THE BIRTH OF GOD
And What It Can Mean for Us
James Ishmael Ford
As you may know I am now teaching a class in the Buddhist chaplaincy program at the University of the West. It has been an amazing experience. It has also pushed me in a lot of areas. Not least, the fact that of the thirteen people in the class, five are Buddhist monastics. Three are nuns from China. Another is a nun from Korea. And the fifth is a monk from Bangladesh by way of Sri Lanka. Half of the balance of the class were raised Buddhist within Chinese cultural contexts.
My job is teaching a survey course in Abrahamic texts, the sacred scriptures of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The need is for potential Buddhist chaplains to have a sympathetic sense of the dominant religions in North America and the West. And, as I said, these are people who are not from the West. So, television and movies not withstanding they do not get many things which we think of as just the way things are.
For instance. As I prepared for the class, I realized I probably needed to start with the idea of God. Here in the West God is such a pervasive idea, and so emotionally charged, that most people either believe in God or don’t believe in God. And it can be hard to move away from that dichotomy.
But in fact, it isn’t how things actually are. In that class a lot of my students belong to a whole different category, which is “what is this God of which you speak?” They don’t have a clue. And the question is asked with no particular emotion attached to it. Just no clear idea of what the word is supposed to point to. The God of the Abrahamic traditions, the God of Judaism, the God of Christianity, and the God of Islam. No really solid reference point.
So, God. While there are different understandings here and there, especially between Judaism and Islam on one side and Christianity on the other, they are all based in very similar belief (or in reaction, non-belief) in a deity with human-like characteristics, that has created the world, intervenes here and there on occasion, and at some point will end it all. In Christianity and Islam, the deity will then judge humans on how they lived or what they believed, with rewards or punishments dealt out accordingly. In Judaism end times are a bit murkier, but generally doesn’t feature any lakes of fire. With these tweaks, that God.
St Thomas Aquinas, the great fourteenth Catholic philosopher believed that the idea of God was simply self-evident. I believe the larger majority of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, would agree. This is part of why they often find atheists pernicious and even question if they are so out of touch with that self-evident reality, whether they are even trustworthy enough to serve on juries. If you can’t be trusted with the evidence before your eyes, how can you be trusted in other matters of extreme importance?
But the truth of the matter is that it isn’t obvious. And, actually, there is no clear analog to the Western idea of God in the other religions of the world. Yes, there are ideas of overarching, connecting, principles in other religions. The idea of Brahman in Hinduism, for instance. There’s also Shangdi, the first ancestor, or maybe closer, Tian, or Heaven in indigenous Chinese religions. I also think of the Wakan Tanka in Sioux religion, Gitche Manitou among the Algonquian, and with differences, within numerous other Native American communities, where there is a more animistic and sometimes mystical force which in modernity is often collapsed as the “Great Spirit.” But with any digging at all, none of these things are in fact particularly like the God of the Bible and Quran.
So, no, actually the idea of God as conceived here in the West is not self-evident.
I have a seat of the pants understanding of an evolutionary story of God, the birth and growth of God. But, for the class, I needed to review some details. And, along the way, I learned some things. And, well, it seemed to me you might find a helpful pointer or two on your own spiritual paths if I were to share that with you. So, today, let’s look at that, the birth of God, the God of the West, and what that God might mean for us, children of the post enlightenment, post-modern, really the post-post-modern world. For us, in a time of dis-belief and quest. What can God mean for you and me?
Me, where I started was with the non-human animal world. There are elements that we can discern as “religious-like” in some animal behaviors. Of course, there is nothing to suggest non-human animals believe in God or gods, or many of the other things one associates with religions, like praying, or worshiping. But they do do things that we associate with human religions.
For instance, many animals engage in ritual behaviors. Jane Goodall, as an example, observes how chimpanzees appear to dance when they come upon waterfalls and do something similar at the beginning of rainstorms. Many animals also appear to observe funeral rites. In preparing for the class I watched a video clip of elephants doing what certainly looked like a ritual of mourning for one of their own. One could say animals may not be religious, but some sure look to be spiritual.
For humans we see archeological evidences of similar behaviors as far back as maybe a hundred thousand years, with grave sites that include what are called “grave goods” such as tools and ornaments. And how in many places there is evidence that corpses were covered in flowers. This is true with both our main line of evolution and our closest cousins the Neanderthals. As an aside and as regards the other great interbreeding human population with our main line, the Denisovans. We just haven’t, so far, found much physical evidence of their cultures. But there is no compelling reason to assume they or the as yet unnamed but genetically identified fourth group of early interbreeding humans, did not also share these behaviors. These spiritual if not quite yet religious behaviors can reasonably be assumed to be common to us all.
While there’s no evidence of belief in some idea of a supreme being, there are strong suggestions of spiritualities as pretty basic to who we are as humans. By this I mean there seems to be some common sense among humans of mystery and connections that extend beyond the bare phenomenon of life and the reality of death.
From here it seems important to look at hunter gatherer religious views. The nineteenth century anthropologist, Edward Tylor coined the term “animism” to address his observations. The term has been worked and reworked in the years following based upon further research as well as noting hidden biases in interpretation among those early Western ethnographers.
The first observation was how in these cultures pretty much across the globe everything is seen as animated. Everything possesses a spirit or spirit. At the beginning Professor Tyler, the first professor of Anthropology at Oxford, thought animism was a confusion between animals and plants and inanimate things. He felt this weak sense of categories was an obviously mistaken view, but one common, it appears, to all early humans. And this confusion of categories would also be a building block of later organized religions.
