It’s hard to know which should make us more afraid: the notion that the human being or God is the absolute master of history. It is difficult to decide in the name of which of these attitudes more blood has been spilled, or which is more likely to destroy the world first.
As I write, war rages across much of the Middle East; from afar one can only weep and pray for the innocent people, inhabitants of Syria, Iraq, Israel, and Gaza, whose lives are being devastated. Is there an approach to history, a way of understanding our role and agency within it, which will make us less likely to ruin each other’s lives?
How to read history is one of Moses’ central preoccupations in the Book of Deuteronomy as he reviews the trials and travails of the Children of Israel in their journey through the wilderness towards the Promised Land. In his final speech, which forms almost the entire book, he repeatedly enjoins the people to remember that it is by God’s will, and God’s will alone, that they are to merit the good fortune of inheriting a rich and fertile land. “Don’t forget God,” he warns them, time and again; don’t succumb to the idolatrous notion that you have earned these rich pickings; don’t say in your hearts, “My strength and the power of my arm brought me this wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:17). It is only because God promised all of this to your ancestors that you were freed from Egypt, fed with manna in the desert, and will inherit the land of Canaan.
It is easy to understand Moses’ argument; all the more so if one adopts the text-critical view that his words were ascribed to him by a later author long after the disastrous events which he “foresaw,” and long after the Children of Israel had turned away from the service of God and forgot their essential purpose.
Yet, it is enormously dangerous to attribute war and conquest to God’s will, no less so if this is done after the event, as a retrospective justification. “God wants us to drive you out”; “God wants us to kill and dispossess you”; “God has placed the lives of these people in our hands.” Such slogans once spurred on the shiftless hosts of the Crusades, and numerous other armies, just as they motivate assorted militias and terror groups to this very day. The arrogation of God to one’s general staff is almost invariably accompanied by the abrogation of basic moral duties, starting with respect for human life. Such abuse of God’s role in the world transforms religion into murderous idolatry.
But is it better if God is excluded entirely from history?
The notion that man alone rules supreme may be no less dangerous. After all, religions have helped provide humanity with a vocabulary to describe profound and transformative modes of consciousness, and have fostered the challenging disciplines necessary to live out these ideas responsibly. Humility, wonder, reverence, the awe and love of God, moral and spiritual accountability, transcendence of self—these, and other religious ideals, have taught us to be aware that all life is sacred, that “all the earth is full of God’s glory” (Isaiah 6:3), and that the purpose of life is not to satisfy our selves, but to serve.
An environmental scientist recently told me that though he considers himself an atheist and profoundly mistrusts the relationship between religion and power, he finds himself drawing on the language of the sacred in order to describe the new, and incomparably more respectful, bond he seeks to engender between humankind and all other life on the planet. Humility and the sense of belonging to an incomparably greater whole may be essential to temper human arrogance, violence, and greed.
As a religious Jew, I believe that life is best described as a partnership between humanity and God. I experience a profound sense of the sacred within all life that has the power to motivate and inspire, and to humble and discipline. God calls us to service, but does not free us from constant moral responsibility for our actions, an answerability that cannot simply be bypassed in the name of some higher power.
Claiming God for our side, even citing Scripture to “prove” it, is not a sufficient justification for actions which bring pain and suffering to those in whom God’s sacred spirit equally abides.
I find deeply compelling the following words of the philosopher Hans Jonas in his book The Concept of God After Auschwitz:
For reasons decisively prompted by contemporary experience, I entertain the idea of God who…responds to the impact on his being by worldly events, not “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm”, as we Jews on every Passover recite in remembering the exodus from Egypt, but with the mutely insistent appeal of his unfulfilled goal.
Humanity needs to learn to listen more deeply to that “mutely insistent appeal,” and to act accordingly.