The holy trinity of religions

What unites, and separates, the three leading systems of belief in One God

by Michael Hoffman

Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Little Pieces: This Side of Japan” (VBW, 2010).“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” — Genesis 1:1

“But after all, who knows, and who can say, whence it all came, and how creation happened?” — Hindu Rig-Veda, c. 1000 B.C.

Four thousand years ago, a great city — Ur in Mesopotamia, today’s Iraq — was laid waste by nomadic invaders, and in the mind of a refugee from that vast destruction, in the course of long desert wanderings, there was conceived, in embryonic form, the notion that one invisible, immaterial, unnamable, universal, ethical, supernatural, omnipotent, beneficent, personal “God” ruled the world He had created.

The man’s name was Abraham. Had there been psychiatrists in his day, he would surely have been packed off to a madhouse.

The idea was unprecedented, unheard of, scarcely conceivable.

Gods the human race had in abundance — household gods, tribal gods, earth gods, sky gods, sun gods, moon gods, storm gods, good gods, evil gods, and so on and so on. Early man was a worshiping animal, a god-spawning animal. The more gods, the better; the more fabulous their wonders, the better still — and yet there were two wonders no early god claimed: creativity and abstract morality.

Power, immortality and capricious, irresistible, amoral desires were their chief attributes. As for the world — or “universe,” as we would say today — for most early peoples it had either always existed or had been begotten of gods begotten in turn — or both, as in Japan, where gods emerging in a pre-existent world begot the Japanese archipelago.

Where could Abraham’s idea have come from? No one knows. But it had a future. For much of the world, it defined the future.

“The discovery of monotheism, of a sole, omnipotent God activated by ethical principles and seeking methodically to impose them on human beings, is one of the great turning points in history, perhaps the greatest of all,” wrote the British historian Paul Johnson (in “A History of the Jews” [1987]).

“I will make of thee a great nation,” said God to Abraham. So He did. Today, monotheists the world over are Abraham’s heirs — nearly 2.2 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims, 13 million Jews: more than half the human race. Hindus, 870-million strong, comprise the bulk of what’s left of the polytheists. For Hindus, the world is simply too rich, too overflowing, too monstrous and too beautiful, to be explicable in terms of a single, solitary God. Besides, says a sacred Hindu text of the 9th century, it doesn’t make sense: “If (God) is ever perfect and complete, how could the will to create have arisen in him?”

God is an apt subject of reflection on this day honoring the birth of Jesus. Why does Abraham’s God matter to us today? How can we believe what the Bible and the Quran enjoin us to believe? We can’t without making fools of ourselves, is one line of thought.

“How Religion Poisons Everything” is the subtitle of a famous book by the recently deceased British-American journalist Christopher Hitchens, “God is Not Great” (2007). “Religion,” he wrote, “comes from the period of human history where nobody … had the smallest idea of what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as comfort, reassurance and other infantile needs).”

Primitive man in an incomprehensible world with all its terrors and blessings clutches at straws. He pleads and gives thanks — to what? To whatever his reeling, churning, irrational mind serves up: monsters, animal-gods, man-gods, spirit-gods or, in Abraham’s case, God.

But what of modern man, his world and mind tamed and disciplined by reason, philosophy, science? What does the God of Abraham, or His “only begotten Son,” or His prophet Muhammad, have to do with human beings who measure the universe, weigh the stars, map the genomes?

Abraham’s progeny, Jesus’ disciples, Muhammad’s followers, could believe without doing violence to their reason. Can we? As Mark Twain quipped, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” Or, Hitchens again, “If you read (physicist Stephen) Hawking on the ‘event horizon’ — that theoretical lip of a ‘black hole’ over which one could in theory plunge and see the past and the future — I shall be surprised if you can still go on gaping at Moses and his unimpressive ‘burning bush.’ “

Well, granted, it’s crazy, but there it is — the burning bush and other Biblical and Quranic wonders do indeed retain their hold on the imaginations of masses of people, some of whom have even read Hawking.

Some physicists speak of the “improbable order” of the infant universe as implying an intelligent Creator fine-tuning the Big Bang they calculate occurred 13.7 billion years ago.

