or personal appearance, “Go put thy child upon the altar”, you’re saying that you’ll flee to your ethical comfort zone? Take refuge in western civilization’s ethical constraints? Okay, if that’s your argument.

    You actually haven’t dealt with the argument, largely because you keep avoiding the questions I’ve been asking: What would it take for you to establish sufficient certainty that something was from God such that you would attempt to take the life of your child?
    If I had a vision, I’m not sure I’m equipt to interpret it such that I would have sufficient certainty (I’ll elaborate more below).

    Granted. I mean, I can’t take myself out of being “culturally situated” as a 21st century American. But you lose me when you suggest that this would somehow prevent God from effectively communicating His wishes to me. I don’t like placing artificial limitations on God. I know you’re not saying that explicitly, but you implicitly require it if you think that my cultural upbringing would somehow not understand God giving me a clear-cut revelation to perform an abhorrent act.

    I suppose you could see it as placing lilmitations on God, but I see it as placing limitations on human ability to understand God; especially in cases where an abhorrent act is under question.

    I’ll have to think about it some more. But at the outset, let me ask: Why is the implicit default that somehow *all* forms of fundamentalism are wrong? I’ll grant that much if it is harmful. I’ll even concede that most of it is. But does it logically follow that *all* of it is?

    No, not all forms of fundamentalism are wrong; but let me explain why the position that you (and several others here) argue for allows harmful forms of fundamentalism.

    In our last conversation, g. wesley mentioned the Lafferty murders (http://www.deseretnews.com/article/595079489/1984-Lafferty-case-still-haunts.html?pg=all)

    “Dan said he and his brother were led by God to beat Brenda unconscious, wrap a vacuum cord around her neck until she went limp, and then slit her throat. She was 24. ‘I held Brenda’s hair and did it pretty much the way they did it in the scriptures,’ he says proudly. ‘Then I walked in Erica’s room. I talked to her for a minute, I said, ‘I’m not sure why I’m supposed to do this, but I guess God wants you home.’’ He then looked away as he slit the 15-month-old baby’s throat.”

    In March 1984, Ron recorded on a yellow legal pad what would come to be known as “the removal revelation.” He later shared it with the School of the Prophets, to the alarm of its members.

    “Thus saith the Lord unto my servants the prophets,” Ron wrote. “It is my will and commandment that ye remove the following individuals in order that my work might go forward. For they have truly become obstacles in my path and I will not allow my work to be stopped. First thy brother’s wife Brenda and her baby, then Chloe Low and then Richard Stowe. And it is my will that they be removed in rapid succession.”

    Assuming that Dan and Ron sincerely believed that they had received a revelation to perform these murders, do you permit their actions as Ethical? If not, why not? (If you think weighing in on this case requires more details than available, let me ask it in a general way: Given the position you’re advocating, how do you deal with situations where others claim to receive revelation to perform seemingly unethical acts? FWIW, this bears some semblance to the question about the prophet asking us to do something seemingly unethical. Even if we go get our own revelation to confirm someone else’s revelation, how does this not prevent Jonestown or Heaven’s Gate?)

    This, I imagine, goes back to my earlier points: liberals and conservatives both place limitations on the kind of things we ought to believe God is asking us to do. We might disagree about the extent of those limitations, but without limitations we plant the seeds of fundamentalism.

    Lastly, I don’t appreciate being referred to as an “ugly bully.”

  103. Bruce,

    I’m sorry to hear about your health problems. I hope you have a full recovery soon. Nonetheless, thank you for your response. I’ll try to get to your comment later today.

  104. Noticed a mistake:

    ….how does this not prevent Jonestown or Heaven’s Gate?)

    Should be: how does this not allow for Jonestown or Heaven’s Gate?

  105. SmallAxe asks, “Assuming that Dan and Ron sincerely believed that they had received a revelation to perform these murders, do you permit their actions as Ethical? If not, why not?”

    SmallAxe, the way you ask this question is a great example of how you’re talking past us.

    If we’re starting with the assumption of Theism, then there is a final heavenly state that is a sort of ultimate history. God has all the facts and knows if this action on the part of Dan and Rob was in alignment with his will or not. We don’t have those facts personally. So given only what we know, our assumption has to be that it is not God’s will and that this action is unethical. No other answer would ever make sense given those set of assumptions. However, that is still only an assumption based on our current knowledge (as are all things in mortality.) Whether or not it is ACTUALLY ethical would be a totally different question that would require the full set of facts that only God has access to.

    So you need to reask your question and you need to fill in the missing assumption. Specifically you need to tell me whether or not I am to assume the revelation to Dan and Rob was in fact from God (and that God is good.) If you are assuming not, then the answer is obvious: no, it’s not ethical. (As per assumptions above.)

    Or are you asking me to assume it *IS* a revelation from a perfectly good God? I’ll be happy to assess that set of assuptions if you wish though, if that is what you are asking me, I’d like you take on the assessment first because I’m curious how you’d go about this if we’re assuming it *does* come from God.

  106. “Smallaxe, with the testimony I have of the living prophets, if President Monson were to call upon me to sacrifice one of my children, I would do so. If I had a personal witness of Christ, as did Abraham, and then I had Christ command me to sacrifice a child, I would do so.”

    Rame, can I challenge you on this? Would you *really* off your own child up for sacrifice for nothing more than President Monson asking you to? For the sake of argument, assume that you attempt your own asking God after the fact and get no answer, so you have to rely wholly on past testimony only. (If this isn’t the case, then we’re really talking about you receiving your own answer after the fact, so its not really a case of doing it due to President Monson merely asking you to.)

    I guess I feel you are being unrealistic here. It seems far more likely that in such a scenario you’d be forced to re-evaluate your past testimony due to the extreme circumstance and that — absent any sort of clear confirmation directly from God — you’d find yourself questioning your past testimony. And, I’d expect that is the right answer, personally, given that specific set of assumptions.

  107. Nate,

    You are confusing argument over the principle set of starting assumptions in a purely philisophical discussion and Nephi’s actual angst over being asked. No one here is saying they wouldn’t have angst and some aren’t even sure they’d go through with it.

