Taking Leave Of The Personal God
by Asoka Selvarajah (e-mail: ASelvarajah@liberator.net) [November 17th, 2002]
A personal God is an idea whose time has come.... and gone. In the wake of all the troubles it has brought to us throughout the centuries, and particularly in recent years, is it not time to move onto a vision of the Divine that is better suited to reality?
The notion of the personal God arose with our prehistoric ancestors. It was a convenient way to describe a complex, and often very harsh, world. The personal gods were many in number, as evidenced by the numerous pantheons of divinities from ancient Egypt to modern India. The concept of a single masculine personal God, although prefigured by the Aton of Pharaoh Akhenaton, seems to have come to the fore largely through Judaism, and then through Christianity and Islam. Hinduism also adopted the idea that the many gods in its pantheon are actually the different faces of ONE god. However, although the pantheon gods are personal, the ultimate God from which they derive, the Brahman, is not.
“...it is hard to locate a single war fought in the name of Buddhism or Taoism: faiths that do not possess the notion of a personal God.”
However, the idea that the universe and the human race were created by a personal God gives rise to many theoretical and practical problems. The most obvious one, discussed frequently in Christianity, is: why does God allow suffering? In its wider sense, the question might be asked: why is the world the way it is, i.e. so very terrible? Christianity answers with the words "Devil", "Free Will", "Sin", and ultimately "Salvation". However, none of this is very satisfactory when examined closely. The saying, "A bad workman always blames his tools" comes to mind. After all, God made us did he not? And with omniscient knowledge, he must surely have known exactly what was going to happen.
Indeed, this leads onto theological ideas of Good and Evil. In all three of the Abrahamic family of religions, Evil is regarded as abnormal and definitely NOT the will of God. Hence, Death, which is arguably Evil's ultimate manifestation, is also considered highly unnatural (but ultimately redeemable, whether through the blood of Christ or faith in Allah etc.). Yet, the very idea is absurd. How can there be an up without a down, or a left without a right, or a coin with only one side?
Death, we now know, is INTEGRAL to life. If the old and wasted cells in your body refused to die to make room for new ones, you would literally face a fate worse than death! In Nature, everything EATS everything! A lion might very well lie down with a lamb one day (in fact, they can do so right now, when they are not hungry), but could it still be called a lion if it transforms into a vegetarian in Paradise? Indeed, for lions, tigers and crocodiles to be carnivores at all, and kill for their own survival, you would have to propose that after the fall of Man, the Devil had to redesign the whole of the animal kingdom! After all, if the personal God did not design these aggressive predatory animals just as they are, who did?...
This is partly why the three Middle Eastern religions have a relatively difficult time describing Paradise; a place where evil does not exist. Christianity would have us doing nothing but singing God's praises all day (honestly...how dull!). Islam seems to hold that Paradise is more of the good life; basically, "wine, women and song"! But wouldn't we get bored with all that after a while? Many people already are. Each religion tries to imagine an ideal world, where evil does not exist. Yet, they completely fail to deliver the goods in a manner that can excite or convince us.
The personal God is itself a massive contradiction. For someone to have a "personality", in any meaningful sense, they must surely be time-based. For a God who operates completely outside of Time, i.e. in Eternity, it is impossible to conceive how personality could function. In the Bible, we learn that God can be pleased or angered, saddened or elated. But given that we operate within the sphere of time and he/she does not, does this imply that God is ETERNALLY angry with the Exodus Jews for their worship of the Golden calf?! If so, how can we, mere finite mortal beings, produce permanent modifications in the infinite eternal Godhead?
It is also hard to think of a "personality" who is sexless. Hence, God has traditionally been male (although in prehistoric times, God was female: the Mother Goddess). Christianity has reinforced this further with words like "Father" and "Son"; both male images. Is it any wonder, therefore, that women have systematically been ill-treated and regarded as second-class human beings by those religions that have adopted this male God? They are blamed for the Fall of Man in Book One, and it basically goes downhill from there! Islamic veils. Medieval witch trials. No women priests. The list goes on and on.
In practical terms, the notion of the Personal God has wrought tremendous chaos throughout world history. The three religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam are at each others' throats, which has led to the loss of countless millions of lives. The reason is not too hard to find. Clearly, the one Personal God has chosen to present his truth in mutually contradictory ways, and each time has also incorporated a failsafe system for large-scale destruction by (a) declaring that all competing revelations are the work of Satan and (b) his TRUE revelation must be spread to all corners of the globe through religious conversion AND, if necessary, war with "Satan's forces" (i.e. the faithful of other religions). This creates a neat closed circle within the minds of the zealous, that completely prevents them from ever understanding, and hence respecting, the point of view of other faiths. After all, why cavort with the Devil?
Some brief examples will suffice...
