Biblical Series XI: Sodom and Gomorrah by Dr. Jordan Peterson
Three difficult stories, tonight. My plan is to get through all three of them. So we’ll see how that goes. We’re going to talk about the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and then the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, which is an extremely complicated story. So we’ll try to make some headway with that. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is plenty complicated, too.
All right, so what we established last week, at least in part, was this idea that the Abrahamic narratives are set up as punctuated epochs in Abraham’s life. We were hypothesizing that you set out a goal for yourself, in your life—it’s like a stage in your life. You might say that. And then, when you run that goal to its end, when that stage comes to an end, then you have to regroup and orient yourself once again. I was making the case that that’s a good time to make necessary sacrifices. Part of that’s because, as you move through your life, you have to shed that which is no longer necessary. Otherwise it accretes around you, holds you down, and you perish sooner than you should. I think that’s in large part because, if you don’t dispense with your life as you move through it, then the stress of all that undone business, and of all those unmade decisions turns into a kind of chaos around you. That chaos puts you in a state of psychophysiological emergency preparedness, chronically, and that just ages you.
It’s necessary, in some sense, to stay light on your feet, and also, I think, to renew your commitment to your aim upward. I believe that’s what the sacrifice routines in the Abrahamic stories dramatize. I said, already, that these things are often first portrayed very dramatically and concretely before they become psychologized. We’ll see, because one of the things that happens is that, when God makes his covenant with Abraham—this is the next part of the story—it’s also when the idea of circumcision is introduced into ancient Hebrew culture. Now, there’s every bit of evidence that other cultures were utilizing circumcision beforehand, so it wasn’t necessarily a novel invention of the Abrahamic people. But I see its introduction as a step on the road to the psychologization of the idea of sacrifice. First of all, it’s giving up something concrete. Second, it’s signified by the sacrifice of a part of the body for the sake of the whole. It’s something like that. It’s dramatizing the idea that you have to give up a part of yourself for the sake of the whole, and eventually, well, by modern times, that becomes virtually completely psychological in its essence, in that we all understand—perhaps not as well as we should, but at least well enough to explain it—that it’s necessary to make sacrifices, to move ahead in life.
One of the themes that I’d like to explore tonight, especially in relationship to the sacrifice of Isaac, is that once humanity had established the idea that sacrifice was necessary to move ahead—which is, really, a discovery of incalculable magnitude: the idea that you can give up something in the present and that will, in some sense, ensure a better future. It’s an unbelievable achievement. It’s the equivalent of the discovery of the future. It’s the equivalent of the discovery of the utility of work. Its importance can’t be overstated. It took a long time for people to figure this out. Animals haven’t figured it out, at all. We’ve figured it out, and it’s hard for people to make sacrifices, because, of course, the present has a major grip on you, as it should, because, in some way, you live in the present.
So anyways, there’s the twin problem of getting the whole idea of sacrifice up and running, and then figuring out exactly what it means. But there’s a twofold problem that branches off that. The hypothesis is that sacrifice is necessary to ensure that the future is safe, secure, productive, positive, and all of those things. Ok. Two questions immediately rise from that. One is, well, what’s the proper sacrifice? Now, we already talked about that a little bit in regards to Cain and Abel. One of the things we saw was that Cain’s sacrifice, whatever it was, was wrong, and Abel’s was right. Noah’s seemed to be right. Abraham’s seemed to be right. There is something about a sacrifice that can be correct. There’s something about a sacrifice that can be incorrect. The question is, what would be the maximally correct sacrifice? That’s an obvious question to arise from the mere observation that sacrifice is necessary. If you’re going to sacrifice, and it’s necessary, well, how is it that you would behave if you were going to do it really well, if you were going to do it perfectly? Ok, so that’s question number one.
Question number two might be, well, if the future can be better because of a sacrifice, and sacrifices can vary in quality, then how much better could the future be if your sacrifice was of the highest quality? There’s a limit issue, there. The limit is something like, well, how good could your life be if you really got your act together and gave up all the things that were impeding you in your movement forward? If you did that forthrightly and with integrity and dead seriousness, and you tried to set your life right, what is the upper limits with regards to how your life might lay itself out? I would say, well, we don’t know the answer to that, but I think that the idea of something like the city or kingdom of God on earth, or the reestablishment of paradise, is the answer of the imagination to the question: how good could the future be if sacrifice was optimized? Those are archetypal questions. An archetypal question is a question that everyone asks, whether they know it or not. Sometimes you can act out a question. An archetypal question is a question that everyone asks, and an archetypal answer is the answer that can’t be made any better to that question. I can give you an example of that. The reason that Christ’s passion is an archetypal story is because it’s a kind of limit. It’s the worst possible set of things that can happen to the best possible person. So it’s a story that constitutes a limit. It has nothing to do with the factual reality of the story. That’s a completely independent issue. I’m speaking about this psychologically. Certain stories can exhaust themselves in a perfect form—that would be the archetypal form. So that’s the territory that we’re going to wander around in a little bit today. We’ll use the stories as anchors.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the Sodom and Gomorrah story, because it’s classically associated with the Biblical injunction against homosexuality, and that’s often how it’s read, in particular by the more fundamentalist end of the Christian spectrum. I’ve thought about that a lot. It’s pretty damn clear that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah has something to do with sexual impropriety, but I’ve really come to the conclusion that it has very little to do with homosexuality. So we’ll see how that interpretation prevails, as we walk through this tonight. Ok, so we’ll start with a bit of a recap from last week. Abraham’s had his last adventure. He’s 99 years old.
"…the Lord appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect." Well, that’s quite the command. Alexander Maclaren, who we talked about before, elaborated upon this slightly. This is what he had to say: "It is not precisely walked with God; It is rather that of an active life, spent in continual consciousness of being naked and opened before the eyes of Him to whom we have to give account."
Ok, so that’s an idea that’s in keeping with the notion that what we’re seeing in the Abrahamic story is the call to adventure of the typical person. Your life, in some sense, is an adventure. I suppose the reason for that is that you’re confronted by things that you cannot understand, that you have not yet mastered; there’s a heavy price to be paid if you fail to conduct yourself appropriately, and there’s a large reward to be gained if you conduct yourself properly. That pretty much defines an adventure story.
God calls to Abraham and tells him to move out into the world, to leave what he is familiar with, to go into the strange lands of famine and tyranny, and to find his place. That works out quite nicely for Abraham. What that also means is that, because Abraham was doing that consciously—at least according to this interpretation—he’s not naive in his determination to move forward. I’ve dealt with lots of people who have anxiety disorders. They are not mysterious to me. It’s no problem for me to understand why people have anxiety disorders, or why they’re depressed, or why they have substance use problems. The mystery to me is always why people don’t have all of those things at once. Everybody has a reason to be anxious. In fact, we have the ultimate reason to be anxious: we know that we’re vulnerable, and we know that we’re going to die. How you can not be anxious under those circumstances is a great mystery. It’s a massive mystery. The same thing applies with regards to depression, and then the same thing applies, to some degree, to drug and alcohol abuse. As I said last week, there’s plenty of reasons to drown your consciousness in alcohol. That’s for sure. We could refer to the aforementioned anxiety and depression, not least. The sorts of drugs that people are prone to take are chemicals that take the affective edge off the tragedy of life.
Back to the issue of fear. Abraham is self-conscious. That’s what this commentary says. But the thing is, he moves forward despite that. He’s self-conscious, and he knows the dangers, but he moves forward despite that. That’s actually the appropriate response in the face of an actual, non-naive understanding of what constitutes life. If you’re naive and you move forward, it’s like, well, what the hell do you know? There’s no courage in naivety because you don’t know what there is to stop you, and you don’t know what dangers you might apprehend. But to be aware of what it is that your problem is—so to be alert existentially, let’s say, or to be fully self-conscious—means that you’re perfectly aware of your limitations and how you might be hurt. And then to make the decision to move forward into the unknown and the land of the stranger anyways…That’s one of the secrets to a good life. I can say that, really, without fear of contradiction, because the clinical literature on this is very, very clear.
What you do with people who are afraid—and, to some degree, depressed, but certainly anxious—is you lay out what they are anxious about, first of all, in detail. What is it you’re afraid of? What might happen? And then you decompose it into small, hypothetically manageable problems, and then you have the person expose themselves to the thing that they’re afraid of. What happens isn’t that they get afraid. That isn’t what the clinical literature indicates, exactly. What happens instead is that they get braver. That’s not the same thing, right? Because if you get less afraid, it’s like, ‘well, the world isn’t as dangerous as I thought it was. Silly me.’ If you get braver, that’s not what happens. What happens is, ‘the damn world’s just as dangerous as I thought, or maybe it’s even more dangerous than I thought, but it turns out that there’s something in me that responds to taking that on as a voluntary challenge, and grows and thrives as a consequence.’