If the universe, they say, had expanded ever so infinitesimally faster or slower than it did, if the force of gravity or the ratio of electron-to-proton mass had been ever so minutely different from what they in fact are, neither matter nor life would have formed. That’s how close the universe came to being nothing at all.

That it’s not nothing, but something, is a miracle. “In the creation of the heavens and the earth,” says the Quran, “and in the alteration of night and day, there are signs for men of sense; those that remember God when standing, sitting and lying down, and reflect on the creation of the heavens and earth, say, ‘Lord, You have not created this in vain.’ “

God — God who? Other gods had names, God had none. When He appeared to Moses in the burning bush and commanded him to go to Egypt and free the Israelite slaves, “Moses,” the Bible tells us, “said unto God, ‘Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel and shall say unto them, the God of your fathers hath sent me unto you,’ and they shall say to me, ‘What is his name?’, what shall I say unto them? And God said unto Moses, I Am That I Am … Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel: I Am hath sent you.”

“I am” — “Yahweh,” in ancient Hebrew.

God alone among gods was beyond being named. Alone among gods He was infinite, outside time; not part of nature but the creator of nature; not sexual but the creator of sex. He was a Creator — not, like other gods, a begotten begetter.

Nothing is that was not created by Him, and each act of creation was followed by a judgment: “And God saw that it was good.” Man too was created by Him — in His own image, “in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them,” the Bible tells us — and yet with man, something seems to have gone wrong.

Man was a problem from the start, an obstreperous child with a will of his own. Adam and Eve sinning in the Garden of Eden sowed a breach between man and God, a breach such as there never was between man and gods. Though vastly inferior to God, gods seemed to get the unquestioning obedience they demanded. God did not.

Even Abraham, eternal symbol of absolute faith for his willingness, at God’s behest, to sacrifice his beloved infant son Isaac — even Abraham, in his good-natured way, challenged God.

God’s wrath was kindled against the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. “And Abraham drew near, and said, ‘Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Peradventure there be 50 righteous within the city …’ ” All right, said God, for 50 righteous I will not destroy the city. “And Abraham answered and said, ‘Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes: Peradventure there shall lack five of the 50 righteous …’ Very well, said God, if there are 45 righteous. … And so it went, down to 10 — why not to one? In any case, Abraham won his point. God yielded — not that it did the doomed cities any good, for no righteous people were found in them.

Some eight centuries later — roughly 1280 B.C. — Moses led the Israelites out of bondage: “And Israel saw that great work which the Lord did upon the Egyptians and the people feared the Lord, and believed the Lord, and his servant Moses.”

But not for long.

They were free — but starving in the trackless desert. “And the children of Israel said unto (Moses): ‘Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, and when we did eat bread to the full.’ God provided bread, but the people were thirsty, and cried, ‘Wherefore is this that thou has brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?’ “

God sent water, but when Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Law — the core of what became the first five books of the Bible’s Old Testament — the people wavered again, and in his absence made a golden calf to worship.

God was furious. “And the Lord said unto Moses, I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiffnecked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them.”

Moses soothes Gods anger. He ascends and descends the mountain many times, sometimes alone, sometimes with the tribal elders. “And the Lord spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend.” Moses receives the Law, inscribed on stone tablets. And the people cry out as one, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!”

But they didn’t. God led the children of Israel to the Promised Land and helped them conquer it, that they might cleanse it of its “Baalim”- the Canaanite pantheon headed by the fertility god Baal — and dedicate themselves to the exclusive worship of Yahweh.

But the Baalim were seductive. They had names, they had identities, they were representable in beautiful images, as Yahweh most emphatically was not (“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images” is one of the Ten Commandments). Baalim joined their worshipers at sacred feasts and in sacred prostitution. Baalim inflamed and satisfied those human instincts that Yahweh and His grim commandments suppressed. Ecstasy, abandon, madness, human sacrifice were the delight of Baalim and the horror of Yahweh. Much later, Christians and Muslims were promised a deathless afterlife in return for their self-restraint. What did Yahweh offer?

