A Jungian psychoanalyst with a background in Judaism and Zen Buddhism explores the history of God concepts in the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions.
This book is about the Abrahamic God’s inner journey, an epic that begins in the Hebrew Bible—the common source of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This God emerges as a living, textured personality as tormented as a Shakespearean character and as divided against humanity as the devil who personifies his dark side. Yet in heroic fashion, he embarks on a journey to greater consciousness, stretching into himself in the Talmud, New Testament, Qur’an, and Gnostic writings. Then finally, with and through the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic mystics, he discovers his true self as the absolute Godhead. He takes up residence in their psyches as their own Divine Mind or true self. The book suggests that what God learned from his journey might be something that we in turn could learn from and that could help us at the dawn of the twenty-first century. In this way, God’s inner journey becomes a metaphor for our own.
Michael Gellert, a Jungian psychoanalyst, treats this story and the sacred writings that convey it as psychological facts—as expressions of the human psyche—regardless of whether or not God actually exists. He shows how the Hebrew Bible presents God as a primitive, barbaric tribal war god while centuries later the mystics portray him as their innermost essence and emptied of all projected, external, anthropomorphic images. Thus, God’s inner journey and the evolution of human consciousness—his story and ours—parallel each other and are integrally related.
Rich in historical detail and psychological insights, this is a book that will be welcomed by seekers of every background and orientation.
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About the Author
Michael Gellert is a Jungian analyst practicing in Los Angeles and Pasadena, California. He was formerly Director of Training at the C.G. Jung Institute of Los Angeles and a humanities professor at Vanier College, Montreal. He also supervised a mental health program for employees of the City of New York and has served as a consultant to various organizations, including the University of Southern California and Time magazine. He has lived in Japan, where he trained with a Zen master. The author of Modern Mysticism, The Fate of America, and The Way of the Small, he lectures widely on psychology, religion, and contemporary culture.
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THE IRRATIONAL NATURE OF GOD
Yahweh was certainly a volcano-god. ... He is an uncanny, bloodthirsty demon who walks by night and shuns the light of day.
— Sigmund Freud
There is a most mystifying scene in the Book of Exodus that captures the essence of the Israelite experience of God. It occurs on the heels of Yahweh's command to Moses to go from the wilderness of Midian, where he had been banished by the pharaoh, back to Egypt to liberate his people. Moses was traveling with his wife, Zipporah, and their two sons.
At a night encampment on the way, the Lord came to meet him and tried to kill him. At once Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son's foreskin, and touched Moses' genitals with it, saying, "You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me!" And when He let him alone, she added, "A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision."
Let us unpack this scene. To begin, we can take note of how powerful and dangerous is the encounter with the living God. Even though he appeared supposedly as a man (as he or his angels had also done earlier in the Bible), it was still obvious that he was El Shaddai — "God Almighty." His visit was just as numinous or emotionally charged as others that came before and would come again. To the Israelites, he did not have to appear in an epiphany or a celestial vision. His power came from the fact that he could be so close as to be among them, in their midst, and even appear as one of them. How especially powerful this was given his absence and silence during the long years of their slavery in Egypt. But he was clearly not one of them. He didn't come on this visit to have a conversation, as he did, for example, when he appeared to Abraham and promised him that his unfertile wife, Sarah, would become pregnant; he came to kill in the darkness of night, like an assassin.
This episode is also unsettling given its context. How could God have wanted to kill Moses when he had just appointed him as the redeemer of his people, as his representative on earth in his confrontation with the pharaoh? Was this little piece of skin so important that he would risk his people's liberation over it? His behavior seems so disjointed and irrational that one has to wonder, was he himself aware that he was endangering his own mission? Did his right hand not know what his left hand was doing? Or was he gripped by some madness?
Nowhere in the story does Yahweh indicate to Moses an urgent desire for his son to be circumcised. There is no preceding occurrence in which Moses angered God. Like the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, this assault came out-of-the-blue. However, as rabbinical scholar Jeffrey Cohen suggests, there is one slight hint as to what may have triggered it. In the passage immediately prior to the one describing this event, the Bible tells us:
And the Lord said to Moses, "When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the marvels that I have put within your power. I, however, will stiffen his heart so that he will not let the people go. Then you shall say to Pharaoh, 'Thus says the Lord: Israel is my first-born son. I have said to you, "Let My son go, that he may worship Me," yet you refuse to let him go. Now I will slay your first-born son.'"
Now it happened to be that Moses, who grew up as an Egyptian, may not have been circumcised. Nor was his first son Gershom circumcised. According to two classical rabbinic texts, the reason for this is that Zipporah was not an Israelite but a Midianite, and her father, Jethro, gave her in marriage to Moses on the condition that their first son would be brought up in their tradition while their second son could be raised in the Israelite tradition. However, another rabbinic source informs us that the uncircumcised son was Moses' second-born, Eliezer, and that Moses delayed his circumcision because he thought that his primary obligation was to embark immediately on the journey to Egypt. Furthermore, he didn't want to risk the child's life by making him travel in a weakened condition. Whether the son was Gershom or Eliezer, the grounds for not circumcising seemed reasonable enough.
But Yahweh evidently had different priorities. To him, circumcision was very important, so much so that its avoidance or prevention was punishable by death. He originally mandated its practice to Abraham as a sign of his covenant or agreement with him and his descendants. On his part, he assured the Hebrews that he will give them a Promised Land and make them "exceedingly fruitful," a people who will give rise to nations and kings (hence do the Abrahamic religions owe their origins to him). On the people's part, the act of circumcision expressed that they willingly embrace Yahweh as his chosen people. Thus, the circumcision itself was and continues today to be a sacrificial rite which symbolizes the Jewish male's bond with God.
When Yahweh instructed Moses to tell the pharaoh that Israel was his firstborn son, that he should let him go in order to worship him, and that for refusing he, Yahweh, will slay the pharaoh's firstborn son, he was, in effect, letting him know that he will force him to make a sacrifice. But, Cohen argues, how could Yahweh insist on the pharaoh making such a sacrifice when his own servant Moses, and Moses' son, had not made the basic, required sacrifice of circumcision? Yahweh did not take kindly to hypocrisy (at least in others). But still, did he have no civility? Could he have at least asked Moses to comply with the covenant before trying to kill him, or given him a warning?
Cohen also proposes that Yahweh wasn't really trying to kill anyone, but enacting a "charade" or "role-play, a symbolic and harmless acting-out of the slaying of a firstborn." The purpose of this would have been to convince Moses that he could trust Yahweh to carry out his threat to Pharaoh as well as to remind him to "put his own house in order and circumcise his firstborn without a moment's delay." This interpretation, however, is inconsistent with the Hebrew Bible's portrait of Yahweh and seems to be aimed at soothing our anxiety around having a God who behaves irrationally and wickedly. But this anxiety is understandable and appropriate. Why should we be soothed? In fact, Yahweh did not engage in charades. He might have tested his people (as he did when he commanded Abraham to kill his son, Isaac — another filial sacrifice), and he might have on occasion changed his mind (as he did when he gave in to Abraham's request to spare Sodom from destruction if ten righteous men could be found there), but he did not play games. He wasn't much inclined toward humor, either.
Furthermore, this kind of senseless and deadly behavior was not an isolated incident. Later, Yahweh would slaughter over fifty thousand men for merely looking into the ark that contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments and the mercy seat or atonement piece upon which he was enthroned. The reason for this was that the men were not sanctified priests. Not long after that, he would strike down Uzzah when he disregarded protocol and grasped the ark in an effort to prevent it from falling to the ground when the ox pulling it had stumbled. This occurred during a festive celebration in which, the Bible tells us, "David and all the House of Israel danced before Yahweh with all their might, singing to the accompaniment of lyres, harps, tambourines, castanets, and cymbals." Can we imagine the people's reaction to this event, to witnessing one of their own, who meant well, killed in this fashion beside the ark of God? David himself was distressed and frightened, as evidently Yahweh knew no grey zone, but only sharply defined categories of black-and-white thinking. Again, ritual propriety meant more to him than the value of human life, not to mention the spirit of celebration. It was undoubtedly with familiarity of such demonstrations of his austerity and hardness that Nietzsche famously wrote, "I could believe only in a God who would know how to dance."