There’s no doubt about this. Even the psychophysiological findings are quite clear. If you impose a stresser on two groups of people, and on one group the stresser is imposed involuntary, and on the other group the stresser is picked up voluntarily, the people who pick up the stresser voluntarily use a whole different psychophysiological system to deal with it: they use the system that’s associated with approach and challenge, and not the system that’s associated with defensive aggression and withdrawal. The system that is associated with challenge is much more associated with positive emotion and much less associated with negative emotion. It’s also much less hard on you. The defensive posturing system, the prey animal system—man, when that thing kicks in, it’s all systems are go for you. The pedal’s pushed down to the metal, and the brakes are on. You’re using future resources that you could be storing for future time right now, in the present, to ready yourself for emergency.
There’s nothing simple or trivial, at all, about the idea of being called to move forthrightly forward into the strange and unknown. There’s some real adventure that’s associated with that. That’s an exciting thing, which is part of the reason why people travel. And then also to see yourself as the sort of creature that can do that, is willing to do that on a habitual basis, is also the right kind of tonic for—I hate this word—your self-esteem. The self-esteem has nothing to do with feeling good about yourself. As I already mentioned, there isn’t necessarily reason why, a priori, you should just feel good about yourself. But if you can view yourself acting in a courageous and forthright manner, and encountering the world, and trying to improve your lot, and taking risks in the non-naive way, well, you have something that you can comfort yourself with at night when you’re wondering what the whole damn point is of your futile and miserable life. That’s necessary, because it’s sometimes the case that you wake up at four in the morning when things haven’t been going that well and wonder just what the hell the point is of your futile and miserable life. You have to have something real to set against that. It can’t just be rationalizations about how you’re a valuable person among others. Even though that’s true, that’s not good enough. You need something that’s more realistic to set against that. Observing courage in yourself is definitely one of the things that can help you sleep soundly at night when things are destabilized a little bit around you.
Back to the covenant. God tells Abraham, "I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly. And Abram fell on his face: and God talked with him, saying, As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations. Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee." Abram means high father, and Abraham means father of a multitude. "And I will make thee exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee.
"And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee. And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God."
I love the line about the land where you’re a stranger. Almost everything that happens in these more archaic stories is laid out geographically. The metaphor is geographic. So you move to a land that you haven’t yet occupied, maybe that’s full of strangers, and then the land is what’s granted to you. But it’s perfectly reasonable to think about this from a more abstract perspective, and from a perspective that’s much more relevant to modern people, with our incredibly complex societies.
It’s definitely the case that, if you go into the land of the stranger, which is exactly what you do when you try out any new endeavour—when you start a new job, or when you start a new educational enterprise, or when you start a new relationship. It doesn’t matter; you’re in unexplored territory. The physical geography is the same, but we don’t live in the spatial world, only. We live in the temporal, spatial world. What that means is that the same place can be different at a different time. It can be completely different. And so if you’re in your house but you have a new person in your house, well, your house is new, for all intents and purposes. The territory surrounding that new person is the territory of the foreigner, essentially. The same things happen to you when you start a new job. You’ll find that, when you start a new job, especially if you stretched yourself a little bit beyond your zone of comfort, that you very much feel like an imposter, when you’re first there. And then the question is, well, how do you master that? The answer to that seems to be fairly straightforward: if the place that you’re in has any degree of possibility—if it isn’t inhabited by demons, so to speak—the best way to act is to lift your aim upward, attempt to get your act together, tell the truth, live a meaningful life, and to do difficult things. All of that. That is the best way of mastering a new territory. In all probability, the degree to which you’re able to act that out is precisely proportionate to the degree to which you’re going to be become a master in that territory. That sort of thing can happen a lot faster than people think.
It’s really quite remarkable how fast you can move forward if you can establish yourself somewhere and prove yourself useful, assuming that you’re around people to whom proving yourself useful actually matters. I know perfectly well that you can end up in an employment situation where you’re punished for your virtues, in which case you should just get the hell out of there. Really, you get out of there, and you go find somewhere that, if you work hard and do what you’re supposed to do, you’re actually going to be rewarded. Otherwise, that’s not a workplace; that’s hell, and you should just leave there.
"And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations. This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised."
That’s a mystery, there. Why that particular rite? Well, it’s dramatic. It certainly effects a man where he’s most concerned to be effected. It’s something like that. So it’s a sacrifice that has, I would say, a certain degree of unforgettability. That would be the first thing. And a certain degree of pain and threat that goes along with it. So it’s not nothing. That’s the thing.
Now, you can argue—and I think there is a case to be made about whether or not, in the modern world, circumcision is something reasonable to inflict on infants. I don’t want to have that conversation, at all. But I don’t think that’s relevant to this particular issue because we’re talking about something different. We’re talking about humanity’s attempt to reconcile themselves to the fact that something has to be given up in order for something else to happen, and to really try to work through that idea, and to make it into a psychological reality. So far, what we’ve seen in the Biblical stories is that, when you make a sacrifice, it’s not really something personal or psychological, right? It’s something external and dramatic. You give up something that you own. You don’t give up something that you are, or that’s part of you. It’s actually more of a sacrifice to give up something that’s a part of you, or something that you are, than to give up something that you own. I mean, it’s a subtle distinction, because in some sense, the distinction between what you own and what you are is subtle. It’s not overwhelmingly subtle, but people identify with their possessions. They need to, because otherwise they wouldn’t care for them. They need their possessions in order to live, so their possessions are, in some sense, integral to them. But this transformation, here, of an act that was external and associated, essentially, with possessions, to something that was at least part of the body, brings it much closer to the individual as a psychological reality. It’s something like that.
"And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you."
It’s also a permanent marker. I’ve read a fair bit about practices like tattooing and body scarification. Those are very, very common practices. They’re human universals, actually. No matter where you go around the world, you see a couple of things. First of all, almost without exception, people wear clothing. Sometimes it’s relatively minimal clothing, and often it’s more decorative than protective, but it’s almost inevitably clothing. The other thing that you see is that people do scarify and tattoo themselves. They do that, in some manner, to catalyze their identity. They’re trying to transform themselves from a generic person, in some sense, to a person that’s been designed by their own hand. It’s something like that. It’s a marker of developing identity, and some of it seems to be catalyzed with pain.
Modern people who tattoo—and I’m not saying that I’m in favour of tattooing, because actually I’m not, but that’s my own particular bias, and if you have a tattoo, that’s fine with me. I’m also not saying that there’s anything wrong with it. But one of the things you do see is that people with a tattoo do report a couple of things: the pain is actually necessary, and that the pain is actually something that seems to establish something like a memory. Well, it’s a memory because of the pain, because you bloody well remember things that hurt. But it’s also a memory because it’s actually etched on you, right? It’s not something that you can just abandon and forget. And so a circumcision is exactly the same thing. You don’t forget it, because it’s part of you. It makes a good token for a covenant. That seems to be the rationale, here, speaking from a psychological perspective. It’s to indicate, as well, that the damn thing that’s happening is serious. I also think that was the case with the earlier sacrifices of animals.
Modern people don’t do this. You don’t know how serious you would take a vow if you sacrificed a goat in your backyard. It’s actually a very dramatic thing to do. You think about it as primitive, and perhaps it is primitive and archaic, and no doubt it is. But it’s also to take the life of something, and to spill its blood. That’s no joke; that’s something you remember, especially if you haven’t done it before. We actually don’t know what we would need to do in order to take something seriously. We all do things like make New Year’s resolutions about how we’re going to be better people, and we don’t do it. The reason for that, at least in part, is because we don’t know how to make the sacrifice sufficiently bloody, let’s say, so that we remember that it’s necessary. We don’t take it with seriousness. We don’t think, ‘I should quit smoking, because I’m going to die.’ We don’t think through what that means: coughing your lungs out for three months in a hotel bed while your entire family is repulsed, horrified, and sorrow-stricken at the fact that this has happened far too early. We won’t make that real enough to make it serious. Without that seriousness, we won’t do it. There’s something to be said for rituals of seriousness. I think this is one of them.
"And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed."
This is from Charles John Ellicott, who was Bishop of Gloucester: "The fitness of circumcision to be a sign of entering into a covenant, and especially into one to which children were to be admitted, consisted in its being a representation of a new birth by the putting off of the old man, and the dedication of the new man unto holiness."
