“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
If you were asked to summarize the Christian view of God, this well-known verse that opens the Gospel of John would be a good place to begin. The Word, or logos in the original Greek, was a Jewish preacher who performed miracles. The Word was a human man who wept, hungered and felt sorrow and anger. The Word was Jesus. And, according to John, Jesus was God incarnate, the Word made flesh, fully divine and fully human.
In his newest book, God: A Human History, Reza Aslan seeks to provide an explanation for this rise of what he refers to as “the humanized God.” This idea, promoted by John and solidified at the Council of Nicaea, achieved its pinnacle in the theology of Christianity, but it didn’t simply appear out of nowhere. It has been developing throughout the course of human history from “the moment the idea of God first occurred to us.”
Evolutionarily speaking, most scholars believe that religion provides no adaptive advantage, which means there is no reason for it to exist at all. To quote Aslan,
…religion does not make people good or bad. It does not naturally police behavior or foster cooperation in a society. It does not enhance altruism any more or less effectively than any other social mechanism. It is no more or less powerful in creating moral behavior. It does not inherently drive cooperation in society. It does not increase advantage over competing groups. It does not necessarily soothe the mind or comfort the soul. It does not automatically lessen anxiety or improve reproductive success. It does not promote survival of the fittest.
In fact, religion could be described as being more costly than anything else. It is time-consuming and requires a significant emotional and intellectual investment.
Yet, a 2012 study conducted by the Pew Research Center estimates that eighty-four percent of the world’s population identifies with a religious group. Contrary to Nietzsche’s famous proclamation that “God is dead,” God and religion are, for better or worse, pervasive aspects of our society. But why is this the case?
Citing a host of cognitive scientists and anthropologists, Aslan argues that the “religious impulse” is hardwired into our brains. Religion, though not evolutionarily advantageous in and of itself, is the accidental byproduct of cognitive processes that do positively contribute to survival. Essentially these processes lead us to see human agency and, therefore, a human cause behind every unexplained phenomenon. We attribute human characteristics to them.
Regarding the development of our understanding of the divine, Aslan asks,
Is God the animating force that connects all living beings, as our prehistoric ancestors seem to believe? Or nature deified, as the early Mesopotamians thought? Or an abstract force that permeates the universe, the way some Greek philosophers described it? Or a personalized deity who looks and acts just like a human being? Or is God literally a human being?
Our earliest ancestors, the metaphorical Adam and Eve, were no less concerned with the divine than we are today. In 2014, Natalie Emmons and Deborah Keleman of Boston University published the results of a study on the way in which children perceive their pre-life existence. Comparing children from urban and rural Ecuadorian cultures, they found that their research supports the idea, also well represented in afterlife research, that “children intuitively distinguish the mind and body and primarily represent persons in terms of their eternal, immaterial minds, while viewing the physical, material body as merely a secondary characteristic.”
In other words, we may have an innate belief in what some people would refer to as the soul. It was this belief that was critical to the way early humans viewed the world.
Aslan points out that every individual, having no direct knowledge of the internal state of others, is forced to use themselves as a model. If I have a soul, then everyone else must have one too. Furthermore, the process in our brain that leads us to this conclusion can also cause us to attribute a soul to inanimate objects if they appear to exhibit human traits. Aslan provides the example of our ancient ancestor, Eve, foraging in the dim light of early morning. As Eve walks through the forest something suddenly catches her eye – a face staring at her from the trees. Doing a double take, Eve quickly realizes that the face she thought she saw was just the knots on a tree trunk. She moves on. Later in the day, Eve returns to the tree and realizes, to her surprise, that the tree does actually look like it has a face. In that moment, Eve, relying on her belief that what looks like her must also be like her, attributes a spirit, a soul to the tree.
Cave art from the earliest Homo sapiens features images of part human, part animal creatures. These symbols represent the spiritual, non-physical world and show the interdependence we once had with nature. As our species further developed, however, we began to see ourselves less as a part of nature and more as masters of it. And the gods changed to match our perception of ourselves.
Just outside the city of Urfa, believed by its inhabitants to be the site of the Biblical Garden of Eden, lies Göbekli Tepe, an archeological site featuring a massive 13,000-year-old stone temple known as The Temple of Eden. Strikingly, what lies at the center of each chamber is an abstract, but clearly humanized god figure. Aslan argues that this new conception of the divine is intricately tied to another major development – agriculture. The construction of sites like Göbekli Tepe would have required a massive workforce. Planting crops and domesticating animals may have simply been a necessary task to sustain the large populations needed to keep construction moving. The birth of organized religion may, therefore, be responsible for both the development of agriculture and an entirely new conception of the human species, one which Aslan says “placed human beings at the center of the spiritual plane, exalted above all living things: rulers of nature, gods over the earth.”
“As our species further developed, however, we began to see ourselves less as a part of nature and more as masters of it. And the gods changed to match our perception of ourselves.”
Over the next several millennia, our ancestors made a conscious effort to make gods more human-like. With the development of writing “the compulsion to humanize the divine…became actualized. The act of writing about the gods, of being forced to describe what the gods are like, not only transformed how we envision the gods; it made conscious and explicit our unconscious and implicit desire to make the gods in our own image.” We imagined the gods through the only lens we know – ourselves. They ate, drank, slept, argued, had family problems, got angry, wore human clothes and had human personalities. The ancient abstract spirit of the divine “had to be made real and recognizable in relation to the world so that it could be understood and harnessed.”
