by Rebecca Bynum (Dec. 2008)
One of the most confusing aspects of modern Judeo-Christian thought lies in the attempt to reconcile two opposing concepts of God. One is of God as the loving and merciful Father of the individual, who is concerned primarily with individual salvation and survival after death. The other is of God as an actor in history, who controls and shapes the historical drama for his purpose, disregarding the individual, as is often depicted in the Bible. In his book, After Auschwitz, Richard L. Rubenstein proposes that theology itself is essentially an attempt to diminish the cognitive dissonance that belief in both these aspects of God causes in the believer. There is a gulf between the Biblical God of history and the God of human individual experience which theologians attempt to bridge. That gulf has grown wider and those theological bridges less tenable in the face of the unprecedented scale of death and destruction wrought by man in the twentieth century.
In examining this problem it is evident that though God himself must be conceived of as eternal and unchanging, human awareness and understanding of God has been an evolving quest through the generations. The Bible contains a record of the concept of God as it has evolved over the centuries, but also an historical record of the Jewish people and descriptions of their national drama in which God is thought to take a special interest. This record is traditionally interpreted as that of a God who is involved in reward and punishment of the Jewish people as a whole, chastising them when they stray and rewarding them when they are faithful to his word. The Jews are thought to be held to a higher standard of obedience due to the idea that God has chosen them to be bearers of the divine light.
We are then confronted with the theological problem, not only of flawed divine justice (as all collective punishments and rewards would necessarily be flawed, if not entirely unjust), but also the idea that God must then be involved with evil, even to partake of evil, in order to dispense these collective punishments. So, either God is omnipotent and unjust or he is just but not omnipotent. A third option, that God is self-limited for the purpose of allowing mankind freedom of will, is rarely taken up, for the idea of a punishing God is deeply embedded in both Jewish and Christian thought.
Many Jewish and Christian theologians are of the opinion that God exists in a realm beyond good and evil and that he works his will by using evil as a necessary means to teach and perfect imperfect man, who is ever tending toward selfishness, egotism and greed, and is forever forgetting his obligation to God. In fact, some Jews and Christians even describe the Holocaust as part of the divine plan, that God actually used Hitler in order to punish the Jews. They differ only on the reason for this punishment. Some Jewish theologians have proposed that the Holocaust occurred because the Jews were not faithful enough to the Torah and too assimilated into gentile society (even though the conservative orthodox Polish population bore the full brunt of the atrocities while the more assimilated population in America escaped). Some Christian theologians have surmised that the Jews as a people were still being punished for having rejected Christ (even though the actual rejection of Jesus occurred only on the part of Annas, Caiaphas and a handful of leaders of the Sanhedrin – not the common people, whose very embrace of Jesus had aroused the fear and ire of those same men). Neither of these theological explanations evokes a loving, trustworthy, fatherly God, but rather an anthropomorphic despot, unworthy of enlightened worship. A world in which the creature is on a higher moral plane than the creator poses a theological dilemma of the most profound sort.
The depiction of deity as a vengeful and jealous despot is entirely in keeping, however, with the earliest records of human theological thought as contained in the Old Testament, where man’s conception of God began as a tribal deity, chiefly concerned with the welfare of the tribe and one who therefore backed the tribe against enemy tribes which had their own gods. Later, as the concept of deity enlarged, God was envisioned as being the God of all the peoples of the earth and finally of the universe as well.
When Isaiah proclaimed “Thus saith the Lord, ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool,’” the older Bedouin tribal god of vengeance and jealousy was transformed into a God of transcendent majesty, a universal God ruling heaven and earth. One can easily imagine the emotional need of the people to uphold the idea that even though God has grown larger and is now Lord of all the earth, they who first understood this, nonetheless desired to think of themselves as the nearest to him. “I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. Then you shall know that I am the LORD your God who brings you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.”
Much theological confusion might be avoided if the older conception of God rooted in an ancient tribal deity, a bloodthirsty God who demands sacrifice and appeasement, could be seen as just that, an early human conception of God that can no longer be justified in the modern era.
It makes more sense to understand God as so respecting human free will, that he allows the full consequences of that freedom to reign, if only during man’s short time on earth, a time when God’s will bows to human will, so that man will be free to choose goodness over evil, truth over error, and the beauty of selflessness over the ugliness of the selfish act. The fact that God allows the tares to grow with the wheat until the harvest, does not necessarily mean that God actively participates in evil or that he is punishing man, only that he is giving mankind a choice.
If it is God’s desire to foster courage, faith, loyalty, altruism and devotion within the individual, then the environment man finds himself in must contain danger, uncertainty, betrayal, cruelty and loneliness. He must have an environment in which there is a difference between that which is and that which should be, otherwise there would be no necessity for faith, the reaching for that which is higher and better, for values which lie beyond the material world. There would be no need to reach for God.
We have inherited a tradition in which the higher concepts of God are shackled to those which are lower. In the Christian tradition, we have the idea that God is so bloodthirsty that he was not satisfied with human suffering until he saw his own innocent son dying upon the cross. And even then he was not satisfied with the suffering of the Jews who, after three millennia of persecution at the hands of the Babylonians, the Egyptians and the Christians, must be further punished for the supreme crime of deicide, even though it was God who required this sacrifice in the first place. The idea that the humanly conceived and executed cold-blooded murder of six million Jews, for the crime of being Jews, could seriously be considered as part of “God’s plan” by some Jewish and Christian theologians is appalling. A more stomach-turning conclusion can hardly be imagined. Is there any wonder millions of Jews and Christians are turning away from the old faiths? Cognitive dissonance has reached the breaking point.
Richard L. Rubenstein concludes that we are living through an age of the “death of God.” By this, I believe he means the death of the idea, or hope, that God will deal with his chosen people by means of miraculous intervention, that the Jews will have divine protection. This conception was dealt its death blow at Auschwitz. Indeed, there is even doubt that without the religious concept of “covenant and election” the Jewish people can survive as a distinct people. It is likewise doubtful whether Christianity can continue in its present form without the idea that Jesus was sacrificed for our sins, but it is equally impossible to believe that Jesus took away the sins of the world with his death. The Holocaust stands as a stunning rebuke to both religious conceptions, making both seem feeble and child-like in the face of such horror.
Furthermore, we are facing theological assault by a religion that claims to restore the original monotheistic concept of God. One which declares that man's conception of God cannot, must not and shall not evolve. Indeed it would be difficult to imagine a more primitive God. The bloodthirsty Allah delights in the tortures of his hell and rewards those who, by slaying his "enemies," serve him, by bestowing upon them the sensual delights of a heavenly brothel.
An effective response lies not in clinging to our own more primitive God concepts, but rather in declaring the God concept itself as one which has evolved and must evolve in order for civilization to be strengthened and renewed.
Perhaps the old God concepts must die before the new may spring forth to take their place. As spoke Jesus, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.”
 The Bible, Isaiah 66:1 (King James version)
 The Bible, Exodus 6:7 (New King James version)
 The Bible, John 12:24 (New King James version)
To comment on this article, please click here.
To help New English Review continue to publish thought provoking articles like this one, please click here.
If you have enjoyed this article, and would like to read more by Rebecca Bynum, click here.
Rebecca Bynum contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click
here to see all her contributions, on which comments are welcome.