In my first year of academic teaching, I decided to enter the Roman Catholic Church. It was a simple decision: I wanted a religion, and I had already tried the respectable academic religions, Judaism and Anglicanism. I began the six-month class at the local parish to prepare me for Baptism, Confirmation, and Communion, to take place at the long liturgy the night before Easter.
I didn’t mind receiving simple teaching along with ordinary parishioners. It was refreshing to be exposed to wisdom that anyone with some life experience could understand. To me it was like stripping off the inessentials to live for a time in my human skin. Nor did the dogmatic requirements present any difficulty to me; I’d been in academic philosophy for years. My graduate program had been freewheeling and ambitious: theories built in minutes, or years, crumbled in an instant on a counterexample. One could never predict the conclusion that might issue from the baroque machinery of argument.
It was evident to me that the exercises of analytic philosophy were a wonderful training in clear thinking but faced serious shortcomings as a means of discovering the truth. I knew people far more intelligent than I was who denied the existence of everything except indivisible corpuscles, or who thought that if I could have had pork chops for breakfast, there was a real place where I did have pork chops for breakfast. Why shouldn’t I believe in a three-personed God, born as a man to a virgin, who died, was resurrected, and returned to us under the forms of bread and wine?
Two weeks before Easter, I heard Genesis 22, Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, read at Sunday Mass. The voice comes from nowhere. The voice which called Abraham to travel to the land of Canaan, which has promised him a son for decades, which grants his desire only after his wife is past menopause, now makes a different kind of request. The voice asks Abraham to take “your son, your only son, whom you love” and sacrifice him on a mountaintop.
The ancient author takes us step by step. Abraham arises early and packs his donkey with the wood for the burnt offering and the knife. As he travels with his son up the mountain, the boy notices that they carry every supply for a sacrifice—“but father, where is the animal?” The narrator reports only Abraham’s evasive reply: “God will provide the sacrifice, my son.” We are left to imagine how Isaac’s words cut his father to pieces, just as we the listeners are cut to pieces. Like the intervening angel who saves Isaac’s neck in the end, the narrator sympathizes with our horror. But it is easy to feel the horror without feeling the sympathy. So it was. When I heard the story read at Sunday Mass, my peace was destroyed. I went into a panic.