  108. Bruce,

    Your comment meanders a bit, so I’m going to try to answer it the best I can.

    I think the primary issue is that you seem to believe that your list of assumptions (1 and 2) are a matter of choice. I choose to work with set 2 and others choose to work with set 1. But assumptions, of course, can be challenged; and while I see set 1 as a proper interpretation of the Abraham story (although perhaps not for the reasons you believe: In Abraham’s cultural context, people are treated largely as things or possessions. God’s commandment for Abraham to sacrifice his son, was a commandment to sacrifice his most prized possession. The primary issue is one of sacrifice; and lesser so of a breach of the seemingly ethical. To update the story you would a have to ask, “Am I willing to give up my most prized possession for God?” In which case I might ask how certain would one have to be that such a command came from God in order to move forward with the sacrifice. This is clearly a much lower bar.), when we bring the story into the whole liberal/conserative scheme in a modern context for application (which is explicitly what you want to do), those assumptions can and should be challenged.

    Did you miss my comment where I said that I am open to the possibility of God issuing such a command? This is not an issue of us talking past each other unless the we’re talking simply about interpretations of the Abraham story. The issue is whether or not liberals impose their ethical constraints on God. My argument is that we ought to impose intepretational constraints on ourselves; and I believe that most of us (conservatives and liberals) feel this way (with the exception of 2 people). Otherwise we’re left with a situation that has no check for pernicous forms of fundamentalism. Would you care to answer my question about the Lafferty murders? (FWIW, your orthodox view as “I should trust God that much, but I don’t have the faith of Abraham” not only skirts the issue of discernment, but also places similar constraints on human beings. If God can penetrate the problems of interpretation to make his will crystal clear to me, why can’t he grant you enough faith to go through with the act?)

  109. Bruce,

    In reading your most recent comment I see that you did begin to address the Lafferty case.

    Whether or not it is ACTUALLY ethical would be a totally different question that would require the full set of facts that only God has access to.

    So you think we should allow this kind of action?

    I’m not asking you to bring any particular set of assumptions to bear on this situation. I’m asking for your personal take on the matter. What should be done about these situations? I’m trying to demonstrate that we cannot live in a world where people are allowed to perform (seemingly) unethical acts because of recourse to their subjective claims of access to Ethics.

    If you want to use your language of assumption set 1 and 2, only set 2 prevents this kind of fundamentalism. So if these assumption sets are a choice, set 2 is better than set 1.

  110. SmallAxe,

    “God’s commandment for Abraham to sacrifice his son, was a commandment to sacrifice his most prized possession.”

    Well, I think this is just not true. The idea that human biology would allow us to see a son as nothing more than how a modern would see a prized possession seems pretty unrealistic to me. Obviously any such impluse would be removed from the gene pool by evolution pretty quick. Indeed the whole point of the story wasn’t that Isaac was some prized possession but that he was the sole source of future seed. This is consistent with the idea that Isaac was much much more than how a modern would view a prized posession (like say a corvette.) So I think you are wrong on this and I think there is no real possibility you can turn out to be right.

    So you and I aren’t going to agree on this and I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree.

    However, I’m not sure this ultimately makes a difference to the discussion, so maybe it doesn’t matter.

    “you seem to believe that your list of assumptions (1 and 2) are a matter of choice.”

    Well, no, I am not saying that if by “choice” you mean “SmallAxe’s choice.” No, I’m clearly arguing that God has the ability (or can make a choice) to force you into assumption set 1. And as an all powerful being, He does have this choice. I’ve offered numberous examples of how He could go about this if He chose. And we could make these examples even stronger. Therefore I do see your refusal to accept set 1 as a choice to not want to address the question rather than because set 1 is impossible for you. Because clearly it is not impossible for you. It’s not impossible for anyone.

    And, I’m also saying I can see why answering the question would be uncomfortable for you given your current worldview. So it doesn’t suprise me you don’t want to go there.

    “My argument is that we ought to impose intepretational constraints on ourselves;”
    Obviously this is true if God doesn’t force us into the first set of assumptions. But once forced into it, there is no intepretational constraints, so this is simply no longer a factor.

    “If God can penetrate the problems of interpretation to make his will crystal clear to me, why can’t he grant you enough faith to go through with the act?”

    Well, okay, you’re asking me to change the starting assumptions. So let’s change them up as you ask:
    1. God is completely good
    2. God is all powerful (even over death)
    3. God has promised you your son that he’s asking you to sacrifice will have infinite seed.
    4. You KNOW its God asking
    5. And he has asked in a way where there is no lack of clarity.
    6. God gives me sufficient faith to go through with it.

    Okay, so now it’s obvious. Yes, I’d sacrifice my son.

  111. “So you think we should allow this kind of action?”
    I already answered this. We’d have to assume it didn’t come from God, so we’d have to assume its unethical.

    Let’s take Nephi’s story at face value. God tells him to kill Laban. He does. He then runs for it because he’ll be killed for murder. What if Nephi is caught? Would we expect the Jerusalem authorities to, as part of their trial for Nephi, to assess the possibility that God had in fact commanded Nephi to do so? Of course not. Don’t be silly. Obviously part of choosing to follow God in this regard, Nephi was deciding to allow himself to be made an outlaw and to be subject to the law and possibly treated as a murderer and executed. He was therefore trusting God to deliver him from that — which God did by sending him to a new land.

    This is the problem, SmallAxe, you ARE talking past us. The fact that you receive a revelation from God to do something a society says is immoral doesn’t mean you are therefore no subject to the law.

    This works both ways, of course. If a society decides its moral to keep slaves and you free them against the law because God told you to, you’re still subject to the law and it would make no sense to have the courts assess your claim to revelation as part of the justice process. They would, of course start with the assumption you didn’t receive a revelation from God and work for there. And that woudl be correct for them to do.

    The story of Abraham (or Nephi) in no ways informs a decision about judiciary process in a society. And no one here is claiming that it does except you as a strawman.

