The stories of the Bible are not always literal and anyone who says they are has a lack of imagination, a lack of appreciation for nuance, archetypes, mythology.
But stories have so much to teach us, and there is nothing like scripture to show you layer after layer of meaning and revelation.
When I started reading the Bible in earnest earlier this year, I was getting pissed off, because nothing made sense. I was coming at it cold, without any warm-up, without a deep experiential practice. I wasn’t open to hearing and understanding, but was instead closed off. So the story of Abraham, who believes he is told to sacrifice his son Isaac for God, and then is told by an angel he doesn’t have to do it, felt crazy to me. Why would anyone surrender or commit themselves to such a thing? Why would anyone worship a God who told them to do that?
My prayer/meditation practice is surrender, though, and the more I do practice that, the more I understand the teachings behind some of these stories, the hidden meanings, the ways of turning them over and over again in your mind and in your hands and beginning to see glimpses of deeper understanding that are only revealed with work and time and attention.
So. Let’s take a crack at this one.
Can you think off the top of your head how many love songs are about doing anything for the other person? Songs where the singer strips himself bare and gets on knees and promises the world if his lover will just come back into his arms?
I was at a family party a while ago and the kids were doing karaoke, and one of my cousins sang this song, Grenade, by Bruno Mars:
I’d catch a grenade for ya (yeah yeah)
Throw my head on a blade for ya (yeah yeah)
I’d jump in front of a train for ya (yeah yeah)
You know I’d do anything for ya (yeah yeah)
Oh whoa oh
I would go through all this pain
Take a bullet straight through my brain
Yes I would die for you baby
But you won’t do the same
No no no no
And I was really disturbed. Because when my cousin was singing this, he was like, 10.
So Abraham and Isaac is a story about the depths we’d go to for Love, but in this case, the recipient is not this undeserving woman. The recipient is God, who will always give back, who will always show you a reward for such dutiful attention.
Why is this so hard to understand? Because we don’t have faith. We don’t trust God. We think of God as this angry motherfucker in the sky who just wants to kill everybody.
And maybe he is a motherfucker, because that word has a lot of complexity, but I’m saving that for another post.
So let’s use another word for God. Let’s say, Wisdom. Let’s say God is Sophia, Goddess extraordinaire.
(Sorry, I still have that violent “Grenade” song in my head, so I’m finding it difficult to concentrate. That song is just crazy.)
Let’s say that the Goddess of Wisdom puts us through some tests on this earth. All our challenges are tests. And through those challenges, we have a choice of what to do, we have a choice about whether our mental state or will is in alignment with our actions. A lot of people may do what’s “right” or what looks good, but do it with anger in their hearts, or resistance, or resentment, which all becomes a bubbling poison inside of us, and you can feel that when you interact with them. And then there are others who genuinely discern what is the best thing to do in a situation, and open themselves up to possibilities, and are willing to defy social norms and conventions in order to answer a higher calling, but who, in the end, don’t have to go quite so far, but their faith is rewarded with positive results.
This may all seem abstract, so let me clarify.
The story of Abraham and Isaac in the Old Testament is not really a story that suggests God is this mustached anti-hero who tells Abraham to sacrifice his son to manipulate him. It’s a story of a man, Abraham, whose faith is so deep, who is open to the callings of his spirit, that he is willing to do anything God tells him to do. Anything. Like Bruno Mars, except God is not a selfish woman. God is God, the Ultimate Reality.
And life is about continuing revelation. So if we are a devoted person, open-minded and ready to serve, it’s possible that what we think we ought to do in a life of faith continues to evolve until we understand we do not have to go quite so far, but in that moment, we needed to be willing to go that far if we were going to open up to possibilities, to a life of more abundance than we’d known.
A life of practicing faith is about ultimate humility, about getting in alignment so that our actions are at peace with our interior state, our emotions and our minds. Because we come into this life subsumed by the passion of our egos, a practice which we have to consciously unlearn. True happiness does not lie in following social norms and conventions, in doing what everyone else says you ought to do. True happiness lies in getting to the root of who you are, being fully present in the moment, and having no expectations about what should happen or what you deserve. Only then are you in an open enough space to receive the blessings you are showered with. But if we are chock-full of our own agendas, our misconceptions, judgments of other people, ways of operating that are tired and old and keep us in deep shadow, then we cannot live life as something alive. We live like robots.
So Abraham is a witness to God, to Wisdom, and he says, I am so open and ready I will do anything you say. And he gets the sense that in order to show God his Love, he has to do something extreme. But continuing revelation shows that, while he had to be open to give everything to God, in order to get to that place of humility and recognizing he can’t know the higher will of the universe, he is rewarded with the firm response that this kind of extremity is not necessary. And notice he is open to that, too. He has not gotten stuck in his mind through any of this, his mind that starts creating a narrative that he is attached to. This story could have gone a whole other way at the end. The angel fo the Lord could have come to Abraham and said, Hey guess what, you don’t have to do this, hooray! and he could have been egotistical and said, No, bitch, I’m going to finish what I started. But he is instead open to divine leadings in every moment, and so he is able to have his cake and eat it. In the form of a ram. Or something.
I know this story is weird. But it is powerful. Because we are in a world where people make all kinds of sacrifices, all the time, to people who don’t deserve it, and to ideologies that are killing the world, and yet we are resistant to sacrificing or surrendering to Actual God, to Wisdom, to that level of surrender that suggests there are things we don’t know and cannot understand. We get obsessed with having our kids go to certain schools or pleasing a boss at work or impressing other parents on the soccer field, that we’re willing to sacrifice our spirits and our souls that often call us to something greater. And so we sacrifice ourselves all the time, we put ourselves on these false altars that are chopping blocks. We make our spirits available to be split apart, handed over. We worship money or fame or power or structure and rigidity that keeps us locked up inside. But if we had any faith, we’d recognize God has our back. God always has our back. God will not lead us astray. But you don’t know faith if you keep your mind closed, your actions adherent to the expectations of everyone else. You only know faith when you begin to test your boundaries in a life of devotion, by entering into a deep and intimate relationship with God. Wisdom shows you, through challenges that you take on, through your experience of limited understanding, that you can begin to step into this water or that water, and see what happens, with the hand of Guidance holding you, the way a mother would. Wisdom, the Divine Mother, lets you test waters so that you see and experience and understand, but stops you before you go too far and hurt anyone, or do something that is incompatible to the best outcome for all involved.
This kind of willingness to go to an extreme for God can be scary, because we see people do awful things in God’s name. And there are a lot of people like that, waving the flag of religion, marking their territory and suggesting they know better than everyone else. People who operate like this often operate from a rigidity in thinking, from egoism, from a convincement of truth (rather than actual truth), from arrogance and desire for domination rather than humility. These are people who use God to get across their own agendas, who use God as though God is flexible matter that is subject to their own aims. These are people who do not worship God at all, but worship politics and governance, and see God as an opportunity to put their own self-will into play, and elevate their particular tribe.
It’s disturbing and discouraging, that this same word, “God,” these same stories, can be used for both wholesome and violent ends. Yet this is the battle that has gone on since the beginning of time.
So the people who do know God, who do know Wisdom, who do know Great Love, need to stand up and take action and proclaim the true from the false, the darkness from the reality. We can’t just retreat into caves or monasteries. We need to come out. Because there is far greater good in this world than evil. The good just doesn’t advertise in dominating ways. And we’ve been subject to a lot of domination.
“Verdun Altar (Stift Klosterneuburg) 2015-07-25-170”by hans a rosbach is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0