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Sunday, Dec. 25, 2011
The holy trinity of religions
What unites, and separates, the three leading systems of belief in One God
Michael Hoffman's latest book is "Little Pieces: This Side of Japan" (VBW, 2010)."In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." — Genesis 1:1
"But after all, who knows, and who can say, whence it all came, and how creation happened?" — Hindu Rig-Veda, c. 1000 B.C.
Four thousand years ago, a great city — Ur in Mesopotamia, today's Iraq — was laid waste by nomadic invaders, and in the mind of a refugee from that vast destruction, in the course of long desert wanderings, there was conceived, in embryonic form, the notion that one invisible, immaterial, unnamable, universal, ethical, supernatural, omnipotent, beneficent, personal "God" ruled the world He had created.
The man's name was Abraham. Had there been psychiatrists in his day, he would surely have been packed off to a madhouse.
The idea was unprecedented, unheard of, scarcely conceivable.
Gods the human race had in abundance — household gods, tribal gods, earth gods, sky gods, sun gods, moon gods, storm gods, good gods, evil gods, and so on and so on. Early man was a worshiping animal, a god-spawning animal. The more gods, the better; the more fabulous their wonders, the better still — and yet there were two wonders no early god claimed: creativity and abstract morality.
Power, immortality and capricious, irresistible, amoral desires were their chief attributes. As for the world — or "universe," as we would say today — for most early peoples it had either always existed or had been begotten of gods begotten in turn — or both, as in Japan, where gods emerging in a pre-existent world begot the Japanese archipelago.
Where could Abraham's idea have come from? No one knows. But it had a future. For much of the world, it defined the future.
"The discovery of monotheism, of a sole, omnipotent God activated by ethical principles and seeking methodically to impose them on human beings, is one of the great turning points in history, perhaps the greatest of all," wrote the British historian Paul Johnson (in "A History of the Jews" ).
"I will make of thee a great nation," said God to Abraham. So He did. Today, monotheists the world over are Abraham's heirs — nearly 2.2 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims, 13 million Jews: more than half the human race. Hindus, 870-million strong, comprise the bulk of what's left of the polytheists. For Hindus, the world is simply too rich, too overflowing, too monstrous and too beautiful, to be explicable in terms of a single, solitary God. Besides, says a sacred Hindu text of the 9th century, it doesn't make sense: "If (God) is ever perfect and complete, how could the will to create have arisen in him?"
God is an apt subject of reflection on this day honoring the birth of Jesus. Why does Abraham's God matter to us today? How can we believe what the Bible and the Quran enjoin us to believe? We can't without making fools of ourselves, is one line of thought.
"How Religion Poisons Everything" is the subtitle of a famous book by the recently deceased British-American journalist Christopher Hitchens, "God is Not Great" (2007). "Religion," he wrote, "comes from the period of human history where nobody ... had the smallest idea of what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as comfort, reassurance and other infantile needs)."
Primitive man in an incomprehensible world with all its terrors and blessings clutches at straws. He pleads and gives thanks — to what? To whatever his reeling, churning, irrational mind serves up: monsters, animal-gods, man-gods, spirit-gods or, in Abraham's case, God.
But what of modern man, his world and mind tamed and disciplined by reason, philosophy, science? What does the God of Abraham, or His "only begotten Son," or His prophet Muhammad, have to do with human beings who measure the universe, weigh the stars, map the genomes?
Abraham's progeny, Jesus' disciples, Muhammad's followers, could believe without doing violence to their reason. Can we? As Mark Twain quipped, "Faith is believing what you know ain't so." Or, Hitchens again, "If you read (physicist Stephen) Hawking on the 'event horizon' — that theoretical lip of a 'black hole' over which one could in theory plunge and see the past and the future — I shall be surprised if you can still go on gaping at Moses and his unimpressive 'burning bush.' "
Well, granted, it's crazy, but there it is — the burning bush and other Biblical and Quranic wonders do indeed retain their hold on the imaginations of masses of people, some of whom have even read Hawking.
Some physicists speak of the "improbable order" of the infant universe as implying an intelligent Creator fine-tuning the Big Bang they calculate occurred 13.7 billion years ago.
If the universe, they say, had expanded ever so infinitesimally faster or slower than it did, if the force of gravity or the ratio of electron-to-proton mass had been ever so minutely different from what they in fact are, neither matter nor life would have formed. That's how close the universe came to being nothing at all.
That it's not nothing, but something, is a miracle. "In the creation of the heavens and the earth," says the Quran, "and in the alteration of night and day, there are signs for men of sense; those that remember God when standing, sitting and lying down, and reflect on the creation of the heavens and earth, say, 'Lord, You have not created this in vain.' "
God — God who? Other gods had names, God had none. When He appeared to Moses in the burning bush and commanded him to go to Egypt and free the Israelite slaves, "Moses," the Bible tells us, "said unto God, 'Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel and shall say unto them, the God of your fathers hath sent me unto you,' and they shall say to me, 'What is his name?', what shall I say unto them? And God said unto Moses, I Am That I Am ... Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel: I Am hath sent you."
"I am" — "Yahweh," in ancient Hebrew.
God alone among gods was beyond being named. Alone among gods He was infinite, outside time; not part of nature but the creator of nature; not sexual but the creator of sex. He was a Creator — not, like other gods, a begotten begetter.
Nothing is that was not created by Him, and each act of creation was followed by a judgment: "And God saw that it was good." Man too was created by Him — in His own image, "in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them," the Bible tells us — and yet with man, something seems to have gone wrong.
Man was a problem from the start, an obstreperous child with a will of his own. Adam and Eve sinning in the Garden of Eden sowed a breach between man and God, a breach such as there never was between man and gods. Though vastly inferior to God, gods seemed to get the unquestioning obedience they demanded. God did not.
Even Abraham, eternal symbol of absolute faith for his willingness, at God's behest, to sacrifice his beloved infant son Isaac — even Abraham, in his good-natured way, challenged God.
God's wrath was kindled against the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. "And Abraham drew near, and said, 'Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Peradventure there be 50 righteous within the city ...' " All right, said God, for 50 righteous I will not destroy the city. "And Abraham answered and said, 'Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes: Peradventure there shall lack five of the 50 righteous ...' Very well, said God, if there are 45 righteous. ... And so it went, down to 10 — why not to one? In any case, Abraham won his point. God yielded — not that it did the doomed cities any good, for no righteous people were found in them.