Monotheogenesis: The Emergence of One God
First Presbyterian Church
March 2, 2014
God and Geering
I am the Lord, and there is no other;
besides me there is no god.
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the
one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one
God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in
Say: He is God, Unique,
God, Lord Supreme!
Neither begetting nor begotten,
And none can be His peer.
Jews, Christians, and Muslims do not acknowledge the same
God. What they have in common is their conviction that there
is only one God, the Creator of the universe and of us.
Geering, From the Big Bang to God, p. 120
Do you believe in God?
That question gets asked with the assumption that there are only three possible responses:
Yes, No, or I don’t know.
There are other possible responses to that question. One is complete befuddlement as to what the question is asking. Lloyd Geering points out in his marvelous book, From the Big Bang to God: Our Awe-Inspiring Story of Evolution, that the classical Chinese language had no word for God. In other cultures that response would be another question, “What god do you mean?’
For the vast majority of human beings since the beginning of the human thought world around 50,000 years ago, and since the emergence of polytheism around 20,000 years ago, the idea of one god would be meaningless.
It has only been since about 500 BCE, about 2500 years ago, and only in a particular cultural history shaped by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that the concept of one god has been the norm.
So if someone asks you whether or not you believe in God and you understand the question it is because both of you speak the same language, the language of monotheism. Monotheism while recent, 2500 years or so, is the foundation for the global and secular age that emerged from the West.
The notion of one god who created the universe is a cultural product. To put it quite plainly, I am suggesting that God did not create the universe. The concept ofone god emerged and evolved as a serendipitous creation of evolution. If this note sounds discordant, it is because monotheism has been amazingly successful at making a meaningful story.
It is only very recently, within the last 250 years or so that monotheism has begun to crack due to the advent of modern science. Geering argues impressively that monotheism gave rise to modern science, but has in turn, been undone by it. Modern science has opened up avenues of meaning making that while uncharted are far more expansive than monotheism.
Yet all the Christian religious language, symbol, ritual, doctrine and so forth is monotheistic. Every song in our hymnal has its focus on a personal god. According to monotheism, that is what it means to be spiritual or religious. We sing songs, say prayers, and talk about God. Many of us are finding ourselves in a postmonotheistic place but lack the language to make sense of it.
I do need to speak as a pastor. While for many this type of talk is liberating and exciting, for others it can be disturbing, even frightening. Can he say that? There is something wrong to talk about God in that way. There is something unholy about it.
When I grew up in the 60s and 70s I learned that communists were bad, evil in fact. I learned that a wide variety of people were not only just wrong, but viscerally unacceptable. Feelings of disgust emerge. Words like demonic or evil or cult would be applied to those who practiced different religions or who had different ideas. Today the word atheist can create a visceral reaction within people. It isn’t about just being wrong. It is unholy.
Next week on Religion For Life, my guest is PJ Fisk who wrote a book about her own spiritual journey, If God is My Father, Who is My Mother? Her journey is one of coming out of patriarchal religion. I asked her what it was that sparked her awakening. She said she was invited to a hand reading session. She was very frightened about it. She said she felt she was walking on the “devil’s ground.” At this session they talked about Goddess and her reaction was visceral. Then she did something else. She noticed this feeling and asked herself why she was feeling this way and asked herself why can’t we talk about Goddess?
Once you start asking those questions you are on the path to shattering taboos. That is why religion works hard to keep certain questions from being asked. Doubt itself is the “devil’s ground.” How do you keep questions from being asked? Create feelings of disgust. It isn’t hard to do. Prejudice is learned.
That is part of it. The other part of it is that the only way to be religious or to be spiritual or to have a meaningful life or to be good or to be acceptable is through the path that is provided for you. The three monotheisms, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and their variations each have a path. The paths are different. Each thinks its path is normative or best or even exclusive. The god at the end of the path (and at the beginning) for each is different. Each agrees that there is one god.
I grew up in one of those paths and I have found much of it to be meaningful and beautiful. I have been challenged and have changed and moved through various stages and owe to it gratitude. I also realize that my inherited religious tradition has hit the end of its trail. In Montana, you can get on roads and drive for miles and miles. These dirt roads become trails and eventually they stop. But up ahead is an expansive prairie or a mountain and there is no road. Sometimes you need to go where there is no road.
Challenge the notion of God and what do you have? Then you are not on any path: you are not religious or spiritual or meaningful or good or acceptable. Thus says monotheism. But what if you could be good without God? That is the question many are asking. Those who ask it are facing their own visceral reactions of disgust as well as those of others.
The reason they ask it is because they look to the stars or to the evolution of life on Earth and realize that the monotheism they have inherited is not big enough. The god is too small. Yet these people are religious, spiritual even. They have a sense of awe and wonder and they have the capacity for compassion and a commitment to truth and goodness that our monotheistic traditions have taught us to have, that have taught me to have. I am going to give a name to this evolutionary development as postmonotheistic. That discussion is for the next few weeks.
I am suggesting that the notion of a personal god as creator of the universe who has a plan for the fulfillment of creation is not the end point in our quest for meaning. That concept of god is an evolutionary product that emerged in human history. We can trace its development.