  112. “Nate,

    You are confusing argument over the principle set of starting assumptions in a purely philisophical discussion and Nephi’s actual angst over being asked. No one here is saying they wouldn’t have angst and some aren’t even sure they’d go through with it.”

    Bruce, this doesn’t seem like a purely philosophical discussion. You treat the story of Abraham’s sacrifice as historically literal, and its implications as history obviously have bearing upon real world situations like the Laferty murders and the Mountain Meadow Massacre. I was just trying to point out the irony of a literal reading of Abraham’s sacrifice, when the Book of Mormon recasts the same story in a much more palatable and rational way, as if God knew that the story of Abraham’s sacrifice was a bit crazy, when understood as literal history. God knew that the only time there would be a real-life application would be in cases like Nephi’s, and he doesn’t ask Nephi to go against his moral sense of right and wrong.

    The Book of Mormon recasts a lot of Biblical themes within 19th century moral understandings, indicating that God wanted us to understand Biblical themes within the context of our own time, and is merciful enough to judge us not only by His word, but by our modern moral orientation.

  113. Nate,

    Yes, I’m treating the story as historical, though frankly I’m not clear why treating it as non-historical changes anything in this case. I suspect all the liberals here but you would object just as much to the Abraham story as a parable, though I’m not sure of that.

    “…as history obviously have bearing upon real world situations like the Laferty murders and the Mountain Meadow Massacre…”

    As I’ve mentioned in some comments above, this is not at all obvious to me.

    Is this NOT a ‘philosophical discussion’ if we’re assuming it’s historical? No one here really expects this to ever happen to them and people clearly see it, even if they take it historically, to be an exceptional case to teach a principle.

    The rest of your argument (invovling God recasting biblical themes into a more modern morality) is… interesting… not sure I am prepare to agree or disagree with it today. I’ll give it some thought. I should note that I’ve seen a lot of liberals on the bloggernacle have exactly the same issues with the Nephi/Laban story as with Abraham/Isaac and for the very same reasons.

    But my first impression is that even if things aren’t nearly as straightforward as you are suggesting, your argument has some merit.

  114. And, I’m also saying I can see why answering the question would be uncomfortable for you given your current worldview. So it doesn’t suprise me you don’t want to go there.

    Except for the fact that I did answer the question, right?

    If God can force knowledge on us; and he can force faith on us, where is agency? Said differently, and perhaps more relevantly, what reasons do we have to believe that God would force his knowledge on us (i.e., “force you into assumption set 1″)? More broadly speaking, how do you prove that revelation transcends interpretation? (IMO, interpretation can also be an act of faith; and like any act of faith it is taking a risk.)

    This is the problem, SmallAxe, you ARE talking past us. The fact that you receive a revelation from God to do something a society says is immoral doesn’t mean you are therefore not subject to the law.

    Sounds like Nephi should have turned himself in (and this is a very different case because God actually justifies the killing of Laban, which makes the whole “go kill your son for no reason” quite irrelevant). But really, let’s slow down a bit here. Before even being subject to the law, let’s talk about the faith community. If a close friend (and LDS) told you that he had received a revelation to kill his son, would you try to stop him? If so, on what grounds would you try to stop him (i.e., what would you say)? I’m truly curious here. If we’re going to say that God could in fact command us to do such an abhorrent act, and we can in fact know this for a surety, where does this leave us with regard to those in our community of faith who do these things? Why aren’t we obligated to say, “Well, I guess he received a revelation to do it; nothing else more to say here”? (To forecast out, if we’re going to discuss this in the context of a puralistic society, the next question is: If you were bishop, and someone came to you and said that they had received a revelation saying that they should kill their son. You pray about it, and receive a confirmation of this revelation. What is the right thing to do with regard to reporting it to the authorities; and why?)

  115. “Except for the fact that I did answer the question, right?”

    Maybe I missed it, but I honestly didn’t see anywhere where you made it clear you were addressing the first set of assumptions and not the second set.

    “If God can force knowledge on us; and he can force faith on us, where is agency?”

    Those two don’t seem at all the same to me. Granting knowledge about something doesn’t affect agency as far as I can see. Forcing faith on us, yes, seems to violate agency in a case like this. But you are the one that brought up that possiblity, not me. I was merely showing how it had no relationship to the discuss todate since it merely changes the equation in a way where the tension is all gone. So your original comment wasn’t relevant. We have to, by default, assume God isn’t forcing faith on us. But we also have to assume he’s granting us knowledge, because if he isn’t, the answer is equally obvious: no, don’t sacrifice your child.

    “Sounds like Nephi should have turned himself in…”

    SmallAxe, seriously? I’m not sure now if you’re honestly this confused — since I never said anything even close to this — or if you’re trying to be difficult now. I mean isn’t it obviously from my slave example that this is precisely what I am NOT saying?

    No accusation here. I’m willing to assume you’re just seriously confused. Go back and read what I said again and I think this will clear up for you. We’re talking about personal revelations being a personal responsibility. Period. If you break a law due to feeling like God wants you to, you are still subjecting yourself to the law. Period.

    Perhaps the difficulty here is the term “subject to the law” which means “the law still can come take you and punish you” and not “you should turn yourself in”

    “If a close friend (and LDS) told you that he had received a revelation to kill his son, would you try to stop him?”

    Seriously SmallAxe? Isn’t my answer totally and completely obvious by now given what I’ve already written you? I’ve indirectly — but very obviously — already answered this. *He* has his revelation. *I* do not. So my starting assumption would have to be that its a false revelation. I’ve stated this many times. You can figure out what I’d do from here.

    “You pray about it, and receive a confirmation of this revelation. What is the right thing to do with regard to reporting it to the authorities; and why?”

    Okay, but this is different. You seem to be implying the Bishop receives a feeling that it’s right. As I’ve stated in the OP and in a whole bunch of comments that you’ve already responded to, here I’d expect the Bishop to fall back on his morality because a feeling requires discernment. To make this match what we’ve been discussing for days now you have to change that to having God Himself show up and explain that, yes, this is His will that he support that person’s revelation. At this point, the Bishop is now responding to his own personal revelation that left no doubt as to who it came from and what it meant. And he has to make up his own mind based on his own faith.

