God: A Human History
By Reza Aslan
280 pages, $28
A human history of God?
What other kind could there be, unless God decided to write his own biography? (In fact, God did write about Himself in the Bible. Many hold that the Bible is inspired writing about God with human authors, many of them cooperating over millennia.)
So what’s the big deal then with Reza Aslan, who calls himself a "public intellectual" (I think this means anybody with a point of view for sale), asking us to “embrace a deeper, more expansive understanding of God?” What’s new about this latest effort of an old story to sell a book?
One may wish to differ with Aslan, an Iranian by birth who came to the States. He’s a graduate of a Jesuit college, Santa Clara, and other notable credentials from Harvard, Iowa and the University of California, Riverside.I wonder how many Christian believers accept that, as Aslan puts it, that “Jesus’ ‘well-worn portrayal” needs to be updated. Jesus is as He is, immutable many believe, the God-Man who died for our sins and was raised from the dead. Jesus, the Incarnate God, doesn’t change. It would be a contradiction in terms.
As a reviewer of Aslan’s book, I’m anxious to understand the development of our author’s own God-beliefs with which he buttresses the premise of this book.
His history runs like this: Wikipedia notes that Aslan was born into a Shia Muslim family, converted to evangelical Christianity at age 15, and then returned to Islam before attending Harvard. Later, and without any apparent sense of contradiction, Aslan said that he was “a genuinely committed disciple of Jesus of Nazareth. And not only that, but – hold your breath – he also said, “I’m definitely a Muslim and Sufism is the tradition that I most closely adhere to.” I suppose that’s possible, but it’s unusual.
Later Aslan remarks in a 2013 article in “The Washington Post”, "It's not [that] I think Islam is correct and Christianity is incorrect. It's that all religions are nothing more than a language made up of symbols and metaphors to help an individual explain faith.”
If this is Aslan’s view - one religion is as good as another - it’s hardly a new idea.
Aslan begins with the idea that “God is hardwired in our brains … and that man thinks about God as a divine version of us.” This is not a revelation. What other dimension have we to think about God but our own? This concept doesn’t seem enough to begin a book about God with, but I’m anxious to give Aslan more scope as long as I’m not played around with, “rope-a-doped" as Muhammed Ali used to say.
The flyleaf of “God” remarks that “this book is an attempt to get to the root of this humanizing impulse in order to develop a more peaceful, universal spirituality unencumbered by the urge to foist our human characteristics upon the divine.”
This perspective is contradictory to the Judeo-Christian concept of God as immutable and Israel’s covenant as God’s chosen people. Latterly, with the coming of Christ in the New Testament, Christians have become happy recipients of an extension of that tradition.
If you want "happy and peaceful" as Aslan argues, nature is a source of great pleasure, but it has its limits. Perhaps I’m short circuiting some profound argument that I don’t appreciate. But this peaceful, universal spirituality that Aslan promotes can become pantheism, with God in all things.
In the end, and after tracing the archaeology and psychology of the development of belief in prehistoric cultures, Aslan offers believers a choice of belief possibilities.
You can believe "whatever" you like, our author writes. It may be, he concludes, that belief in a soul is born of confusion or faulty reasoning, or a trick of the mind or an accident of evolution; “an accident of atoms,” he suggests. Or, just as plausible, he continues but impossible to prove, that there is an animating spirit that underlies the universe.
“So then, make your choice,” Aslan concludes. “Eat the forbidden fruit. Do not fear God. You are God.”
I think I’ll pass on this opportunity. I’ve already tasted the fruit and it was pretty good. But I’ve been around the block enough times to know that I’m not God, even with a small letter.
Michael D. Langan has long reviewed books for The Buffalo News.