One day in the Middle East about four thousand years ago, an elderly but still rather astonishingly spry gentleman took his son for a walk up a hill. The young man carried on his back some wood that his father had told him they would use at the top to make an altar, upon which they would then perform the ritual sacrifice of a burnt offering. Unbeknownst to the son, however, the father had another sort of sacrifice in mind altogether. Abraham, the father, had been commanded, by the God he worshipped as supreme above all others, to sacrifice the young man himself, his beloved and only legitimate son, Isaac.
We all know how things turned out, of course. An angel appeared, together with a ram, letting Abraham know that God didn’t really want him to kill his son, that he should sacrifice the ram instead, and that the whole thing had merely been a test.
And to modern observers, at least, it’s abundantly clear what exactly was being tested. Should we pose the question to most people familiar with one of the three “Abrahamic” religious traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), all of which trace their origins to this misty figure, and which together claim half the world’s population, the answer would come without hesitation. God was testing Abraham’s faith.
If we could ask someone from a much earlier time, however, a time closer to that of Abraham himself, the answer might be different. The usual story we tell ourselves about faith and reason says that faith was invented by the ancient Jews, whose monotheistic tradition goes back to Abraham. In the fullness of time, or—depending on perspective—in a misguided departure, the newer faiths of Christianity and Islam split off from their Jewish roots and grew to become world religions in their own right. Meanwhile, in a completely unrelated series of events, the rationalistic paragons we know as the ancient Greeks invented reason and science. The Greek tradition of pure reason has always clashed with the monotheistic tradition of pure faith, though numerous thinkers have tried to “reconcile” them through the ages. It’s a tidy tale of two pristinely distinct entities that do fine, perhaps, when kept apart, but which hiss and bubble like fire and water when brought together.
A tidy tale, to be sure, but nearly all wrong. Historians have been struggling to correct it for more than a century. What they haven’t done, however, is work out the implications of their findings in a way that gives us a new narrative explanation to take its place.
Read the full essay at Boston University …