I was thinking about things religious today–I hope my readers do not get bored with my constantly mulling over religious subjects–while reading Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers. I decided to write my thoughts about Mann’s “History of God,” as we know Him. To Mann, God’s discoverer (Abiram) was also God’s inventor. This seems a tad taboo, but I will quote the passage:
He [Abraham] was called Abiram which meant “my father is exalted,” or, quite rightly and probably, “father of the Exalted.” For in some ways, Abraham was God’s father. He had discovered Him and thought Him into Being. Those mighty attributes that he ascribed to Him were surely God’s original property, Abraham was not their originator. But by recognizing them, and realizing them, was he not His father in a certain sense?
For Thomas Mann, in other words, God is an idea rather than a reality. Yet this is perhaps not so far from the religious perspective as the reader may think. Anselm thought of God as “a Being greater than which nothing can be thought,” and Descartes also thought of God as Perfect Being, coming to the conclusion that God must be because Descartes, discovering his own imperfections, hypothesized that he must have gotten the idea of perfection from some thing other than himself. I have a book on my shelves–I will read it some day–which says that Modernity did not lead to atheism but pantheism. This is probably true: Europe in the 19th Century was not an atheist bastion. Anyway, the question arises: Can a person find God in the analysis of ideas, much as Plato tried to define subjects like “Justice” from a rationalist perspective?
I believe in a sense one can. The Cartesian experiment begins with the idea that a person can begin with doubt–putting all of one’s preconceived notions aside–and suggest that through Imperfections one can come to Perfection. God’s perfection is inherently superior to ours. And this is due to a level of existence and not merely “better” in the sense of “more moral” or “more powerful.” I accept this premise with one emendation: that instead of “Perfection” in the mathematical sense, God be considered a “Being” on which all other existence relies. More, God is not just “Being” but “Becoming”: History is the unfolding of God’s relationship with humankind. Yet because it is a “relationship” rather than a one-way arrow that those who once believed in progress believed in during the 19th Century, there is no promise of a “Happy Ending” until humanity with the help of God works out its own salvation. And Abiram was the discoverer of this modern belief in God, according to Thomas Mann.
Yet what is this discovery if no Being exists? That is Mann’s sole weakness–in the Age of the Holocaust, Being was difficult to believe in–it’s relevance and not just its’ existence. Yet if a person could experience Being for him or herself, surely then that person could be sure? In Buddhism, the experience of Nirvana is a lot like “Being.” In Hinduism, similarly, a person experiences Atman/Brahman in a way much like the Westerner’s “Being.” Or at least, I believe it. In the Bible God’s name given to Moses, “I Am What I Am” or “I Will Be What I Will Be,” is translated as meaning “I am Perfect Being,” in Etz Hayim. This understanding of God is experienced in Christianity and Islam in similar ways–or so I think. I focus on the experience rather than the theology; for it is the experience that these religions have in common. The real nature of Being–whether it is Personal or Impersonal, Male or Female or Nongendered, whether it Speaks or simply Is–can only be experienced through faith. Yet the reality of a transcendental reality–that Anselm (who taught that none could have a greater idea than God), Maimonides (whose rationalism taught that though man could not understand God’s essence, he could search out his existence through reason), and Descartes (who was dabbled in above) among others–that is something philosophers may hint at without grasping the wholeness of the One to whom “all knees must bend.”