    SmallAxe, you are constantly talking past me here. I’m not sure how else to make it more clear that the conservative (or at least my) application of the story in NO way informs legal policy or even church policy. A personal revelation is a personal responsibility. Everyone else needs to — unless they receive their own personal revelation to the contrary — assume the revelation is false. I honestly feel like I’ve stated this oodles of times and you continually then assume I didn’t.

  116. I’ll respond more fully later; but one quick comment. You missed an important part of my comment:

    But we also have to assume he’s granting us knowledge, because if he isn’t, the answer is equally obvious: no, don’t sacrifice your child.

    Why should we assume that the knowledge he grants us does not require interpretation?

  117. SmallAxe,

    Obviously we’ve been talking all along about how God can and does give us revelations that require interpretation and I’ve already answered multiple times that in such a case your arguments about discernment makes sense.

    I have also argued multiple times that there is no particular reason God can’t handle it such that interpretation is no longer required. (And what I mean by this is that God can be clear to where there is no room for doubt as to His intentions so there is only one possible interpretation. Though perhaps you can argue He rarely if ever makes this choice. But it is hypothetically possible for certain in my opinion.)

    So it seems to me that your question to me makes no sense at all since I’m already allowing for both possibilities. I am not *assuming* anything one way or another.

    You have — or so I have ‘interpreted you’ so far ;-) — argued that God is incapable of communicating such that intepretation is removed and therefore there is always a possible of misunderstanding. I’ve pointed out that this isn’t the case once we realize how extreme we can get with God communicating to us. You have not really attempted to justify your argument at all as far as I can tell. You simply insist it is the case. I don’t believe that and I’ve explained why it seems patently rediculous to me that God can’t remove all need to ‘interpret’ what He’s said to you if he so chooses.

  118. “You treat the story of Abraham’s sacrifice as historically literal, and its implications as history obviously have bearing upon real world situations like the Laferty murders and the Mountain Meadow Massacre.”

    I know that this was addressed to Bruce, but I just wanted to chime in with a couple of thoughts.

    I see no problem with taking the Abraham/Isaac story as historically literal so long as we really are trying to look at it accurately. If we take additional sources into account and realize that it was not a commandment to kill, but a request to submit, the story takes its true historical position of a prophecy and type of Christ. Isaac was most certainly an adult, had full understanding of what was occurring, and had to personally decide to play a voluntary role in the sacrifice.

    Once we view it in the setting in which the story is historically set, we do not see a cruel God nor child sacrifice. Likewise, there is no correlation at all to MMM or other such events purportedly perpetrated in the name of God. And none should be trying to evoke such a response among men in the name of God based on this story.

  119. Some possible explanations for the Abraham story and its relevance to modernity:

    With respect to the objection [how do you explain it when crazy folk murder people in the name of God?] it is easily met by simply offering the following: How does God speak us moderns? Is there a latter day precedent for God commanding us to offer child sacrifice? The answer is no.

    God speaks to us in the language of our times. One of the many reasons why God IS actually very capable of communicating to His children is His use of culture. He understand the milieu in which we are steeped. God knows that he cannot ask a 21st century sophisticated American to sacrifice their child as a test of faith because we are too credulous to give that any credence.

    God, therefore, tests us in other ways, no less wrenching but nothing that will put anyone in jail for it. Not yet, at any rate.

    See, the entire time we’ve been having this debate, I am not sure that we really vetted this particular aspect of the issue. God wants total loyalty and obedience. He tests us using a variety of tools. Since we don’t actually sacrifice animals upon altars (except for the symbolic sacrifice of the bestial in us upon the symbolic altar), He of course has to employ other methods that are consonant with the times in which we live.

    It still doesn’t take away the fact that God tested Abraham by commanding him to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. That really did happen, despite every attempt by the modern liberal to brush it aside as either an anomaly or an embarrassment.

    It also doesn’t change the fact that God’s modern testing is any less brutal. The circumstances, nature, and aspect of the testing are of course completely different. But no less painful for the folks that God has decided are worthy of true intimacy with Him.

  120. Maybe I missed it, but I honestly didn’t see anywhere where you made it clear you were addressing the first set of assumptions and not the second set.

    You said: So imagine its the millenium and you meet with Jesus every day and you KNOW it’s Jesus and he’s everything you ever hoped for. So, yes, it is possible for you to know for certain. And you are dodging, sir, because you know as well as I you can’t answer the question.

    I said: Um, okay Bruce, yes. (But you know we’re not living in the Millennium, right?)

    I never denied the possibility; only the probability. So it sounds like we’re on the same page here. Ultimately, Bruce, I think we may be quite close on our positions; and if that’s the case, then I really don’t see the point of this entire post. There’s no significant distinction between the so called liberal position and the orthodox position (at least as far as I represent a liberal position).

    We have to, by default, assume God isn’t forcing faith on us. But we also have to assume he’s granting us knowledge, because if he isn’t, the answer is equally obvious: no, don’t sacrifice your child.

    ….because a feeling requires discernment

    This seems to be our major (only?) point of disagreement. Why should we assume that he’s granting us knowledge (or granting us knowledge that doesn’t require interpretation)? You’re making a leap here that you’ve failed to justify (remember, we’ve long past recourses to the story of Abraham). Feelings require discernment (i.e., interpretation) but is there some other form of revelation that doesn’t? Can you provide me 3 examples of such revelation? Even the scriptures, which I imagine we would accept as pretty significant revelation, have undergone reinterpretations. The BoM (which Moroni readily admits contain errors) has been revised several times; same with initial drafts of many D&C revelations; same with the temple ceremony. Where is this somehow trans-interpretive revelation?

