Barack Obama on Abraham and Isaac
I have finished reading Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope. It was on special offer here in the UK (could not find one by Senator McCain or Senator Clinton). As books written by politicians go it was enjoyable and frank.
In the book is a chapter called “Faith”, where he talks about secularism and religious belief and that we should not base public policy on uncompromising commitments based on God’s word. His example is Abraham being willing to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22:1-14):
The story of Abraham and Issac offers a simple but powerful example. According to the Bible, Abraham is ordered by God to offer up his “only son, Isaac, whom you love,” as a burnt offering. Without argument, Abraham takes Isaac to the mountaintop, binds him to an altar, and raises his knife, prepared to act as God has commanded.
Of course, we know the happy ending – God sends down an angel to intercede at the very last minute. Abraham has passed God’s test of devotion. He becomes a model of fidelity to God, and his great faith is rewarded through future generations. And yet it is fair to say that if any of us saw a twenty first century Abraham raising his knife on the roof of his apartment building, we would call the police; we would wrestle him down; even if we saw him lower the knife at the last minute, we would expect the Department of Children and Family Services to take Isaac away and charge Abraham with child abuse. We would do so because God does not reveal Himself or His angels to all of us in a single moment. We do not hear what Abraham hears, do not see what Abraham sees, true as those experiences may be. So the best we can do is act in accordance with those things that are possible for all of us to know, understanding that a part of what we know to be true – as individuals or communities of faith – will be true for us alone.
As such it seems that Obama is saying that in a political argument claiming “my faith is this and it is the truth” will not be admissible. For example that a woman should not have a position of authority based on scripture would be inadmissible, that a child should die rather than a chance at life because Jehovah says so would be inadmissible. There would have to be more than a claim to truth. One that a non believer of your faith could agree to based on a universal principle that transcends your personal commitment to a particular sacred text from God.
What makes matters worse for me is that these ancient texts are plainly the work of man; their interpretation clearly is based on man’s understanding. Not sure if this changes if we get women to have a go instead.
Obama in his book typifies the consensus politician. Where he does have a clear end in mind he will look at the opposing side and see what negotiation and compromise he needs to do to make it happen.
His own faith seems to be about strengthening his resolve and giving comfort with misfortune – the classic reasons that Bertrand Russell identified. Can people believe that we are capable to do things without invisible means of support, accepting that this is our only shot at existence that we can be conscious about?
Well, yes quite a few of us do. What is more it forces us to confront these things and not to hide behind a false comfort. Not least in a god who torments for a test and can only think that to forgive us for a sin that he invested upon us is to see his son tortured to death.
But when people look for comfort they just want the comfort – not the theological baggage that comes with it. Or even the truth of it. Just something to hold onto till consciousness slips away forever.
Every moment is precious for it will not come back again. Enjoy it, and seize the moment. Yes there are times when delayed gratification is important to reach a noble goal (education, savings). Life is something you get to give meaning too. Sometimes even the search for the meaning is a journey in itself. But before you call a destination home, it is worth making sure it is the real thing for you.
On a separate note Obama has won Wyoming and according to the BBC this leaves him and Clinton like this in the race for the Democratic nomination: