In the ethical monotheism of late Judaism and early Christianity, Yahweh (originally a minor warrior deity of a small federation of habiru tribes in the region of Sinai who eventually became the creator of heaven and earth) was regarded as the supreme judge over the destiny of human beings. He demanded exclusive worship and absolute obedience from his devotees, in exchange for which he provided them with protection and a prosperous life.
The “fear of the Lord” – not living in abject terror of god but with reverent awareness of his watchful supervision – was thus an acknowledgment of the human being’s accountability as a moral agent before the One whose will is the Way of all things.
This fusion of human moral accountability and the omnipotent will of god would create numerous crises for believers over the centuries. From the Babylonian invasion and exile of 586 BCE, through the calamitous failure of Jesus’ revolution, to the twentieth-century holocaust (or Shoah) in which millions of Jews and other faithful were killed, the contradiction in believing that a benevolent deity is in control as innocent human beings suffer has driven many once-devoted theists to abandon their belief in god.
For as long as theism regarded deities as personified agencies of cosmic and natural forces, human suffering could be chalked up to fate – “That’s just the way it is.” But after the Bible’s ethical monotheism elevated the will of god above everything else, a crisis was just a matter of time.
Try as we might to uphold divine sovereignty by making human beings somehow deserving of their suffering (e.g., an individual’s unconfessed sin, inherited guilt from previous generations, or the total depravity of human nature); or on the other side, by appealing to god’s inscrutable plan, the soul-therapy of pain and loss, or adjusting the mixer board of orthodoxy so that god’s righteousness is bumped above his compassion – all of this compromise to our ethical and rational sensibilities has put belief in god’s existence out of the question for many.
Does this leave us with atheism then? It sounds like we need to drop all this nonsense and move on. Haven’t we disproved god’s existence by now, tolerated the logical and moral contradictions, or at least gone long enough without evidence to support the claim? If theism has ruined its credit in our modern minds, isn’t atheism all that’s left?
A good part of this blog is dedicated to clarifying a different conclusion. Just because many of us are no longer able – more importantly we aren’t willing – to sacrifice intellect for faith doesn’t necessarily mean that theism has to be trashed, or that it’s been fatally exposed as a farce.
It could also mean that theism has done its job.
For a time when we were young (so runs my argument) we depended on higher powers to help us feel secure, supervise our development, and exemplify the character virtues that promote cooperation and goodwill. Every family system is a kind of theism where taller powers provide for underlings in these and other ways, and they in turn try to be obedient and respectful of parental authority.
The fear of the Lord was continually in our awareness of being accountable for our words, choices, and behavior. Doing good came back in praise and reward; doing bad called down blame and punishment. If our taller powers were involved and diligent, we eventually came to understand that ‘the world’ (our household) was an interdependent system where our actions had consequences – not just for us alone but for the system as a whole.
In ancient and traditional societies this world model of a household was projected outward onto a larger – in the case of Judaism’s ethical monotheism, a cosmic – scale, where a patron deity (like Yahweh) was imagined as watching over his children, demanding their obedience, and providing for their needs. Such a model of reality gave assurance that the tribe and its individual members weren’t orphans adrift in an indifferent or hostile universe.
Their god personified a provident intention in the greater cosmos, but s/he also reminded them that human beings are part of something larger and owe their contribution to the whole. No action went unnoticed by god; later, Jesus would insist that not even our thoughts and desires are hidden from “the father who sees in secret.” Humans are one big sibling society under the will of the fatherly Yahweh, and each of us is accountable to him. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
We realize now as never before that our representations of ultimate reality are metaphorical constructions that not only assist our contemplation of what is beyond name and form but also serve to link the business of daily life to a transcendent center of value and meaning. Yahweh is a mythic character, a literary figure, a theological construct who personified the provident mystery of reality as superintendent over nature and all nations.
While it is the case that Bible stories tell of Yahweh’s great accomplishment “in the beginning,” his intervention on behalf of Hebrew slaves, his guidance and support of refugees through the wilderness, his revelation of laws by which to govern the community, his ventriloquism through the prophets, his incarnation in Jesus, the fertilization of a new community by his spirit, his orchestration of the missionary church, and the preparation currently underway for the apocalyptic final curtain – we commonly overlook the fact that all of this takes place inside the imaginarium of myth.
Because biblical (or more accurately, mythological) literalists are considering these stories from a standpoint outside this imaginarium – which names a mode of consciousness that is shaped and fully immersed in its own narrative constructions of meaning – the veracity of Yahweh’s character for them must be a function of his separate existence, apart from the stories themselves. In other words, these are not mere stories (certainly not myths!) but eye-witness reports of actual supernatural facts and miraculous events.
It was this loss of the mythic imagination which motivated the conviction that would eventually set the stage for theism’s disproof by science.
We could have gone the route of seeing through the myths as metaphorical representations of reality, and as mythopoetic (rather than scientific) constructions of meaning. In that case, theism might have taken the role of orienting human consciousness in reality, providing mystical grounding and moral guidance in the formation of identity, and then assisted the further transformation of consciousness by facilitating its liberation from ego in a transpersonal re-orientation to life within the turning unity of all things. The pernicious divisions of soul and body, self and other, human and nature would have been transcended and healed, lifting us into a conscious experience of community, wholeness, fulfillment, and wellbeing.
But things went in a different direction.
Now, on the other side of our sacred stories (seeing through them rather than seeing by them) and taking up our lives after god (post-theism), we still have an opportunity to embrace that ancient proverb: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. For us, however, it’s not about living under the watchful, provident, and retributive supervision of a god. We can save the kernel of its wisdom and release the husk of theism that protected it for millenniums.
It’s not that we should live in such a way that pleases god the father and motivates his blessing in return. The personified character of god in the myths was only the ‘husk’ inside of which the precious insight was honored and kept – the insight that we are not getting away with anything.
We are accountable. Our beliefs, values, and actions affect much more than we know, for we belong to a larger living system. What we do locally amplifies in its effects to impact global conditions, which in turn nourish, limit, or undermine our local quality of life.
Not only are we not ‘getting away’ from this situation by some escape route to a perfect world (a utopian future or heavenly paradise), the integral intelligence of systemic feedback that is our planet and its cosmic environment will continue to bring back to us the consequences of our daily choices. And as we can see with the effects of industrial pollution and global warming, these consequences are now crossing a critical threshold.
What we sow in our inner life (soul) comes out as health or illness in our body. What we do to others (as Jesus pointed out, especially our enemies) comes back on our self. The degree or lack of reverence and care that we demonstrate for the household of nature reflects the dignity we affirm our deny in our own human species. All is one, and we’re all in this together.
That is wisdom.