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Interviews

Below are briefer Q&As about God: A Biography.
 
Longer interviews can be found here:

Question:

Thank you for allowing me to read this book, I thoroughly enjoyed it, it was well written and obviously well researched. The question I would have for Jack Miles:

The premise of your book seems to be that God was vengeful and overreacted to the sin of Adam and Eve, and though He continued to be a warrior God, somewhere in history He changed His mind or personality and became "kinder and gentler". Was it ever a consideration that His gift of "free will" was His true mistake, with free will and the presence of Satan, making it almost impossible for human beings to be faithful, requiring God to find another way to save His creation?


Answer:

In the Genesis story of the creation of the human species, no reference is made to free will as such. However, at first, God places no restrictions whatsoever on the activity of the first human couple, and later he does, which may reflect some concern on his part. At first, he prohibits nothing. His only two commands are both positive: [1] "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and [2] subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth" (Genesis 1:28). The actions commanded imply free will in those receiving the command. The mood, moreover, is one of confidence and bounty. In Genesis 2, however, which historical scholars read as a separate account of creation but which, read in a more literary way, must be taken as a fuller or corrected account of the creation of the human species, God's grant of liberty is not so expansive. The first couple no longer have the whole earth as their domain. They are placed in a garden, which the man (not the woman) is commanded to cultivate, and there is, after all, a prohibition: They may not eat of "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" (Genesis 2:17). These actions, inasmuch as they restrict human freedom, may seem to bespeak early divine reservations about human free will.

Later, when the Serpent lures Adam and Eve into breaking God's one prohibition, his reaction is an explosion of wrath and vengeance. He curses the two with death, lifelong labor, and pain in childbirth, and he expels them from his garden into the outer world. After some time has passed, he is so distressed with the behavior of their descendants that he "is sorry that he had made humankind on the earth" (Genesis 6:6) and proposes to exterminate them. In the end, he makes an exception for Noah; but despite his promise never again to destroy the world by flood, there is little reason to believe that all his regrets are behind him. Noah's children are by no means their father's equal in virtue. In the flood narrative as well, though the subject of free will is not discussed, one might well say, following your intuition, that God's reservations about human free will have grown even greater. (One might as easily say, though, free will being so much a part of what it means to be human, that he has reservations about his human creatures themselves.)

The fresh start that God makes with Abraham is a kind of lowering of his sights. Rather than promising fertility and world dominion to the human species as a whole and attempting to maintain a satisfactory relationship with us, he makes those promises with special intensity and specificity to just one clan. The complication that follows, however, is that he must become a warrior on behalf of that clan, something he had not needed to be before taking this step. God's most extravagant military commitments are made after his people suffer their most devastating military defeat, the defeat by Babylon that destroys Solomon's temple and carries much of Israel into exile. Read either in the Jewish or the Christian order, the Hebrew scriptures end with this promise unfulfilled. At the time when God chooses to become a Jew himself, five hundred years have passed, and still this promise has not been kept.

This is the question, the divine dilemma, to which, as I read the them, the Gospels are the resolution. Nothing could be more evident than that God has some kind of reservation about returning to massive military action. My suggestion is that he develops late in his life the awareness which he lacks at the start--namely, a realization that if he had left his human creatures as he had originally made them--living as immortals in a world without scarcity, sexual conflict, or toil--he might never have felt so estranged from them. His ultimate task is somehow to restore that condition. But his immediate task is to both reveal and explain to his chosen people that their divine military protector is never going to take the field again. The moment is poignant, even heartbreaking, and yet it carries glory within it as a seed carries a flower.

 

Question:

A crucifixion scene was normal for the 'times'. The depictions of Christ being crucified by artists is to me a photograph from history. So, I don't think it can be judged from our perspective now as 'violent'.

Therefore, is Christ on the cross more acceptable as an icon to be revered?

If not, why not?


Answer:

The public torture and execution of criminals was once common throughout the world and still common in much of it. In the West, however, capital punishment has been abolished as inhuman. Only the United States retains it, and even the Americans regard public execution as inhuman. In our country, as a result, only a tiny minority of law enforcement professionals has ever actually witnessed an execution; even Americans who support capital punishment rarely want to watch it being imposed. The reason why the image of Christ crucified is acceptable in a culture where actual public execution is unacceptable is that it no longer quite looks like a public execution. If it did, we would recoil from it. The display of the cross rather than the crucifix--that is, the cross without the dying Christ rather than the cross with him--bespeaks both that revulsion and, to give a theological explanation for it, a belief in the resurrection: Christ was once on the cross but is no longer.

