God: A Human History

In Behind the Moon, his recently published peyote trip of a novel set in the desert West, Madison Smartt Bell explores the atavistic allure of cave paintings and the roles they play in an inchoate dreamscape. For Bell, the images exist outside of time: they’re porous membranes between realms, between the living and the dead, between mortal and divine.

The religions scholar Reza Aslan opens his clear-eyed if uneven God: A Human History with a riff on “The Sorcerer,” a portrait of a hybrid man-stag-bear, discovered in France’s Cave of the Trois-Frères and dating to about 13,000 B.C.E. Aslan argues that this somewhat nightmarish figure — combining padded paws, owlish eyes, and branching antlers with a human-like stance and genitalia — may be the first known representation of God. “The Sorcerer” is a creepy yet affecting starting point for Aslan’s book, a breezy tour through humanity’s compulsion to create God (or gods) in its own image, to render the ineffable as familiar as a king or wife or merchant.

The first third of God is bland, as Aslan guides us through his own investigations into early creeds and practices, decoupling them from the rise of agriculture but with incarnations of Adam and Eve conveyed in the tone of a TED talk or a PBS documentary: “Why does Eve think she has a soul in the first place? . . . Theory of Mind may explain why she would ascribe her own soul to the tree.” (Earlier this year Aslan produced and narrated Believer, a series on religion for CNN, but the network shut down the show after he tweeted a slur about President Trump.) This television voice is meant to make the book accessible but instead waters it down.

Only when Aslan the scholar asserts himself does his narrative stir from its doldrums, offering vibrant set pieces on Turkey’s Göbekli Tepe, the world’s oldest temple complex, and on the first civilization, the Sumerians in Mesopotamia, sprinkled with odd bits on neurobiology. There’s an engrossing chapter on the pharaoh Akhenaten, whose embrace of the Sun-disc Aten marks the first stab at monotheism. Akhenaten’s son, Tutankhamen (King Tut), wiped out his father’s cult and restored Isis and Horus and the rest, but the notion of one God was percolating elsewhere. Around 1000 B.C.E., in what is today Iran, Zarathustra founded a sect, Zoroastrianism, that was monotheistic but also allowed for other kinds of forces; eventually the religion reverted back to a pantheon of deities.

In the sixth century B.C.E., the first enduring monotheism took root among a people that had been conquered in their native Palestine and forced into Babylonian captivity, where they recast their beliefs. As Aslan notes, “The God that ultimately arises from the Babylonian Exile is not the abstract deity that Akhenaten had worshipped. It is not the pure animating spirit that Zarathustra imagined. It is not the formless substance of the universe written about by Greek philosophers. This was a new kind of God, both singular and personal . . . An eternal, indivisible God who exhibits the full range of human emotions and qualities, good and bad.” Here Aslan arrives at his strongest, sharpest material, as God deftly charts the merger of the Canaanite deity El and Yahweh, a god of murky “Midian” origin. (In the King James Version of the Old Testament, for instance, El is rendered as “God” in English, while Yahweh is translated as “the LORD.”) Aslan lays out how the displaced Hebrews jerry-rigged their religion, creating a profoundly influential if often contradictory scripture, with myriad writers putting their stamp on the same stories and rules. From there Aslan segues into the sudden rise of Christianity, initially a peasant-driven reformist movement within Roman-ruled Judaism but quickly morphing into a major faith, one that caught its big break with the conversion of the emperor Constantine in 324 C.E. Aslan can’t quite disguise his disdain for Christianity and especially his exasperation with St. Augustine of Hippo, whose genius he acknowledges but whose writings on the Trinity affirm, in Aslan’s view, a straight-up polytheism.

Given how brilliantly Aslan has written on Islam over the years — his first book, No god but God remains his best — his treatment of his own faith here feels desultory, a dutiful recitation of Muhammad’s story and the author’s own personal journey to Sufi mysticism. Aslan concludes as he began, with an all-encompassing-pantheistic-something-something: “Do not fear God. You are God.” Juggle the nouns and verbs in these sentences, and they could drop out of the mouth of an evangelical preacher. A retreat into metaphysical vagueness just doesn’t cut the Communion wafer; it changes the book’s tone from solid scholarship to abstract, ecstatic vision — or pious, self-serving sermon, depending on your perspective.

Despite its mushy conclusion, God unfolds as a concise, learned primer on the impulse to comprehend God by investing Him (or hims and hers) with superhuman powers, a pattern that transcends cultural divides and even across species, as evidenced by Neanderthal archeological sites. And Aslan’s passion for his real subject, the entwined histories and tropes of the Abrahamic faiths, gives his book a much-needed lift. But ultimately God fails to offer a fresh argument on God, the afterlife (which Aslan neglects), or even morality. Perhaps the reason we’ve humanized God for millennia is that on some neuronal level we yearn to see and speak with the divine as to a parent we’ve never been allowed to meet — rather than be blinded by an enveloping luminosity that can’t quite deliver the crumbs of wisdom we need to grow.