The Evolution of the Idea of God

One of the 10,000 Spiritual Laws states, “Our idea of God is not God.” The Bible can be seen as the history of the evolution of the idea of God. If you read the Bible carefully noting inconsistencies, contradictions, incompatibilities, discrepancies and divergent views, you will come across a number of different ways of thinking about God—many of which are mutually exclusive, and can be squared with each other only after several rounds of single malt whiskey straight from the bottle.

Old Testament scholars have long talked about the JEDP threads in the first five books of the Bible (which is referred to as “the Documentary Hypothesis”) as a way of explaining the early differing views of God, but without squaring any of them. They are simply different ways the people of biblical times thought about God.

“J” is for the writers or compilers, who used the consonants “YHWH” (Hebrew has no vowels) for the name of God, and is called the “Yahwist” (“J” is derived from the German spelling—Jahwe—of the divine name). “E” is for the writers or compilers, who used the word “Elohim” for the name of God. “D” is for the “Deuteronomic” writers or compilers, who thought keeping the law, and living righteously, were the heart of what is pleasing to God. And, “P” is for the Priestly writers or compilers, who put stories together from a priestly perspective with the liturgy, proper worship, and right sacrifice constituting the core of what is pleasing to God.

In addition to these groups, the Prophets had their own (often divergent) views of what is pleasing to God, and called the people to look beyond the law, and beyond proper sacrifice, and to honor the idea of social justice—which includes all people, even foreigners, and widows, and those “outside the camp,” and requires everyone to live “from the heart” in “letting justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”—as the essential foundation of relationship with God.

The Wisdom writers had their idea of what is pleasing to God, and offer a practical, down-to-earth, early version of a “self-help” orientation to achieving divine sanction. The Psalmists had their ideas (often divergent) of what is pleasing to God. In the New Testament, the Jesus Movement offered still another view of what is pleasing to God, saying, basically, “Love one another,” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” meaning, “all others,” in the prophetic tradition.

In the first century church, views of God were as different as the “Christianities” that espoused them. Things began to narrow things down with heresy trials and burnings at the stake—nothing like a few burnings at the stake to secure widespread agreement about the nature of God.

The New Testament was written and compiled by those who were either of Gentile origin, or by Jews who were sympathetic to Gentiles. These writers/compilers did not include in the New Testament writings that may have been more Jewish in scope and direction. However, for about two generations after the death of Jesus, the followers of Jesus, and the new converts to the Movement, would have gathered regularly together with worshiping Jews in the synagogues to worship—in addition to house gatherings for prayer and discussion. It is only after it became unpopular—and unwise—to associate with Jews, because of the Jewish rebellion against Rome, that Christians separated themselves from Jewish worship practices, and began to consider Christianity as a separate religion.

Jesus did not intend separation, or see himself as creating a new religion. Jesus was not the first Christian, and it is not clear that he would be a Christian today. His intent was to reform Judaism by modifying the institutional idea of God that was popular among the Jewish people of his day.

The idea of God in the mind of the people of God has continued to be modified through the centuries following the creation of the Christian Church. God’s position on war, conscientious objection, slavery, women, abortion, birth control, alcohol, science, medicine, etc. has been carefully plotted and re-plotted by the theologians and leaders of the Church. Disagreements over the idea of God has created a proliferation of churches, with each new denomination professing to possess true belief, claiming to own the Right Idea of God, and accusing all other denominations of being deluded in the service of a false gospel, or Wrong Idea about God.

Today, religious pluralism has become a dominant force in the construction of the people’s idea of God, and the prevailing trend is the “honey bee approach” to spiritual development, where individuals “visit” different “flowers,” taking what they need from each religion, or denomination, and formulating a view of God that is consistent with their own sense of what is good, true and beautiful. The questions “Who is God?” and “How can we know?” are increasingly answered with the Taoist teaching, “The Tao that can be said is not the eternal Tao.” That being the case, the question then becomes, “What can we know of God with any degree of assurance or certainty?” And, the answer seems to be, “Live toward as much as you think you know of God, and allow the path to open up before you”—with “for better or worse,” unstated but implied.

