Saturday, December 30, 2017

God: A Human History

Reza Aslan was already a recognized author of books featuring the history of religion when he published Zealot, a work examining the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. It was the thought provoking nature of that book that made him a star in his field of research. Now Aslan sets his sites even higher (literally and figuratively) with his latest tome, God: A Human History.

God: A Human History takes the reader on a journey from humanity’s first religious awakenings in the stone ages up to the monotheisms that dominate the globe today. It is, perhaps, no longer a controversial to claim that humans the world over have always had a deep need to connect with the Divine (however one wants to define that term). Aslan in going right back to the first human communities underscores this point. He draws some conclusions about the antiquity of belief in a god from an analysis of the incredibly ancient cave art of Europe. The conclusions are, I believe, highly speculative since we have little (actually, truth be told, we have nothing at all) to guide the would-be art critic in analysing why these images were produced. That being said, Aslan’s overall thesis that humans have always yearned for God, or a god or gods, is correct. It is the extension to this argument that really makes the book shine. Aslan argues, further, that humans have vacillated between a humanized God (one that is relatable to common folk) and a God that is ineffable; in other words we either anthropomorphise God and use concepts that everyone can understand or we gaze in awe at the remoteness, the sheer unknowability, of a thoroughly unhuman-like Divine. It has always been thus: a God close-to-us or a God far-from-us. I think he’s on to something.

The majority of the book is taken up with this dialectical theme of the humanized God versus the distant, unknowable God. Added to this picture by way of explaining how a belief in the Divine is universal across all times and cultures (with a nod of recognition to our atheist friends) is the equally ancient belief in the human soul. This is a little more controversial and harder to prove than the thesis that accounts for the ubiquity of belief in a Divine Something, but I think it is interesting and, possibly, valid.

I like books in this vein. Take an old idea and say something fresh and new about it. God: A Human History is that kind of book.

If I had to make one criticism of the work, and it is a major one, it would be that Aslan’s concluding claim that pantheism is to be preferred as our best understanding of the Divine is simply unwarranted; unwarranted because the historical analysis does not support such a claim. Pantheism is notoriously difficult to define it raises more questions than it answers. Even if pantheism were true (and I don’t think it is) the history of how humans have related to God is just that: a history of our attempts to deal with the basic human desire for the transcendent. You can’t pull pantheism as “the truth of divinity” out of the historical record. You would be asking human social history to provide more than it can justify.

Despite Aslan’s head-scratching final remark, God: A Human History is a fun read. I recommend it to those who enjoy the history of religions and to those who are entertained by new ideas.