It’s like a baptism—that’s what’s echoed, there. Of course, baptism is a return to the precosmogonic chaos. That’s what the water indicates: a return to the source of life, and then the renewal that comes along with it. So it’s a sacrificial idea, in some sense, that, if there’s to be a new you, the old you has to dissolve—return to the solution from which it emerged initially—and reconstitute itself. So there’s an echo of that idea, here.
"The flesh was cast away that the spirit might grow strong; and the change of name in Abram and Sarai was typical of this change of condition. They had been born again, and so must again be named. And though women could not indeed be admitted directly into the covenant, yet they shared in its privileges by virtue of their consanguinity to the men, who were as sponsors for them; and thus Sarai changes her name equally with her husband."
You could make a case—anthropology observers have made this case, too—that women undergo a set of sufficiently, radically, psychophysiological transformations merely as a consequence of being feminine in nature, such that the additional rituals of transformation that might be necessary for men aren’t necessary. One of those might be menstruation, because that’s a pretty dramatic transformation. There has been some indication that circumcision is like the male equivalent of menstruation, because of the blood that’s involved and because of the locale. Of course, the same thing is the case with women when they give birth. That’s a particularly dramatic thing, as I just witnessed, because my daughter just had a baby this week. So thank God for that!
"Recent investigation"—this is from the Cambridge Bible for School and Colleges, which, if you want to read it, is only 58 volumes—"has not tended to support the theory that circumcision has any connexion with primitive child sacrifice; nor, again, that it took its origin from hygienic motives. Apparently, it represents the dedication of the manhood of the people to God. In the history of Israel, it has survived as the symbol of the people belonging to Jehovah through His special election…This corporeal sacrament remained to the Israelite, when every other tie of religion or race had been severed."
The other thing that I read about in relationship to this idea of the multigenerational covenant had something to do with God telling Abraham to include all of the people of his household into this covenant. That really meant that he was establishing a territory of ethics around them, like the ark, except the psychological equivalent of the ark. So it was a spiritual, or psychological, or ethical territory, that everyone who was of that household was required to occupy—or obliged, or perhaps privileged to occupy. There was also an injunction to Abraham with regards to his children, which was that, as he had established a covenant with God, which we could say is something like his decision to aim as high as possible and to live properly as a consequence—it’s more than that, but it’s something like that—he also was under the supreme moral obligation to share that with the other men in his family, especially his children. And so I think there’s also a call, here, to adopting the sacred responsibility in relationship to children, that has to do with ensuring that they understand how to take their place in the world. I think that’s definitely very much worth considering, especially given the emphasis in the story of Noah that his generations were perfect. As I said before, it wasn’t merely that he had walked with God—that he had perfected his own relationship with the divine, the transcendent. I want to make that concrete, which is a strange thing to do with the transcendent.
People ask me all the time about what I believe…Of course, that’s what I’m trying to explain while I’m talking…And many people, of course, are sceptical about the idea of anything transcendent and eternal. But that can also be addressed from a psychological perspective. I would say, well, if you have an ideal of any sort, how is that not transcendent? It transcends you. That’s the first thing, and it doesn’t exist in reality: it exists in a place of possibility. Believe me, man: we treat places of possibility as if they’re real. People will call on you about your possibility and potential. They’ll say to you, ‘you’re not manifesting your full potential.’ And you might say, ‘well, what do you mean by ‘potential?’ It doesn’t exist; it isn’t here, now; you can’t measure it or weigh it; you can’t get a grip on it.’ They’ll say, ‘don’t rationalize. You know perfectly well what I mean when I’m talking about your potential, and so does everyone.’ That’s a metaphysical reality that we’ll immediately accept as real, and castigate ourselves for not fulfilling—and others, too, because you’re just not happy when the people around you, especially if you love them, don’t fulfill their potential. You really feel that something has gone wrong. And so there’s a transcendent reality in potential. And then when you hypothesize an ideal that you might pursue—which you always do, if you pursue anything, right? To pursue something means that you don’t already have it. You’re pursuing something that doesn’t exist. You’re probably not pursing something that’s worse than what you already have, because why the hell would you pursue it? That’s completely counterproductive. In the mere fact of your pursuit, you posit a transcendent reality that you can journey towards, that’s more valuable than the reality you have now, that’s predicated, in some sense, on something like an eternal truth. It partakes in the ideal.
We have a relationship with the transcendent. You might say, ‘well, that doesn’t mean that you have to personify the transcendent, say, as Jehovah, God the Father.’ But there’s also some damn good reasons for doing that. One of the things that I’ve realized, thinking through this covenant idea, and also the sacrifice idea, is that the idea that the future is a judgemental father is a really, really good idea. You think about what the future is, in part: the future is however the natural world is going to lay itself out over the next endless amount of time. That isn’t what I mean. I think more about your future. Now, mostly your future is the future that you’re going to negotiate with other people. But there are going to be other people in the future, and some of those people are going to be you in the future, and family members in the future. And so what’s happening right now is that, if you make the sacrifices properly, you’re actually pleasing that future set of people, and that future set of people is definitely going to serve as a judge. That’s exactly what it does; that’s precisely what it does. You might say, ‘well, it was the brilliant imagination of mankind that hypothesized that the best way to think about the social group, including the family but also including you as your future self, was to consider that you live in relationship with a future father who’s a judge.’ It’s like, yes. That’s exactly right. Now, is it right, right, or is it psychologically right? Well, it’s at least psychologically right.
One of the things I’ve learned about the Biblical stories is that to say that they’re psychologically right doesn’t exhaust the ways in which they’re right. But it at least gives rational, modern people who are sceptical, and properly so, a better way of getting a grip on them.
"And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant." So it’s a serious, contractual relationship. I was thinking about how to understand this, and I remember this old story, which I’m going to read to you, about a monkey.
"There’s an old and possibly apocryphal story about how to catch a monkey that illustrates this set of ideas very well. First, so goes the story, you have to find a large, narrow-necked jar, just barely wide enough in diameter at the top for a monkey to put its hand inside. Then you have to fill the jar part way with rocks, so it is too heavy for a monkey to carry. Then you have to scatter some treats, attractive to monkeys, near the jar, to attract one, and put some more inside the jar." And so that’s the first part of the trick.
The second part of the trick is that a monkey comes along and gathers up the treats, and puts his hand in the jar, and grabs the treats that are in there. But it’s narrow-necked, so once the monkey puts its hand in there and grabs the goodies, then he can’t get his hand out of the damn jar. And so then you can just come along and pick up the monkey. And too bad for the monkey, right? He should have let go of what he had, so that something terrible didn’t happen to him. But that isn’t what the monkey will do, because he can’t sacrifice the part for the whole. There’s something about the circumcision story that’s about that: sacrificing the part to save the whole.
There’s an echo of that in the New Testament, if I remember correctly—I believe this is correct, although it might not be—where Christ tells his disciples to pluck out their eye if it offends them. It seems like a very dramatic piece of advice, but it’s partaking of the same idea, which is that, even if it’s dear to you, you have to let it go. You seriously have to let it go, because there isn’t anything more important than progressing forward. Cheap sympathy, cheap empathy, cheap nostalgia—none of that is sufficient. None of that will work. The consequences of not putting things together immediately are dire, and there’s no time to wait.
"And God said unto Abraham, As for Sarai thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be." Sarai means my princess, and Sarah means mother of nations. "And I will bless her, and give thee a son also of her: yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of people shall be of her. And Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old?" He’s got a lot of gall, I would say. I mean, here’s God, talking to him, and he laughs. But that’s ok. He’s a courageous guy, and that’s what people are like. "And shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear? And Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live before thee!
"And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation."
Now what does this mean? This is a miraculous story, in some sense. What Abraham wants most is to have a son, but it looks like it’s pretty much impossible. I think what the story is attempting to indicate is something like, God only knows what will happen to you if you put your house in order—certainly things that you do not currently regard as possible will happen. The more you put your house in order, the more things that you regard as impossible will happen. It might be the case that, if you put your house together sufficiently, things that were of miraculous impossibility would happen to you. There’s no way of knowing until you try it. But there’s no way of being sure that it’s not the case, unless you do try it.
My experience has been that—I don’t mean just personally. I mean that the world is a remarkable and mysterious place. The relationship between the nature and structure of the world and your actions is indeterminate. They may be more tightly related than you think. I don’t know how to square that with the fact that, well, you’re obviously in a mortal body and constrained by all sorts of serious constraints. None of that can be trivially overcome, and I don’t really understand how there can be that seriousness of mortal constraint and the infinite potential, that also seems to characterize human beings, all at the same time. But then, I don’t really understand anything about the nature of reality. So that’s just one more mystery to add to the pile.