Nothing but Himself — His invisible, inconceivable, ungraspable Self: “Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all the people, for all the earth is mine. And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.”

The Israelites were a primitive people. They were not ready to be a kingdom of priests. God, like any helpless parent, alternately threatened and coaxed. He sent foreign armies to mete out His divine punishment, and He inspired prophets to plead His divine case: “And Samuel spake unto all the house of Israel (c. 1000 B.C.), saying, If ye do return unto the Lord with all your hearts, and put away the strange gods … , He will deliver you out of the hands of the Philistines.” The people promised and were delivered, but the “strange gods” beckoned again — repeatedly, irresistibly.

The first chapter of monotheist history, spanning more than 1,000 years beginning with Abraham, thus ends in failure, in God’s furious destruction of the two little Israelite kingdoms of Israel (720 B.C.) and Judah (586 B.C.) at the hands of His chosen instruments, the empires of Assyria and Babylon respectively.

“Israel is a scattered sheep,” lamented the prophet Jeremiah; “the lions have driven him away.” Yet “a small number,” he prophesied, a saving “remnant,” would return, for Israel’s “redeemer is strong; the Lord of Hosts is His name.”

Abraham had another son — Isaac’s elder half-brother, Ishmael, the father of Islam.

The Bible story is that Abraham’s wife, Sara, unable to conceive, urged him to “go in unto” her Egyptian maid, Hagar, who did conceive. Sara’s jealousy, fired by Hagar’s taunts, boiled over and the maid fled with her child into the desert. There God appeared to her and said, much as He had to Abraham, “I will make him (Ishmael) a great nation.” Hence Muslims, no less than Jews, claim descent from Abraham.

There are vague tales of Jewish tribes in the Arabian Peninsula as early as 1000 B.C.; certainly by Muhammad’s time (A.D. 570-632) they were flourishing there as traders and pastoralists. They stood out as monotheists among the polytheist Arabs.

Among the Arab gods was al-Ilah or Allah, the chief god of Mecca. Muhammad, Mecca-born, was a caravaneer, a thriving man of business — but he was also, evidently, of a reflective turn, and much drawn to the “One God” of the Jews. Meditating in a cave one day, he was visited by the angel Gabriel, who commanded him, “Recite, in the name of the Lord who created man from clots of blood.”

Muhammad recited. After his death his recitations were collected into a book called the Quran (literally, “the recitation”). Readers of the Bible will find much in it that is familiar. They will recognize in “Allah” their own one supernatural, personal, ethical God. “Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Universe, the Compassionate, the Merciful”; “Believers, be ever mindful of Allah, praise Him morning and evening … so that He may lead you from darkness to the light”; “It is He who gives life and death, and when He decides upon an affair, He says to it, ‘Be,’ and it is.”

A Jew or Christian feels, if not altogether at home here, at least like a guest in a not unfriendly house. Muhammad’s initial purpose seems to have been to replace Arab polytheism with a fairly close adaptation of Jewish ethical monotheism. Only when Jews rejected his overtures did he shape Islam into a separate religion.

Jews, Christians and Muslims spring from common stock. They share a “Holy Land,” roughly modern Israel, remarkable for nothing else except, historically speaking, remoteness and inhospitality of landscape.

They also share the core idea of Abrahamic monotheism, and the worship of God via a “holy book.” Still, somehow, they did not take to each other, except fitfully, here and there — Islamic Spain, for instance, where Muslims and Jews together created a cultural golden age that lasted from the 10th century to the Christian reconquest of the 15th.

Each was offended by the others’ manner of worshipping the “one true God.” To Jews, Christians were “idolaters” who had forsaken the One God to worship a Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost. To Christians, the Jews had killed Christ; the Gospel of Matthew has the frenzied Jews crying out en masse, “His blood be upon us, and on our children.”

And the Quran warns Christians: “Speak nothing but the truth about God. The Messiah, Jesus the son of Mary, was no more than God’ apostle and His Word. . . So believe in God and His apostles and do not say: ‘Three.’ Forbear, and it shall be better for you. God is but one God. God forbid that He should have a son!”

