Monday, October 17, 2011

god is one (pt 1)

A garden of joy and delight
a spirit of living water
a tent of welcome
a door of acceptance
a shared table of bread and wine
a meal to satisfy our common needs
a precious jar of healing ointment
a holy psace open to all
an invitation to the dance...
(Lord Hylton, vision statement of Ammerdown Centre)

(Much of the following is based on James Carroll's book "Jerusalem, Jerusalem" (all unattributed quotes will be from there, mainly pages 58-64, and 302-302) where he introduced me to a deeper understanding of the oneness of God, and on Karen Armstrong's book "Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths." These are the two books we've been studying in preparation for our trip to Palestine. Plus my host and old friend here in Cricklade, Patrick Eastman, loaned me a controversial book by the Spanish theologian Jose Pagola called "Jesus: An Historical Approximation," that added a few insights as well. What I'm posting here is about three times as long as the sermon I gave Oct. 16 at the Anglican Parish Church in Cirencester.)

Something very interesting happened to the Jewish mindset and understanding of God during the Babylonian exile and captivity. At first the Hebrews weren't really monotheists; they didn't necessarily believe that there was only one god. I ran into this term only recently: at first they were actually what we call "monolators"??; they worshipped only one god, their god, but they didn't necessarily deny the existence of other gods. But as time went on the Jewish people understood more and more about the character of this god that they worshipped, and their experience of God eventually made them question the very existence of any of other gods, and especially all the tribal deities that surrounded them, the local gods who seemed to be so limited and narrow. The god of Israel--lower case "g"--eventually became for them God--upper case "G." And so when they were in Babylon, the Jews not only refused to worship the local gods, they even refused so much as to acknowledge that these local gods existed at all. In other words, they became monotheists, meaning that they began to believe that not only was this the only God to be worshipped, but that only this God-as-they-understood-God was real. There was only one God. So the psalms say over and over, The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have eyes but cannot see, hands but cannot feel..., etc. And of course we see so many allusions to this also in the prophet Isaiah: I am the Lord and there is no other, there is no God besides me (Is 45).

It is after that period in their history when editors and redactors really starting compiling the book that we know of now as the Old Testament (though of course it is not "old" to a Jew--it is simply the Torah, or the Jewish Bible). These redactors and editors started reading this monotheism back into their own history, and perhaps they even added it in at times as they interpreted the ancient stories that had been passed down to them. It might not be obvious at first, but even if we look at that first story of creation in Genesis there's evidence of this new understanding of God that's different from other religions of the ancient world. Even though the creation story in Genesis has a lot in common with other creation stories of that region, what makes the Jewish story unique is that it shows God not only creating this particular tribe or that particular kingdom; it shows God as the creator of the entire cosmos, God as the origin of all that is. God is One.

But I was interested to learn that the term "monotheism" wasn't actually coined until the seventeenth century, and our understanding of what the oneness of God means is actually very modern. In our scientific age, inadvertently perhaps, we think of "one" as a number, and so God is thought to be some kind of a solitary entity who stands apart from everything else, standing apart from all other creatures as well as all other gods, and therefore God can be seen as antagonistic to everything else as well. If we understand "oneness" in that way, then God can easily be a source of conflict and competition, our god against all the other gods, as if God had some kind of ego to defend or territory to protect. But we shouldn't understand the Oneness of God mathematically or scientifically or even philosophically. It has to be understood spiritually, meaning not to think of "oneness" as a matter of quantity; God's oneness is a quality. What the Oneness of God is affirming is a unity. God's Oneness does not mean a being who stands apart from creation, God's Oneness does not mean a being who is radically different and superior to creation. It means the being who is present to creation, "as the reconciliation of all oppositions," Carroll says, echoing the theme of the mystic Nicholas of Cuxa. God is unity, God is the One who unites, God is oneness itself.

Now if we go back for a moment to the story of Moses' meeting God in the burning bush, we see God who is revealed as "I am who am" or (what is the best translation of the tetragrammaton?) perhaps, as I've read it translated, "I am who causes to be." God is being itself. God is not just a Being over and against all other beings: God is being itself. Deus es ens, says Thomas Aquinas, the very ground of being. (We are, you may note, pretty close to the Indian understanding of brahman, not to mention the Rhineland mystics' and Paul Tillich's notion of God as grunt.) God isn't just associated with Israel nor with any other particular clan or tribe; God is related to all that is. The Oneness of God isn't a number: it's a quality. Even more, it's a relationship, a relationship with all that exists.

