Skepticism..what I’m thinking about.

Sharon October 22nd, 2004

In the modern age, skepticism begins with doubt as to the existence of God. It is hard to underestimate the difficulty, then, of wrapping one’s contemporary imagination around a skepticism that retains complete and implicit belief in the divine, but doubts the reality of the person standing next to oneself. And yet, in its most literal sense, that is the character of Renaissance skepticism - a world peopled by God but not by other humans.

My doctoral dissertation is about the intersection between Renaissance demographics and skepticism. Oddly, skepticism in the 17th century didn’t mean anything like what it means today - depending on whose version you follow (Katherine Maus or Stanley Cavell - I think they aren’t incompatible), what people doubted then was not what they doubt now. When we think of skepticism in a modern sense, we think about doubt about the existence of God, or of other transcendent things, or about science vs. religion. But both versions of Renaissance skepticism accept the existence of God as foregone, and neither see a contradiction between science and faith (there wasn’t one at the time). Instead, skeptics doubt either the existence of other people (ie, Cartesian skepticism, which says that you can prove that you exist and God exists, but not that everyone around you isn’t a figment) or what you can know about other people (ie, what they are thinking).

I’ve been writing about this for several years, but it only recently has occurred to me that the Biblical story of Sarah (the forgotten part of the binding of Isaac) is as much the pre-narrative of this model of skepticism as the Oedipus story is for well, the

Oedipal complex.

If Renaissance skepticism as we have discussed it can be said to have an originating myth, we might find it in the Biblical story of Sarah, for whom the otherness of G-d and the question of the (m)aternity of her children are inextricably linked. Doubt, counting, reproduction, skepticism, all are linked across time and narrative. Stanley Cavell is right to tie skepticism to the questions raised by the paternity of children, but I would suggest that he refers only to a species of skepticism, that ultimately the act of reproduction itself is perennially tied to the question of whether the others one creates are truly real, and, perhaps, whether the act of generation, which mimics God’s, is perhaps a kind of proof that we are real.

Sarah (then Sarai) is, described as barren when she is first named, and thus her infertility is tied to her identity. Sarah herself insists that G-d is at fault for her sterility, that YHWH has closed her womb. Her certainty on this point is startling Unconvinced, as she ages, that God will keep his promise to give Abraham descendents as “numerous as the stars,” Sarah imagines as means of providing a child to both of them, by requiring her handmaiden to sleep with her husband, and thus get Sarah and Abraham a child. It defies imagination, given her machinations at reproduction, that Sarah could participate in the act of faith later demanded of Abraham - to which her husband is strangely quiescient.

I’ve always wanted to write a version of the Binding of Isaac in which God asks Sarah to sacrifice Isaac - how much fun would it be to write her reply? Abraham’s gesture of complete faith could have been matched by another gesture of complete faith, for Sarah never, ever doubts the existence of God. Oh, she doubts his power - doubts that even God could open her womb in her 90s, and perhaps that God can tell whether she’s lying, but she knows God is real. And she thinks God is wrong - and has the courage to say so.

Sarah doubts, as Satan in Paradise Lost does, the degree of God’s power. She doubts that God is right. And she is not a wholly positive figure (her treatment of Hagar is hideous). But she is also the mother of a kind of doubt that achieves both faith and courage - one that says, “I believe that God is real, but I do not fully trust God to be always Godly?”

And can you blame her? Not only does this act of Yahweh’s evoke the old Pagan Gods they attempt to differentiate themselves from, but it is done in the face of proof that this God is rather new to the divinity business, and makes errors, is subject to human persuasion (a tactic Abraham refuses to use here) and chooses unwisely. What mother, what person, what skeptic could not fail to doubt. Sadly, all the role of Sarah in this that we have is her death - the Talmud says she dies when Abraham takes her son to the mountain.

In a personal sense, I wonder, did God grow up? I speak as a person who believes in God out of a kind of visceral sense of immanence. I have always felt that there was God, since earliest childhood, known it as fact much as I know I have a tongue hair, or any other part of myself I cannot always feel. You would think that this certainty would be useful, but I haven’t found it especially so. Instead, it raises more questions. Is God subject to human persuasion? Does God show interest? Are God’s agendas always the right ones? Should I be a subject, or trust my own wits and will and argue? Do I emulate Abraham or Sarah when tragedy strikes, when costs are tallied?

I don’t think it is any accident that I stumbled into the study of skepticism, do you?

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