God or gods, a Train of Thought That Ends Up Illuminating What We Need Illuminated

I found myself wondering today about something regarding the idea of God. It grew out of my noticing the strangeness of the contrast between two important cultures in the millennium before the birth of Jesus: the culture of the ancient Greeks and that of the ancient Hebrews.

Here's the thing. These two peoples/cultures inhabited basically the same world - empires, metals, lots of war, slavery, annihilation--but despite that sameness they came to very different conclusions about a matter most fundamental to a culture's worldview: the question of whether to place one God or many gods at the center of the cosmic order

Wouldn't there have to be some fundamental difference between the cultures to account for such different ways of seeing the fundamental order of the world?

The Greeks saw the world of the divine beings as consisting of a whole diversity of gods having dealings (not always admirable) among each other. A many-ness, and a strong flavor of amorality.

The Hebrews saw the world of the divine as inhabited by ONE GOD -- and indeed from Abraham onward that was THE defining feature of the Hebrew religion. It is still at the center of the basic Jewish prayer, the Shema Yisarel: "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one"

So we can presume that at least to the Hebrews, the difference between believing in One God or in many gods was of the utmost importance.

Which leads me to wonder:

Is that issue truly fundamental in terms of how a culture perceives reality? And if so, what can account for these two cultures choosing so differently on this matter despite inhabiting the same basic world?

Did their cultures give them basically different ways of thinking? If so, what was that difference?

Or did they come to have different needs, or different senses of the nature of life, growing perhaps out of different historical experiences?

For example, the Greeks had a pretty good won-loss record in the cruel intersocietal game, the brutal struggle for power that accompanied the rise of civilization. It is a Greek (Thucydides, whom I have quoted in just about every one of my books and in many of my public lectures), who put these words into the mouths of the Athenians, describing the way of the world:

"The strong do what they can, while the weak suffer what they must."

The Greeks were feeling like winners in that game. The Greeks had themselves overpowered another group of human beings to possess the land we call Greece (if I remember correctly the narrative about the spread of Aryan peoples out from a central area in the Eurasian landmass).

One might think of the Greeks as the kind of "We're # 1" rowdy group in the locker-room, boasting and spraying champagne around.

For them, there was not a lot of reason to question whether the world is good the way it is or in need of moral improvement through a power that can restrain the brutal consequences of intersocietal anarchy. For the Greeks, there had been considerable rewards for indulging the impulse to come out on top in a contest for dominance.

It was rather otherwise for the Hebrews.

The Hebrews/Jews were sandwiched in between mighty empires -- the Egyptian (from whom, the Bible says, they suffered four centuries of slavery), the Bablyonian (the generations of captivity), the Assyrian (the defilement of the Temple).

Not for them were there many opportunities to satisfy the "We're # 1" kind of lust for domination.

As a result of their experience ("the weak suffer what they must"), these Hebrews had reasons to crave a world better ordered, and ruled by a power of an emphatically moral character. Those reasons grew out of their traumatic experience of the lack of a moral order and of power being wielded against them in evil ways.

If this is where the explanation of the contrast lies, then the question arises: Which culture's choice comes out strengthened, and which weakened, by this picture? Or, to put it another way, which side should we be listening to, if either?

I make no pretense to know about what kind of divine beings there might be, or if there is anything like that in the cosmos or not. But here is how I might see a relevant case being made in either direction.

On the one hand, one could say this picture discredits the Hebrew's approach. One might say that their choice was so clearly motivated by their need -- that this idea of a moral power and order at the center of the universe was, for a victim society, a kind of opiate, alleviating some real pain -- that it seems less likely that they were coming to the truth.

At least things make sense, in some ultimate sense," people in their painful position might be eager to conclude. "At least in some invisible world of God's justice, the wrongs will be righted."

That would be comforting for a much-victimized people to believe.

But on the other hand, one might reasonably argue that their experience could lead them to see more deeply into the way things are and into the profoundly moral challenge at the heart of the human condition.

The people who have experienced victimhood -- having been conquered, killed, hauled into slavery -- are driven by their suffering to see deeply into the big picture. And what they see is the reality of the battle between good and evil, and the moral obligation to serve the good and defend the sacred.

They know that injustice is bad, because they experience its badness in their bodies and their souls.

In this way, their experience compels that people to think about the deep problems at the heart of human civilization, where the problem of uncontrolled power has subjected the human world to a ongoing force of brokenness that stretches through the millennia. (And, indeed, has erupted in all its ugliness in our times here in America.)

Anyway, those are the places my wondering lately took me, when I somehow stumbled into the question of God or gods, and the mystery of how worldviews of these two cultures came to be so different on so fundamental a question about the structure of reality.

Not just any two cultures, either. These two --Athens and Jerusalem-- together, constitute the two basic building blocks -- the two main cultural streams out of the ancient world -- that have shaped the civilization of which we are in America are part.

I say there are important truths from both of them.

Hurrah for the Greeks, for example, for providing some of the important tools for clear thinking as a way of understanding things, and for giving our civilization some foundation for pursuing truth through the use of reason and evidence.

But hurray also for the Hebrews for seeing deeply into the profound moral dimension central to the circumstances of civilized humankind.

These things all come together in my new book --WHAT WE'RE UP AGAINST -- which addresses the question: What has gone wrong in America, and how can we set it right?

These questions arise, it should be noted, at a time when we Americans are ourselves becoming victims of unjust power -- as our political voice and our economic circumstance and the prospects for our children and grandchildren are all being stolen from us.

And this theft, this victimization, makes it essential that we perceive just what it is that we are up against.

And this task, in turn, requires us to utilize something of the insight contained biblical worldview: e.g. an understanding of the centrality of the question of moral order, and the reality of something that can reasonably be described as "the battle between good and evil."

WHAT WE'RE UP AGAINST is addressed to Liberal America. It both sounds a call to a battle, and it provides a strategy for winning.

Here's the essence of that strategy, for how to fight against a destructive force -- such as that which has taken over the political right in our times -- in a democracy:

See the evil. Call it out. Press the battle.

I offer this book as a weapon for that battle. It is a weapon of truth, built to the intellectual standards that have their roots in Athens. And it is also a moral truth, infused with a spirit quite recognizably akin to that spirit that speaks in the Bible when some Hebrew figure stands up to speak the moral truth to evil power.