"But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear unto thee at this set time in the next year. And he left off talking with him, and God went up from Abraham. And Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all that were born in his house, and all that were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house; and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the selfsame day, as God had said unto him." That must have been an interesting conversation. I mean, really. ‘This is what God told you to do, eh?’
"And Abraham was ninety years old and nine, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. In the selfsame day was Abraham circumcised, and Ishmael his son. And all the men of his house, born in the house, and bought with money of the stranger, were circumcised with him."
All right, so that’s the renewal of the covenant. That’s the next part of the story. That’s the circumcision story. As I said, it seems to indicate, to me, something about seriousness of intent—something about the responsibility that Abraham determines to take for everyone that’s part of his household, the increasing psychological transformation of the idea of sacrifice, the necessity of doing something memorable, and the utility of rekindling the aims of your highest values when you come to the end of an epoch in your life and have to take stock again. You take stock of yourself. That’s really what that phrase means: to take stock is to take stock of yourself and to decide, ok, what should move forward in time with me, and what should be let go as if it’s deadwood? The more deadwood that you let go of and burn off when you have the opportunity, the less it accretes around you.
Here’s something interesting about forest fires. People have been trying to prevent forest fires for a long time, especially that damn bear, Smokey. He’s trying to prevent forest fires, because forest fires burn up the forest, and that can’t be good. But here’s what happens if you don’t let forest fires burn: Forests collect a lot of dry branches, because tree branches die and what falls on the forest floor collects. The amount of flammable material keeps increasing with time. That’s not so bad if it’s wet, but if the amount of flammable material is increasing, and it gets really dry, and then it burns, then you have a real problem. The forest fire can burn so hot that it burns the topsoil right off, in which case you don’t have a forest at all anymore: you just have a desert. Lots of trees are evolved to withstand forest fires of a certain intensity, and some won’t even release their seeds unless there’s been a fire. And so a little bit of fire at the right time can stop everything from burning to the ground.
That’s also a really useful metaphorical insight into the nature of sacrifice. It’s also a lot easier to let go of something when you’re deciding to let go of it, because you’ve decided that you’re done with that. It’s a weak part of you, and it needs to disappear. You do that yourself. It’s much better and much easier than it is if it’s taken away from you forcibly, in which case you’re very much likely to fight it.
There’s another interesting thing, here—a motif that runs through the entire Bible. It’s a very, very powerful motif. It’s partly associated with this idea of walking with or before God. In the New Testament, Christ says something like, ‘thy Father’s will be done.’ He means that will should be done through him. I won’t state this exactly right, but it’s something like, a lot of what people regard as their own personalities, are proud of about their personalities, aren’t their own personalities, at all. They’re useless idiosyncrasies that differentiate them trivially from other people. They have no value in and of themselves. They’re more like quirks.
I remember, once, I was trying to teach a particularly stubborn student about how to write. She had written a number of essays in university and got universally walloped for them. The reason for that was that she couldn’t write—really, at all. She was really, really bad at writing. And so I was sitting down with her, trying to explain to her what she was doing wrong. She was being very annoying about it, very recalcitrant, very, very unwilling to listen. That was a pearls before swine thing. At one point she said, "I can write perfectly well. The university professors just don’t like my style," and I could feel my hands creep towards her neck. That’d be funny if it wasn’t true, but it was also true. I thought, ‘what the hell’s with you? You can’t even write, and you think you have a style?’ Not knowing how to write is not a style. That’s the other point. Instead of humbling herself, which was necessary and ok, because she was a new university student—of course you don’t know how to write. When were you going to learn? In school? I don’t think so. So she had this style issue, and it just didn’t go anywhere, at all, in terms of letting things burn off. So she was proud of her insufficiency. That’s arrogance. That’s not humility: it’s self-deception and arrogance, to be proud of your insufficiency. That’s a very foolish thing. That means to cling to the parts of you that are dead.
There’s this idea that runs through the Bible, I think, as a whole, that…Ok, I’ll tell you another little side story. I was reading about Socrates today, and I was reading about Socrates’ trial. He was tried by the Athenians for failing to worship the correct Gods, and for corrupting the youth of Athens by teaching them stuff and asking them questions, which is a great way to corrupt people. So he knew the trial was coming, and Athens wasn’t a very big place. It only had about 25,000 people. Everybody knew everybody, and everybody knew who the powerful guys were. Everybody, including Socrates, knew that the trial was a warning to get out of town. ‘We’re going to put you on trial in six months, and the potential penalty is death. Got that?’
So Socrates had a chat with his compatriots. They were contemplating fair means and foul to set up a defense for him, or to leave, so that he could not be tried and put to death. He decided that he wasn’t going to do that. He also decided that he wasn’t going to even think about his defense. He said why, and this is quite an interesting thing. He told one of his friends that he had this voice in his head—a daemon, a spirit, or something like that—that he always listened to, and that it was one of the reasons that he was different from other people. He always listened to this thing. It didn’t tell him what to do, but it told him what not to do. It always told him what not to do. And if it told him not to do something, then he didn’t do it. If he was speaking and the little voice came up and said, ‘no,’ then he shut up and tried to say something else.
He was very emphatic about this. He said that, when he tried to plan to evade the trial—or even to mount his own defense—the voice came up and said, ‘no, don’t bother with it.’ He thought, ‘what the hell do you mean by that? There’s a trial coming, and I’m going to be put to death.’ Well, he eventually concluded that he was an old guy. He was in his 70s, perhaps, and the next 10 years weren’t going to be that great for him. Maybe the Gods were giving him a chance to bow out, to put his affairs in order, to say goodbye to everyone, to avoid that last descent into catastrophe, which might have been particularly painful for a philosopher, and to walk off the world on his own terms. Something like that. The point I’m making with that is that Socrates attended to this internal voice, that at least told him what not to do, and then he didn’t do it. Of course, Socrates was a very remarkable man, and we still hear about him today. We know that he existed, and all of those things.
Back to the walking with God idea. You create a judge at the same time as you elevate your aim. The new ideal—which is an ideal you, even if it’s just an ideal position that you might occupy, even if it’s still conceptualized in that concrete way—becomes a judge, because it’s above you. You’re terrified of it, maybe. That’s why you might be afraid when you go start a new job, right? This thing is above you, and you’re terrified of it, and it judges you. That’s useful because the judge that you’re creating by formulating the ideal tells you what’s useless about yourself, and then you can dispense with it. You want to keep doing that, and then every time you make a judge that’s more elevated, then there’s more useless you that has to be dispensed with. And then, if you create an ultimate judge, which is what the archetypal imagination of humankind has done, say, with the figure of Christ—because if Christ is nothing else, he is at least the archetypal perfect man, and therefore the judge—you have a judge that says, ‘get rid of everything about yourself that isn’t perfect.’ Of course, that’s also what God tells Abraham. He says to be perfect—to pick an ideal that’s high enough. You can do this.
The thing that’s interesting about this, I think, is that you can do it more or less on your own terms. You have to have some collaboration from other people, but you don’t have to pick an external idea. You can pick an ideal that fulfills the role of idea for you: you can say, ‘ok, well, if things could be set up for me the way I need them to be, and if I could be who I needed to be, what would that look like?’ You can figure that out for yourself, and then, instantly, you have a judge. I also think that’s part of the reason that people don’t do it. Why don’t people look up and move ahead? The answer is, well, you start formulating an ideal, and you formulate a judge. It’s pretty easy to feel intimidated in the face of your own ideal. That’s what happens to Cain versus Abel, for example. Then it’s really easy to destroy the ideal instead of trying to pursue it, because then you get rid of the judge. But it’s way better to lower the damn judge if it’s too much. If your current ambition is crushing you, then maybe you’re playing the tyrant to yourself, and you should tap down the conditions—not get rid of them, by any stretch of imagination, but at least put them more reasonably within your grasp. You don’t have to leap from point one to point 50 in one leap, right? You can do it incrementally.
I really like this idea. I think it’s a profound idea—that the process of recapitulating yourself continually is also a phoenix-like process. You’re shedding all those elements of you that are no longer worthy of the pursuits that you’re valuing. And then I would say, the idea, here, is that as you do that, you shape yourself evermore precisely into something that can withstand the tragedy of life, and that can act as a beacon to the world. That’s the right way of thinking about it—maybe first to your friends, and then to your family. It’s a hell of a fine ambition, and there’s no reason that it can’t happen. Every one of you knows people who are really bloody useful in a crisis, and people that you admire, right? You could think of all those people that you admire as partial incarnations of the archetypal messiah. That’s exactly right. The more that manifests itself in any given person, then the more generally useful and admirable that person is in a multitude of situations. We don’t know the limit to that, but people can be unbelievably good for things. It’s really something to behold. So that’s what God tells Abraham.
