Wednesday, September 4, 2013

James Goodman on the Five Most Terrifying Words in the Bible

James Goodman

A moment ago, I linked to an outstanding posting by Frank at Letters to the Catholic Right, in which he focuses on a much-discussed sermon in which Pope Francis states,

We must meet one another doing good. "But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!" But do good: we will meet one another there.

The pope's remarks about the value of the moral witness of atheists--about the value of this moral witness to Christians, who have every reason to be inspired by and learn from the moral witness of atheists--have rankled some believers for whom there's a bright and shining line between believer and unbeliever, with unbelievers standing on the no-morality and no-salvation side of that line. (And, it goes without saying, with believers on the opposite side, though St. Augustine teaches in his classic work The City of God that at the eschatological judgment of the world, many of us who are confident we belong inside God's city may well be disabused of our smug certitude, as we watch many we've judged to be on the other side of our bright and shining line walk through the pearly gates.)

This echoes Jesus's own constant admonitions in the gospels to his followers not to judge, not to do the business of separating sheep from goat when that business belongs to God alone, since only God can see the depths of each human heart. It's the focus, as well, of Flannery O'Connor's wonderful short story "Revelation," about which I wrote my thesis for my M.A. in English. That story reads, I argued in my thesis, like a biblical parable, and its final epiphanic passage in which the righteous Mrs. Ruby Turpin has to watch all kinds of trash and freaks and lunatics beneath her in piety and social standing sashay into heaven is very much in keeping with Jesus's own gospel parables about these matters of who counts and who doesn't, who gets to judge (God alone) and who doesn't (not any one of us), etc. 

And so, I'd argue, those of us who have some kind of theistic faith could well stand to read (and learn from) James Goodman's essay in Huffington Post yesterday entitled, "The 5 Most Terrifying Words in the Bible." Even though Goodman is a skeptic on the issue of God. Precisely because Goodman is a skeptic, we can stand to learn from him and others who critically probe biblical texts like the story of Abraham and Isaac.


"But where is the lamb?" 
Abraham and Isaac are all alone, on their way up to Mount Moriah. They have just left their servants behind. Abraham has taken the fire and the knife, and he's given the wood to Isaac. "And Isaac said to Abraham, his father: 'Father!' and he said, 'Here I am, my son.' And he said, 'Here is the fire and the wood but where is the lamb for the offering?'" 
And we do not have a clue what Isaac is thinking. Is he really wondering where the lamb is, as a little boy might? Or has it just occurred to him that he himself may be the lamb? I am not sure that there are five more terrifying, or pathetic, words in the Bible.

I encourage you to read Goodman's essay in its entirety. The preceding paragraphs are the opening paragraphs of the essay. 

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