    Do you admit that if you concede this point then there really isn’t any difference between the liberal and orthodox position? And even if you don’t; and you instead argue for some extremely rare form of revelation that has only occurred a handful of times in all the existence of humanity, then practically speaking there really isn’t a difference in the liberal and orthodox perspectives because odds are we’ll never confront such a situation (what would the odds be? 1:10,000,000,000?)?

    Perhaps the difficulty here is the term “subject to the law” which means “the law still can come take you and punish you” and not “you should turn yourself in”

    Yes, that is the salient distinction. I don’t want to let this point about fundamentalism go because if you (or others here) really are open to the real possibility that we ought to believe that God does endorse misogyny, bigotry, or child sacrifice then you have a major problem when it comes to adjudicating ethics in the faith community and in society at large.

    If Bro. X sincerely believes that he’s received a revelation to do some heinous act, you’re position is that he ought to try to do it. No other LDS is obligated to support such an act; but why aren’t we obligated to at least remain open to its possibility? Why aren’t we obligated to say, “Well, it could be right?” Aren’t we obligated to ask for ourselves if it is true? If so, how long should we wait for an answer? And if we get no answer? Isn’t “no answer” a maybe? You can see where I’m going with this: there’s at least a tacit endorsement of the heinous act. Furthermore, the portrayal of revelation you’re arguing for is totally personal; yet ethics almost always involves relations with others. What happens if one person is certain they’re received a revelation to do some heinous act, but the other person to be harmed hasn’t (or vice versa)? Who is right in this situation? You see (and I think you know this), the community needs less subjective means of creating a shared system of ethics. This is partially why we have a system of authority with regard to the priesthood. At the same time, personal confirmation is important, otherwise we’d end up with Heaven’s Gate. So I think you (and other’s here) have offered a skewed account of this dynamic.

    When it comes to the relationship between the faith community and society (and now we’re returning to Nephi, at least implicitly), exactly what are you advocating? Bro. X approaches Bishop Y with a revelation he is certain he’s received about doing something really unethical. Bishop Y prays about it and believes he has received the same revelation. Is supporting Bro. X’s act the right thing for Bishop Y to do? If the answer is “Yes, but that doesn’t absolve him from society’s judgment” that’s fine; but does that then mean that he should hide the act from society’s judgment? I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this. How does this not mean that bishops should be open to the possibility of covering up things such as child molestation, etc.? (You can’t say that I’ve take away the possibility of rejecting society’s standards because the revelation Bro. X and Bishop Y have received goes against their ethical sensibilities too, so this isn’t some form of conscientious objection.)

    You might feel, Bruce, that you’ve answered all of these questions already; or at least that you’ve provided enough information for me to know how you’d answer them. Perhaps you have, but here’s what you haven’t done: explain why you’d do as you do, and how that’s different from the so-called liberal position.

    *He* has his revelation. *I* do not. So my starting assumption would have to be that its a false revelation. I’ve stated this many times. You can figure out what I’d do from here.

    If this is your line of reasoning, then why fault anyone for seeing something wrong with the Abraham story? I don’t mean to take us back there, because I think we’ve left it behind for the better; but if the only thing that convinces us of the correctness of such an act is a similar revelation, then it seems we should deny that story as well, despite how modern prophets/scripture endorses it, unless we get a similar revelation that confirms the truthfulness of Abraham’s revelation (you see how the personal and communal aspects are related?).

    More generally, why would your starting assumption be that it is a false revelation? How are these limitations any different than the limitations I’ve been arguing for? This is, to my knowledge, the first time you’ve mentioned a starting assumption that these kinds of revelations are false. Ultimately Bruce, I don’t think we’re talking past each other; I think we’re talking at each other, and coming to a pretty clear consensus that there is no significant distinction between the liberal and orthodox view of this matter as it relates to our times.

  121. SmallAxe,

    I got a little testy a few comments ago over the fact that you didn’t seem to be reading what I said. I feel that is probably primarily my own fault because I feel so limited at the moment physically and mentally.

    However, I want to note that you continue to say things that really do indiciate you aren’t reading what I’m saying.

    “Do you admit that if you concede this point then there really isn’t any difference between the liberal and orthodox position?”

    This is an example. I’ve been arguing for days now that the orthodox and liberal positions are actually (probably) identical on the story of Abraham, depending on your starting assumptions and that the real difference was that orthodox were taking the starting assumptions the Bible story intends and the liberals were replacing it with a different set of starting assumptions not implied by the original story. I also argued that the difference stems from need or desire on how to use this story. The orthodox view is to take it as face value and then use it as a story about the importance of trusting God and the liberals wanted to use it as a counter example or bad example of discernment and some (Mormon Heretic in particular — still not clear on yourself) thus want to invalidate the story and reimagine it as not having been a revelation from God.

    And now, at last, you are finally coming to the realization that our positions don’t seem that different after all and are *challenging me* on it even — despite the fact I’ve said this days ago.

    Do you see why this is maybe a little frustrating for me?

    Okay, so let me back up on the most important point and then I can respond to the rest of what you said once I know we’re on the same page:

    “I said: Um, okay Bruce, yes. (But you know we’re not living in the Millennium, right?)”

    Okay, so I could see that you finally did acknowledge that God is capable of making a revelation clear enough that it only allows for one interpretation and that it is clearl it is in fact from God. But that doesn’t answer the question. I still don’t know your answer to the question based on the stories original assumptions:

    1. God is completely good
    2. God is all powerful (even over death)
    3. God has promised you your son that he’s asking you to sacrifice will have infinite seed.
    4. You KNOW its God asking
    5. And he has asked in a way where there is no lack of clarity.

    Given these assumptions I suppose there are two questions we’ve discussed (though sometimes we treated them as one question.) Abraham in the story is given this set of assumptions. Was he morally correct to attempt to go through with sacrificing Isaac? The orthodox people here have — I think — 100% claimed the answer is clearly ‘yes’ (and I affirm that position.)

    Then the second question is to put yourself in Abraham’s shoes. Would you go through with it? Here we’ve gotten varied answers based on personal faith.