The contention I make in "Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God" is that the literary power of a story in which God becomes a Jew and then subjects himself to public execution as a Jewish traitor to Rome cannot be felt unless we can learn to recoil from the crucifix as we would from a representation of God Incarnate writhing in an electric chair or strapped to a table and receiving his fatal injection of poison. That God, for whatever reason, should have subjected himself to such a thing is astonishing beyond words. Take that away, and the Gospel story is no longer the story that captured the imagination of the world.

 

Question:

What do you believe could be the reason that God's mental powers have increased as his physical ability has "seemed to ebb away", as you theorized in Part I--The Messiah, Ironically?


Answer:

Though God never describes himself as passing from ignorance to knowledge, there are many indications early in his story that he does learn. His human creatures surprise him again and again with behavior he had not foreseen; what he learns, above all, is what to expect from them. Late in his story, as God Incarnate in the Gospel of John, God speaks as if he is beyond all surprise. Nothing mankind does can any longer shock or dismay him. The way forward to this destination is pointed in the Book of Daniel where as the "Ancient of Days," God seems to know the future in detail.

As this large change takes place over the course of the Hebrew scriptures, whether we read in the Jewish or the Christian order, God's dynamic activity as creator, warrior, and otherwise as intervenor in human affairs progressively comes to an end. In effect, he retires, he withdraws, he subsides. It is AS IF he has grown weak, but has he? Or has he, instead, with greater knowledge, chosen not to exercise his power as he once did? Whether out of weakness or by choice, he is not, functionally, the God that he once was. The premise of "Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God" is that this change, whatever its cause, puts God in crisis as the moment of Roman doom draws near for his chosen people.

 

Question:

The appendices of Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God are each wonderful works of scholarship and insight. I wonder if it would serve your (and your publisher's) purposes to post them on your web site? I'd certainly like to refer other people to them.


Answer:

Appendix II from Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, "The Bible as Rose Window, or How Not to See Through the Bible," is now available on this site

 

Question:

I was awestruck after reading "Christ"; my mind is still reeling from it, and I have many questions I would love to ask. Could you please explain why you concentrated on the Gospel of John in your work, as opposed to Matthew, Mark, and Luke? And, secondly, if Christ is literally God Incarnate, as opposed to the "Son of God", why does Christ refer so frequently in the Gospels to "the Father"? Thank you.


Answer:

Thanks for your kind words about my book.

Much of my answer to your question comes on pp. 293-298 as the long note cued to the words "Back then, it says." In a nutshell, it is because I am writing the life of Jesus as the life of God Incarnate that John, who treats Jesus most consistently as divine ("The World was with God, and the Word was God"), is the evangelist whose narrative thread I choose to follow.

As for the father-language in that Gospel, no less than in the other three, there are two ways to take it. One is simply to note the inconsistency and live with it. The other is to use that very inconsistency as a way to underscore the fact that Jesus is a mythic figure. As God, he is mother's father; as human, he is her son. As human, he is is God's son; as God, he IS God. The God of the Tanakh has been described as a mythic figure who acts in history. Jesus Christ is a historical figure who acts in myth--that is, his historical life has been inscribed within the myth of God becoming human, repenting (as I argue), a saving himself and the world at the same time by revising the terms of salvation.

 

Question:

I am a chemistry student at the University of Bristol. I have the following question about Christ: Jesus, upon entering Jerusalem, knew that he would be killed by those who wanted him dead. But he still did it. He knew that if he was to be killed, someONE would have to kill him, namely, a Roman. I would argue that, therefore, in dying for humanity, Christ facilitated a Roman to commit a murder.

That Christ had to die, and in order to do it he needed someone to kill him. And that someone was the Roman that nailed him to wood. Christ therefore facilitated a murder to occur. And even though he was the Son Of God, the Roman would not have known that, and murdered all the same.

Hence Jesus made somebody else commit a sin. If this is true, then he has swapped the evil in murder for the salvation of humanity, which contradicts everything I have ever been taught about the morality that Christ is supposed to have embodied during his lifetime, and is also a rather shocking comment on the attitude of God toward humanity. I am not anti-Christian, but have thought of this today and would sincerely like an explanation as to how Jesus DID NOT entice a murder to occur. Thank you.

Luke


Answer:

Yours is a serious question for any "high" christology--i.e., one that makes Jesus divine or near-divine and makes him the lord of history, including the history that involved his own death by human hands. For a "low" christology, in which Jesus was just a preacher who paid the price for his radical language, his murder is on the conscience of his murderer but not on his own conscience.

