Religion has always made me curious. It’s because of how I was raised: born in a Catholic country, educated in Catholic schools, and operating in a socio-cultural-economic system that places great importance on being Catholic (to the point that a baptismal certificate can count as valid ID). Like many Catholics, I have since fallen off the bandwagon, as it were, but unlike others who either turned to other forms of Christianity or other religions entirely, I’ve since decided that I do not wish to adhere to any particular faith at all. If someone talks religion to me, my answers will depend on the nature of that interlocutor: sometimes I will say I’m Catholic – an outright lie, but necessary when dealing with more conservative folk. Sometimes I will say I’m Christian – not as much of a lie as saying I’m Catholic, but not quite the truth either. Still, it is a necessary lie in this country, where people can and will judge you for being of any other faith except one that believes in Christ.
However, if I’m lucky enough to be speaking with someone who is more open-minded, I will give the closest-to-true response: that I am “spiritual.” If they are even more open-minded and are looking for details, I’ll admit that my practice of faith is rooted in Christianity but has a lot of elements drawn from Wicca, since I was a practicing (but closeted) Wiccan for a majority of my college years. I sometimes even joke that I’ve abandoned Catholicism because “I want to pray to a god with boobs:” a response to the deeply-ingrained misogyny of Philippine Catholicism.
And I am not the only one who insists on believing in a god that not only looks like me (insofar as my god has breasts, like I do), but shares the same ideals and concern that I do. This is, in fact, the basis for all religion: the idea of a god that looks like us, and shares the same worries, concerns, and ideas as us, but amplified with superpowers like omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence. In short, God is human: that is the argument that Reza Aslan makes in God: A Human History.
God: A Human History is divided into three parts of three chapters each, with an Introduction and a Conclusion framing the whole. In the Introduction the author tells his story of his own quest for God, and from there gives the book’s primary thesis: that we have fashioned God in our own image, and not the other way around. To support this thesis, Aslan then embarks upon the entire history of God from the human perspective, starting with the notion of a soul (which Aslan claims may be humanity’s first belief), all the way through animism to pantheons of gods, and then to monotheism and finally, to the Sufis, who believe that God is All and All is God – which goes right back to animism anyway. In the Conclusion, Aslan proposes that, if humanity adopts a pantheistic worldview, one that sees everyone and everything as divine, then we could eliminate all the petty differences between believers and nonbelievers alike, and become better people and better stewards of this planet as a whole. If we see the world – and ourselves – as God, and treat each other and our planet with the same reverence and respect as we treat God, then perhaps we can finally achieve what humanity has always sought: a union with the divine.
Ever since I read Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, I have been looking forward to a new book from Aslan, and it seems appropriate that, after tackling how humans have constructed Jesus of Nazareth, Aslan should set his sights on addressing how humanity has constructed God. For a lot of people who have thought this idea through, whether on their own or through research, this idea might seem like nothing new, but I like how Aslan takes the reader’s hand and goes through the history of God’s creation to prove his point. It also helps that the book is copiously annotated and cross-referenced; Aslan takes his duty as a scholar very seriously, and since the bibliography is fully half the entire book, I am certain that anyone who takes umbrage with or doubts anything included in this book will have absolutely no trouble tracking down sources.
Equally important is how careful Aslan is to remind the reader that he is not trying to disprove the existence of God or invalidate any religion the reader may participate in. This is made clear in the excerpt below:
This is not to claim that there is no such thing as God, or that what we call God is wholly a human invention. Both of these statements may very well be true, but that is not the concern of this book. I have no interest in trying to prove the existence or nonexistence of God for the simple reason that no proof exists either way. … You either choose to believe that there is something beyond the material realm—something real, something knowable—or you don’t.
While I find this disclaimer entirely acceptable, I am certain that other people will not think the same way. It is highly likely that certain people will read this book (or even just the Introduction) and take umbrage at it, assuming that Aslan’s aim is to undermine all their closely-held beliefs and ideas and leave them with nothing to hold onto. Such readers would, of course, be missing the whole point of the above excerpt, but then again, this book is not for them anyway. If this book is for anyone, it is certainly not for those people whose faith is too fragile to stand up to the kind of inquiry and hard introspection that Aslan requires. This is a book for those who are driven to “comprehend the comprehender,” to paraphrase from St. Augustine. It is for believers who are strong enough to ask questions about their faith without fearing it will be destroyed, and for nonbelievers who want to understand those who believe.
But simply describing the history of how God came to be is not the only thing this book tries to accomplish, as Aslan makes clear at the end of the Introduction:
And so this book is more than just a history of how we have humanized God. It is also an appeal to stop foisting our human compulsions upon the divine, and to develop a more pantheistic view of God. At the very least it is a reminder that, whether you believe in one God or many gods or no god at all, it is we who have fashioned God in our image, not the other way around. And in that truth lies the key to a more mature, more peaceful, more primal form of spirituality.
This is, I think, where things fall apart a little. In Zealot it was quite clear that Aslan’s goals for tackling Jesus the Man and Jesus the Christ are largely scholarly: an attempt to understand a man who has since become shrouded in myth by separating the reality of him from the myths that came later. In God, however, it is clear, and quite early on, that Aslan is advocating for a specific approach to religion: pantheism. He argues his point in the Conclusion:
…we should consider the possibility that the entire reason we have a cognitive impulse to think of God as a divine reflection of ourselves is because we are, every one of us, God. Perhaps rather than concerning ourselves with trying to form a relationship with God, we should instead become fully aware of the relationship that already exists.
I have spent most of my spiritual life trying to bridge the chasm that I imagined exists between God and me, either through faith or scholarship or some combination of the two. What I believe now is that there is no chasm because there is no distinction between us. i am, in my essential reality, God made manifest. We all are.
… I recognize the divinity of the world and every being in it and respond to everyone and everything as though they were God—because they are. And I understand that the only way I can truly know God is by relying on the only thing I can truly know: myself. As Ibn al-Arabi said, “He who knows his soul knows his Lord.”
While the above revelation (if self-revelatory for Aslan) is interesting and perhaps useful to any readers who are still trying to understand their relationship (or lack thereof) with the divine, Aslan presents it as a simple, straightforward truth, without exploring the idea further from any other perspective. And while I understand that perhaps simplicity is the way to go, especially since Aslan is trying to encourage a more open, more accepting kind of faith in his readers, I think that this conclusion lacks the kind of nuance and depth that is otherwise present in the rest of the book. I was not expecting such a pat conclusion from Aslan, and I will admit that I find it rather disappointing, given how the rest of the book is far from simplistic.
Overall, God: A Human History is an interesting, in-depth exploration of where humanity got the idea of God in the first place. Aslan dives deep into history, psychology, sociology and anthropology to answer the many questions that unfold out of the question “Who is God?”, and supports his thesis of God as a human construct handily, with the bibliography to back it up. What I do not appreciate, however, is how he wraps up this book by offering the idea of God is All and All is God as a kind of panacea for the world’s religion-driven ills, doing so without the kind of nuance and depth that goes into everything else that precedes the conclusion. While it might be satisfactory for some readers, others – specifically, readers such as myself, who are already accustomed to questioning their faith (or lack thereof) – may find Aslan’s lack of nuance rather disappointing.