In the beginning there were many gods. As Man’s consciousness evolved and he tried to make sense of his world, he invented gods to help explain it. Early on most gods related to natural phenomenon like the moon and the sun, rain and floods, fertility and fecundity and so on. Such gods were often embodied in forest spirits, animals or climatic events.
But as I said there were many such gods. And it would be natural for the emerging homo sapiens struggling to come to grips with the world and his new-found consciousness to select from the Pantheon available to his tribe to find likely candidates to aid such understanding. When his tribe encountered other tribes, or even more likely when they were overwhelmed by other tribes, the menu to choose from increased.
It is inevitable that the less you understand the world, the greater the mysteries are, and the greater the mysteries are the greater needs for gods to explain them. In modern times some have suggested that God is necessary because there is so much we cannot explain. This phenomenon has been called the “God of the gaps”. In ancient times the gaps were very much larger and consequently there was room for many gods.
In the Old Testament, God was initially portrayed just as a man, perhaps a superman. He walked in the Garden of Eden with Adam in the evening and enjoyed the cool afternoon breezes. But even some of His super talents were challenged. After Adam and Eve had eaten of the forbidden fruit, they hid themselves in the garden and initially God could not find them?
But the Old Testament makes it clear, that at the time it was written, there were more gods than Yahweh. But over time the Israelites began to discount the other gods. It was not as though they came to believe that these other gods did not exist, but they were not as powerful or beneficial to them as Yahweh.
Indeed this was the case with many of the Middle-Eastern countries. Whilst acknowledging many gods, they would align with a particular one. This is called monolatry. And of course how their particular god was regarded was often correlated with their military success. Inevitably nations went out to fight their neighbours and usually they purported they did so at the behest of their gods. Consequently, subsequent military success elevated the status of their god.
Such gods were usually pretty parochial. They largely were charged with looking after a particular tribe, or later on a small nation. Consequently they seemed to have little concern for those not included in these exclusive groupings. The “Golden Rule” first appears in the Bible in Leviticus. The Bible scholar, Harry Orlinsky pointed out that from the context it was apparent that the author had only his fellow Israelites in mind. The injunction to “love your neighbour as yourself” applied only to the inhabitants of this small nation.
As ideas about gods continued to evolve, some societies, the Israelites among them, moved from monolatry, the notion that there was a dominant god in the Pantheon, to monotheism which postulated that there was indeed only one God. The one God of the Israelites was a jealous and retributive God. There is not much evidence of a God of Love in the Old Testament. It is also surprising that as many of the nations began to develop monotheism as their dominant religious outlook, they persisted in believing that their one God was the only God and the particular single deity of other religions was an inferior God at best or at worst a mere figment of their imagination. Their parochialism was such that they did not seem to be able to see that if there was only one God, maybe my particular God and your particular God were manifestations of the same thing, just seen differently through the worldviews that our history and culture created.
So as not to unduly complicate matters, let us continue to view the evolution of God through the Abrahamic tradition which would eventually spawn Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Let us take stock from this vantage point of the new religious framework under monotheism. There was now a belief that the universe was overseen by just one God. That God, however did not dispense His favours universally. His chosen people were the Israelites. He was, as we saw, vengeful and often angry. He was prone to use His powers to gain submission by fear.
Of course other nations had similar “Gods” and it is not surprising that relationships with neighbouring countries often resulted in violence with one nation contesting another in order to demonstrate the superiority of their respective deities. The Israelites were comforted by the understanding that, despite setbacks in their internecine wars, in the end their God would dominate and other nations would be brought to submission, and that submission would not only entail submission of their Gods to Yahweh, but of their states to Israel. God promises the Israelites that after salvation arrives, Egyptians and Ethiopians alike “shall come over to you and be yours; they shall come over in chains and bow down to you. They will make supplication to you.”