In the New Testament, this dilemma is resolved by making the murder of Jesus not a murder but an assisted suicide. I use contemporary language that, of course, is not used in the New Testament; but as I see it, this is the inescapable sense of Acts 3:17-18, where Peter, preaching to a Jewish audience in Jerusalem and addressing them as "brothers," says "Now I know, brothers, that neither you nor your leaders had any idea what you were really doing; but this was the way God carried out what he had foretold when he said through all his prophets that his Christ would suffer." This line reverses the sentiment expressed--not by a follower of Jesus but by enemies of Jesus--at Matthew 27:26, "His blood be on us and on our children." The same exoneration is more famously spoken from the cross by Jesus himself: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). You will note, Luke, that it is Luke who writes both these lines. Of all the New Testament writers, he is the one in whom mercy and forgiveness looms largest. But it seems to me that it is he as well who was first to grasp the intellectual difficulty that you have grasped, one that had to be got over if this death was to be regarded as a redemptive death and not just a tragedy.

 

Question:

Is there any sort of provocation in your enterprise?


Answer:

Provocation is not the intent, although for some people provocation has been the effect. Unlike a number of novels or films on biblical topics, everything that is shocking in mine is actually found in, or clearly implied by, the Bible itself. It is for this reason that despite the content of the book and despite the fact that I offer it specifically as a literary rather than a theological interpretation, reception in religious circles has generally been quite positive. On one American television program, I was pitted against a conservative Catholic spokesman who ended up praising me. “They made the mistake of sending me your book beforehand,” he told me while our makeup was being applied. “You’re not a smart-aleck.” (“Smart-aleck” is slightly old-fashioned American slang for someone whose only goal is provocation.)

 

Question:

Who is the literary character called "God"?


Answer:

He is the greatest of all literary characters in the Western world. Politicians speak sometimes of “name-recognition.” God’s name recognition exceeds that of any athlete or movie star, any character past or present in all forms of literature. Belief has a historical connection with this stature, but belief is no longer necessary for it. What I have just said about God as a literary character is no less true for people who do not believe in the existence of God than it is for people who do believe in the existence of God. He lives universally in the western imagination, whatever his philosophical status.

 

Question:

In which sense did Hamlet inspire you to write the book?


Answer:

From my earliest days as a serious reader, I have thought of character conflict--conflict among characters and within individual characters--as central to literary art. Hamlet, for English-speakers, certainly, and only somewhat less for others in the West, is the supreme example of a conflicted character. Though variety has long been recognized in the Bible’s presentations of God’s character, this variety has been attributed not to the character himself but to the various authors of the various biblical books. They were all different; he was always the same. This is a historical rather than a literary rationalization of the variety. A literary rationalization is to interiorize that variety as character conflict. When I decided to do this, granting that it was something strange and new, I found it useful to begin by discussing a more familiar case of the same phenomenon; namely, the famous case of Hamlet.

 

Question:

Does it add anything to theological studies?


Answer:

It may add nothing at all, or it may add a great deal. Everything depends on the decisions of the theologians. If a theologian believes that every word in the Bible is true and that every word must also be taken as binding, as a guide to life, then he will have difficulty when I point out, for example, that God says that when a child is disrespectful to its parent, the child shall be put to death. If a theologian says, at the very opposite extreme, that the Bible is an out-of-date document and that we must base our current beliefs on current thinking, then he will have no difficulty with my book and probably also little interest in it.

Between those extremes, there are middle positions analogous to the appreciation that a man may have of his own genealogy. If my grandfather was a wife-beater, my father may also have been violent, and I may want to watch my own behavior carefully. If my grandfather was a millionaire, that will also have affected my father and me. The past always live on into the present. Just how fully it does or how normative it is is something that is partly, though never entirely, up to us.

 

Question:

What about the reaction of the church?


Answer:

The warmest reaction to “God: A Biography” has come from Jews because this is a book that recognizes an intellectual and, perhaps more important, an aesthetic, even artistic, unity and adequacy in the Jewish sacred scripture without the addition of the Christian New Testament. I say that we in the West have our scripture in two editions: a Jewish edition and a Christian edition, which revises the order of the Jewish edition and adds a new conclusion. Each edition is satisfying on its own terms. This is an affirmation not often made by Christians.

