The 'Plastic' Nature of God

12/13/2010 04:20 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

God is Dead, and we have killed Him. -- Nietzche

Christianity is the only religion where God dies on the cross, and becomes an atheist -- Slavoj Zizek, Theologian

The Christian Bible (the Jewish Torah) is rife with story after story of a God who loves violence and is driven by his own bloodlust to the point of national genocide. God is a murderer. God seems to joyfully kill outsiders in the name of ethnic purity.

But could we have gotten our understanding of God all wrong?

Could our misunderstandings have been the reason for so much religious turmoil entrenched in our failed attempts at knowing God? Maybe there is more to this Deity than we think ... Maybe these were stories of an oppressed people looking to their version of God through the eyes of being oppressed. God as a hero seems quite apt for these poets and wanderers who were seeking to make sense of their struggle. For them, they might have needed God to be a vindicating murder. I'm not justifying it, but rather quite possibly giving some context. To them, then, God was a murderer. But it was also part of that world. Sacrifice was acceptable across most of the ancient world.

But could they have gotten it wrong too?

Let' take the famous story of Abraham and Isaac. The story goes that God instructs Abraham (the patriarch of Judaism, Islam and Christianity) to bind his son up and take up him to a nearby mountain, not for father and son time, but for murder. So, in a moment of time, God shifts from being the director of a Disney movie to creating Saw VII, a horror flick for the whole family. In this moment Abraham thinks God is telling him to kill his son in the name of sacrifice, to appease God. But here's where I want to stop the narrative, why?

Because what if Abraham heard God wrong? What if in the story Abraham was defaulting to world around him, to his culture. Because it was acceptable and the way to trick your deity into giving you something, sacrifice was the culturally 'in' thing to do at this time. It wasnt a process reserved fro Judaism.

What if Abraham got it wrong? He is human after all.

Then Abraham continues on his journey toward the family barbeque and just as the music swells and the knife ascends and the lightning strikes, Abraham thinks he hears God's voice tell him to stop. But Abraham comes from a culture where it's second-hand to kill something. So, right down the street from where the father and son moment turns bad is a curious ram who supposedly gets lost in bushes. Abraham thinks God has put this ram there for him, why? Because its the cultural thing to do.

I wonder how many of us do things because its the cultural thing to do?

The early rabbinic midrash (commentary) Genesis Rabbah imagines God as saying "I never considered telling Abraham to slaughter Isaac (using the Hebrew root letters for "slaughter", not "sacrifice")". Rabbi Yona Ibn Janach wrote that God demanded only a symbolic sacrifice. Rabbi Yosef Ibn Caspi wrote that Abraham's "imagination" led him astray, making him believe that he had been commanded to sacrifice his son. Ibn Caspi writes "How could God command such a revolting thing?"

Maybe there is a better way. The Old Testament viewed as a narrative illicits a realization that the authors had written there works post-event. What do I mean? Well, the reality is that it is more likely that the compilers of the Torah didn't write the events as they were happening. The scribes weren't dodging arrows after every word inscribed.

These stories were most likely handed down as oral stories around campfires with marshmallows and s'mores. If we take the Old Testament solely as literal story after literal story, then we can only be left with the assumption that God is a murderer. Not only that, but that God is a nationalist, a tyrant, a racist, an advocate of rape, incest, domestic abuse and a whole bunch of other crimes against humanity.

If God is a murderer than war makes complete sense.

Yet, if God isn't a murderer, then war is simply an exuse for all of the above to happen and for us to feel good about our decisions we blame God. If God is not a murderer then that means we are responsible for all of our bad decisions and that we can no longer sit back and put God on trial for our inability to respect others.

This is the danger in looking at the Bible as a literal document because then it justifies the unnecessary deaths of millions throughout the ages. If the Bible is a literal document then Hitler was right. Hitler thought he was doing "God's work" by perpetuating a genocidal act.

No, I don't think God is a murderer, but I do think we've murdered God.

At this point in history, I think God has lost his traction. God has lost the wind in her sails. Why? Because we've created so many versions of this deity that we've lost our way back. Much like Hansel and Gretel in the woods, the birds (aka, theology) have taken us down so many directions that God is nowhere to be found. God has left the building. God has died. And its our fault.

I think the big question we have to ask is can God be resurrected? Should God be resurrected?

God as the mascot for the moral majority and God as the liberal surfing Jesus who is a fan of the outcast cannot co-exist, Why? Because we are political people and we need something to fight for. I propose God doesn't lie in either camp, but rather beyond them.

That if there is a death of God, (and I posit that there is) and her death is still imminent then we must prepare the world for the God beyond God. I think the recovery of the God of the Old Testament/Torah can no longer be allowed to visit our world, he has hurt too many people and caused irreparable damage.

I remember reading an article about a Rabbi who was approached by a student who was studying to be a Rabbi and was asked the age-old question: "Rabbi, why is there so much evil present in the world today? Has God offered an aswer?" The Rabbi paused and stroked his long white beard and slowly responded: "Student, God's answer to the suffering in the world is the creation of humanity!"

The direct irony that is so apparent in this short parable is that the pain we experience lies in the crevices of our hands and in the wrinkles of our feet. It has either been because we have done too much or not enough and both fueled with the toxic intentions of self-gain. Religion has become one such tool: a creation of man to attempt to make sense of its own failure's and bad decisions. There is more to God than this.

I think the future of God lies not in religion, but outside of it. God has for countless years been hiding under the guise of pious mediation. Yet God has always been bigger and more malleable than a systematic belief system that attempt to circumscribe her existence into a cliche. God is inherently plastic. Catherine Malabou, a French philosopher proposes that ideas have plasticity, or "absolute ontological mutability".

That within an ideological framework there is the ability to transcend the frameworks that the objects have been committed to.

God is plastic.

God transcends frameworks by his ability to change, transform or evolve.

His plasticity is also her salvation. If God evolves and changes and becomes a more transparent manifestation of itself, then the reality is that God cannot be perverted in suspended animation. In fact, to constitute our belief in God and imprison her within systematic machinations is to create the representation of a representation.

If we willingly choose to believe in a God who never changes, then we commit idolatry. When I enter into the Old Testament and read that God despises the idols of another nation, I don't hear that God despises different views of himself, but rather despises the willing inability to deconstruct our multi-faceted understandings of this massive deity. Idolatry is the defiant spirit within us that simply states "I don't want God to change".

Malabou's concept of plasticity has the ability to save God from ourselves because it allows us to realize that in our well-intentioned attempts to know the Divine there is a temporality to what we can believe and know about this God who lies beyond God.

Another way to say this is that our concepts of God inherently have an expiration date. Much like what we see happening amongst most religions today, including Christianity. The reason why our understanding of God is morphing is not because we've cracked some hidden code, but because God is naturally committed to self-evolution and we're just beginning to understand it.

This is good news.

Because it also means we as humans who are learning from and about the Divine are challenged to follow after this beautiful and mysterious God who invites us to be a people who are just as committed to self-evolution too. It means we must begin asking hard questions about ourselves and our future.

We must ask questions about how we have treated one another and how we will now choose to treat one another. How we have been irresponsible with our ecology and what we're going to do about that. How we have done atrocious things and now stand at a crossroads fully aware of our own inherent plasticity. What will we do?

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