The next story is about Abraham and these angels. Angels show up on his doorstep. This is part of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, but as I said, this story is generally read as if it’s about homosexuality, but I don’t think it is. I think it’s about two things, primarily: One is, how do you treat the strange? So the strange is strange things, strange ideas, strange people, and strangers. It’s all that. It’s that which is not you. It’s like the strange lands that God asked Abraham to move out into. How do you interact with the strange? Here’s one possible rule: you could say to yourself, ‘well, what do I want to make friends with more? Where do I want to be more comfortable? Do I want to be more comfortable with that which I already know?’ And so that would be the circumscribed territory that you’ve already mastered. ‘Or do I want to be comfortable with all of those things that I don’t know?’ The right answer is that you should want to be comfortable with all those things that you don’t know, because there’s a bloody lot of things that you don’t know. If you can be a sojourner among what you don’t know, well, then you’re so protected, because you’re going to go lots of places that you don’t know, and you’re going to be able to manage it. You want to be that person that can act where they don’t know.
What happens with Abraham is that he’s at home, and these angels show up. Now, we don’t know whether they’re angels or men, precisely, because, as this part of the story reads, "And the Lord appeared unto him in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day." So he’s in another visionary state, by all appearances. "And he lifted up his eyes and look, and, lo, three men stood by him."
There’s real ambivalence in the story about the men. Are there three men? Are there three angels? Are there two angels and God? It’s all mixed up in the story. We won’t clarify that; we’ll leave it ambiguous. I think the ambiguity’s important because you don’t know who the stranger is when you encounter him, and it depends on whether you’re thinking about it in the normative manner or if you’re thinking about it in a transcendent manner. With each person that you meet, well, they’re just a person. That’s one way of thinking about it. And then they’re the person that you know, or they’re the person as they choose to reveal themselves to you. People keep themselves shielded. But they’re also something of great metaphysical potential. You might say, ‘do I believe that?’ And I would say, ‘well, yes. You believe it because you expect a lot from people, generally speaking, and are not happy if they betray you.’ But more importantly, our entire culture is predicated on the idea that each person has an indefinite, intrinsic worth. I’m not talking about self-esteem. I’m talking about something like the implicit presupposition in our legal structure that, no matter who you are, even if you’re a condemned murderer, there’s something about you that’s of transcendent value, that has to be respected by the law and other people. You might say, ‘do I believe that?’ The answer to that is, well, you act it out, because you follow the law. It’s not an easy thing to pull out of the law. It’s kind of the idea that you have intrinsic, natural rights. You don’t pull that out of our law, man, without having the whole thing fall down.
I think the whole idea that you have intrinsic, natural rights is predicated on something like the Biblical hypothesis that human beings have a logos nature, that we are involved in the speaking forth of being, and that, as beings who are involved in the speaking forth of being, there’s something about us that has to be respected in relationship to ourselves, by ourselves in relationship to other people, but even more strangely, by ourselves in relationship even to vicious criminals. You can’t remove that transcendent element. To me, that’s also a miracle of conceptualization, because who the hell’s going to think that up, right? Even the most vicious of murderers has a touch of the transcendent that needs to be respected. Of all the ideas that are unlikely, that’s gotta top the list. Of course, without that, you have a very barbaric legal system, because no one is protected—as soon as you make a mistake, then you’re in the damned, and you have no rights, whatsoever. That isn’t what happens in the West, which is an absolutely amazing thing.
So anyways, Abraham is a master of the stranger. That’s one way of thinking about it. He knows what to do when strangers come along: he opens himself up to them. We know he’s not a naive guy. He’s no weakling. A couple of stories ago he took a big army, harassed a bunch of kings, and took his nephew back. He’s a tough guy. And so if strangers show up and he welcomes them, it’s not because he couldn’t do otherwise. He could certainly do otherwise. And it’s not that he isn’t aware of what people can be like; he’s perfectly aware of what people can be like. But he determines to take a particular attitude towards them, and that is to welcome them. Why would you do that? I think the answer to that is that you hold out your hand in trust to someone and you evoke the best from them, if that’s there to be given. So it’s an act of courage. It isn’t me meeting you, exactly. It’s more like the transcendent part of me making a gesture that allows the transcendent part of you to step forward. That happens all the time in normative discourse. You know this perfectly well. Sometimes you can have a real casual conversation with someone that just goes nowhere. It’s just shallow as can be. Or, now and then, you can actually make contact with someone, and you’re both enlightened and ennobled by the conversation. We would call that a deep conversation because we made a deep connection, whatever that means. Well, it certainly means that it’s not shallow. We’re not sure what these metaphors mean, but it means that it reaches deep inside of you. You make direct, person-to-person contact. Those sorts of conversations are replenishing. That’s the right way to think about it. They genuinely are, and I think that’s because they provide you with that bread that’s not material bread. That’s the information that you need to thrive and put yourself together.
So it does matter how you meet someone, and it does matter how you treat them when you first meet them. It’s amazing—I’ve learned to do this, at least in part, partly because I’m a clinical psychologist. I’ve learned how to talk to people very rapidly, and I have the most amazing adventures with people in cabs and when I travel, because I’ll talk to them directly, right away. They’ll tell me the wildest stories and show me the craziest things because I’m actually interested in what they have to say, and I’m not afraid…Well, I’m somewhat afraid, but I’m not sufficiently afraid to have that stop me. I’m acting on the presupposition that the person has something of great interest to reveal. That’s a very useful thing to know, too, because one of the things that’s really cool about people—and you really learn this as a clinical psychologist—is that, if you get people talking, they’re so damn interesting that you could hardly stand it. They have these idiosyncratic experiences that are only theirs, personally. No one else could tell the story, and that’s the kind of story that you want to hear. When they tell you those stories, you learn something you didn’t know. And so what that means is that you can treat the landscape of strangers as an endless vista of places to learn things you didn’t know. If you know enough so that you’re satisfied with your life, and everything has ceased to be a tragedy around you, well, then you can be comfortable in your circumscribed domain of totalitarian knowledge, let’s say. But if your life is insufficient, and you’re suffering more than you want to, and everything isn’t what it should be, then you need to look where you haven’t looked for what you don’t have. And then you can look outside, beyond you, and make friends with what you don’t understand.
That’s a huge part of what this story’s about. What happens is that Abraham welcomes the men, God, angels, and treats them very well, and reaps a tremendous benefit as a consequence. Then the story reverses and we end up in Sodom and Gomorrah, where the same angels sojourn. They’re treated terribly, and all hell breaks loose. So that’s what the story’s about. Now, there’s a sexual impropriety thing going on that I’m also going to delve into, but I don’t think that’s the critical issue in the story. The critical issue in the story is, how do you act in the face of the stranger? There’s a statement in the New Testament: Christ says something like, ‘when you do something to the least of people, you do it to me.’ That’s a very difficult statement to understand, too. It’s something reminiscent of the requirement to keep the idea of the transcendent reality of the person in mind at the same time you keep their proximal reality in mind—to have your mind in two places at the same time when you’re talking to people.
I learned from a friend of mine in Montreal, who’s very socially sophisticated, in some ways. I always liked going shopping with him. Whenever he went into a store, the first thing he would do is have an interaction with the clerk. He wouldn’t have an interaction with the role of the clerk. He’d look at the person, sort of take stock of the fact that they were there, and then ask them something genuine about their job or their store, or how they were doing—go into a conversation right away. He didn’t get personal about it, because that can be intrusive. You have to be very sophisticated to do this. He did indicate to the person that he was there, at least in part, for the good that could be done between them. It’s something like that. And then the person would be ridiculously helpful. If people mistreat you—you see this with antisocial kids. It’s a very tragic thing to see, because if you’re an antisocial child by the time you’re about four, you’re very hostile and distrustful to people. So you’re like a growling puppy. If you’re a growling puppy, you tend not to get petted. You’re more likely to get kicked. And if you’re a growling puppy and you get kicked, you have even more reason to growl. That’s sort of the story of antisocial kids: if they’re not well socialized by the time they’re four and they’re more on the aggressive side, then they alienate themselves from the community, and all they get is rejection. Then they look at the rejection and think, ‘to hell with humanity.’ And no wonder they think that. Part of the catastrophe is that they get what they evoke. I’m not saying it’s their fault, precisely, but it doesn’t matter. That’s still what happens. And so you might ask yourself, if you’re not getting from people what you need, there is some possibility that you’re not approaching—especially if this happens to you repeatedly across people. This is a virtual certainty: if it happens to you repeatedly across people, especially if you have the same bad experience with people, it’s not them: it’s you. I would say three is the limit. If something happens to you once, you write it off. If it happens to you twice, you open your eyes, but you write it off. But if it happens to you three times, it’s probably you, or it’s the rest of the world. Better it’s you, because you’re not going to change the rest of the world.