And finally, what are we to make out of Zipporah's stirring words? "You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me!" About this Cohen couldn't be more right: "Ironically, it is Zipporah who stands out here as the one brimming with righteous indignation, and Moses, the future law-giver, is cast as the religious compromiser!" The God of Moses not only sends her family into a hornet's nest in Egypt but then attempts to kill her husband, threatening to deprive her children of their father because he and one of them haven't been duly circumcised. Seizing the moment and circumcising the boy, she performs Moses' job and saves him. Her symbolic gesture of touching Moses' genitals with her son's foreskin signified that he too should be considered properly sanctified. This is a case of the proverbial mother whose amazing strength enables her to singlehandedly lift the car under whose wheel her child is pinned. She stops God. She alone instinctually "gets" his savagery. Naturally is she incensed at her husband and his inexcusable naïveté and negligence. She knew the Other with whom she had to share her bridegroom of blood.
The wrath of God lies sleeping. It was hid a million years before men were and only men have the power to wake it.
— Cormac McCarthy
A volatile, angry God makes human life extremely tenuous. It is for good reason that insurance companies define hurricanes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters as "acts of God." However, this is somewhat a misnomer, for these are much too random compared to the targeted vengeance of the God of the Hebrew Bible.
As indicated earlier, Yahweh displayed a level of violence that, for a God, is shocking to our modern sensibilities. The first wide-scale demonstration of this was, of course, Noah's flood, or the deluge. As an expression of the apocalyptic fever that also drives his ending of the world in the New Testament and Qur'an, it points to his ambivalence toward his creation. God's urge in all these instances is connected to his judgment of the world as evil and his wish to begin it anew or transform it into a more godly state. It is thus only in part a destructive impulse; in its totality it also includes the impulse for regeneration. This theme of ending an old order and giving birth to a new one is among Yahweh's legacies. We can see it surface in such diverse historical movements as the American Revolution, which Thomas Paine announced with his famous words, "We have it in our power to begin the world again."
In the instance of the flood, God's action was less rageful than grief-stricken:
The Lord saw how great was man's wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time. And the Lord regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened. The Lord said, "I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created — men together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret that I made them."
We can detect here his profound disappointment. This episode also insinuates God's humiliation and shame: is this the best that he could create?
Of course, Yahweh did not altogether wipe out humanity in the flood. He came close, but he hoped that from the progeny of one good man and his wife, a new order would be ushered in. Humankind's goodness would triumph over its darkness. Though it had eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Yahweh apparently believed that humanity's evil could be counterbalanced by its goodness enough for the latter to prevail. After the flood Yahweh established his first covenant or agreement with humankind: "never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth." This covenant was memorialized by the sign of a rainbow in the sky after every rainfall. Notice that it was only by water that humanity would never again be decimated; Yahweh here made no mention of fire, which would be his preferred method in later apocalyptic threats.
It was only a matter of time before it became evident that the new order was no better than the old. God's attempt to reboot the program of creation without its bugs failed because its default position was hard-wired with serious and inevitable flaws. The dark side of both God and humanity could not be exorcised, as revealed in the Tower of Babel episode that soon followed the flood. Here the sin was humankind's inflation, its godlike reach for the sky. "Thus the Lord scattered them from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city."
With Abraham, the first patriarch of the three Abrahamic religions, God's strategy to win the devotion of humankind changed. He decided to focus on a particular people rather than the entire human species. A second covenant was framed succinctly by Yahweh: "I am God Almighty. Walk in My ways and be blameless. I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and I will make you exceedingly numerous." Yahweh's further encounters with the patriarchs show that he was very invested in their procreation, but the Bible never explains why. Procreation continued the process of creation, assuring Yahweh that he would be perennially worshipped.