    I’m far more interested in the first question I suppose. What is your answer? I still don’t know. Feel free to apply to yourself as well as we’ve been discussing that too.

    “then practically speaking there really isn’t a difference in the liberal and orthodox perspectives because odds are we’ll never confront such a situation (what would the odds be? 1:10,000,000,000?)?”

    This is another example of my frustration with this conversation and how it seems like you are just not reading what I say. How many times now have I specifically stated that orthodox readers are clearly taking it as a massive exception to the norm?

    Yet here you are trying to make the very point to me that I’ve already stated before you multiple times. Please maybe be a bit more careful reading what I saw from here on in. I know I ‘meander’ sometimes and these haven’t been my best last few days. I can’t believe I’m still going at this with you. I guess I do feel we’re talking about something important or I wouldn’t be bothering in my current state of mind. So hopefully you’re right that we are in fact talking to each other. In any case, the fault is undoubtedly partially mine.

  122. Michael,

    With respect to the objection [how do you explain it when crazy folk murder people in the name of God?] it is easily met by simply offering the following: How does God speak us moderns? Is there a latter day precedent for God commanding us to offer child sacrifice? The answer is no.

    God speaks to us in the language of our times. One of the many reasons why God IS actually very capable of communicating to His children is His use of culture. He understand the milieu in which we are steeped. God knows that he cannot ask a 21st century sophisticated American to sacrifice their child as a test of faith because we are too credulous to give that any credence.

    God, therefore, tests us in other ways, no less wrenching but nothing that will put anyone in jail for it. Not yet, at any rate.

    This sounds to me like you are placing limitations on God (or humans); the very limitations that you were arguing against in earlier conversations. Have you changed your view?

  123. Bruce,

    I’m sorry that you feel that you’ve been repeating yourself. I assure you that I’ve tried to read what you’ve written carefully (especially after my first comment when I realized that I didn’t read the OP carefully). Not only that, but (as I mentioned in my initial post) I considered this an extension of the last conversation I’ve had here, which involved others besides yourself. Additionally, you’ve jumped in here to address comments directed to others, which may have pulled the conversation in directions different than those of the OP. Let’s both consider this an exercise in interpretation/understanding.

    With that said, let me show you where you’ve been confusing:

    I’ve been arguing for days now that the orthodox and liberal positions are actually (probably) identical on the story of Abraham, depending on your starting assumptions and that the real difference was that orthodox were taking the starting assumptions the Bible story intends and the liberals were replacing it with a different set of starting assumptions not implied by the original story. I also argued that the difference stems from need or desire on how to use this story.

    So the orthodox and liberal positions are identical, but they make different starting assumptions. Do you see how this is confusing? Why not just call them different positions? I’ve actually been treating them this way; and when I say that the liberal and orthodox positions are the same, it actually ends up meaning something different than you’ve been saying–namely, that the first set of assumptions _cannot_ be made in taking this story seriously in a contemporary context. I’ve been upfront from the very beginning that my primary interest has been about the contemporary implications of the story, and not about the story in its context. Are we at a consensus that discernment/interpretation is an inevitable issue in the contemporary implications of this story?

    You then ask two questions: Is Abraham morally justified in attempting to sacrifice Isaac? I’m much less interested in this question than question two, but given his system of ethics, which treated people as things/possessions, I suppose so. I’m done with this question, though. As stated, I am not interested in this aspect of the discussion.

    And I think this is where you’re misunderstanding the liberal perspective (if there really even is such a thing). The problem is with the second question: Then the second question is to put yourself in Abraham’s shoes. Would you go through with it? It’s the likening the scriptures unto us that’s at issue (Who cares what Abraham did if there are no implications for us?). And no one has been able to adequately address the problems I raise with personal interpretation, communal ethics, and justice in a pluralistic society. If we’re on the same page with these issues, then that’s fine. But I don’t think Michael Towns, Geoff B., and others that have chimed in have been on that page.

    Does this help clarify things for you?

  124. Bruce, if Pres Monson were to call on me to sacrifice my child, I would do it. Would I go through some emotional lamentations and struggles over it? Of course. However, that would not change the fact that I would do it. I have a testimony of the prophet, and do not believe he would give such a command unless the Lord commanded first. I trust God would manage all things, whether He called it off at the last minute or not.
    I spent 20 years in the military, and if I had been ordered to attack an enemy, regardless of whether I agreed with the reasons or not, I would do so under most circumstances. A Mai-Lay (Vietnam – where an officer ordered his men to wipe out a village of women and children) situation would be about the only exception to disobey such orders. That said, why would I obey most military orders to kill and then question an order from a prophet, about whom I’ve received a spiritual witness?
    Now, would I be an emotional wreck afterwards? Yes.

  125. Bruce, also note that the assumptions you give include we clearly know that God has commanded the killing of the child. So, there is no need to question one’s testimony, only one’s level of queasiness at having to kill another person.

  126. SmallAxe,

    “the liberal perspective (if there really even is such a thing”
    Made me laugh. :-)

    I confess I don’t really understand your confusion over me saying our positions are likely identical but that we’re starting with different assumptions — which really means we’re reading entirely different stories. And I am doubly confused when you then go on to explain to me that in fact what you are doing yourself starting with a different set of assumptions — which is really just what I said.

    However, I appreciate that you are doing your best to read everything. So I’ll take the remaining blame for misunderstanding and blame it on my current questionable conditions. :-(

    Now I did say that liberals seem to be incapable of accepting the story as it is intended with *its* starting assumptions and will not discuss it. You literally confirm this when you say “when I say that the liberal and orthodox positions are the same, it actually ends up meaning something different than you’ve been saying–namely, that the first set of assumptions _cannot_ be made in taking this story seriously in a contemporary context.”

    But of course this isn’t true. As per my angel example, and millennium example, yes, it can be reframed to have the same assumptions as the original story in a contemporary context. And that is my point.

    So your belief that “that the first set of assumptions _cannot_ be made in taking this story seriously in a contemporary context” is precisely what I’ve been both accusing you of saying and denying is at all possible. I’ve done this consistently. So it appears I have completely understood you.

