Book review: The case for pantheism

“God: A human history” by Reza Aslan

You know that scene at the Voice when a singer had only begun to sing few seconds and all 4 judges already pressing their button? Yeah this book is one of those rare ones that becomes instant 5 stars for me, just by reading few early paragraphs at the introduction.

The book gives a whole new understanding of pantheism, the idea that God does exist but is much bigger than us humans can ever imagine, that God is the universe and everything in it, and that God as we know it in our respective religions is nothing more than a limited creation of our imagination.

That idea of a loving God? That’s a human characteristic. A jealous God? Also a human characteristic. In fact all images of God from fatherly love to His wrath are all images of human characteristics, impulses, desires, and instincts, all of which are enhanced to our idea of a perfection. In other words, our image of God is actually a super-human reflection of us.

And the book analyses exactly that, the fascinating evolution of the image of God from a human perspective, from the birth of animism to thousands of polytheism deities to the many millennia of developments that left us with only one true God today. It is surprising to read the story about Adam and Eve, for example, only to find out that it’s Homo Sapiens version of Adam and Eve. That in the beginning there was a big bang and millions of years of evolutionary process of the Earth. That it’s not the Garden of Eden but Gobleki Tepe and the birth of farming. Yes, the book is grounded in science and heavy on archaeological findings, which makes it unique as a book about religion.

Perhaps most fascinating for me is the thesis that Moses introduced Yahweh (the supreme deity of Midian, where his father in law was a Midianite priest) to the Israelite (a worshiper of the supreme deity of El or Elohim), which in a way answers the few questions I had when reading the Exodus. “El”, according to the author Reza Aslan, is referred in the English Bible as “God”, while “Yahweh” is referred in the English Bible as “Lord.” In fact, the very word Isra-el actually means “El perseveres”. And thus that famous scene of Israelite false worshiping a statue of a golden calf? Golden calf is the primary symbol of El, which indicates that they were trying to get back to worship their original deity.

But all of this frictions came to rest when after they settled in the Promised Land the Israelite finally accepted Yahweh as one of their deities, as highlighted in Deuteronomy 32:8-9. And both deities were later merged into one as Yahweh-Elohim or Lord God in the English Bible, as first appeared in Joshua 7:19. As Aslan remarked, “[a]nd as happened in Babylon, Assyria, Egypt, and elsewhere, as the nature of the rule of men on earth changed, so, too, did the rule of the gods in heaven to match; in other words, politicomorphism.”

Politicomorphism is what prompted the Romans, the Greeks, the Egyptians, and the Mesopotamians to deifying their powerful leaders into a god-man status. It’s what escalated the Hindu god Shiva from obscurity into one of the Trimurti. It was what created many different Christian Gnostic sects before the theological debate being settled in the council of Nicea (itself another politicomorphism action by Roman Emperor Constantine).

As Aslan further remark, “[t]he role of human mediator to the gods naturally fell to the gods’ counterparts on earth—primarily kings, pharaohs, and emperors, but also priests and prophets, mystics and messiahs. We saw how this process took shape in ancient Mesopotamia, with the consolidation of power into the hands of an autocratic few who wielded the power of the divine. And, as in Mesopotamia, once the need for a human mediator is accepted, it is a short step to deifying the mediator. After all, it makes a certain amount of sense to expect the person acting as the bridge between humans and the divine to also be divine (or at least semidivine).”

This, according to the book, is what happened with the role of Jesus Christ, thanks to the curious central role of a religious scholar named Marcion of Sinope, that set up the foundations of the New Testaments and prompted the new sect of Christianity to broke off from Judaism. And the long and difficult road from the days of Marcion to the council of Nicea was nothing short of extraordinary, where disagreements between many sub-sects of Christianity (from Docetism, Ebionites, to dynamism, and adoptionism) was finally settled with the trinity of Father (Yahweh), Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Ghost (the divine spirit of God in the world).

Moreover, probably the most difficult thesis for me to digest is the evolution of “Allah”, which hit a little closer to home. While Muslims believe in the monotheistic manner that there are no other god than God (or Allah), in ancient polytheistic Arab “Allah” was actually seen as a material being who, like Zeus, had sired both sons and daughters. As Aslan elaborates, “[i]ndeed, Allah’s three daughters—Allat, who was associated with the Greek goddess Athena; Manat, who was likely connected with the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar; and al-Uzza, who was the Arab equivalent of Aphrodite—played a central role in ancient Arab spirituality as Allah’s intermediaries.” But then, as it always does, politicomorphism occurred through the most extraordinary story possible.

As you can probably guessed, this book is not for everyone. Nothing is more unsettling for religious devotees to see their God being dismantled into an evolving folklore. But that is not the objective of this book, as Aslan himself respectively suggest that God, in the pantheistic way, is actually a reflection of every single one of these human-made images. Hence, the book is not attempting to disprove the existence of God, but on the contrary it is showing that God lives through all of these deities.

In Kindle, the book finishes at 54% mark, with the remaining of the book largely serves as the massive bibliography and notes sections. This tells a lot about the amount of research and evidences that Aslan, the religious scholar, has gathered for this one-in-a-million book. 5 stars from the beginning to the end.