Of course, this approach is much too vague to be comfortable for large numbers of people who want to know exactly what to believe, and how to live, and what the payoff will be. Thus, religious fundamentalism is increasing in popularity, and the return to orthodoxy is experienced in all the major religions of the world. “Just tell us what to believe, and don’t ask us what we think!” is the rallying cry of those who have had their fill of options and choices, with too many brands of shampoo, orange juice, and everything else on the market—who are “decided out” by the end of the week, and simply want to sink into the blessed assurance of age-old certainty, reassurance and conviction on Sunday morning.

What this all means is that the idea of God is continuing to expand, deepen, develop, and evolve. People coalesce around an idea, or perspective, that makes sense to them. God, then, is as much a reflection of our own need and imaginative capacity as an objective other “out there,” who can be known in the way we might know a Bentwood Rocker, or a vintage T-Bird, or a humpback whale.

The God we embrace, believe in, and serve is the God we find to be embraceable, believable, serve-able. We are the doorkeepers of our brand of religion, letting in the God we approve and find to be acceptable, and worshipping that God, until we grow into another view, another version, of God. As our idea of God expands, the God we worship changes, and we find ourselves, even in fundamentalist and orthodox circles, worshipping a God Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—or Peter and Paul—would not recognize, or approve.

As we move away from the traditional, orthodox, fundamentalist view of God as a living being apart, a Person, a Thou of cosmic proportions, the Wholly Other, to a more nebulous and inconceivable Ground of Being, or Essence of Life, or Heart of the Universe, or, my fave, The Source of Life and Being, we will need to clarify for ourselves, if not for others, our understanding of the difference between Non-Theism and Atheism. If we don’t believe in a God who stands apart from us, who sits on a Heavenly Throne, and has a specific Plan, and Will, and is working God’s “purpose out as year succeeds to year,” through all the events and occurrences of historical time, do we believe in a God at all? And if we do, how do we conceive of the God we believe in? What is our particular idea of God? It is easy enough for us to talk about the God we don’t believe in. What shall we say about the God we do believe in?

The best I can come up with is to say Atheism posits no God, and Non-Theism posits an unknowable God. And the difference between God-as-such and “What has always been called ‘God’,” is impossible to pin down, or pen up. God is beyond knowing and beyond talking about. The most we can say about God is “We cannot say anything about God.” God-as-such transcends thought and is beyond experience, like a sound at too high or too low a pitch and cannot be heard.

We can posit a source for life, but there is no reason to think life has to have a source. If God can be without a beginning, life itself can be without a beginning. Life as eternal energy seeking a physical form/expression/existence, seeking consciousness, particularly self-consciousness, is a perfectly good God-alternative as far as I am concerned, and that kind of life seeking expression would not have to send anyone to hell, but would just keep recycling everyone, like a cosmic green power.

Virtues and values could be a spin-off of self-consciousness, with intelligence creating its own design for itself and brains adding levels of complexity to life over time with soulfulness and wisdom working their way into the matrix of our development and evolution taking on a life of its own, and we get an idea of soma and spirit, of body and soul, of physical and spiritual, of the material universe and the Psyche/Soul, where the boundary line is blurred and no one knows where physical ends and spiritual begins, or what may lie beyond the two. And, beyond this, the Mystery!

We recognize “The Holy” as a manifestation of heart/soul. The holy people among us are the people who have heart/soul, who live with heart/soul, and from heart/soul–and they have vitality, life. They are alive. They are much more than 98.6 and breathing, and their spirit is infectious. They bring to life those about them. They live lovingly on the earth. They know what they love, and they love it, they do it, with all their heart, mind, soul and strength. Those people exhibit the essence, and the presence, and the realness of The Holy, The Divine, and what that is, is the Mystery!

Published by jimwdollar

I'm retired, and still finding my way--but now, I don't have to pretend that I know what I'm doing. I retired after 40.5 years as a minister in the Presbyterian Church USA, serving churches in Louisiana, Mississippi and North Carolina. I graduated from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, in Austin, Texas, and Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. My wife, Judy, and I have three daughters and five granddaughters within about twenty minutes from where we live--and are enjoying our retirement as much as we have ever enjoyed anything.

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