Abraham was not only the first patriarch. He was also the first person to take God to task for his imbalanced ethics and unfair punitiveness. Bent on destroying Sodom and Gomorrah without regard for the righteous who lived there, God was convinced by Abraham to spare the cities if even ten righteous people could be found in them. "Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?," Abraham pleaded. In appealing to God in this way, Abraham showed that man is not only in partnership with him, but in certain respects morally superior to him. This theme would later be echoed even more strongly by Job.
If Abraham challenged Yahweh to be more ethical, then Yahweh tested Abraham in a manner that, had Yahweh gone through with his demand for Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, defied all ethical standards — or at least later ethical standards. As explained by rabbinical scholar Joseph Hertz, child sacrifice was rife among the Semitic peoples and "in that age, it was astounding that Abraham's God should have interposed to prevent the sacrifice, not that He should have asked for it." Yahweh tested Abraham not only to determine the degree of his faith — this obedient submission to God's will earned him the distinction of standard-bearer or "father of faith" — but also to purposely impress upon him that human sacrifice was abhorrent. This is supported by a passage in Jeremiah where Yahweh describes the child sacrifice that some Israelites were practicing as an "abomination." "Unlike the cruel heathen deities," Hertz writes, "it was the spiritual surrender alone that God required." Likewise, the 11th-century rabbi Yona Ibn Janach suggested that God demanded only a symbolic sacrifice. Historically then, this episode signifies the huge leap from human to symbolic sacrifice.
Taking a different tack, Søren Kierkegaard boldly argues that Abraham believed that Isaac would not die because God would not in the end permit such an unethical action. As a "knight of faith," Abraham believed this "by virtue of the absurd." His faith in God's ultimate goodness superseded whatever evidence contradicted it. Naturally, he could not have known what was in God's mind any better than any other mortal. Indeed, it is doubtful that Yahweh himself knew in advance what he would do. The passage in Jeremiah was written a number of centuries after the episode with Abraham and Isaac. We must remember that Yahweh was evolving and was in this early period still quite savage, as we shall soon see.
The notion that this test could have gone either way begins to make sense when we accept that God, wounded from previous rejections reaching back to Adam and Eve, might have gone to any lengths to determine what was in Abraham's heart. Desperately wanting humanity's devotion, Yahweh was more concerned about his own needs than Abraham's or Isaac's. He wasn't thinking about ethics, which he repeatedly demonstrated did not apply to him. Most commentaries on God's test of Abraham attempt to whitewash his motivations because they are based on the assumption that God is good. Again, they reflect the kind of thinking that aims to soothe our anxiety around having a God who can behave irrationally and wickedly. In truth, only one side of him is good. He is good and evil. As he himself said to Isaiah, "I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things." If he could later allow Satan to act as his proxy and test Job the way Abraham was tested, murdering his entire family and not just one child, then how could we be sure he was not inclined to permit Isaac's death?
Excerpted from "The Divine Mind"
Copyright © 2018 Michael Gellert.
Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part I In the Beginning …
1 The Irrational Nature of God 21
2 Divine Wrath 27
3 Divine Genocide 37
4 God's Apocalyptic Fever 43
5 God's Wake-up Call 55
6 The Return of Wisdom 67
7 God's PTSD and Other Afflictions 77
8 From Trauma to Redemption 87
Part II In the Middle …
9 The Flowering of Wisdom 97
10 The Kingdom of God Within 109
11 The Face That Is Everywhere 123
12 The Rock of the Self 133
Part III And in the Endlessness …
13 The Splendor of Absolute Nothingness 149
14 The Incarnation That Is Always Happening 165
15 The Beloved 177
16 Reframing the Problem of Evil 185
Conclusion: God's Journey as a Metaphor for Our Own 203
Appendix I God in the Hebrew Bible vs. the Old Testament 211
Appendix II Why Was Nothingness First Discovered in the East? 215