"And he lifted up his eyes and look, and, lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground, and said, My Lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant: Let a little water, I pray you, be fetched, and wash your feet"—take your dust from your feet, extract yourself out from your journey, and sit.
"And I will fetch a morsel of bread, and comfort ye your hearts; after that ye shall pass on: for therefore are ye come to your servant. And they said, So do, as thou hast said. And Abraham hastened into the tent unto Sarah, and said, Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes upon the hearth." Powerful call to hospitality, here. "And Abraham ran unto the herd, and fetcht a calf tender and good, and gave it unto a young man; and he hasted to dress it. And he took butter, and milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree, and they did eat."
Some commentary from Hebrews 13:2: "Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares." This is a commentary from Matthew Henry, who’s a nonconformist minister and author. "Cheerful and obliging manners in showing kindness, are great ornaments to piety." This is from Revelations 3:20: "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, an open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me."
The hyperlinked nature of those quotes is quite obvious. There’s 10 or 15 things being said at the same time, right? One is a reference to the idea that, if you ask for something, it will be given to you. It’s a very strange idea, but I like that idea a lot. In my experience, that has been true, if it was that I wanted what I was asking for, because that’s the real issue. The question is, if you want something, what does it mean to want it? What it means is to sacrifice whatever is necessary to get it. Otherwise, you don’t want it. And so there’s an equation, here. I’m not claiming its ultimate accuracy, but the equation is something like, you don’t want it unless you’re willing to sacrifice for it. And if you don’t want it, you’re not going to get it, because you’re scattered. But if you do want it, and you make the proper sacrifices, then God only knows what might happen.
One of the things I really like about the existential philosophers is their emphasis on personal responsibility. Many of them had an emphasis on the role that people had in shaping their own destiny. For the existentialists—and I think this was a consequence of the religious substructure of philosophical thinking—it was self-evident that life was tragic and bitter. And fair enough, but that isn’t where it ended. The next issue was, well, there are better and worse ways of dealing with that. The better way of dealing with the fact that life is tragic and bitter is to posit the self you could be and live authentically in relationship to that. And then the next issue—this is something Kierkegaard talked about, particularly when he talked about the necessity of being a knight of faith—is that…I think this is the part of life that’s the intractable adventure. No one can take the adventure of life away from you. They can’t do it with good advice, for example, because no one can demonstrate to you that, if you straighten yourself out, aim at what you want and make the proper sacrifices, that your life will turn out in the manner that you might want it to turn out. It isn’t in anyone else’s purview to make that judgement. The only person that can possibly figure that out is you. It’s something that can’t be stolen from you. I would say it’s your destiny. You can forgo it. You could say, ‘well, I’m not willing to put in the effort, because what if I fail?’ Well, first of all, if you don’t put in the effort, you will fail, because life is hard and it takes everything out of you to do it properly. So you will fail. And if you make the proper sacrifices, you might fail. That’s why I like the ambiguity in the story of Cain and Abel: we’re never really told why God rejects Cain’s offering. There’s hints that Cain, maybe, isn’t doing as good a job as he should, and he certainly gets bitter about it, but there’s no smoking pistol. It doesn’t say, ‘well, Cain is a bad guy, and he made terrible sacrifices, so God rejected him.’ You never know. Cain might have been working pretty damn hard, and things still didn’t work out for him. I think that ambiguity is appropriate in the story because that ambiguity is in life. You’d be a fool to say that everything always works out for everyone if they just do things right. I think that’s a very careless thing to say, given how much tragedy and catastrophe there is in the world, and how much of it seems to be undeserved. But that still has very little bearing, I think, on your own individual adventure and the necessity for opening the door to who you could be, and the necessity to do that seriously.
I think the reason why this most impossible of verses, "knock and the door will open," is believable is because I have never met anyone who couldn’t hypothesize a better them in some manner. All they had to do was ask. It’s like, well, how could you be better? It’s no problem, right? You can think about that in no time flat—maybe in small ways, but you can almost always at least think of something stupid that you’re doing that you could quit. And so that means that you do have this—it’s a strange thing in people that we have this built-in capacity to posit a higher self and then move towards it. Maybe that’s part of where the religious instinct really came from, speaking really reductionistically, as a materialist, as an evolutionary psychologist. We have this notion of the transcendent ideal that seems to be pervasive across cultures. Maybe that’s the ultimate manifestation of the human proclivity to be able to posit an ideal, at all, and to move forward.
You posit an ideal. Ok. You need that to move forward. Well, if you can posit an ideal, why can’t you posit the ultimate ideal? Well, if you can, then, instantly, you’ve got a religious sensibility. I’m puzzled as a biologist: what the hell’s the basis of the religious instinct? The idea that it’s mere superstition…We can just dispense with that. That’s wrong. It’s a human universal, and you can evoke religious experiences in all sorts of ways. So we’re not going to play that game. There’s some reason why that instinct exists. The first thing to do is to try to reduce it to something that’s biological, and leave it at that, and not to mess with the metaphysics. But it certainly could be the case that it’s the ultimate extension of our capacity to posit an ideal. We also might say, well, that’s good enough. The ideal moves you forward; it fills your life with meaning. There’s no doubt about that, because it is in the movement towards your ideal that life’s meaning is to be attained. And then the question is, well, how much meaning is there in moving towards an ultimate ideal? Well, more meaning, even if it’s more difficult. How much? Well, that’s the open question.
"Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me." That’s a pretty good deal. "And the angels said unto him, Where is Sarah thy wife? And he said, Behold, in the tent. And he said, I will certainly return unto thee according to the time of life; and, lo, Sarah thy wife shall have a son. And Sarah heard it in the tent door, which was behind him.
"Now Abraham and Sarah were old and well stricken in age; and it ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. Therefore Sarah laughed with herself, saying, After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?" She’s kind of sceptical about the whole angel, man, God, having a child at 100 thing. And rightly so.
"And the Lord said unto Abraham, Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying, Shall I of a surety bear a child, which I am old? Is any thing too hard for the Lord? At the time appointed I will return unto thee, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son. Then Sarah denied, saying, I laughed not; for she was afraid. And he said, Nay; but thou didst laugh. And the men rose up from thence, and looked toward Sodom: and Abraham went with them to bring them on the way."
I’m going to make a small detour and talk to you about potential, again. I really thought about it a lot. I think music speaks of potential. I think music speaks of potential bursting forward, and that’s why it’s so deeply meaningful. It’s this continual pattern revelation of the next wonderful thing that might happen. It’s something like that. So there’s that, and people find that deeply meaningful. And then there’s the idea that we all have potential that isn’t realized, but that we regard that potential, even though it’s not realized, as real, which I can’t get my head around, at all. It just doesn’t make sense, although everyone acts that way, and everyone believes it. What you act reflects what you believe, and you make judgements about yourself and others based on those beliefs. They’re deep judgements. I think it’s undeniable that you believe that there is such a thing as human potential. If you act at all, if you expect things of people at all, then you’re demonstrating your commitment to the ideal of potential. But I wonder if there’s something even deeper going on, because we, modern people, are very materialistic. There’s great power in that, obviously. For better or for worse, we’ve obtained great control over the material world. But we do have a tendency to think of the world purely as a material structure. It isn’t really obvious to me that the world is exactly a material structure. It seems to be something more like constrained potential.
Everything is a certain way, but everything that is a certain way could be a multitude of other ways, in almost an infinite multitude of other ways. The degree to which something that is could be a multitude of other ways is dependent in large part on how you interact with it. Even with materials that we’re very familiar with, we continue to discover new properties and put them to use. Things are compacted into their material form, but that doesn’t exhaust what they are, especially not in relationship to other things. It seems to me, even if you can’t replace the materialist perspective with the perspective that it’s better to construe being as if it’s made of possibility, rather than the world as if it’s made of matter, it’s at least useful to have that as an additional viewpoint. You could say, ‘well, the material philosophy is very useful as a tool for obtaining certain sorts of benefits,’ which it clearly is. But then this more metaphysical perspective, which I think is more accurate in some ways, that the world is a place of potential, is also an extraordinary useful way to approach the world. It’s practically useful.
We talked last week a little bit about doing something as simple as trying to organize a room. It’s by no means obvious how much potential there is in a room. There’s a very large amount of potential in any given room—a tremendous amount of potential, especially if it’s connected with people…Maybe an inexhaustible amount of potential, and maybe there’s an inexhaustible amount of potential, everywhere, that we just don’t know to get access to. It’s certainly true, to some degree: we don’t know how to get access to all the potential of our children, for example, or ourselves, or our loved ones, or the people that we know. So I think this story is trying to hammer that idea home, too: don’t be so sure that it’s impossible, or, maybe, don’t let the assumption that it’s impossible stop you from going forth into the world. That’s like an inoculation against nihilism.