Contemporary Anthropologist Nurit Bird-David speaks for a shift in interpretation, suggesting instead how animism is a “relational epistemology.” Epistemology is a five-dollar word meaning “how we know things.” So, an expensive term, but worth it. It calls us to notice such things as how we know things. So, specifically, animism is an approach to life that is centered in our relationships. It is a world filled with subjects rather than objects. Everything is relational. Let’s put a pin in that. We’ll revisit this before we’re done.
The term evolution is itself fraught as for most of us it implies directionality, that change leads to things that are improvements on that which preceded it. That can be true, especially in the biological sciences where evolution is about adaptation and continuance of one’s gene pool.
But, mostly, it just means things change. Over time in history various things got clustered together to form religions as we understand them today. And as we attempt to unravel that part of human cultures we see as religious we see several things.
Probably the most offensive of those various things making up religion for many of us in modernity, could be called “crowd control.” It has to do with that aspect of religion which is all about culture and specifically the preservation and transmission of culture over time. While it is very important to the coherence of a culture, it has an enormously conservative aspect. It clearly defines who is in and who is out. And while from the inside it offers comfort, to anyone on the outside, any kind of outside, it can be deadly.
But there’s a lot more in that bag that is religion. There’s also religion as the repository of ethics. The place we go for guidance on how to act in this world. Still another thing that has been part of religion since forever has been healing. Even today prayer and rites to facilitate the healing of body and mind are common currency of religions. And, most importantly, at least from my perspective, is how religion is about meaning and purpose in life. These four different things, and no doubt some others, are bound up together and sometimes are near impossible to unravel from each other.
With that we come to the arc of religion in the Near East. With agriculture religious institutions began to emerge. Here we find, as with other agriculturally based cultures, the emergence of gods. Gods are nonhuman entities that have power, and with whom we humans interact.
Among a small group of people in the hilly areas of Canaan some were peasants, others escaped slaves, and including among them some who had escaped bondage in Egypt, all gradually began to see themselves as a people. They felt different than other Canaanites. And they began to tell stories about themselves as part of the evolution of that sub-culture. Actually two different traditions of these stories would be gathered together. This occurred in two stages. With the first stage we get that sense of a coherent people. It becomes historical about a thousand years before the common era when a kingdom was gathered by someone named David. And then his son Solomon consolidated the kingdom and built from a small town a fairly grand capital, Jerusalem. Here is the first birthing of Israel.
Their kingdom didn’t last long. First it broke into two kingdoms. Then not all that much later the Babylonians swept through the region and carried away the intellectual remains of that group. There in the sixth century before our common era by the waters of Babylon, people began a second editing of the stories. When the Babylonians were themselves conquered these captives were allowed to return to their homeland. They returned with a book that largely is the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. Plus a few more books largely consisting of mythic histories.
A really interesting thing in the archeological record is that before the Babylonian captivity the Israelites were in practice not monotheists. They talked a good game. But in practice they were a form of Henotheists where one believes in many gods, but one deity is more important. People frequently covered bases with offerings of various sorts to many other gods. The archeological record is littered with statuettes of gods in Israel. Also, just an interesting tidbit, during this period before Babylon there is evidence that showed this primary God sometimes was portrayed as having a wife.
The newly created Bible mashed a lot of things together. At the beginning those two different story traditions. The earliest strata’s god was sometimes nothing more than a storm deity, and at other times something fierce, A deity who demanded sacrifices and exercised astonishing punishments on those who strayed in any of several directions. But, in the editing process, actually we have a name for the principal editor, Ezra, he and his team came up with a rather different god.
And that’s the God we know, the one who created and sustains the world. The one who worked in mysterious ways. Definitely a god not to be messed with. But, something more. They introduced a god that had those elements, but was vastly different than had been conceived of before. Something compelling. Now there was a God as intimate with the world as a kiss.
And in the re-established Israel the archeological record shows no statuettes or evidences of any other gods. Now there was only one God. And according to this new Bible this God that wasn’t just their God. Although they did have a special covenant. But now this was a God of the whole world. A God that represents love and forgiveness and most of all, it was a God of Hope.
In this sad, sad world, a God many find compelling.
Maybe not self-evident. But this God has touched many hearts.
Me, I find myself returning to that earliest idea of how the world works, and particularly that idea of finding our meaning in a world where we are not objects to each other, but that we relate subjectively. That is where each of us is meaningful just because we exist.
If we dig into it, it makes a certain sense. We are in fact created out of each other. And by we, I mean us, you and me, the humans. But, also, the animals. And also, the plants. And also, the seemingly inanimate world. Through strands of cause and effect we are created, and we create. Dr King’s single garment of destiny. We look deeply and discover how rich and truly mysterious we and the world are.
And while we humans may have created that God which represents this deeper and ancient sense of connection, it is our attempt to capture something true about who we are, and what this world is.
So, for my class, and maybe for all of us, some sympathy for the tradition is worthy.
And there’s more to this, as well. Not only does God have a birth, but God is growing. Now we’re encountering ever richer nuances of what that greater of which we are a part might be. As simply two examples of many, Vedanta and Buddhism each offer perspectives on reality that are already reshaping Western understandings of ultimacy, and with that of God.
We know humans are a dangerous lot. But, when we open our hearts, and notice the connections, then we are also something else.
In the traditions of the west, we become the children of God.
May we be worthy of that name.