… and we ought to just be honest about it.
I have read the first two chapters of Karen Armstrong’s “A History Of God” and I am already blown away. I was actually quite alarmed when I first started reading, because it begins with the words: “In the beginning, human beings created a God…” I suspect this, and my title, will alarm some of my readers too. But please bear with me. There is a very important point to this and while it may threaten religion, it does not in any way threaten belief in God.
It’s easy for us, with our modern fully-evolved theology, to say that the concept of a single transcendent creator is totally different from pagan worship of created things. I used to think that the knowledge of a creator is primordial and natural to our consciousness, but it turns out the early ideas about God(s) even in the Hebrew tradition actually had nothing to do with creation. I still think spiritual insight is natural and inborn. But it leads people to experience and express reality in very different ways.
The God that Abraham and his immediate descendents encountered was called El and was quite different in nature from the God Moses knew, who was called Yahweh. El appeared to Abraham as a man, and wrestled with Jacob as a man. Yahweh on the other hand was perceived on Mount Sinai in the midst of what seems to be a volcanic eruption, and in a burning bush, and could not be seen directly. It is suggested in this book that these ideas or concepts or pictures of God had different origins. In a sense they were different Gods.
Also, a huge news flash to me – early Judaism was polytheistic! They believed in the existence of the other gods. The whole point of the covenant Yahweh made with Moses and his people was that they would forsake all the other gods and worship only Yahweh. This only made sense in a polytheistic context. If they didn’t believe in other gods, there would have been no need.
I always wondered how those Israelites could forsake God as soon as Moses’ back was turned and worship a golden calf. But they were just doing what came naturally to them; different Gods had different roles, for example some were warriors, and some were for fertility, and so they turned to whichever one they felt would benefit them. And they weren’t worshipping the calf itself, but using it as a symbol to invoke one of the Gods they believed in, much like how Muslims use the Kaaba. There was never any worship of overtly man-made things.
It took some time for their conception of Yahweh to evolve to the God that we know today: tawheed, a single transcendent creator.
And so the idea of one single unchanging God who has revealed himself to every prophet from Abraham onwards has been blown out of the water for me. Karen Armstrong drives this point home in the first chapter: throughout history we have always “created” our Gods, in a sense. We have expressed our sense of the divine through our human ideas. This is what I think the word “idolatry” actually means in her writing. And she says (emphasis mine):
Despite the bad press it has in the Bible, there is nothing wrong with idolatry per se: it only becomes objectionable or naive if the image of God, which has been constructed with such loving care, is confused with the ineffable reality to which it refers.
This is where it gets really interesting. She goes on to tell how in around 622 BCE, when the idea that there really is only one God was developing, King Josiah violently suppressed worship of the other Gods. At this time an ancient manuscript was discovered which basically became Deuteronomy, part of the Torah. (It is hinted that this was not so ancient actually. 😉 ) The result of this discovery was that the history of the Exodus – Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and into the promised land – was revised, to include all the nasty stuff about wiping out the Canaanites because they worshipped Gods other than Yahweh. This new intolerant slant, this belief in being a chosen people favoured by God, was a reflection of the ethos developing at this time under King Josiah. She says about the violent events of the time:
This wholesale destruction springs from a hatred that is rooted in buried anxiety and fear.
Isn’t that fascinating?
It makes me think of, “the lady doth protest too much”. They hated other peoples’ expression of their sense of the divine, because in the backs of their minds, they knew that their own God was just that: an expression of their own sense of the divine.
Pagan polytheism was much more tolerant because the idea of another God did not in any way threaten a person’s own God or Gods. They could all be true. In the same way, universalism such as developed in Hinduism – the concept of an impersonal overarching reality that transcends everything including the gods – was very tolerant. In the first century CE monotheism reached that level of universalism too, in Jewish thought, where theology was considered a private matter and not dictated from some authority on high. But fundamentalism – the belief that your own particular ideas about God are totally right and that other belief systems are wrong – always tends to lead to intolerance and antagonism and ultimately, holy war.
Karen Armstrong suggests that it is perhaps a pitfall of having a personal God, that such a concept lends itself to the “election” of a chosen people. People can project their own egotistical desires onto a personal God in a way that they can’t for an impersonal ultimate reality. However, the concept of a personal God also seems to stimulate social justice in a way that didn’t happen in India for example.
I never really understood why in Islam associating partners with God is the biggest sin. Now it all makes sense. And this is why I am repelled from religion time after time: I prefer to express what I don’t know about God, than to be so sure of my own beliefs in unseen, unprovable ideas that I allow myself to feel superior or more enlightened than others.
I can’t wait to read the rest of the book!
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