For a long time, I understood nihilism very well. I could understand its rationale, associated with the tragedy of life, associated with suffering and evil, associated with an observation of finitude and the arbitrary and unjust nature of the world. But the more I’ve thought about it, the less I’ve come to believe that there’s any excuse for it, whatsoever. I think the reason for that is that it forestalls effort. It forestalls the ability to discover for yourself. Maybe there’s no reason to be so goddamn hopeless, except that it’s easier to be useless. Now, believe me, I’m not saying that’s what’s besetting people who are clinically depressed, for example. That’s not my point. Clinical depression is a terrible thing. There’s lots of reasons to be tossed into a catastrophic condition. That isn’t what I mean. I mean that kind of cynical, arrogant, rational, hyper-intelligent nihilism that throws the world away as if it’s of little use before it’s been properly engaged with. Better to engage with it and see what happens—and better to make the assumption that, if the world isn’t returning to you what it is that you need, then either you’re not doing it right or you’ve conceptualized what you need badly. Why not at least open yourself up to that possibility? Because you could be wrong. This is a great thing to know: hopefully, if you’re suffering, you’re wrong, because if you’re suffering and you’re right, then there’s nowhere to go. So it’s very useful to find out whatever errors you might be committing.
Another thing that’s really interesting about the Jews in the Old Testament—it’s a remarkable thing. Every single time they get flattened by God, it’s always their fault. They never say, ‘the world that God created is corrupt, and God is evil.’ They never say that, no matter what catastrophe occurs. When they have every reason to at least put that hypothesis forward, they don’t. They say, ‘we erred; we walked off the path. It’s our fault.’ That’s hard, you know? It puts all the weight of human catastrophe on the human being. That’s very hard. But the upside is that it gives you the control. It opens up a possibility that you could be the person that could set it right, if you would just let go of what’s in your way, whatever that is.
"And the men rose up from thence, and looked toward Sodom: and Abraham went with them to bring them on the way. And the Lord said, Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I do; Seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?" I guess God is talking to himself, here. Or maybe he’s talking to the angels. But I think he’s trying to make a decision.
"For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgement; that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him. And the Lord said, Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous; I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me; and if not, I will know."
Well, we don’t know what’s happened in Sodom and Gomorrah, but we know that God’s got wind of it, and that that’s not good. We know that sin mean to miss the mark, and so we know that whatever’s happened in Sodom and Gomorrah means that something about the natural, ethical order of things has been seriously violated. There’s a strong intimation in the Old Testament—which I think, by the way, is completely correct—that, if the proper order of being is violated, and that’s something like the balance of chaos of order, then all hell will break loose. One of the things I can tell you from reading a very comprehensive set of myths from around the world is that that’s a conclusion that human beings have come to everywhere: stay on the goddamn path, and be careful, because if you start to mess around, and you deviate—especially if you know that you’re deviating—things are not going to go well for you. That idea is everywhere. I think the idea is right because there aren’t that many ways of doing things right, and there’s a lot of ways of doing things wrong. If you do things wrong, the consequences of doing them wrong can be truly catastrophic.
One of the things I learned from reading Viktor Frankl, first, but then Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, which I think did a deeper job, and Václav Havel thought the same thing…These people were very much trying to understand places like Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago is a particularly good analysis of what happened in the Soviet Union. His conclusion—and it’s a 2,100 page conclusion, and it’s hammered home with a hammer. It’s a book that everyone should read, assuming that you can read a 2,100 scream, because that’s basically what it is. First of all, what he does is document just how terrible things were in the Soviet Union between 1919 and 1959. No matter how terrible you think they were, unless you know the stories, they were a lot more terrible than that. They were terrible personally because everyone lied. They were terrible in families because two out of five people were government informers. They were terrible among friends because no one could tell each other the truth. They were terrible socially because the whole system was corrupt and reliant on slave labour. They were terrible philosophically because the doctrine of man upon which the state was founded was hopeless and nihilistic. They were murderous, destructive, and genocidal. They got it wrong at every single level of analysis, simultaneously. The question is, why? Solzhenitsyn’s answer, and to some degree Viktor Frankl and Václav Havel’s—and, I would say, Nelson Mandela and Gandhi’s…They all ended up in the same conceptual sphere. The answer was, because individual people lived crooked lives—because individual people swallowed lies and spoke them, and didn’t stand up for the truth. The corruption that spread from each individual pulled the entire state mechanism into that corruption, and it made everything into hell.
There are other theories. Obedience, right? That’s kind of the Milgram idea, that it’s easy to make human beings obedient to people and authority. I’ve explored that idea quite a bit with regards to what happened, for example, in the Nazi concentration camps. Yes, you can set circumstances up so that people are likely to be obedient to orders that are pathological. There’s no doubt about that. And yes, sometimes that’s indicative of the weakness of their character, but that’s not the issue. The idea that what happened in Nazi Germany was because a population of good people listened to a tiny minority of bad people is really not a good theory. The Nazi ethos was there at every single level of the social organization, right from the familial, all the way up to the leadership. It was the same thing, all the way up and all the way down. It was the same in the Soviet Union.
So if you miss the mark, which is apparently what the people of Sodom and Gomorrah did—their sin was grievous—then you risk destruction. I just cannot see how, after the 20th century, anyone with any sense could possibly not see that as true. There’s a line in the Old Testament: ‘the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.’ I can tell you, one of the things that frightened me badly was the realization—from reading Solzhenitsyn, Dostoevsky and a variety of other things that I was reading at the same time…Dostoevsky said that a human being is not only responsible for everything they do, but for everything that everyone else does. Now that’s crazy, and he was an epileptic and a mystic, and that’s a crazy thing to say. But there’s something about it that’s true, because if you were better, the people around you would be less worse than they are. And if you were good enough, you don’t know how much better the people around you would be.
So there’s this idea, too, that Christ took the sins of the world unto himself. That’s a complicated idea, man. I wrestled with that one for a very long time, but I figured out, at least in part, what it means. It’s something like the realization of complete humanity. To take the sins of the world unto yourself is to understand the Nazi concentration camp guard, because that person is human, and so are you. So if you can’t see you in that, then you don’t know who you are. And if you can see you in that, well, then you’ve started to take the sins of the world unto yourself, because you’ve actually started to take responsibility for those terrible things. I think it’s the motto of the holocaust museum in Washington: ‘we must never forget.’ That’s close. You can’t remember what you don’t understand. You will forget what you don’t understand. The question is, well, what are you supposed to remember about the holocaust? That it was a historical event? That six million people died? That’s not what’s to remember. What’s to remember is that that’s what people can do, and you’re one of them. And if you don’t understand that you could do that, then you don’t know who you are.
So God’s making a case, here. He’s making a case that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah have sinned and are making a large racket that even God has heard about. That’s a very common mythological motif, by the way: the sins and noise of humanity can reach such a clamour that even the gods hear it and are forced to intervene. That comes all the way from the Mesopotamian creation story. So anyways, it’s logical. ‘Yeah, they’re sinning. So what?’ No, not ‘so what.’ It means that God’s offended, and that everything is at risk. That’s what it means. That’s something worth taking seriously.
"And the men turned their faces from thence, and went toward Sodom: but Abraham stood yet before the Lord. And Abraham drew near, and said, Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked?"
This is a very interesting part of the story. A friend of mine took me to task the other day when I was writing about portraying the Old Testament God as pretty harsh and judgemental and the New Testament God as sort of all loving, which he isn’t, because there’s the whole Book of Revelations thing. But I got that partly from reading Northrop Frye. But going through the Old Testament in more detail, I realized that is a too low resolution interpretation, and that God, who’s dispensing a fair bit of harsh justice in the Old Testament, is also someone who can be negotiated with, weirdly enough. That’s what happens, here. Abraham has just been told that whatever’s going on in Sodom and Gomorrah is seriously not good, and that God’s going to do something about it. He takes it upon himself—this is an act of mercy—to ask God to be a bit more judicious. It’s like, ‘ok, you’re going to wipe out the city? Well, bad things are happening there, but there’s probably a few people in the damn city that aren’t completely corrupted by what’s going on there.’ Of course, that’s an open question. It’s an open question, for example, how many people there were in Nazi Germany who weren’t completely corrupted by what was going on in Nazi Germany, and the same thing could be said about Maoist China, and the same thing could be said about the Soviet Union. It’s like, well, perhaps there was a person, somewhere, who didn’t understand, at some level, what was happening. But the whole issue of willful blindness certainly springs to mind, if nothing else.