We can trace this by a chronological reading of the Hebrew scriptures. The earlier texts were populated by gods. The “god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" is a reference to a family or tribal god. The god who led the Hebrews out of slavery is Yah, the storm god. As the tribes evolve and as nation-states develop, the god gets bigger and becomes a national god.
Even as late as Deuteronomy in the seventh century, the warning is not to go after other gods. Not because they don’t exist, but because you need to be loyal to your god. That is called henotheism. There are many gods, but you are exclusive to yours.
Last week I talked about the emergence of polytheism as the outgrowth of the instinct to give agency to inanimate things. The blinding orange ball moves across the sky. Who is it? Shemesh is his name. Everything is explained by agents and stories that correspond to them. Polytheism requires appeasing all of these gods to make things work well for you. Henotheism is a movement toward monotheism. One god is exclusively for you or perhaps is boss of the others.
We think of the Hebrew scriptures of being monotheistic because we look back on it from that perspective. We read the Hebrew scriptures beginning with Genesis 1. That is a monotheistic text. It is monotheism par excellence. It wasn’t created until the 6th century BCE. The god who created the heavens and the earth in six days wasn’t even created until the Jews were taken in exile in Babylon.
Genesis 1:1 to 2:4a are some of the most influential verses in Western culture. In a burst of creative poetry the author took agency away from the sun, the moon, the stars, the sea, the sky, all the gods of the other nations, and gave it all to one god who screwed in the sun as if he were screwing in a lightbulb. With a sweep of the written word all of the gods vanished and one god was made responsible for it all.
That wasn’t even the point. The author wanted to communicate an answer to the question of how do we remain a people in a foreign land? You do it by keeping the Sabbath. You rest on the seventh day as God did when he created everything.
The other question is how do you explain our suffering at the hands of this foreign empire. The answer became not that Babylonian gods are stronger which would have been an obvious polytheistic or henotheistic explanation. You explain it by saying that the one god is teaching you a lesson.
The universe imagined in Genesis chapter one is an ancient near eastern universe. It consisted of a dome above over a flat earth. The stars, sun, moon are in the dome. When it rains, the dome opens up its portals. This understanding of the universe evolved in another 500 years to the Ptolemaic universe. The earth was a sphere in which the planets and the sun moved around it all the way out to the fixed stars. Above that the realm of heaven where the one god still lived.
Christianity arose from ancient Israel in combination with Greek philosophy. In a few hundred years the Christian version of monotheism ended up winning hearts, minds, and empire. The Roman Empire became Christian in the 4th century CE a thousand years after Genesis 1 was written. The gods of Rome and Greece eventually faded away. One god, one empire. Makes it simple.
There are other cultures that also developed a form of monotheism out of polytheism and are perhaps earlier than ancient Israel. The monotheism that eventually became associated with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam has been a dominant cultural force in the West and in the world.
For over a thousand years in the West monotheism made perfect sense. You had a text, the Bible, that told God’s story from beginning to end, and a Church with sacraments that led a person through life and all was well. Jesus was in the heavens at the right hand of God the Father. God the Spirit was doing the Father and Son’s bidding down below. Eventually Jesus would return and there would be new heaven and a new earth, with every tear wiped away. Monotheism has to answer the problem of suffering in some form.
It was curiosity about God and the world that led people to explore God’s book of nature. When did creation start? How do those stars work? People began to ask questions about how God did it. Behind it all, even as the practical role of God gets pushed back, still God is thought of as an agent who sets the equations or who spins the whirling planets. As human learning continues to come of age, less and less is explained by the need of an agent.
Now we can tell a story of the universe that arises without the necessity of an agent. From the earliest fraction of a second, we can speak of the entire 13.7 billion year history of the universe in terms of natural processes. Bishop John Shelby Spong joked that Galileo put God out of a home and Darwin put him out of a job. What now?
We get to the question, how is God evolving? What do we mean when we speak of God? What does God do? How are we religious? How are we spiritual? How do we find or create meaning? How are we good? Some retain the use of the symbol and word, God, and redefine it in a way that makes sense for them. God is the Universe. God is Creativity. God is Mystery. God is Love. God is Compassion. Still others say that the word is of a past age and it is no longer meaningful. For them the object of religious and spiritual devotion and ethical commitment is no longer God but perhaps Earth and the flourishing of all its inhabitants. For them God has come down to Earth and Earth has become sacred.
When someone asks me if I believe in God I am honestly not really sure what to do with that question. I want to retain the passion of what I have gained from my ancestors and fellow travelers. I want to retain all the truth, goodness, and faith that has come from belief in monotheism.
I like Gordon Kaufman’s answer:
“To believe in God is to commit oneself to a particular way of ordering one’s life and action. It is to devote oneself to working towards a fully humane world within the ecological restraints here on planet Earth, while standing in piety and awe before the profound mysteries of existence.” [Geering, p. 185]
But I am not sure that answer is satisfactory to those who ask if I believe in God. At times I say yes to God and all that the history of that word has meant and to the possibility of what it could mean. At other times I find that God as a product of cultural evolution is way too small and even harmful to my health.
I find myself at the end of a Montana road. Ahead of me is a beautiful prairie without a trail. I try this way and then I backtrack and try that way. I like to think that the trial and error of exploration itself is a sacred act.