In Judaism, you can go right back to the founding of Israel. On the orders of God, a war of genocide was carried out by putting to death every man, woman and child in the land of Canaan. Interestingly, the chosen people proved to be more merciful than their God, failing to deliver on the last part of this bloodbath, and hence God was understandably livid! Doubtless, he had never heard of racial/religious tolerance.
In Islam, despite the recent attention given to "Islamic Fundamentalists", we should not forget that the very religion of Islam was originally spread through the work of such "fanatics". If you doubt this, you only have to visit India. There is an amazing lack of Hindu temples in the north, which was subject to the Moslem invasion, compared to the south, which the Moslems never penetrated. Arguably, modern day Moslem moderates could NEVER have got the new religion off the ground, let alone spread it across the whole of the known world in the space of a few generations.
As for Christianity, it is intriguing that more Christians were killed by EACH OTHER in the early centuries of the Christian Roman Empire than were killed in ALL the previous Roman persecutions put together! Moreover, although it is generally believed that Paganism quietly died out in the face of the "superiority" of Christianity, the actual fact is that Pagans were forcibly exterminated under the order of the fanatical Christian Emperor Theodosius, in a persecution that bears favorable comparison to Nazi Germany. Temples were torn down, idols were dragged out into the streets and destroyed, and people were simply killed for their beliefs. That is how Christianity finally triumphed over Paganism.
By contrast with all this, it is hard to locate a single war fought in the name of Buddhism or Taoism: faiths that do not possess the notion of a personal God. How can they go to war when there is no personal God to tell them to do so, and hence no historical justification for future wars either? However, it would be mistaken to believe, as many do, that traditions without a personal God are essentially atheistic. Both acknowledge the existence of Cosmic Intelligence. However, the latter is considered to be beyond conception and beyond name. It is not personal, but rather transcends personality and description. As the opening line of the Tao Te Ching says: "The Tao that can be spoken of is NOT the Eternal Tao".
The ideology that prevails in a society really does determine its mode of behavior In both the Middle East and the West, we are ruled by this notion of a personal God. Hence, the actions we take must be, at least partially, due to this deep-seated belief. If you believe (and have scriptures that support this belief) that your God encourages war under the "right circumstances", and even engages in wanton acts of destruction himself at appropriate instances, then it will not be long before you have an excuse to do the same. Bob Dylan's ironically titled song, "With God On Our Side" illustrates the fact that in any conflict, both protagonists believe that God supports THEM. The classic example of this is the so-called "war on terrorism" right now. On one side you have a US President telling you that this is a war of Good against Evil, and Good will prevail. On the other side, you have Islamic extremists, who are perfectly willing to die for their God in order to strike a blow at what they consider to be the "Great Satan". Ironically, each side worships the SAME God!
It does seem that Science is revealing a universe permeated with intelligence at every level; complex beyond human conception, and with purposes than no human mind can fathom. Cosmic Intelligence is indeed everywhere around us. However, it need not be considered "personal" in any way. By adopting a viewpoint like this, which places no limits on God because it places no definition upon it, we avoid all the negative consequences of the personal God. You cannot go to war for Cosmic Intelligence, because the latter does not reveal itself through scriptures, choose one nation over another as its favorite, or order the obliteration of the infidels.
The paradox of suffering, and the apparent existence of Good and Evil, is also resolved. We now see the universe as a cosmic dance of forces that must both necessarily exist. The symbol of the Yin-Yang is appropriate here; a small hint of dark within the light, and a small hint of light within the dark. Each is inseparably intertwined within the other. No longer do we need to ask absurd questions such as "Why does a good God permit suffering?". The paradox is created by the assumptions of the questioner.
Rather, we should seek the higher perspective of Cosmic Consciousness from which all apparent dualities cease to exist. We see suffering and evil now only because we perceive ourselves to be (a) separate, (b) finite and (c) mortal; none of which are actually true. Hence the answer to the above question would be, "There is no PERSONAL God to permit suffering (or anything else for that matter), and there is no suffering when viewed from the perspective of Cosmic Consciousness".
A personal God served our ancestors and helped them survive in a complex and incomprehensible world. However, the world of the 21st century is a very different place. The personal God is a carry-over from the past, and the suffering it causes is evident for those who have eyes to see. If we did not already cherish this conception so dearly, it is extremely unlikely it could ever have originated from scratch in the modern world.
The human race is hopefully moving into a new phase of spiritual evolution, in a united world of mutual understanding and cultural cooperation. The concept of transcendent Cosmic Intelligence serves us better than the personal God ever did. To paraphrase the words of St. Paul: "When I was a child, I thought like a child. But now, let me put away childish things..."
Digital Text International: The Validity of Belief in a Personal God Physics Professor A. Lesikar, St. Cloud State University: Einstein on a Personal God Google: Society: Philosophy: Philosophy of Religion
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