November 16, 2018

Discussing God in Human Terms

The biography of God has been written many times, starting in the Torah and continuing over the millennia that have passed since the words “In the beginning” — or, more precisely, the Hebrew word that is transliterated into English as b’reshit — were first written with a quill pen on a sheet of parchment. And the Bible is not the only best-seller whose hero is the Almighty.

Yet Reza Aslan, a distinguished scholar of religions, has succeeded in showing us a provocative new way of thinking and talking about God in “God: A Human History” (Random House). At the core of his book is a simple but powerful insight — we have no choice but to conceive of God in human terms, and not merely because the Bible depicts the Almighty as creating Adam “in our image, after our likeness.”

“It turns out this compulsion to humanize the divine is hardwired in our brains, which is why it has become a central feature in almost every religious tradition the world has known,” writes Aslan, who comes from a Muslim background but briefly converted to Christianity. “In fact, the entire history of human spirituality can be viewed as one long, interconnected, ever-evolving, and remarkably cohesive effort to make sense of the divine by giving it our emotions and our personalities, by ascribing to it our traits and our desires, by providing it with our strengths and our weaknesses, even our own bodies — in short, by making God us.”

Aslan’s intellectual honesty is on display in the paragraph just quoted from “God: A Human History.” When he refers to “the divine,” he uses the pronoun “it” rather than any of the other names of the deity.

Aslan is one media-savvy scholar who does not confine himself to the ivory tower. He appeared frequently on CNN as a commentator on world affairs and as the host of the “Believer” series until a visceral tweet about the 45th president prompted the network to cancel his show. He put his expertise to good use as a consultant on HBO’s series about the end times, “The Leftovers.” And “Zealot,” his revisionist biography of Jesus of Nazereth, topped The New York Times best-seller list.

So Aslan is not afraid of controversy, but he is also careful about what he is and is not arguing in the pages of his new book. “This is not to claim that there is no such thing as God, or that what we call God is a wholly human invention,” he writes. “Both of the statements may very well be true, but that is not the concern of this book.” In fact, he readily affirms that he is among those who “choose to believe that there is something beyond the material realm — something real, something knowable.” But he also warns that “[f]aith is a choice,” and he insists that “anyone who says otherwise is trying to you convert you.”

But he also insists that if there is one thing that all religions share in common, it is what he calls “the humanized God,” that is, a deity whose characteristics are like our own. “The Mesopotamians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Indians, the Persians, the Hebrews, the Arabs, all devised their theistic systems in human terms and with human imagery,” he writes. Even when psychologists and other scientists inquire into the beliefs of devoutly religious people, they find that true believers “overwhelmingly treat God as though they were talking about some person they might have met on the street.”

“Religion is first and foremost a neurological phenomenon.” — Reza Aslan

Inevitably, Aslan looks far beyond the Bible to show us how the divine has been perceived and depicted by human beings, starting in the distant past and continuing to our own times. He argues that the single oldest image of God, which is found in a cave painting that dates to as early as 18,000 B.C.E., is a humanoid form with “the legs and feet of a human being, but the ears of a stag and the eyes of an owl,” an example of deity known to science as “the Lord of the Beasts.” But he insists that the very first image of God can be linked to the deity that we find in the Tanakh: “Even the Hebrew god Yahweh is occasionally presented as the Lord of the Beasts in the Bible,” he writes, citing a passage in the Book of Job in which God boasts of his authority over the animal kingdom.

But Aslan drills down just as deeply into the inner workings of the human brain to explain why not only the Lord of the Beasts but the very idea of the divine entered human civilization. “Religion is first and foremost a neurological phenomenon,” he explains. And it arises from a specific brain function that “encourages us to use ourselves as the primary model for how we conceive of everyone else.”

Thus he conjures a moment in pre-history when a real-world version of the biblical Eve notices a tree in the forest with a trunk that has grown into a shape that resembles a human face. “She transforms the tree into a totem: an object of worship,” Aslan writes. “She may bring it offerings. She may even start praying to it for help in netting her prey. Thus religion is born, albeit by accident.”

The Jewish contribution to the human history of God, as Aslan sees it, can be found in the writings that were brought back from the Babylonian Exile, that is, the compilation of older texts was eventually canonized several centuries later as the Hebrew Bible. And Aslan judges it to be “an extraordinary development in the history of religions,” an idea of divinity that represented a quantum leap from the primitive monotheism that was briefly practiced in ancient Egypt.

“This was a new kind of God, both singular and personal,” he writes. “A solitary God with no human form who nevertheless made humans in his image. An eternal, indivisible God who exhibits the full range of human emotions and qualities, good and bad.”

Aslan proves himself to be a benign controversialist. After conducting us on a wholly fascinating tour through the history of religion — and after smashing more than a few icons — he ultimately defers to our own free will. “Believe in God or not,” he concludes. “You need not fear God. You are God.”

Reza Aslan will discuss “God: A Human History” with Jewish Journal book editor Jonathan Kirsch on April 22 at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Visit events.latimes.com/festivalofbooks for tickets and information.


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.