In ‘God: A Human History,’ Reza Aslan looks at how we think about God

There are many lovely, canny and insightful things in Reza Aslan’s new book “God: A Human History,” written in Aslan’s clear, accessible style. My favorite phrase, however, is on the back, where the line above the blurb of endorsement reads: “Advance Praise for ‘God.’”

Looking at that as a joke works on a few levels. According to most religions, of course, God is the start of all things. Even Aslan’s book starts “In the beginning was the void.” (Sadly, the Void was not available for a back-cover blurb.)

But as Aslan’s book points out repeatedly, humans didn’t just conceive of God; humans couldn’t not conceive of God. A relationship with the divine is virtually hard-wired into us. Once humanity came up with the divine, it was only a matter of time before God became, over the course of several thousand years and with markedly mixed results, ever more human.

In any event, Aslan says “God: A Human History” acts as something of a culmination of his previous books, which include “No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam,” “How to Win a Cosmic War” (also published as “Beyond Fundamentalism,” a look at religious violence) and “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.”

“Most of my writing has been about religious history, religious movements and religious figures,” the 45-year old writer says from his home in California. “This is the first book I’ve written that really is about faith than more than it is about religions themselves.”

In “God: A Human History,” Aslan looks at the religious impulse, how it works, how it arose and why, and what it does to us when we start thinking about God. He contends it is easily the most personal book he has written.

“I try to keep myself out of my books,” Aslan says, “but I freely admit the history of human spirituality that I present in the book certainly parallels my own journey.”

Aslan was born to Shia Muslim parents in 1972; his family immigrated to America in 1979, around the time of the Iranian revolution. As he discussed in his 2013 chat with Owen Egerton as part of the Texas Book Festival, he converted to evangelical Christianity as a teenager, only to struggle with his faith and move back to Islam on the advice of some very understanding Jesuit educators.

These days, he says he identifies most closely with the mystical Sufi branch of Islam.

In “God: A Human History,” Aslan reaches back about as far as humans go and combines cognitive theories with evolutionary notions of religion and a few other -ologies to examine how God has become more humanized over time, how we as a species ultimately render God as reflective of ourselves.

He wasn’t even planning to go down this particular road. “I was going to write a popular history of religions, something that was just a straight up history about the origins and evolution and future of God,” Aslan says.

But as he began to dig deep into prehistoric spirituality and as he began to study theories about the way in which the religious impulse arose, Aslan began to notice an unavoidable pattern: The urge to humanize the divine existed in almost every religion the world has ever known.

It was certainly part and parcel of how Aslan thought about God. “Suddenly, it occurred to me that it’s because I have no choice,” Aslan says. The book changed from a history of God to a history of “this one particular way of thinking about God.”

Consider the notion of Jesus of Nazareth — Jesus Christ as a being both fully God and fully man.

“As I often say, it’s that idea (notion of God as man) more than anything else that explains why Christianity has and will most likely continue to be the largest most successful religion in the world: It fully surrendered itself to this cognitive impulse. Christianity doesn’t say God is human-like; it says God is a human being. It’s like scratching a cognitive itch.”

Then again, there are also some pretty negative consequences to humanizing God.

“If we are compelled to conceive of God in our own terms, if we have this innate impulse to implant in God our own personalities, our own characteristics and biases and motivations,” Aslan says, “then what we are doing is creating a superhuman being without human limitations. That more than anything else explains why religion has been a force for good and bad because everything that has been good and bad about our religions is everything good and bad about us.”

At the end of the brief book — about 170 pages, with 79 pages of informative notes that are worth exploring — Aslan makes a “full-throated defense,” as he puts it, of a pantheistic way of thinking about God, that there is no separation from creator and creation. “That’s about as personal as I’ve ever gotten.”

As Aslan writes: “As a believer and a panthesist, I worship God not through fears and trembling, but through awe and wonder at the workings of the universe — for the universe is God … I recognize that the knowledge of good and evil that the God of Genesis so feared humans may gain begins with the knowledge that good and evil are not metaphysical things but moral choices … I recognize the divinity of the world and every being in it and respond to everyone and everything as though they were God — because they are.”

And all of the monotheistic religions have brushed up against pantheism here and there. Aslan notes Christian mystics such as Meister Eckhart, the Jewish mystic Isaac Luria and Sufi poets such as Rumi as “people who fundamentally understood this idea that there can be no division between creator and creation.

“It’s not just that it’s present in every religious tradition,” Aslan says. “I argue in the book that it is the original form of spirituality, before there was such a thing as religion with dogmas and doctrine. The pantheistic way of thinking sees God not as a divine personality but as the animating theory of the universe. There can’t be anything that isn’t God.”

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