But a problem soon arose. The pantheon of Greek gods was centered around a family of twelve deities who lived on Mount Olympus. They were petty, dysfunctional, and immoral. They became too real and too recognizable. They were simply not believable as gods. Many great Greek thinkers including Plato and Pythagoras urged a return to a view of God “as the unified principle steering all creation: unchanging and unchangeable, bodiless, and, above all, singular…a dehumanized god, without form or body, personality or will.” But the compulsion to humanize the divine was too strong.
Up to this point, with a few notable, but failed exceptions, the human mind was unable or simply unwilling to consider monotheism. The idea that God was one was too irrational. How could one god encompass every human trait? Be both good and evil? Be both forgiving and just? Even the early Hebrews, steeped in Canaanite tribal tradition, were monolatristic rather than monotheistic. They worshiped one god, a god they believed to be the high god of the universe, but still believed in the existence of other gods. The Babylonian exile changed that.
In a society where every military skirmish was a battle between tribal gods, the Israelites were forced to conclude that their defeat at the hands of the Babylonians meant that Marduk, the Babylonian god, was stronger than Yahweh, the god the Israelites believed to be the highest, most powerful god in existence. Rather than give up their god and their identity, a small group of Israelites proposed another option – Yahweh was the only god and their defeat was his way of punishing them for their continued belief in the existence of other gods. Aslan, pointing to Isaiah 44:6, writes that it is only at this point in Israel’s history that we “see the first expressions of unambiguous monotheism in the entire Bible…The cognitive dissonance created by the exile required a dramatic, hitherto unworkable religious framework to make sense of the experience.”
The God of the Old Testament was now the one and only god, but he was seen by many as being too wrathful. This isn’t surprising considering that scripture told of how Yahweh had, among other things, drowned nearly all of humanity and had forty-two children mauled to death by bears for mocking Elisha’s baldness. So, it is here that we return to the idea proposed by John, an idea that Aslan refers to as the “most successful, most memorable, most meaningful, most useful religious belief ever conceived of by human beings…the concept of the “god-man”…a human being who is, in other words, a god.”
In Jesus, the Word made flesh, worshipers found the characteristics that fulfilled their compulsion to humanize the divine in a god-man who also preached a more palatable message of love and forgiveness.
As we have seen, the concept of the God-man was not new at this point. The Egyptians believed pharaohs were divine, the Romans often deified their emperors, and the Greeks made their gods so much like humans that they were unbelievable as gods. What made Jesus unique was not necessarily his supposed divinity, but rather that he was the “sole manifestation of the only God in the universe.”
Islam would soon arise to “confront Christianity’s conception of the humanized God,” but it too would rely on anthropomorphic descriptions of the divine. Muhammad may have wanted to dehumanize Allah and the Quran “expressly rejects the belief that God created human beings in His image. God has no image. He has no body, is of no substance, takes no shape in any for, human or otherwise,” but within the very same book, Allah is described as having a face, hands, and qualities that are meant to describe a divine personality.
After all of this, the question still remains: What is God?
It is here that Aslan turns inward. Having described how humans have made God in our own image for much of our existence, Aslan tells the story of his own spiritual journey – his conversion to Christianity, his reversion to the Islam of his childhood, his exploration of Sufism – a branch of Islam that promotes direct personal experience with the divine – and his shift to a pantheistic view of the world that would be most familiar to our ancient nomadic ancestors. His experience will resonate with anyone who has sought to achieve a deeper connection to the divine.
“We have worked so hard to humanize God that we have forgotten to see the divinity in our own shared humanity. We have spent so much time looking upwards that we have forgotten to look at the world around us.”
Throughout my adult life, I have rarely felt settled in a static set of beliefs for very long. I have, at times, felt deeply satisfied and purpose-filled because of religion, and at other times, felt angered by its constraints and contradictions. Yet one underlying belief has remained constant – religion is simply a way for us to express faith in and connect with something greater than ourselves. Salvation is not found in any particular church or ritual, but rather in a meaningful, well-lived life. Émile Durkheim argued that what is useful is what is sacred. If particular beliefs help us to live well at any given point in our lives, then they are sacred. If those beliefs lose their utility and we decide to move on, it does not invalidate our previous experience or make it any less sacred. The quest to make sense of the divine is an important one, regardless of the ultimate conclusion each individual makes or the journey they take to get there. As Aslan puts it, “All is One, and One is All. It is simply up to the individual to decide what “the One” is: how it should be defined, and how it should be experienced.”
Highlighting his belief in a dehumanized god, Aslan concludes that “God is not the creator of everything that exists. God IS everything that exists” and that “God did not make us in his image; nor did we simply make God in ours. Rather, we are the image of God in the world – not in form or likeness, but in essence…The world is God’s self-expression. It is God’s essence realized and experienced.” It’s a stunningly beautiful idea. No matter how we define God, we are all part of the divine essence of creation.
Our need to humanize the divine in order to connect with it may be a hardwired cognitive process, but Aslan suggests that perhaps we have this impulse because we are all God. He argues that “rather than concerning ourselves with trying to form a relationship with God, we should instead become fully aware of the relationship that already exists.” To cultivate meaningful relationships with other human beings and with the world around us is to connect with the divine. Yet, religion has too often become little more than a wall between us or a weapon used to demonize those with differing beliefs. We have worked so hard to humanize God that we have forgotten to see the divinity in our own shared humanity. We have spent so much time looking upwards that we have forgotten to look at the world around us.
Ultimately the question of “What is God?” that has been at the center of our quest, will not be definitively answered by anyone on this earth. It is up to each of us to relate to the divine in whichever way we see fit. The best place to start might be an attempt to better relate to each other.
(Image source: Eberhard Grossgasteiger/Unsplash)