Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Horror and Great Darkness

I'm currently reading the Old Testament from cover to cover for the third time in my life. I seriously debated whether that was necessary. Most people who read the Old Testament from cover to cover feel that one time is enough. But the reason people don't like reading the Old Testament is because it's challenging material. And on the third go, I'm discovering that my greater familiarity with the material is making the reading much more profitable and enjoyable.

Most Christians, I think, pass through life with a mental Cliff's Notes version of the Old Testament that is heavily filtered through the writings of the apostle Paul and through the Gospels. Mormons take the Old Testament a little bit more seriously, partly because our "restoration" encompassed significant parts of the Old Testament. In any event, there's nothing like delving into the nuance and intricacies of the text itself. I've recently invested in a new Jewish translation of the Old Testament, English side-by-side with the original Tanakh.

One of the ways in which the original text is foreshortened in the New Testament is in Paul's characterization of Abraham as a pre-figuration of Christian faith. Paul describes him as "the father of faith."I don't deny that Abraham is a model of faith, for Jews and Christians, not to mention Muslims. But if Abraham is a model of faith, the Book of Genesis provides a much more complicated, darker image of what it means to have faith.

A key element of the Abrahamic story involves God telling Abraham that he is to be a father of many nations, with seed as numerous as the grains of sand in the ocean and as numerous as the stars in the heavens. Abraham, the paragon of faith, apparently has a difficult time believing this, because the Lord tells him the same thing three times, recorded in Genesis 12:7; 13:14 – 18; and 15:3 – 7.

After the third reiteration of this promise the text records that Abraham (then still Abram) asks God, perhaps with impatience, "Whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?"Despite the frequent promises, as of yet there is no evidence that this prophecy will be fulfilled, as Abraham has no children.

In response, God asks Abraham for sacrifice, which he offers. Carrion fowl arrive, attempting to feed on the meat, forcing Abraham to stand watch over his sacrifice to drive them away. After the sun sets, Abraham falls asleep, "and, lo, an horror of great darkness fell upon him" (Genesis 15:12).

I don't know how many of you have experienced horror by darkness at night. I have. Promises, hopes, and dreams for a better future seem to evaporate in fear of seemingly inevitable evil and misfortune. I can really relate to this piece of Abraham's story.

It is comforting to me, because it reminds me that God's promises to us stand, in spite of our inability to imagine them coming to fruition. Abraham wrestled with doubt. If he did, then none of us should regard it as abnormal to wrestle with doubt in our own lives of faith. I'm speaking not just about doubt over the truth claims in our belief systems, though I think this applies to those kinds of doubt as well. I'm speaking about our doubt of the good that God intends us to experience as his children. Doubts of the former kind contribute to doubts of the latter kind. But it is doubts of the latter kind that are much more serious to our well-being and our ability to fulfill the measure of our creation.

Real faith is not doubt-free. I doubt faith that claims to be.

What I can say empirically is that I have had a special class of experiences that are extremely vivid, that have made a lasting impression on my life, through which I've caught glimpses of a larger realm in which our souls exist and find meaning. And there have been times and there are contexts in which I'm tempted to doubt those things, for any number of reasons. But as I've kept faith with those experiences, I've found joy and I've prospered, and I see my life unfolding into something completely unexpected and amazing.

The Book of Genesis describes this "horror of great darkness."  St. John of the Cross wrote of "the dark night of the soul."  Joseph Smith described "thick darkness gathered around [him]," that caused it to seem "for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction" (Joseph Smith History verse 15).  I've experienced that.

It is interesting to me that in this moment of darkness described in Genesis 15, the Lord does unveil to Abraham a darker aspect of the thrice-granted prophecy of his descendents: "Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years" (Genesis 15:13).  In this moment when Abraham himself was struggling, the Lord made it clear that the future was not all going to be easy, either for him or his descendents.

It's in the next chapter (Genesis 16) that Sarai despairing of having any descendents of her own, hatches a scheme for her Egyptian handmaid to bear children for Abram.  Sarai is not pleased with the results of her own scheme (and ultimately, we see the full fruits of her jealousy and cruelty in chapter 21), though the Lord begins to fulfill his promises to Abram through the castaways, Hagar and her son Ishmael. Sarai faces tests of faith of her own, in chapter 12 (where she becomes the object of Pharaoh's lust) and in chapter 18 (when she learns that the prophecies of Abraham's descendents are to be fulfilled through her as well).

With hindsight, the journey of faith looks like a golden road to Heaven. But from within the journey, it looks mostly like darkness and roadblocks.


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Victorina said...

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