A God of fundamentals who is a light, not a lash
by Sydney Harris
All this argument and controversy about the evolution of man, and no thought about the evolution of God. Fundamentalists and modernists disputing the origin of species, and no consideration of how our species has changed its view of God since the earliest times.
In the beginning, in the first book of the Old Testament, we find a vengeful as well as a gracious God, a tribal God extracting duty and devotion by ritual and sacrifice.
Then, as the Bible progresses, we find a strange thing happening. God Himself changes, in the eyes of the Israelites. He becomes less fearsome and more compassionate; He expands from a tribal to a universal deity; as men grew in understanding, God grew in stature.
At first, He rejoiced in the slaying of Israel’s enemies. But by the time of the Babylonian Exile, He was already depicted as a God who wept that the Egyptians were drowning in the Red Sea after the Israelites had safely crossed over. He cries, “Are the Egyptians not my children too?”
(This may be found in Midrash, the earliest commentary on the Hebrew Scriptures.)
And by the time we reach the great prophets, such as Deutero-Isaiah, man has discovered a God who is far closer to the precepts and parables of Rabbi Jesus than most of us realize. Many of Jesus’ sayings are direct quotations or paraphrases of the Old Testament, for he never considered himself anything but a pious Jew.
The evolution of God continued during his ministry, for He set about to reform and expand and deepen the vision of a loving and redemptive deity, placing the spirit above the laws that had come to cramp and rigidify the Old Guard fundamentalist Jews of his day.
The Ministry of Jesus was a further liberation from the ritual for its own sake. (It is not what goes into a man’s mouth that defiles him, but what comes out of it.”) It was an evolutionary breakthrough in men’s conception of the Creator and His relation to us.
Alas, the church founded in Jesus’ name (which I think would have shocked and scandalized Him) retrogressed, as all establishments do, and became in its own way as repressive and ritualistic and rigid as the synagogue he rebelled against, again placing law above spirit.
God grows, as we grow, for He reflects what we become; and when we grow to the fullest, we will have the fullest God – not a God of the fundamentalists, but a God of fundamentals, a light, not a lash.
first published in the Detroit Free Press
Friday, Dec. 4, 1981, feature page 15B