Saturday, November 10, 2012

Rethinking God II

The Return of Jephtah by
Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini,
or, God likes his virgins
My last posting in which I said that I find that I am rethinking God—reconsidering what “God” means to me in the light of my actual experience—has shocked some people and led to a number of comments, both positive and negative.  The ultra-orthodox are quick to remind me that “God is unchanging.”  Of course, I am not quite sure what it means that “God is unchanging,” but as a historian I am well aware that the human understanding of God has changed frequently over the approximately four thousand years that God and humankind have been on speaking terms.  I have never read Karen Armstrong’s A History of God: The 4,000 year quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam but it is on my next order to Amazon.  I do recall from days as a theology student that “back in the day” when God introduced himself to Abram of Ur of the Chaldees, that there were many deities in the Abramic pantheon and that despite the careful editing of the stories by later editors at the time of the Babylonian exile (or even later) Abraham (as Abram was later known) and his son and grandsons worshiped a number of deities.  I remember that God as known under the soubriquet  Y-WH was originally a warrior-god in the Canaanite pantheon.  (I am very reluctant to use the full name or even the full Tetragrammaton as there is a strong tradition—in Judaism a law—that the Name of God is never pronounced or written and while we Christians do not feel so compelled, I do think we should not be cavalier with the Name.)   Of course God was known under several other names in the Hebrew scriptures, most notably El Elohim. In the Hebrew texts of the Pentateuch—the first five books of the Bible, or the  Torah—God is referred to sometimes by one Name, sometimes by the other.  All that is well and good, but they seem to have actually been two distinct deities who are over a period of time conflated into a single deity.  Moreover, even the name “Elohim” is a plural form and not singular.  While when it refers to God, the word employs a singular form of the verb (taking the plural when it refers to the “gods of the nations”—i.e. the “pagan” deities of Israel’s neighbors) the fact that it is a plural form indicates that it originally did refer to a plurality of gods and that later editors cleaned up the text to reflect the monotheism that eventually replaced Hebrew polytheism around the time of the Babylonian exile.  So here is one example of how even in ancient times God was being rethought.  God went from being two (Y-WH and El Elohim) deities among many to be One and One only with no other deities.  
But God has changed—or rather our understanding of God has changed—in other ways as well.  In the 11th chapter of the Book of Judges, Jephthah sacrifices his daughter to Y-WH to fulfill a vow he had made—a vow to perform human sacrifice should God make him successful in battle against the Ammonites.  This indicates that in the 11th century before Christ Jews still believed that God found human sacrifice acceptable.  Yet clearly this practice was done away with fairly early on as subsequent biblical texts do not mention human sacrifice being offered to God—indeed prohibit it—and by the Christian era it is an embarrassment to the rabbis who alter the story to say that the girl was  not in fact killed but sentenced to perpetual spinsterhood. 
These examples don’t imply any change in God but they clearly spell out that our knowledge of God is evolutionary.  We continually refine our understanding of God and of his law.  It is not a fixed reality.  I will bring up other examples of how in Christianity the concept of God changes radically as we come to understand God at ever deeper levels.  Some will claim that during the period in which revelation occurs that God tells us more and more about himself but once the canon of scripture closes—with the death of the last apostle—all that can ever be known is known.  But we will see that the Christian concept of God has continued to evolve long after the apostles.  Scripture reflects the experience of God—it does not “reveal it.”  God has revealed God’s Self to humans over the course of centuries—millennia—and continues to do so.  This does not mean that every human articulation of the encounter with God is of equal weight.  There is a tremendous amount of subjectivity in religious experiences of which we must be very careful but it is simply untrue to claim that we no longer learn anything new about God. 
Of course there are those who are terrified of not being able to control what others believe about God.  One priest I know says that in the almost forty years of being a priest, the subject that most angers his listeners when he preaches is “The Mercy of God.”  “You would be surprised,” he says “of how many people demand God to be ‘just’ by which they mean that God should follow the same moral code to which they hold, and when you say that his Mercy overflows our sins—or rather, it overflows the sins of 'others'—such as abortion, homosexual intimacy, entering the United States illegally, thinking for oneself rather than blind obedience to “The Church”—they go nuts.  Of course these are the children of those who thought that God wanted black children to go to a different school than white children or be nursed in ‘separate but equal’ hospital wards and the great-grandchildren of those who thought God wanted some people to ‘own’ others.”  Ah yes, there are many of our presuppositions about God to which we had better give some thought.

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