Anyways, Abraham decides to intercede with God on behalf of these people who are going to be destroyed. He says, "wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Perhaps there be fifty righteous within the city: wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein? That be far from thee to do after this manner"—he’s kind of reminding God that he’s a good guy, as far as I can tell—"to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" God seems a bit taken aback, to me. "And the Lord said, If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes. And Abraham answered and said, Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which I am but dust and ashes.
"Perhaps there shall lack five of the fifty righteous: wilt thou destroy all the city for lack of five? And God said, If I find there forty and five, I will not destroy it. And Abraham spake unto him yet again, and said"—he’s kind of sneaking up on God, here—"Perhaps there shall be forty found there. And God said, I will not do it for forty’s sake. And Abraham said unto him, Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak: Perhaps there shall be thirty found there. And God said, I will not do it, if I find thirty there. And Abraham"—who really seems to be pushing his luck, at this point—"said, Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord: perhaps there shall be twenty found there. And God said, I will not destroy it for twenty’s sake. And Abraham said, Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak yet but this once: Perhaps ten shall be found there. And he said, I will not destroy it for ten’s sake. And the Lord went his way, as soon as he had left communing with Abraham: and Abraham returned unto his place."
There’s three ways you can read that part of the story. One is that you can bargain with God, even if you’re kind of annoying about it. So that’s interesting. The second is that, even if there’s a minority of good in a place that isn’t good, it won’t be slated for destruction. That’s kind of a good thing. And the third is, a minority of good in a place can keep it from being destroyed. That’s a really good thing, too. I believe that, as well. I think that good is more powerful than evil. Naivety isn’t, but I think that good is. I think that in a place that’s corrupt, a minority of people who stand forth against the corruption can prevail. I think one of the best examples of that, again, was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He was in the terrible work camps when he wrote his book. He memorized most of it, which is not an easy thing to do when it’s 2,100 pages long and set in very tiny font. He memorized most of it, and then he wrote it. It was one of the things that brought down the Soviet Union. It was published in the 1970s, first of all in the West. The first thing that happened, at least initially, was that Communism, as an ethic system, lost absolutely all credibility among anyone who was even vaguely educated, immediately upon the publication of the Gulag Archipelago. He pulled the moral slats out from underneath it. The book was definitely one of the reasons—there were many, but it was definitely one of the reasons—why the rotten system crumbled and fell without a war. That’s a great example of how one person can take on a tyranny and prevail. And he’s not the only person who did that sort of thing. Gandhi did the same thing. I mean, I don’t think the English were the Russians, but things were not so good in India. What Gandhi did in India—under the influence, by the way, of Leo Tolstoy—was also a remarkable example of a single person intervening in a catastrophe and setting it far more right than it could be.
"And there came two angels to Sodom at even; and Lot"—Lot is Abraham’s nephew—"sat in the gate of Sodom: and Lot seeing them rose up to meet them; and he bowed himself with his face toward the ground; And he said, Behold now, my lords, turn in, I pray you, into your servant’s house, and tarry all night, and wash your feet, and ye shall rise up early, and go on your ways. And they said, Nay; but we will abide in the street all night." Abraham’s nephew is acting in exactly the manner that Abraham does: he shows hospitality to these people. And they said, ‘no, no. We’ll stay in the street all night.’
"And he pressed upon them greatly; and they turned in unto him, and entered into his house; and he made them a feast, and did bake unleavened bread, and they did eat. But before they lay down, the men of the city, even the men of Sodom, compassed the house round, both old and young, all the people from every quarter: And they called unto Lot, and said unto him, Where are the men which came in to thee this night? bring them out unto us, that we may know them."
That’s the part of the story that’s been used as a diatribe, let’s say, against homosexuality, because ‘to know’ is to engage in sexual intercourse. The inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah were willing to tear the strangers out of Lot’s house and use them and abuse them as they saw fit. So what are they doing? Well, they’re violating the principles that govern appropriate conduct with the stranger. And maybe the stranger is something you shouldn’t mess with, because you don’t know who you’re messing with. So that’s warning number one. They’re violating the essential principles of hospitality. The sexual thing is something more like the absolute danger of immediate gratification, sexual included, outside the constraints of any civilized structure. That’s as uncivilized behaviour as you could possibly hope for: strangers come into your city; they’re in the house of someone who’s part of your city; they’re being shown hospitality; a mob shows up and says, ‘fork ‘em over, man. We’re going to do whatever the hell we want to them, and it’s not gonna be good. And if you get in the way, things are going to go even worse for you.’ So that’s what it seems to be. It’s completely unregulated behaviour. It’s behaviour that’s outside the confines of any civilized structure. It’s an indication that the social structure of the entire society has collapsed, so that there’s nothing left for the inhabitants to do except to engage in the most brutal of immediate gratification and destruction. Well, so what does Lot do?
"…I pray thee, brethren, do not do so wickedly. Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof."
It’s hard to know what to make of that. It doesn’t exactly seem like the advisable thing for Lot to do. But I think it is, at least, an indication of the degree to which he took the solemn vow of hospitality seriously. I think that’s the idea that the story is trying to promote.
"And the men said, Stand back. And they said again, This one fellow came in to sojourn, and he will needs be a judge: now will we deal worse with thee, than with them. And they pressed sore upon the man, even Lot, and came near to break the door." Maybe Lot’s thought was something like, ‘well, we’re done, and perhaps I can spare some of us.’
"And they pressed sore upon the man, even Lot, and came near to break the door. But the angels put forth their hand, and pulled Lot into the house to them, and shut to the door. And they smote the men that were at the door of the house with blindness, both small and great: so that they wearied themselves to find the door." So they were so corrupt that they were blind and could not see now, even to find the door.
"And the angels said unto Lot, Hast thou here any family members? son in law, and they sons, and thy daughters, and whatsoever thou hast in the city, bring them out of this place: For we will destroy this place, because the cry of them is waxen great before the face of the Lord; and the Lord hath sent us to destroy it. And Lot went out, and spake unto his sons in law, which married his daughters, and said, Up, get you out of this place; for the Lord will destroy this city. But he seemed as one that mocked unto his sons in law.
"And when the morning arose, then the angels hastened Lot, saying, Arise, take thy wife, and thy two daughters, which are here; lest thou be consumed in the iniquity of the city. And while he lingered, the men laid hold upon his hand, and upon the hand of his wife, and upon the hand of his two daughters; the Lord being merciful unto them: and they brought them forth, and set him without the city."
So this is an indication of not acting with appropriate haste when the time has come. Lot’s already seen what’s happened: he’s seen that the men came to his door; he’s seen that they were murderous rapists; he saw that the angels took them out, and he’s still hesitant to leave that place. I guess one of the things that this story requires people to ask themselves is, are you in a place that’s so bad that you should leave? When are you in a place that’s so bad that you should leave? And if you are in a place that’s so bad that you should leave, then the time to leave is now, because there’s no time to waste.
"And it came to pass, when they had brought them forth abroad, that he said, Escape for thy life; look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the plain; escape to the mountain, lest thou be consumed. And Lot said unto them, Oh, not so, my Lord: Behold now, thy servant hath found grace in thy sight, and thou hast magnified thy mercy, which thou hast shewed unto me in saving my life; and I cannot escape to the mountain, lest some evil take me, and I die: Behold now, this city is near to flee unto, and it is a little one"—which means, maybe it’s not big and corrupt, like Sodom and Gomorrah—"Oh, let me escape thither, (is it not a little one?) and my soul shall live." Matthew Henry said, "Lot lingered; he trifled. Thus many who are under convictions about their spiritual state, and the necessity of a change, defer that needful work."
"And he said unto him, See, I have accepted thee concerning this thing also, that I will not overthrow this city, for the which thou hast spoken. Haste thee, escape thither; for I cannot do anything till thou be come thither. Therefore the name of the city was called Zoar. The sun was risen upon the earth when Lot entered Zoar. Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven; And he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground. But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt."
No nostalgia for catastrophe. I think that’s what that means: when you leave what’s not good, you wash the dust off your feet, and you don’t look back. That’s a very harsh lesson. The idea of necessity for immediate action is echoed a bit in the New Testament. These are some of the harsher words that Christ said. This is from Matthew 8. Christ is addressing a multitude and asking people to follow him. A disciple comes up to him and says, "Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father." It seems like a perfectly reasonable request. "But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead."
This is from Matthew 12: "While he yet talked to the people, behold, his mother and his brethren stood without, desiring to speak with him. Then one said unto him, Behold