Driven by Reza Aslan’s grace and curiosity, “God” helps us pan out from our troubled times, while asking us to consider a more expansive view of the divine in contemporary life.
“God: A Human History”
by Reza Aslan
Random House, 298 pp., $28
As I write this, officials in Sutherland Springs, Texas, are in the early stages of investigating Devin Kelley, who shot nearly four dozen people in a Baptist church congregation during Sunday services, killing at least 26 of them, the youngest 17 months old. Kelley used a house of worship to settle a personal score.
The massacre was the second high-profile, high-casualty attack in a week with religious overtones.
Five days prior in New York City, Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov drove a truck down a busy cycling path in Lower Manhattan, not far from Ground Zero, killing eight people and injuring more than a dozen more. According to police, Saipov shouted “God is great” in Arabic after crashing into a school bus and just before an officer shot him.
The author of “God: A Human History” will speak at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 14, at Seattle First Baptist Church, tickets start at $45 and include copy of book (206-621-2230 or lectures.org).
In two attacks spaced only a few days apart, young men brought terror to a sanctuary and a site near hallowed ground, perverted the idea of religion as a source of peace and compassion, and violated tenets of the social contract that keep humanity from destroying itself outright.
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Author Reza Aslan’s intriguing new book, “God: A Human History,” wonders where gods came from, but after this pair of pathetic killings, a more immediate question might be, where are they now?
The concept of “god,” which has taken so many forms and inspired so many faith practices over the course of human existence, is almost too much to contain in a single work, let alone one that comes in at 171 pages, plus copious notes.
Driven by Aslan’s grace and curiosity, “God” at least helps us pan out from our troubled times, while asking us to consider a more expansive view of the divine in contemporary life.
Aslan — an Iranian-American TV host, commentator and religious-studies scholar, author of “No God but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam” and “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” — offers tantalizing theories on how humans first came to imagine gods.
One line of thought says that certain mental processes honed over millions of years made it only natural for us “to assign agency to inanimate objects, to endow those objects with a soul or spirit, and then to successfully transmit beliefs stemming from those objects to other cultures and other generations,” Aslan writes.
But this explanation is only partly satisfying to Aslan.
How, he wonders, did we develop the idea of a “soul or spirit,” something more than meets the eye, in the first place?
“The origin of the religious impulse … is not rooted in our quest for meaning or our fear of the unknown,” Aslan writes. “It is the result of something far more primal and difficult to explain: our ingrained, intuitive, and wholly experiential belief that we are, whatever else we are, embodied souls.”
Aslan acknowledges that his interest in the subject stems from his personal experience, from his childhood conception of God as a powerful old man in the sky, “a bigger, stronger version of my father, but with magical powers,” to his shift from the mild Islam of his Iranian parents to the more ardent Christianity of the American friends he made as a teen.
“Had I been constructing my image of God all this time as a mirror reflecting back to me my own traits and emotions?” he asks.
If that’s the case, he has not been alone in doing so.
He explores the origins of the universal idea of the soul as something distinct from flesh and blood, as well as the origins of the notion that some being or force created the universe and inhabits everything within it.
Again and again, throughout history, we have projected our own images onto these greater beings, our own habits onto the actions of supernatural forces.
Some of the earliest examples of the existence of godlike figures in the human imagination depict a “Lord of Beasts” creature with animal and human features. A version of this god can be found far and wide, from fourth millennium B.C.E. Mesopotamia to Hindu society in South Asia to Celtic mythology in Northern Europe.
Cultures around the world came to identify, worship and build societies around multiple gods with humanlike personas and supernatural powers. Many early gods, however, lacked what we might call a moral compass, and some, like the gods of ancient Greece, warred and lusted like stars in a celestial soap opera. Later ones, like the monotheistic gods of the Middle East, were supreme rule-makers, judges and punishers.
Early books of the Bible depict the Israelite deity Yahweh as playing a more hands-on role, Aslan notes, offering direct counsel to David and planning and leading battles against competing gods.
Our gods explain the workings of nature (human and otherwise), console us in grief, give us hope when suffering, and remind us of our capacity for forgiveness and love.
People have tended to think of themselves as serving and sacrificing for their gods, but as Aslan makes clear, gods also serve us, especially when our behavior is all too human.
If Aslan’s “God” has a failing, it’s that the author doesn’t dedicate enough space to exploring the presence of god and the importance of religion in the various regional cultures of North and South America or sub-Saharan Africa, either in the past or today. This book makes you thirsty for more. Maybe that’s not a bad thing.
Prehistoric humans, who left clues to their spirituality in mysterious cave paintings, essentially believed that all things, living and not, shared a single essence, “a single soul if you will,” Aslan explains.
We are all bound together. It is one of humanity’s precious foundational notions. Things got complicated from there.