Why Brother Rooney is Wrong About Abraham, Isaac, and Biblical Exegesis
This is part of an ongoing series about Br. John Dominic Rooney’s theological mistakes, as he attempts to explain why patristic universalism is a heresy. The previous articles address the ways in which he treats God as unfree with respect to Creation, his radical fideism that replaces Christian hope with a blind and irrational stoicism, and his Pelagianism (a problem which might characterize his own position, or might only be an unfortunate tendency that he rejects on closer inspection).
Here, I’ll address the ways in which he abuses sacred scripture to support his blind and irrational stoicism, ultimately ending up in a position that would very easily result in supporting child sacrifice and moloch worship. In this, we’ve started to come full circle: since the first article, I have been warning that his approach to theology is ultimately a risk from a child protection standpoint. Here, he is literally illustrating how this warped theology brings him to the point that he all but literally endorses sacrificing children to God.
In the wake of the priestly pedophilia crisis, especially, this should be taken as a warning about trusting your children around people who think this way. As Catholics, we urgently need to root out the kind of theology that helps enable abuse by providing a ready rationale for it. If this sort of urgency around the problems with Br. Rooney’s theology seems unwarranted and unfair, please keep in mind that he is charging others with heresy and trying desperately to exclude them from the church while threatening them with endless torment for failing to buckle under in the face of his poorly-formed arguments. The targets of his rhetorical maximalism include, for example, a member of the faculty at Notre Dame. Is it unfair to respond in ways that are ultimately far more gentle? As soon as he chose to make the stakes of the conversation a matter of heresy and hell, he opened the door to the most urgent and extreme sort of theological conflict possible.
So I think that it is not only fair, but important, to make it clear that we face a basic theological test in these discussions.
The test that his most recent arguments force on us is this:
Will you follow the sort of god who can ‘rightly’ command us to sacrifice our children and then demand that we fulfill such a command, as Br. Rooney apparently understands god, or should we follow the God revealed in the whole narrative of Scripture, including the whole narrative of the Binding of Isaac?
Brother Rooney has been posting about the Akedah/Binding of Isaac quite a bit, but the crux of the matter is this. He is trying to justify his radical fideism from Scripture by appealing to the beginning of the Akedah. This tweet is representative:
Abraham is required to do something that it appears God has no good reason for commanding. He is not told the way in which God *will* make redeemable or repairable the horrible suffering that would ensue. Abraham only knows what God could do and that God is good, and he trusts.
To be clear, he is talking about this because he is trying to find some kind of way to rationalize an infinitely worse evil than murdering your own child for a god: he wants to say that you should also be willing to look on a god who endlessly torments your child and say in faith and ‘hope’ that this, too, is perfect. And then act accordingly.
To help illustrate the issue, let’s imagine a world where Genesis 22:1–19 went like this. This would be a world in which Br. Rooney’s whole reading and application were excellent ones:
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2 He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” 3 So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. 5 Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” 6 Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. 7 Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” 8 Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.
9 When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. 11 But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12 He said, “Know that your child will not only die today, but will find himself forever in the valley of Ben-hinnom. There the worms will consume him in conscious agony for all time, and the fire of the LORD will lap against his flesh without end and without mercy.” 13 And Abraham looked up and saw that his God was good even in this, for his faith was true. Abraham took the child and rent bone from bone and spirit from flesh, tearless and resolute among the ripping. 14 So Abraham called that place “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”
15 The angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven, 16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the LORD: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, 18 and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.” 19 So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham lived at Beer-sheba.
Thank God this is not the Scripture we have.
The point, precisely, is that you have to read a story to the end to understand its point. Textual critics may wonder, understandably, if some ancient tradition once held a text more like this one. What we know is that we are the heirs to a canon that is not like this. And so instead of endorsing the soul-destroying cruelty of the molochs in Ben-hinnom where the gods may well have demanded child sacrifice, we instead have a text that opposes those traditions. Through the power of a narrative twist, the story as a whole makes it perfectly clear that the God of Scripture is not like the molochs of Ben-hinnom. I explore this motif in the context of the broad narrative of Scripture and how it relates to references to Ben-Hinnom in Matthew in greater depth here and here.
However, the basic message is simple enough for a Sunday school lesson (something I teach regularly), even if it leaves Br. Rooney’s approach far behind. God doesn’t want us to sacrifice our children, either to God, or to some fel god, or to a pedophile priest. God does want our faithfulness, because if we continue to hear and heed God we will follow through the story to the end and understand that it condemns child sacrifice. In this way, it decisively closes the door on the idea that faith in the true God is like faith to the chthonic deities: the God revealed in Scripture is decisively different from them, in terms of what that loyalty looks like.
