Abraham looked up, and there he saw a ram caught by its horns in a thicket. So he went and took the ram and offered it as a sacrifice instead of his son. Genesis 22 v13
The story of Abraham’s willingness to kill and burn his son Isaac as a sacrifice to his god, and his coming to understand that that kind of religion could and should be left behind is illuminating. Child sacrifice was common in early religion; its abandonment marked a crucial turning point, though one whose full significance took a very long time to be grasped. A god who demands child sacrifices is clearly a rapacious, jealous god who needs to be placated by extreme tributes from his subjects – rather like ancient near eastern emperors. Such a god, and such an emperor, is using his subjects purely for his own ends; their interests matter only insofar as surrendering them demonstrates their abject devotion. The god who provides an alternative sacrifice, a ram stuck in a thicket, is quite different; he is on Abraham’s side, and he identifies himself with what Abraham understands as his own long-term best interests. Of course this was an idea which in time was to be further developed, and the prophetic rejection of animal sacrifices and Jesus’s later characterisation of God as ‘our father’ were important steps in that development. If we accept the idea that our religious concepts develop, and go on to grasp the implications of those developments, we will understand that we should not try to revive religious practices that have had their day.
This is just one example of the general truth that we should not try to go back to what we have left behind; what is over is over. We don’t always find this truth congenial. There can be something comforting about going back to something we have known, whether it’s a place, a relationship, a job or a religious ritual. Often it is other people who can see more clearly than we can that going back is a mistake – that our past has to be left behind and our future embraced. We may have fears about what the future may hold for us but it is only in the future that we may live. We have to be bold because, in truth, there is no satisfactory alternative. And what fortifies us to move forward into the unknown future is faith – and faith not necessarily expressed in terms of religion. That is what the Abraham story is about: he leaves behind not only the old ritual of child sacrifice but also his old home in
, and boldly goes off in search of a new future. Ur
Perhaps more than most people, religious folk have a problem with boldly going off into the future; they – we – have a marked propensity to stick with the known and even to go back to practices and ideas that have already been abandoned. Sometimes it is the worldly interests of the religious institutions that motivate this, but just as often it is a spiritual trepidation. In many social and intellectual debates, the western church has repeatedly put itself on the wrong side – that is to say, the backward-looking side, the side without a future. It resisted the rise of science, and nearly executed Galileo; it resisted the rise of democracy, and gave succour to fascists; it delayed the progress of scientific medicine and struggled with Darwinian evolution. You might almost think that the church’s resistance to something is a guarantee that it is the way of the future! This of course is not to say that every new development is positive and to be welcomed, but it is most certainly to say that the way to ameliorate new developments is rarely to offer die-in-the-ditch resistance; the future has to be embraced, understood and shaped, not resisted. Abraham did not abandon sacrifice altogether; the time was ripe only for the abandonment of human sacrifice.
The church’s discomfort with social and intellectual developments is no doubt one reason for its dangerous fascination with its own ancient practices. In my lifetime, most of the Anglican Church has returned to the Eucharistic vestments and devotions of the medieval church which it had moved beyond in the sixteenth century. Looking backwards in this way may seem comforting and undemanding for church-goers, and it helps paper over some of the splits in the western church. But the church’s mission is not to itself; it’s meant to be helping the world of the future develop for the better, and that can’t be done by trying to pretend that the past isn’t really over. If the ritual trappings of the past get in the way of the mission, you don’t need Jesus, or indeed the story of Abraham, to tell you which has got to give. And get in the way they certainly do, not least because of the associations of the medieval trappings. Imagine the world’s reaction to a future German government reviving Nazi-period uniforms and rallies, and asking the world to remember from that period only the Volkswagen, the invention of motorways and outdoor activities for young people, rather than Blitzkrieg, the Gestapo and the Holocaust. The next time you see a priest in medieval-style vestments, remember what medieval clergy were wearing when they promoted and directed the Crusades, the Inquisition and the slaughter of the Cathars – horrors that were no less integral to the medieval church than were its roles in the arts, social care and education.
Abraham’s insight did not mark the end of child sacrifice in ancient Hebrew culture; Jephthah later sacrificed his daughter and Manasseh King of Judah his sons. But these were throwbacks; religion had moved on, and Jephthah and Manasseh had simply failed to go where the future was leading them. Such a failure may sometimes feel like loyalty to the heritage of the past, but it’s a misplaced loyalty, a loyalty merely to the way a great tradition expressed itself at a particular point in time rather than the much more vital loyalty to the thrust of the tradition as it develops on its journey through time. I don’t say that immersing ourselves in the heritage from time to time doesn’t have its value and certainly its satisfaction. But getting stuck in the heritage is simply not acceptable; it has no future. Religion may ask us to preserve the trappings and practices of yesterday; faith asks us to do something different – to untie our Isaacs and look for the rams in our thickets.