It seems questionable that if we were to come to the understanding that there is indeed only one universal God, that that God would bestow favoured status on a particular state, albeit it a rather minor state that believed that through some accident of history they should be provided benefits beyond those of others. However this is easy for a modern observer to say, with a far greater understanding of the world. Most of the proponents of these early Gods knew only their own country or their own region at best. It is not surprising that they had insular viewpoints.
A truly universal religion would seem to me need to be just. As a result it should favour no one on the basis of their nationality, gender, or other arbitrary attributes.
As well a universal religion needs to be built on “Love” not “Fear”. Many Christians will assert that that was the triumph of Christ and we will come to that later.
One of the early proponents of taking Abrahamic religion in this direction was Philo of Alexandria. Mind you other religions had charted this course centuries before. The Golden Rule (also known as the Law of Reciprocity) had been embedded in the teachings of Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism and many other religions before it was claimed by Judaism and Christianity.
Philo, who lived around the same time as the supposed life of Christ (20BC – 50AD) was a well-educated Jew living in the then Greek city of Alexandria. One wonders if indeed living in a multicultural society made him more tolerant then the xenophobic Jews of Palestine railing against the foreign oppressors. He would have been forced to exercise diplomacy mixing with Roman politicians, Greek academics and Egyptian citizens. Philo was critical of the literalists that took the word of the bible as an inerrant truth. He wrote a whole book on allegory. He seemed to downplay those parts of scripture that accentuated God’s cruelty and emphasised those few passages that portrayed His love. Many of the more gruesome tracts of the bible, Philo interpreted as metaphorical and not actual. Certainly Philo’s concept of God’s love was more encompassing than those of his religion that had gone before him. Philo’s interpretation of the Golden Rule was far more embracing than it had been traditionally applied by Judaism.
[Perhaps Philo’s main claim to fame was that he led a delegation to Rome to petition the Emperor Caligula why the emperor’s statue should not be allowed to be erected in the Jewish synagogues in Alexandria. That he survived such an encounter with the psychopathic emperor should surely have strengthened his faith in his God!]
However you view it, Philo’s more inclusive version of God’s love, and his less parochial interpretation of the Golden Rule, certainly seemed to be pointing the direction for a more modern, loving God. It has been said that Philo’s pragmatic response to the bible resulted from his need to reconcile his Jewish heritage with the Greek culture in which he was embedded. The religious historian, Erwin Goodenough wrote of Philo, “He read Plato in terms of Moses, and Moses in terms of Plato, to the point that he was convinced that each had essentially said the same things.”
Philo was also enlightened enough to reject the anthropomorphic depiction of God as just an allegory. In describing God he reflected that “no name nor utterance nor conception of any sort is adequate.”
This, of course is typical of the evolution of faith and God. First our faith encompasses our tribe and then our nation. Sooner or later if our faith is to evolve into something truly universal it must bridge all the cultural and national divides.
Many, as I intimated above, would assert that that next great step was taken by Christianity and maybe that is true. In the Gospel of John it was written that “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but should have everlasting life.” Quite clearly John was asserting that whoever you are (no distinctions of race, nationality, gender and so on) you had access to salvation by merely believing in Jesus Christ. This was again spelled out in the book of Galatians that, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Jesus Christ.”
And this is a heartening thought indeed – but there seems to be little evidence that Jesus (if he existed) thought this way. Biblical scholars tell us that the New Testament’s depiction of Jesus was greatly embellished and that embellishment was greatest in those gospels that were written later. Whilst we might like to believe that Jesus emphasised universal love, a critical look at the scriptures suggest that this may not have been the case at all.
Those that study the Bible suggest that the Gospel of Mark, which is the earliest of the New Testament Gospels, being the record laid down soonest after Jesus’ death, is the most reliable commentary on his life. There are few references to love in Mark’s gospel, but of course there was reference to the Golden Rule. In fact the invocation “to love thy neighbour as thyself” has always been mediated by how “neighbour” might be interpreted. There is evidence to suggest that early Christians interpreted “neighbour” quite narrowly.
