Six Takes on God

Regular readers of the book review pages (or even of books) are no doubt familiar with the so-called New Atheists — Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, in order of increasing shrillness — and how they’ve been raising hackles with their screeds. After reading their books last year, I could see why people were ticked off. The New Atheists like to conflate any kind of religion with extremism, as if all believers were boneheaded fundamentalists. Similarly, they rail against a cruel, straw-man God, as if the fundamentalist projection of brutality onto the Creator is the only way to conceive of Him.

Still, I say, God bless the New Atheists. The thing to remember is that they are good for religion — at least for those of us who see faith as an ongoing inquiry. “The God Debate” is often portrayed as a screaming match between nonbelievers and fundamentalists, but there is a vast area of religious feeling in between. And the success of the New Atheists is prodding those in that broad zone to articulate their beliefs. This year has brought a number of notable responses, in particular to the oversimplified perception of God shared by both nonbeliever and Bible beater. Recently I read a half-dozen such books, and though at times I was frustrated, overall it was an enlightening experience.

Any marathon reading session needs an organizing principle, so I moved to the least religious books from the most. (Maybe that’s why it began inauspiciously: The religiously observant can be remarkably unobservant about other things.) In “God According to God: A Physicist Proves We’ve Been Wrong About God All Along,” Gerald L. Schroeder argues that skeptics have “a stunted perception” of God as “a sinister monster.” When we look at scripture more carefully, however, we see that He is loving and merciful. Which is nice to point out, but really the book is a jumbled attempt to reconcile scripture and science. Instead of a considered response to the real questions raised by atheism, “God According to God” is a mishmash of Intelligent Design, junk metaphysics and passable Jewish theodicy.

Karen Armstrong’s “The Case for God” is, baruch HaShem, much better, even if the title is misleading. Her book is not so much a brief on behalf of a specific divinity as it is an investigation of the “apophatic tradition” — namely, that God is beyond human comprehension, so it’s better not to talk so much about Him. Instead we should look to a “spirituality of silence,” a religious practice that, through “spiritual exercises and a dedicated lifestyle,” reveals His transcendence. And anything that “elevates an inherently limited value to an unacceptably high level,” like the contemporary obsession with creationism or the “Holy Land,” is idolatrous.

In “Saving God: Religion After Idolatry,” Mark Johnston also has choice things to say about the “idolatrous urge to contain God in an image or representation.” Johnston, like Armstrong, is not talking about icons or statues: He’s talking about applying any anthropomorphic qualities to God, like ethnocentrism or vengeance. He’s also talking about the obsession with “outer ritual forms” and the afterlife, the selfish “quest for meaning,” even theodicy. All are “forms of resistance to the Divine.” According to Johnston, the better path is panentheism, or “God in all and all in God.” But what is God? Well, “the outpouring of Existence Itself by way of its exemplification in ordinary existents for the purpose of the self-disclosure of Existence Itself.”

Which is difficult to imagine on a sampler. Look, both Armstrong’s and Johnston’s books are brilliant. But their alternative paradigms are too intellectual, too rarefied. I had to read parts of Johnston’s book twice, some even three times. Which I didn’t mind — after all, that’s my job. But the other day I also read that Hondurans have been praying to the Virgin of Suyapa, a statuette of Mary, in the hopes that she’ll intercede in their political crisis. And I recall the Hasidim I saw in Poland who left notes at the graves of departed tzadikim. What would they make of “panentheism” or the “apophatic tradition”?

I also found it interesting that while both authors call for a radical re-imagining of monotheism, both still exhibit a kind of Christo-centrism. Armstrong is impressed by midrash, but her greater enthusiasm is for the Christian thinkers who developed a “spirituality of silence.” And Johnston, whose book is a rigorously constructed philosophical argument — one against anthropomorphism and against an unquestioning reliance on scripture to reveal the true nature of God — ends by telling us that “Christ conquers death on our behalf by ideally exemplifying agape, and stimulating it in us.” Of course they should write from any tradition they like, and who would argue against brotherly love? Still, this Jewish reader felt somewhat marginalized.

But when it comes to mistaking Christo-centrism for monotheism, nothing beats Terry Eagleton’s “Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate.” He scores some points at the expense of the New Atheists, referring to Hitchens as “petit-bourgeois” and Dawkins as an “old-fashioned, crassly reductive system builder straight out of George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch.’” Eagleton’s own religious views, however, are an admixture of Marxism and a fixation on the “the murdered, transfigured body of Jesus.” All right, there is an ideological connection, as in liberation theology. But much of this book is muddled, a collection of almost random thoughts about Jesus, faith and civilization. And it’s rife with the tiresome anti-Americanism of the British left, with the usual schadenfreude about September 11. (Note, though, that Eagleton’s book is based on lectures he gave at Yale, so clearly he’s not averse to American money.)

We have now reached the not-so-religious side of the list, as evidenced by a book that puts the words “God” and “evolution” in the title. But Wright has no Dawkinsian hostility. Instead, in “The Evolution of God” he provides a clear-eyed description of how animism developed into organized religion, and how the conception of God developed in monotheism. The trick is to see that gods are “products of cultural evolution,” and that “the tone of scripture is set by the circumstance of its creator.” In other words, when groups of humans engage in “win-win” behavior, God is tolerant and loving; when one group loses (like the Hebrews often did), God starts talking about enemy-smiting.

Wright’s book is irreverent without being dismissive, and packed with interesting (if often unverifiable) ideas about how religions are created. My only criticism, really, is that I found it insanely difficult to finish. Wright is an over-explainer. He consistently provides an unnecessary level of detail, which creates a book that refuses to end. It’s 567 pages long, which, to be fair, includes the index; but it also includes detailed footnotes, an afterword and an appendix. And there’s an online appendix. Days after I finally got through it all, I flinched whenever I got a text message, for fear that it was Wright with further elucidation.

I had no such concerns about “The God Question: What Famous Thinkers From Plato to Dawkins Have Said About the Divine.” Andrew Pessin concisely summarizes what dozens of sages have written about God, which makes his book a useful companion to those previously discussed. It’s also the only one that I am likely to consult again — partly because Pessin is not out to convince anyone of anything. Every book mentioned above has the implicit message that its author has an answer, the suggestion that this is the way it is; believe what I believe. Only Pessin’s is designed to inspire further reading.

Still, whatever their faults, these books will teach you much about religion, if not so much about God. (Schroeder’s book teaches that Jews, too, can be dumb enough to swallow Intelligent Design.) But I’m not so concerned if I remain confused about the nature of God. Unlike fundamentalists or atheists, I can live with a certain amount of confusion. There is spiritual sustenance in food for thought. And, as I mentioned, we should be encouraged to see that smart people are articulating alternatives to atheism and fundamentalism.

One last thought. I await a book that might convince fundamentalists to respect the separation between church and state — indeed, that this separation was what allowed their ideas to flourish in the first place. And I await a book that reminds atheists of the stabilizing virtues of religious tolerance. Neither book would be about God, of course. Nor would either resolve the real problems of life, the “arbitrary suffering, the decay of corrosive aging, our profound ignorance of our condition,” as Johnston puts it. But they might end a lot of wasteful bickering.

Gordon Haber is a frequent contributor to the Forward.


Gordon Haber

Gordon Haber writes fiction and journalism. He also publishes e-books at Dutch Kills Press.

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