And this revelation that God is one also means, again as the prophet Isaiah especially saw, that the God of this people, Israel, is actually the God of all people. God is not the god "of the tribe but of the cosmos--of all creation." So if God is jealous, God is jealous of everyone's love, "and offers himself, through the... promise made to Abraham, not to a single people, but to 'a multitude of nations.'" And of course Jerusalem, and Mount Zion with it, becomes the symbol for this, again as we see often in Isaiah: In the days to come the mountain of the Lord's house shall be raised above the hills and every nation shall come streaming, many poeples come and say, 'Let us climb the mountain to the house of God..." (Is 2) And so in Isaiah 45, in what may have seemed like a shock to the people of Israel, the prophet Isaiah calls Cyrus, the king of Persians, God's anointed one!??--"though you know me not." And it is Cyrus who is mandated to rebuild the Temple in the ruins of the ancient city. God is one! The God of all people, "though they know me not!" I was reminded too of Paul in the Areopogus as reported in the Acts of the Apostles, claiming at the shrine to the unknown of god, that this is the God revealed by Jesus.

So after the Babylonian exile, Israel starts to perceive God in a whole new way, a way in which competition from or comparison to other deities was simply inconceivable. This belief in God is not merely in opposition to other gods; it's totally different from the belief in other gods; it's an entirely different way of knowing. James Carrol has the beautiful phrase: "God is present in this world as meaning is present in knowledge." To affirm the Oneness of God is to affirm a God who is closer to us, as St Augustine wrote, than we are to ourselves, or as it is written in the Qur'an, "closer than our jugular vein." We might say God is closer to us than our own awareness is, or as the very ground of our awareness, "as meaning is present in knowledge." That's the Oneness that counts, and monotheism is identitfying the awareness of this God with the very ground of awareness. (We are now awfully close to the Indian notion of Atman-ground of consciousness.) It's a "magnificent breakthrough in the religious imagination," Carroll says, and it's the core of the religious vision of the Bible.

In this day and age I look for any occasion when I can refer to Judaism, Christianity and Islam together, the three religions that stem from Abraham, the Abrahamic faiths. Sometimes we also refer to the three of them as the prophetic traditions, those that believe that God intervenes in human history, as compared to the mystical traditions of the Far East, Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism, for instance, that are much more focused on the interior. (This is not to say that each aspect isn't present, perhaps in a quieter and more hidden way, in the other.) All three of these Abrahamic faiths are based on this oneness of God. So the Shema, the most famous of all Jewish prayers, that still defines Israel to this day, from Deuteronomy (6:4-9): Sh'ma Yis'ra'eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad--"Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one." This is a declaration of faith, a pledge of allegiance to one God, the first prayer a Jewish child is taught and the last words a Jew says prior to death??--an affirmation of God's Oneness. James Carroll suggests that it may be that Jesus' embodiment of God's Oneness, his sense of intimacy with the Father, saying things like "The Father and I are one," is the very reason that his followers recognized that he was divine. (And also the very thing that got him killed.) And so the Christian creed which begins with, Credo in unum Deo--"I believe in one God...". And so the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), influenced by Jews and Christians, clears the kabah in Mecca of all the other deities and declares what is known in Islam as the shahada--la illa ha illaha--"There is no god but God..." Some suggest that it is this sense of and feeling for the Oneness of God that sparked the rapid spread of Islam. Certainly Muhammad himself thought he was merely recovering the ancient faith of Abraham, not founding a new religion. The great ideal of the Qur'an was tawhid, which literally means "making one." So, as Karen Armstrong explains it, individual Muslims were called "to order their lives so as to make God their chief priority: [and] when they had achieved this personal integration, they would experience within that unity which was God." Ah, what does that mean? "To experience within the unity that is God"? But not only individuals, the whole human society "also had to achieve this unity and balance and all its activities under the aegis of the sacred." (Armstrong, 220) And so, as well, holiness "was thus seen as inclusive rather than exclusive." And since Muslims were engaged in a struggle (jihad) to restore all things in the human and natural world, the line between sacred and secular gets blurred. Furthermore there ought to be no divisiveness or sectarianism in religion. Muhammad believed that Jews and Christians belonged to the same ancient faith. For example, the Christians of Medina were allowed to worship in the mosque "as an expression of the continuity of the Islamic tradition with the gospel." Muhammad did not expect Jews or Christians to convert unless they wanted to because he believed they had valid revelations of their own. (Armstrong, 226-227)

God is One. (continued...)