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STORIES ABOUT GOD

By C. Fred Alford

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The Montréal Review, June 2022

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Jack Miles has written a couple of books about the life of God. They are not new books. New, or rather recently renewed, is my encounter with them.

What's different about Miles' books is that he assumes that the Bible, Hebrew Testament and New Testament, can be treated as literary works, biographies that tell us about the development of the protagonist. No historical criticism, no redaction criticism, no textual criticism (who wrote what when).  He treats the Bible as you would a biography you pulled from your bookshelf. What type of person (that's really the term for how he treats him) is God, what does God learn along the way, how does God develop and change in the course of his encounters with man, particularly but not exclusively the Jews?  Miles' God is a Trinitarian God, particularly in the sense that whatever we learn about Christ we learn about God, for they are the one.  "Jesus is Lord."  While God: A Biography stands alone, it is only complete with his second volume, Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God.

A harsh God

Though the God of the Hebrew Testament can be loving toward his people, he is fundamentally a warrior God, which is what his people wanted.

In rage you stride across the land, you trample the nations in anger as you advance to save your people, to rescue your anointed one. You stave in the sinner’s roof beams, you raze his house to the ground. You split his skull with your bludgeon. (Habakkuk 3, quoted in God: A Biography, p 98)

God is praiseworthy because he smashes the heads of Israel's enemies.  Pity the poor Amalekites.

The Lord swore to Moses: “Record this in writing, and recite it in Joshua’s hearing, that I will utterly wipe out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” (Exodus 17:14)

Now, go and crush Amalek. Put him under a curse of total destruction, him and all that he possesses. Do not spare him, but slay man and woman, child and babe, ox and sheep, camel and ass.” (1 Samuel 15: 2–3)

Miles comments, "what the Lord swore and Moses solemnly witnessed was, in more modern language, an oath of genocide." (p 101)

What changed with the New Testament?

What changed is that God was confronted with his own weakness. His strong right arm could no longer protect the Israelites against Babylon, and then Rome. But rather than admitting defeat, God changed the terms of the covenant.

God does have, however, one alternative to simply bringing his storied career to an ignominious close. Instead of baldly declaring that he is unable to defeat his enemies, God may declare that he has no enemies, that he now refuses to recognize any distinction between friend and foe. (Christ, p 108)

To make this argument, to exemplify and die for it, is the job of Jesus.

 Give Nietzsche a little credit

Miles' argument is virtually identical to Nietzsche's argument in On the Genealogy of Morals. It wouldn't have hurt for him to give him a little credit. The argument of both is that Christianity transformed goodness from power into weakness. Unable to protect Israel, God becomes Christ, whose leading teaching is "turn the other cheek." This is the same argument that Nietzsche makes about the "last man," as he calls him, the servile and weak. Christianity wins because it convinces so many that strength, God's strong right arm, is bad. Weakness is good.

Not power, but the ethic of self-sacrifice and the practice of non-violent resistance are the terms of the new covenant. While Jesus does not resist crucifixion, he does not go along with his show trial before Pontius Pilate; he practices what we call civil disobedience. Gentiles may be drawn to this teaching, but it is not intended principally for them. It is a way for God to save face. `I didn't fail to care for my people.  I've changed what it means to care for.'

It's difficult (to say the least) to summarize an argument of over 900 pages in a few words. The main point is that if we assume God is Christ, as Miles does, then God changes his covenant with the Jews because he no longer has the power to protect them. However, rather than saying this, God/Jesus reframes goodness, transforming it from power into an ethic of kindness to strangers, which includes not killing them, even when they are trying to kill you.

