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.

Book review: How a simple concept can be a game changer

“Mindset: Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential” by Carol Dweck

If I had to assemble 10 books to serve as the manual to create a superhuman, this book would be one of them. I wasn’t aware before that how the simple concept of fixed mindset vs growth mindset could explain a lot about someone’s character and behaviour. And how relatively straight forward it is to change them, for better and for worse. An absolute vital book to read.

Book review: Everything is f*cked, and it’s a good thing

“Everything is F*cked: A book about hope” by Mark Manson

This book is just f*cking awesome. It’s fresh, brutally honest, a wee bit insane, but with serious points perfectly made through humor and shenanigans. It’s like learning (a lot) from South Park episodes all over again.

So what’s this book really about? It covers all the modern day problems that we now face as a global society, everything from ideological polarizations to freakin rise of Artificial Intelligence to hyper sensitive political correctness. Heck, he even teaches us how to start a religious cult. From scratch. And (of course) for a good reason.

Everything is f*cked, he says. But after I finish reading this book, holy crap this is apparently a good thing.

Book review: What we can learn from the education system around the world

“The Smartest Kids in the World: And how they got that way” by Amanda Ripley

Came for yet another parenting book, only to found out that this is not that kind of book, but stayed for the comparative study of education system in different parts of the world.

It becomes very obviously clear after reading this book that why Finland has the best education in the world, why South Korean nation behave the way they behave, and why America is lagging behind.

The template and the analogies can also be applied in many other countries like why Taiwan is advancing, why many Singaporeans are burning out like in South Korea, and why the poorest countries stay poor.

And funnily enough, from all the lessons discovered from this book, I got to learn how to best teach my kids afterall.

Book review: Back to basics

“The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down: How to be calm in a busy world” by Haemin Sunim

There’s arguably no better book to read right now, in this age of stay at home lockdown 2020, than this book. It refreshes us of all the simple values and good principles that may have been lost in the hectic world, which could serve us as the soothing basis for our calmness and sanity in this pandemic scare. It’s very heartwarming and powerful at the same time.

Book review: What a beautifully written book

“The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness: A true story” by Joel Ben Izzy

Every once in a while there comes a book that is totally differrent from the rest. A book that will leave a profound impression on you and that can change your perspectives on life. This is one of those books.

I first heard about this book when Maria Sharapova mentions it as her most favourite. And I can immediately see why, from the moment I read the first few pages.

It is so beautifully written, with so many fascinating stories from around the globe serve as the context that fits the main narrative of the writer’s unbelievable story.

All the shock, anger, serenity, inner struggle, relationship difficulties are all very real, very human and honest, while the way he experiences lost love and how he copes with deaths, in particular, are very moving and sobering.

But the icying on the cake for me is the way he stitch up all of these stories into one exciting journey. The book is filled with so much emotional roller coasters and out-of-the-world antics, that if this is a movie it would be akin to Big Fish or Forrest Gump.

It easily becomes one of my favourites too.

Book review: All you need to know about running

“Run Fast: How to beat your best time, every time” by Hal Higdon

The best book on running that I’ve read so far. It cuts to the chase, packed with vital understanding and actionable information, and with world class training guides straight from the running legend himself. It’s not an exaggeration to say that after reading this book, I upgraded more than twice my previous running abilities. An absolute must read for every runners.

Book review: Scary sobering

“Spillover: Animal infections and the next human pandemic” by David Quammen

If this book doesn’t make you a germophobe, I don’t know what will. An absolutely timely book to read in the time of Coronavirus pandemic 2020, which shows how complex and challenging the science are behind all the media headlines. I have so much more respect for the scientists, the doctors and nurses, and all the people in the frontline, after reading this essential book.

Book review: My head hurts

“Superintelligence: Paths, dangers, strategies” by Nick Bostrom

This is a very important book for the future of humankind, albeit a difficult one to read.

The book makes a terrifyingly compelling argument on why the Artificial Intelligence (AI), if managed wrongly, would potentially be bad for humanity. It covers the fascinating history of artificial intelligence development, from its simple beginning to the complicated web we’re in right now.

It’s very clever and highly technical (heck, I only grasp like 40% of the concepts), which I’m pretty sure can guide us to build our own AI from scratch to superintelligence level. Maybe. I dunno. In fact the book is so advanced-level, that after reading 30% of the book I thought, you know what? I believe him.

I expect nothing less from Elon Musk’s no. 1 favourite book. My head hurts.