    “Bruce, also note that the assumptions you give include we clearly know that God has commanded the killing of the child. So, there is no need to question one’s testimony, only one’s level of queasiness at having to kill another person.”

    Yes? So? But that’s the way the story reads in full context, isn’t it?

  127. Bruce: My obervation, ever since I’ve been paying attention to politics, is that liberals always demand that they frame the debate, and always refuse to let opponents frame the debate. I suppose that’s written somewhere in the liberal bible. I believe it’s also described in Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals.”

  128. Bruce wrote: “Rame, can I challenge you on this? Would you *really* off your own child up for sacrifice for nothing more than President Monson asking you to? For the sake of argument, assume that you attempt your own asking God after the fact and get no answer, so you have to rely wholly on past testimony only. (If this isn’t the case, then we’re really talking about you receiving your own answer after the fact, so its not really a case of doing it due to President Monson merely asking you to.)

    I guess I feel you are being unrealistic here. It seems far more likely that in such a scenario you’d be forced to re-evaluate your past testimony due to the extreme circumstance and that — absent any sort of clear confirmation directly from God — you’d find yourself questioning your past testimony. And, I’d expect that is the right answer, personally, given that specific set of assumptions.” (unquote)

    Bruce, sometimes we do not have the time to evaluate and reconsider. Other times, we obey based upon past testimony and experience. For those who have received a big calling (bishop, etc), how many asked for a few weeks to consider it, versus just humbly saying “yes” and believing the stake president was inspired in making the call?

    Abraham and Nephi are not the only ones called upon to do what seems to be terrible things. Our military, police and others engage in death frequently. People make tough calls on saving or taking lives on a daily basis. My past experience with Church prophets is that they are not perfect, but would not give such a command on a whim, either.

    If called upon to do so, I would do it. I would not be eager, nor happy to do it. I imagine I would be like Brigham Young, after he was told about plural marriage, wishing I could exchange places with the dead. Regardless, I would obey. My experiences in the Church, in the military, and in life, have geared me to accept certain things.

    As it is, I am far from being a fundamentalist. When it comes to core doctrine, I am 100% with the Brethren. However, there are many things I do not necessarily consider core doctrine, while many others do. I lean towards Blake Ostler’s free-will libertarian thought that God does not know the future perfectly. I lean toward believing there is progression between kingdoms. I do not believe the Flood was global. I believe in evolution and a 4.5 billion year old earth.

    But those things are on a different plane than the one whereon God commands and we choose to obey or not (belief vs obedience). Praxeology is an important LDS concept, based on what we do on a daily basis usually. For me, that continues on into the sphere of an inspired leader commands and I seek to obey. Now, if my bishop were to command me to slay someone, in many circumstances I would want to seek my own confirmation (especially depending on the bishop). But I’ve watched how Thomas Monson works for almost 40 years, and I know I can trust him. If he were to ask me to do some very difficult thing, like bathe myself 7 times in the Jordan River, I would do so (tip to Naaman).

  129. SmallAxe,

    It might make sense to accept our agreement to disagree. It seems we ‘agree’ on what it is we’re disagreeing over as a starting assupmtion. (i.e. whether or not it is possible to create a modern version of the Abraham story that is equivalent in its starting assumptions.)

    I’ve been hesitant to move on until we’re on the same page. Just trying to avoid opening new unnecessary threads. You ask a lot of questions that probably deserve some discussion.

  130. Bruce,

    Let me suggest a few things:

    1) If the liberal position starts out with different assumptions, and leads to different conclusions, let’s not say it is the same as the orthodox position.

    2) Let’s no longer discuss the Abraham story since I’ve already consented to reading it with the orthodox assumption set.

    3) Let’s focus on a question like this: Should LDS believe that God can ask us to do seemingly unethical actions (in our lives, in contemporary society)? Not just minor unethical actions, but actions like killing our children?

    My interest always has been on point 3. I am challenging whether or not it is possible to maintain the so called orthodox assumptions of the Abraham story in the context of number 3. You can say that my raising this challenge reaffirms your point regarding orthodox and liberals having different assumptions. My point, though, is that when the orthodox reflect on the issue, they too will see that assumption set 1 will not work in a contemporary setting; this is because discernment is an inescapble issue. As such, there really is no difference between the orthodox and liberal assumptions because upon reflection the orthodox take up the liberal assumptions. Is that clear enough?

    Now, you can disagree with me concerning the necessity of discernment/interpretation, in which case you need to make an arguement for trans-interpretive revelation (see my earlier comment).

    You can agree with me, yet affirm that some revelations require less interpretation than others (I explored this possibility in talking about different levels of certainty previously). If this is your point, yet the kind of revelation you’re talking about _rarely_ occurs (see my point about 1:10,000,000,000), then I would say that practically speaking we ought not trust ourselves regarding revelation that requires us to breach significant ethical norms.

    Or you can simply agree with me that we ought not trust ourselves (or others) to receive revelation that requires us to breach signficant ethical norms.

    My argument against assumption set 1 in a contemporary context is not simply about interpretation/discernment. It is also that assumption set 1 leaves the door open to fundamentalism. You tried responding to this by saying that revelation is personal, and that receiving revelation does not excuse anyone from society’s judgments. I showed that a strict position of personal revelation is an incoherent position to take with regard to the larger community of faith; and that facing up to society’s judgments is ambiguous at best, and still permits troublesome actions.

    I hope this is a helpful summary of the way I see this discussion.

  131. “This sounds to me like you are placing limitations on God (or humans); the very limitations that you were arguing against in earlier conversations. Have you changed your view?”

    No. The limitation is on us, not God.

  132. 3) Let’s focus on a question like this: Should LDS believe that God can ask us to do seemingly unethical actions (in our lives, in contemporary society)? Not just minor unethical actions, but actions like killing our children?

    Answer: yes.