In 1587, there were some 200 Christian churches in Japan, serving 150,000 Japanese Christians. A mere 30 years of missionary work, beginning with the Jesuit priest St. Francis Xavier’ arrival in Kyushu in 1549, had borne rich fruit.

The 18th-century British historian Edward Gibbon, in “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” discerned five causes for Christianity’ triumph in Imperial Rome in the 4th century A.D. They are relevant as well to 16th-century Japan: (1) “The inflexible, and, if we may use the expression, the intolerant zeal of the Christians”; (2) the Christian doctrine of a future life; (3) “the miraculous powers ascribed to the primitive church”; (4) “the pure and austere morals of the Christians”; (5) “the union and discipline of the Christian republic.”

To these, many historians add a sixth — the compelling uniqueness of Jesus. “Jesus of Nazareth was, in terms of his influence, the most important human being in history,” writes Johnson (in “Jesus: A Biography from a Believer [2010]). Further, “The unique event of someone both God and man appearing on earth is the essence of Christianity.”

Cite what causes you will, Roman Christianity’ rise from being a despised and persecuted fringe sect to its position as the supreme religion of Western civilization was astonishingly improbable. But it happened, and a European missionary in Japan in 1587 — let’ say, on June 23, 1587 — might reasonably have foreseen something similar happening here.

On June 24, his optimism may have wavered, for on that day the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, hitherto friendly toward the missionaries, abruptly declared Christianity a “pernicious doctrine” and gave its foreign purveyors 20 days to leave the country.

Even at that, our hypothetical missionary’ “inflexible, intolerant zeal” might have fortified him, and plausibly enough, for Hideyoshi’ edict remained for a time a dead letter. But his successor, Tokugawa Ieyasu, revived it, declaring in 1614 that “the Kirishitan band have come to Japan. . . to disseminate an evil law, to overthrow true doctrine, that they may change the government of the country.”

That was the beginning of the end of Japan’ “Christian century.” By 1640, there had occurred “the most cruel persecution and torture of Christians ever witnessed on this globe. . . lasting more than 40 years until the last drop of Christian blood was spilled,” as the German physician and chronicler Engelbert Kaempfer, posted with the Dutch East India Company at Nagasaki, observed early in the 18th century. Pockets of “hidden Christians” remained, but to all intents and purposes Christianity in Japan was finished. It remains feeble to this day, despite the country’ Westernization in most other respects.

Was monotheism inevitable?

Suppose Abraham had never existed. Would someone else have had the idea? Would it have evolved naturally as human civilization progressed? Or might monotheism never have arisen at all?

What if it hadn’t? Western civilization might have unfolded under the aegis of the ancient Greek or Roman gods, and instead of worshipping their One God, today’ monotheists would be praying to Homer’ delightful pantheon, and making pilgrimages to the Delphic oracle instead of attending services at a church, synagogue or mosque.

A dying paganism had its last vigorous defense from the Roman senator Symmachus, who in the 4th century A.D. pleaded for the preservation of the old ways in an empire that, to his dismay, had gone Christian: “I do but ask peace for the gods of our fathers, the native gods of Rome. . . We all (Christians and pagans) look up at the same stars. We have a common sky. . . What matters it by what kind of learned theory each man looketh for truth?”

It was not to be. The Christian rebuttal from St. Ambrose (A.D. 340-397), Bishop of Milan, carried the day: “Why cite me the examples of the ancient? It is no disgrace to pass on to better things. . . The great difference between us and you is that what you seek in surmises, we know.”

Monotheism knows — or thinks it does. It knows God, knows His will, knows how He must be worshipped. Unfortunately, one person’ knowledge is another person’ heresy. In Europe, various “Inquisitions” — the Spanish most notoriously, but by no means exclusively — were active over centuries, rooting out “heresies” and burning “heretics.”

Mankind’ salvation was at stake. To worship the wrong God, or to worship the right God wrongly, invited not only divine wrath on Earth but the divine shutting of the gates to eternal life. An English statute of 1401 — On the Burning of Heretics — laid down how to deal with “divers false faiths and perverse people” who “make and write books, wickedly instruct and inform people. . . commit subversion of the Catholic faith …”

Offenders were to “be burnt, that such punishment may strike fear into the minds of others.”