It seems that Paul seemed to have interpreted it more broadly than his predecessors (allowing foreigners to enter the church for example and not requiring such male converts to be subject to circumcision). But even the love propagated by Paul was far from universal. Robert Wright who taught religion and philosophy at Princeton University writes:
The discerning nature of Christian love is reflected more than a century after Paul in the words of the Christian theologian Tertullian, “What marks us in the eyes of our enemies is our loving kindness. ‘Only look, they say, how they love one another!’” One another, not everyone.
The historian, Peter Brown, writing of the Roman Empire of the third century makes this comment:
The teaching of the church defined for the Christian who was not his neighbour: the neighbour of the Christian was not necessarily his kinsman, not his fellow dweller in a quartier, not his compatriot or his fellow townsman; his neighbour was his fellow Christian.
It has been postulated by some that the movement towards a more universal concept of brotherly love was facilitated by the Roman Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the fourth century. Constantine ruled a multi-ethnic empire. Surely it was helpful for the harmony of the Roman Empire to champion a faith that enabled all citizens to be adherents.
Now, I don’t want you to believe that I am deliberately denigrating Christianity by surmising that its original belief system wasn’t as all-encompassing as it is today and its notion of love (which its modern proponents often claim as one of its particular defining characteristics) was narrow and exclusive. What I am trying to suggest to you is that most religions are not static. We believe that they are founded on the core beliefs of their founders, but in fact they are moulded in the longer term by the beliefs of their followers. We should be pleased that most modern believers in Christianity have a more inclusive viewpoint and have now largely concluded that every human being is deserving of our love.
In the short history I have outlined, Yahweh, the God of the Israelites is beginning to morph into a God of all nations. And accordingly the salvation promised to believers went from the physical preservation of the state of Israel to the spiritual preservation of the souls of believers.
Now some might find it concerning that the God most believers worship is a far cry from the God of Yahweh Moses and Abraham. I personally find it comforting. The God of most contemporary religion is more moral, universal and loving than the God of the Old Testament.
Similarly I believe that the Christ that Christians now revere is now more worthy of worship and reverence than the shadowy figure on whom Mark’s gospel was founded.
I am optimistic enough to believe that religion can continue to so evolve. Even as religions are founded on a perception of God, the perception of God in turn evolves with the growing understanding of their adherents.
Robert Wright again maintains, “When Christians revere Christ, as they perceive him, they may be revering something authentically divine! It could be that the Jesus Christians know is both an illusion and the true face of God.”
There seems to be a reciprocal process here. God evolves to fill the psychological needs of his followers and also the survival of himself. Unless the perception of God keeps pace with the evolution of Mankind, His relevance will fade away.
Assuming this evolutionary process continues towards the development of a “God for our Times” here is the perception of God I am looking forward to:
1. A God who does not seek to be portrayed with any anthropomorphic qualities other than consciousness and mind
2. A God who provides unfettered access for all humanity, who needs no gatekeepers like, Jesus or Muhammad, and is not too prescriptive of paths that lead believers to the Divine Wisdom
3. A God of universal love that knows no distinction by race, nationality, history or gender
4. A God who is unafraid of science because He knows the Laws of Nature are merely manifestations of His thoughts.
5. A God who is self-confident enough to be tolerant of unbelievers and doesn’t seek to have His followers badger them by proselytizing and evangelizing them but would merely want believers to demonstrate the efficacy of their beliefs by their love, equanimity and contentment.
I might have overlooked something but already I am a believer!
NB: I have continually referred to God using male pronouns. God is not male! In the absence of any suitable way of addressing this problem I have continued to use the conventional male terminology rather than resort to some contrived linguistics that would not have added to the argument. I have also used Man for Humankind and the attendant masculine pronouns rather than being more politically correct and inclusive of both genders. I ask the forbearance of my female audience!