    Here are some hypothetical scenarios, but I think they illustrate principles that theoretically could actually be played out:

    – Remember that movie short where the railroad switchman sacrifices his son playing on the tracks in order to correctly switch the oncoming passenger train to the correct track? It boils down to allowing his son to die versus allowing a bunch of strangers to die.

    – Sept 11, 2001. There were 19 men who “needed killin'”, and who all wanted to die anyway. Somehow, 5 was the magic number needed to carry out a hijiacking with only knives/boxcutters. The plane that had only 4 hijackers was able to be forced down by the other passengers before it hit a major population area. So in essence, taking out ONE hijacker could save hundreds or thousands on the ground, even if the other passengers had to die (and would have died anyway had no resistance been offered.)

    Suppose there had been an LDS special forces soldier, or an LDS martial arts expert. The kind of guy who could stand up, reach over the seat in front of him, and twist the neck (like in the movies) and kill the bad guy. Or even suppose there were 5 of such men on board who just happened to be sitting behind the 5 bad guys. Doesn’t even have be LDS, because there are people in other churches who believe in “walking by the Spirit” who are open to spiritual promptings/commands, and who realize that sometimes God asks us to do crazy things. Or suppose it had been 5 civilians who were prompted to reach over and “merely” gouge out the eyes of the 5 bad guys. No special forces soldier training needed.

  133. SmallAxe:

    My past interactions with people taking your stance (who appear to doubt or question whether God would tell someone of _today_ to do a seemingly unethnical act) are missing/misunderstanding a few points in the Abraham/Isaac sacrifice story:

    1. To Abraham, this wasn’t a mere “prompting” or a “thought” or “feeling.” Abraham was spiritual enough, was close enough to God, was so in tune, that he knew without a doubt who was commanding him and what he was being commanded to do. The corrolary to this, which derives from the fact that God is not a respecter of persons, is that anyone today who gets close enough to God, spiritual enough, holy enough, pure enough, etc., can also receive communications from God through the Holy Ghost and have those communications be so clear as to leave no doubt as to their source or content.

    2. This point _sort of_ makes it improper for Bruce to have asked his hypothetical question in the first place: Only those with the faith (ie, holiness, purity, closeness to God) of Abraham, or who are well on the way to developing such faith, will receive an “Abrahamic test” or be called upon to make an “Abrahamic sacrifice.”

    So in essence, Bruce’s question (and let’s remember that the key point of his question is _if you knew for sure it was from God_) is actually asking one of several other things besides the literal question: a) do you have “the faith of Abrabram”?, or b) do you understand what “the faith of Abraham” is?, or c) do you think that it is possible for you to have “the faith of Abraham” at some point in the future?

    A similar analysis can be applied to Nephi’s execution of Laban. It was not a mere prompting. Nephi knew beyond a shadow of a doubt who was speaking to him, and what he was being told to do. Nephi used the word “constrained.”

    Nephi had an additional “help” in overcoming his reluctance to shed blood. Abraham’s story doesn’t indicate if the Lord told Abraham _why_ he was being asked to kill Isaac. But Nephi _was_ told _why_ he had to kill Laban.

    That would be an interesting condition to add to a hypothetical question of “Would you reach over and blind/kill the passenger sitting in front of you on an airplane if the Lord told you to do it, and if you were _sure_ the commandment came from the Lord?” And the sub-questions: “Would you do it if the Lord also told you why? (ie, they were going to hijack and crash the plane)” and “Would you do it if the Lord didn’t tell you why?”

    Bottom line: there’s something telling in the common reaction of “liberals” (sorry for the shortcut word) who refuse to accept Bruce’s question’s premise (ie, “if you knew without a doubt it was from God”). It seems they either don’t understand/believe that God could make something like that painfully obvious (either in the past or in the present/future), or they don’t undertstand _how_ God could make something like that painfully obvious, or they don’t understand the conditions or relationship to God that must exist as a pre-requisite to some communication/command being painfully obvious.

    I think Bruce needs to be more accepting/compassionate of “no” answers to his question, and also more accepting/compassionate towards responses that say “I refuse to accept your premise of such a command being painfully obvious.” Because in essence, the responder is saying that they either don’t understand Abrahamic faith, or they don’t see themselves as advancing sufficiently to have Abrahamic faith in this life.

    My response to Bruce’s hypothetical question is a “yes, but…” Because I believe his qualification “If you knew for a certainly it was from God” is theoretically _possible_, but I do not see myself ever advancing to such a level of faith in this life, to the point where such a command would be given to me.

    Are we, in general “called upon” to have such faith. I think so. The apostle Paul, Nephi, and Joseph Smith all encouraged believers to press forward to the point of having their calling and election made sure. One of the qualifications that Joseph gave in the D&C somewhere (or maybe it was in TPJS by Joseph Fielding Smith) is that one’s calling and election is made sure _after_ the Lord proves that they will be faithful in all circumstances and at all costs. So in essence, Paul, Nephi and Joseph were telling us to progress (develop faith, humility, righteousness, purity, etc) to the point where we _qualify_ for an “Abrahamic test”.

  134. Bookslinger, excellent points!

    SmallAxe,

    I really feel like this was an important discussion. And I’d like to more fully address your questions.

    Unfortunately, you’re currently dealing with someone struggling to find the time / energy for this.

    And the time for this particular thread is probably past anyhow.

    What I’d like to do is reinvigorate this discussion at some future date by quoting your questions and then responding at length — but to do so in a new post with a new thread. I’ll put a comment here so that you get an email showing you that its up.

    I think your questions do in fact drive to the heart of the difference between the ‘liberal’ and ‘orthodox’ position and I think it is the right question to ask.

    I also think further discussion might well eventually break open some understanding for both sides that neither side currently has of the other side. I actually think Bookslinger gets part way there with his own final comment. He’s right that I should be more compassionate towards people that can’t accept the Abraham assumptions. But he’s also right that the ‘orthodox’ answer of ‘yes’ is literally non-negotiable and liberals that think otherwise honestly have misunderstood. And he’s also right that there are some caveats that I haven’t (and should have) discussed.

    All in all, the discussion needs… further discussion.

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