“Punishment,” echoed a Spanish “Handbook for Inquisitors” in 1578, “does not take place primarily for the correction and good of the person punished, but for the public good, in order that others may become terrified and weaned away from evils they would commit.”

Tokugawa Ieyasu might almost have taken his cue from the very Christianity whose Japanese faithful he was torturing and exterminating.

But in Europe, the Inquisition fires burned in vain. Thousands died but “divers faiths” flourished. Is this surprising? “God,” if “He” exists, does so not as you and I do, or as the world does, physically, in space and time. His existence, His nature, His expectations of us, are not such as to be readily comprehensible, or understood by all in the same way.

In remote times, God spoke to and through His prophets, of whom Muhammad considered himself the last.

Then came the philosophers.

The Middle Ages (roughly the 5th to 14th centuries) were rich in philosophy. It was philosophy of a peculiar kind, known as scholasticism, an odd-couple marriage of ancient Greek reasoning, a la Plato and Aristotle, with monotheist divine revelation.

Jewish, Christian and Muslim rulers, worshipers, and armies if any (the Jews by this time had none), were generally hostile to one another. Arab conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries built an Islamic empire stretching from the Holy Land to Spain; the Christian counterattacks known as the Crusades kept the two sides almost perpetually at war from the late 11th century to the 14th, and sporadically thereafter.

All this while, though, Jewish, Christian and Muslim philosophers were united in a single, or rather dual, quest: to “prove” by reason that God existed and, by reason, to define His nature (or else prove that it is undefinable).

St. Anselm, for example, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093-1109, published in the 1070s his famous “ontological” proof of God’ existence. Imagine, he said, “a being than which nothing greater can be conceived.” That being “exists in the understanding,” since the concept is not incomprehensible. It must therefore exist in reality — mustn’t it? — for if it didn’t a greater being would be conceivable, namely one did.

Another classic scholastic “proof” was devised by the Persian Muslim philosopher Avicenna (or Ibn-Sina, 980-1037), and elaborated by the thinker considered the greatest of the scholastics, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74). God, they said, is a “Necessary Being” — an uncaused cause, necessary because a series of causes has to start somewhere, and that first cause must be — what else could it be, to rational thinkers with no notion of a Big Bang? — God.

To the modern mind this is apt to seem rather thin. It didn’t settle much even in its own time — if it had, the Inquisitions would not have been necessary. If this is the best that reason can do, a believer might say, best throw up one’ hands and exclaim, with the North African Church Father Tertullian (A.D. 152-222), “I believe because it is absurd.” Which is not as absurd as it sounds, for if religious truth were not absurd it would be reasonable, and therefore accessible to reason, and what then of faith? It would not be needed. “May I never,” prayed the 18th-century Russian-Jewish sage Mikhal of Zlotchev, “use my reason against truth.”

No skeptic is likely to be floored by that. As Sigmund Freud retorted to Tertullian (in “The Future of an Illusion” [1927]), “Am I to be obliged to believe every absurdity?”

To Freud, religion — the “illusion” in question — was neurosis, mere wish fulfillment. It survives by gratifying our deepest wishes — for a powerful, all-wise, benevolent, father; for life after death. We’ll outgrow it, he predicted. “Religion,” he said, is “the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity. Like the obsessional neurosis of children, it arose out of the Oedipus complex, out of the relation to the father. If this view is right, it is to be supposed that a turning-away from religion is bound to occur with the fatal inevitability of a process of growth.”

Strangely — miraculously? — it hasn’t happened. As a species we haven’t outgrown religion, and show no sign of being about to. Disgust over the countless, endless wars fought over it, from the Crusades to the “war on terror,” hasn’t killed it. Nor has science, whose hard facts, disciplined observations, rigorous proofs and tangible results might seem on the face of it more than a match for the poetically appealing but rationally incoherent Biblical visions. Humankind, or a sizable portion of it, seems to need God — whether He exists or not.

Michael Hoffman’ latest book is “Little Pieces: This Side of Japan” (VBW, 2010).