As with Br. Rooney’s previous thoughts on voluntarist freedom, it isn’t that his partial claims are wrong, per se. Yes, warranted trust in God even without perfect information is good. Yes, choice is a necessary but not sufficient condition of freedom. The problems arise when we twistlessly move from these valid partial points, and try to apply them to the whole as if the Binding of Isaac had no narrative turn: without internalizing the narrative twist we cannot understand the whole of the Akedah, or the whole of sacred scripture, let alone generalize to the whole of time in Christian theology (which is what any theology of hell must address).
Br. Rooney is attempting to move from part to whole, from flesh to soul, but in a way that remains too fleshy and too partial. As a result, he falls far short of an integrated spiritual and soulful reading of the text, of his interlocutors, and of our relationship with God.
The question for Br. Rooney is this:
Would his theology change in any way at all if our alternative version of Genesis, the one where Abraham consigns Isaac to endless torment, were the canonical one?
His particular claims might remain unchanged, but the whole would be utterly transformed. The issue is that we would clearly see him endorsing the endless nightmare that he is condemning people like Hart for ‘failing’ to endorse. As it is, he is simply extracting an element of the narrative from the whole in a way that implicitly reverses the narrative’s reversal.
It seems reasonably clear to me that this alternative Genesis is, in fact, the Scripture that would best serve his argument. Arguably, for his whole argument to carry (rather than just a small part) he needs a text with that narrative whole instead of the one we have. Genesis 22:1–19, on the other hand, shows a God whose goodness consists in a revealed opposition to child sacrifice, not a god who we must call good no matter what, even if they ultimately demand we consign our child to (a) moloch or to Moloch forever.
I want to underscore how very grave and how very serious the problems with Br. Rooney’s approach to Scripture are here.
I would not trust my children around him, and I do not think anyone should trust their children around him or around anyone who affirms his approach to theology.
After all, if the Church represents God and the Church demands that we sacrifice our children to protect the reputations of pedophile priests, aren’t we supposed to just look at that with a stoic and unwavering trust in the goodness of the god that the Church has tried to make itself into?
What Br. Rooney is doing is exactly what it looks like when someone is priming people for spiritual and sexual abuse. By rationalizing total, irrational, unfalsifiable, unwavering loyalty, he is building the basic elements of a totalizing epistemic capture system.
Br. Rooney’s radical fideism doesn’t become more credible when he tries to prooftext sacred scripture. Instead, we can assess his approach according to the canon of Scripture and then we will find it wanting.
Scripture is a double-edged sword that can help us discern where flesh and soul and spirit have been split. Br. Rooney, in neglecting the soulful whole of the Akedah, has prooftexted a bit of the narrative’s flesh and killed the message the story is meant to carry. It is as if he cited the beginning of the Tortoise and the Hare and went on waxing about the glories of the hare. No, fast and furious does not win the race. No, sacred scripture doesn’t declare just any god good, but only the God who does not demand child sacrifice in the end. Instead, God draws out what seemed noble in child sacrifice (faithfulness and loyalty) and leaves the evil practice itself to wither and die.
It makes sense that the trauma of looking on child sacrifice and calling it good would cause dissociation: spirit and soul and flesh are always being split if we do not spiritually cut off the right hand of violence. If we fail to renounce it, along with the violent-heartedness that leads to schism, we find ourselves thrust into the valley of Ben-hinnom where child sacrifice was practiced according to sacred scripture, 2 Kings 23:10. Br. Rooney’s failure to read the narrative of sacred scripture as a soulful whole starts with his failure to read Genesis 22:1–19 in that way. This clumsy hatchet job on scripture also accords with the clumsy hatchet job he has attempted on the work of David Bentley Hart. The manipulative and abusive attitude toward the text corresponds, precisely, to a manipulative and abusive attitude towards the actual people who he has been engaging with and slandering as heretics. The destruction also leads to a severing of unity in the church throughout the world, leading to the destruction of souls that is abetted by the fideistic, and therefore irrational and authoritarian, theology he has rationalized and enabled. This is also why he keeps falling on his own sword: articulating an unfree god, exchanging Christian hope for a shoddy fideism, and dancing with Pelagianism.
No. His theology here isn’t YHWH worship. It is, precisely and in a way that carries across the whole narrative of our sacred canon, service to a moloch that drags us all into Ben-hinnom.
I hope that in the fulness of time, he will change course and find himself in a different story: the real story of sacred scripture, read soulfully as a whole.