Gentiles may imagine that their own goodness, their own attractiveness, was a sufficient motive for God’s decision to bring them into the covenant that he had once reserved for the Jews.  But if we approach this change from God’s side . . . . the covenant had to be changed because God could not keep its terms and because, on the eve of a new national catastrophe for Israel, he chose to stop pretending that he could. (p 108)

The Book of Job

The Book of Job is the last time God speaks in the Hebrew Testament. He speaks from the whirlwind, and his message is a message of power and transcendence. Job, he says, `what right have you to question me? I made the universe, I made men and women, I made everything. What do you know, what can you do? Nothing. So shut up and accept that you will never understand me, for I am beyond human comprehension.'  (my summary of Job, 39-42:9)

And this is what Job does, accepting God's power to create worlds, while recognizing that his is an insignificant place in things. "Therefore, I retract my words, and I repent (nachem) in dust and ashes.” (42:6) *

The New Testament: God becomes curious about humans

God (Christ) is a very different character in The New Testament, and we may imagine, with Miles, that this has to do with his weakness in the face of new empires. But we may also read it another way. In his confrontation with Job, God has come to learn something new about this creature he created. That he can take it. Unlike Miles' God, Job doesn't come up with excuses. God is all powerful, men and women are not; we will never understand God's ways unless he chooses to reveal them to us and he probably won't.

The psychologist Donald Winnicott wrote about the "ruthless use of the object." Only if the object, and Winnicott is writing about mothers, resists the child's attempt to destroy her without becoming aggressive in return, can the child have confidence in their relationship (Winnicott, 1989; Alford, 2009). Perhaps God learned enough about the strength of a man, and a man about God, that they could open a new chapter in their relationship. That, though, would require a new testament. 

What if God became man in order to learn more about this creation of his?  Miles' argument in God: A Biography, is that the history of God is the history of one who originally knew little about himself, but grew in self-knowledge through encounters with Israel and her heroes, such as Moses, David, Jacob, and Abraham.  Interaction, as they say in psychology, is the anvil on which the ego is formed. God is forming his ego, his self.

In becoming Christ, God learns what it would it be like to be a human being. What would it be like to hunger, suffer, fear, hate, and love? For Jesus clearly loves; he loves Peter for one. The answer, the only answer, is to become fully human, and fully vulnerable. In so doing, God learns not just about suffering (patripassianism), but about all the other dimensions of human experience. There can be no other meaning of the claim that Jesus is fully human as well as fully divine, the central teaching of Christianity (Nicene Creed).

If God entered into our world as Jesus in order to learn more about us, then he would become an even more interesting character than Miles imagines. Whether or not God was interested in learning more about himself, or whether that was simply the result of his encounter with humans (Miles suggests the latter), he remains relatively uninterested in humans themselves. That takes Jesus. That takes being both human and reflective, and while Jesus is not reflective in the usual psychological sense (who am I?), he devotes an enormous amount of time to talking about himself.

Harold Bloom sees Hamlet as the modern character most like Jesus. Indeed, Bloom argues that William Tyndale's Geneva Bible provides, in its account of Jesus, Shakespeare's model for Hamlet (Bloom, p 190). While Jesus does not question his motives as Hamlet does, he invites us to puzzle over his identity as God or man, particularly in Mark (8:27-29). It's no wonder that Miles chooses John as the gospel on which to base his argument, for there the identity of God and Christ are clear from the first verse.

Miles is certain that Christ sacrifices himself so that we may have eternal life. What a deal, so much better than a God who merely smashes heads (p 246). My account doesn't necessarily lead to that conclusion. It doesn't contradict it either. Instead, I emphasize God's entry into the condition of being human so as to know those he has made. In this way God not only becomes self-conscious, but conscious of and interested in the subjective world of the beings he has created in his own image. The more God learns about humans, the more he learns about himself.

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* Nachem could also be translated as regret, so Job could be regretting the world he has found himself in, while nonetheless accepting it.

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C. Fred Alford is Professor Emeritus at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he taught ancient and medieval political philosophy for thirty-eight years. He has written eighteen books on diverse subjects: psychoanalysis and politics, natural law, trauma theory, and the legacy of the Holocaust. While not a professional theologian, Alford wrote a book on Emmanuel Levinas, one on natural law, and still another addressing the book of Job.

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References

C. Fred Alford, “Job, Abjection, and the Ruthless God,” Psychoanalytic Review, vol. 96, no. 3, 431-459 (2009).
Harold Bloom, Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine.  Riverhead Books, 2005.
Jack Miles, God: A Biography.  Vintage, 1995. 
Jack Miles, Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God.  Vintage, 2001
D. W. Winnicott, Psycho-Analytic Explorations, edited by Claire Winnicott, Ray Shepherd, and Madeleine Davis, 217-246.  Harvard University Press, 1989. 

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