A Brief History of God

Believe it or not, this is the title of a standard lecture given by Professor Ken Hanson at the University of Central Florida. Part-theatre, part-scholarship, and 100% infused with true passion, the lecture, captivatingly offered at the Sivananda Yoga Ashram, presented the emergence of monotheism in the ancient Near East.

According to Professor Ken, also known as "Jerusalem Jones," the Hebrew tribes borrowed the "top god" of ancient Mesopotamia, then named El, and often referred to in the plural, as Elohim (literally, the gods). At first, El was simply the greatest of the gods, very jealous of the others (this is a frequent biblical theme), but ultimately, he became the only deity, as monotheism slowly emerged. But what made the religious philosophy of the early Israelites special, Professor Ken observed, was the emphasis on ethical monotheism -- on combining social justice with the belief in one supreme consciousness.

Professor Ken Hanson then went on to quote a religious philosopher named Karen Armstrong, whose quotes seemed permeated with a hostility toward the biblical deity, and I wondered whether she was one of these people who divide religious philosophy into "West" and "East" and rather than seeing a unity (incidentally the theme of the week at Sivananda is "unity in diveristy") dichotomize and assign holiness to one and foolishness to the other. In any event, Prof. Ken then quoted Gershon Scholem to say that monotheism, like other religious philosophies, had three phases.

It emerged out of primitivism, a belief that the gods were identical with nature, and were inherently capricious and sometimes cruel. Phase 2 involved a creative stage in which God was seen as intimately involved with people. Prof. KH quoted a passage in which God comes to Abraham's tent and Abraham then gets a chance to "schmooze" with God. Jacob actually gets to wrestle with God or perhaps with a representative in the form of an angel, thus showing us that wrestling with our karma is the way we come to know God. But later, in Phase 3 of the way the divine is biblically conceptualized, God is seen as above and beyond it all--for example, by the time we get to Moses he can only see God's back.

Although this struck me as interesting, from the unified perspective that East is West and West is East, all these different experiences of the "mysterium tremendium" seem consistent as they merely reflect different aspects of the mystical encounter. Sometimes the numinous is overwhelming, as nature can be when she terrifies us with her power; and sometimes intimate, as in those silent prayers we whisper to the Beloved; and sometimes God seems very far away, occupied with mighty workings of which we only see tiny markers down the chain of causation.

Interestingly, the second lecture covered the Kabbalah. And Prof. KH pointed out that there are common elements between Jewish mysticism, Sufi mysticism, and other mystical traditions including currents in Hinduism. For example: meditation. In Kabbalistic tradition this is apparently referred to as clearing the clutter. That actually makes for a perfect rendition of the first of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, often translating as: "yoga consists in stilling the thought-waves of the mind." One could easily restate that as: "yoga consists in clearing the clutter of the mind." Either way, a bit of mental house-cleaning is essential to freeing up consciousness to see the numinous reality a bit more clearly.

I want to give Professor Hanson credit for being very real and connected during his presentation. It is clear that he does not merely 'lecture,' but rather lives the words he speaks. That is rare to find in a teacher, that quality of conveying information where form and content become one. And in rendering scriptural text comprehensible at multiple levels of meaning, his flair for dramatizing through voice, gesture, and even props provided an unexpected mix of humor and utter commitment to the deepest truths.
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But through it all, we have our visionary chariot rides (like the prophet Ezekiel) or wrestling with the divine (like Jacob) and still embrace the ineffable in ways that are sometimes extraordinary, and sometimes very mundane.