The reception by liberal Catholics has also been quite warm. The book was a selection of the Catholic Book Club, a liberal book club run by Jesuits in New York.

Among Protestants, reaction has been a good deal more mixed. Slowly, but with gathering strength, the reaction of my own church, the Episcopal (or.Anglican) church, has become quite positive. This summer, I shall address a major gathering of Episcopal leaders in Philadelphia. Other Protestants have had little to say. Evangelical or fundamentalist Protestants have had least to say, and that little has sometimes been negative.

 

Question:

What about your personal belief in God? What do you think God is like?


Answer:

I believe that ultimate reality escapes our intelligence. Professing this ignorance is more basic for me than professing any special knowledge that could be called faith. The central virtue for me is the virtue of hope. I hope that this ultimate reality affirms and supports my own efforts toward truth, goodness, and beauty, or perhaps better that those efforts of mine coincide somehow with that reality. I think of it as a personal enough reality that I can address it, ask it for help, abide with it. I do not think of it as identical with the God about whom I write in my book or whom I find in the Bible, but I respect the Bible as its authors’ struggle toward the same linkage of awe toward ultimate reality and consolidation of moral effort that I find myself struggling toward.

 

Question:

Does your God suffer an aging process?


Answer:

Something like aging seems to me to come about in the Hebrew Bible. If by “my” God, you mean the character I write about in “God: A Biography,” then the answer is: yes. If by “my” God, you mean the God that I worship, then the answer is: “I don’t know.” I am not committed in any a priori way to the thesis that ultimate reality is unchanging. An American singer I admire, Jackson Browne, recorded a song recently entitled “The Angels Are Older” that I found quite touching. I wonder at times, without believing that an answer is within reach, about the connection between entropy and divinity.

 

Question:

Do you think God has lost importance in the end of the millennium? In other words, what place does faith take in the modern world?


Answer:

Let me reverse or broaden your question. What do you think does have importance at the end of the millennium? Would it be science? Commerce? Art? Politics? To what do you turn as you make the decisions that shape your own life and those of others you may care about? Do you find some one of those sources of wisdom or information adequate? Do you find some combination of them all adequate?

My strong sense is that most of my contemporaries and I myself do not find any one or any combination at all adequate. That despair, even if it remains despair, constitutes a hope for God. Life will go on. We will make the decisions one way or another. We cannot escape wishing for an adequate basis on which to make them. Religion is valuable if for no other reason than that it provides a framework within which to make these liberating admissions of truth.

 

Question:

Do you think it is sensible to believe in God as someone sitting in a chair with white beard and long hair?


Answer:

Personally, I prefer black hair and a mustache! To give a serious answer: no, obviously, that “Big Guy in the Sky” model is behind us.

 

Question:

How long did it take to complete the work?


Answer:

The writing took four years, but within that period, the really intense time of writing was probably only six months. However, the first thoughts that became this book go back twenty-five years. I thought--no, I knew--that they were too unorthodox not for the university, never mind the church. I feared that they were too serious and difficult to attract a large popular audience. I took me quite a while to make the plunge, but when I did, I found an astounding welcome.

 

Question:

What does your research indicate Jesus did during the "lost years" in between the time he was in the temple discussing religion with the scholars and the time he assembles the apostles and performs miracles?


Answer:

This is a historical rather than a literary question, and I have done no research on it. Mine is a literary interpretation of the Gospels, and for such an interpretation events not included in the story as we have it need not be pursued except to the extent that they are implied in what the story does include. Obviously, it was implied in the story as we have it that Jesus passed the years between twelve and thirty in Nazareth, but little beyond that interests the writers.

 

Question:

I have not read your book but based on the short description of the content of the book, I would agree with you. I am curious, as a former Jesuit, do you believe that Christ is the Son of God or just a great teacher/prophet?


Answer:

The story as a story loses much of its power if Jesus is not what the angels acclaim to be at his birth: "a savior who is Christ the Lord." "The Lord" is the standard designation for God in the Greek Old Testament, which was the only Jewish Bible the Gospel writers knew. The Greek words ho kurios are used there of God and here of Christ. So, on the terms that this work of literature sets out, Christ is not only the Son of God but the Lord, God Incarnate. Historically, Jesus of Nazareth was an influential rabbi, but remember that history cannot even ask whether Jesus was God. That question, "Was Jesus God?" is simply not a historical question in the first place.

 

Question:

Didn't Christ die for our sins?


Answer:

Christ died and rose--the crucifixion without the resurrection is meaningless--to repair the damage done to the world when Adam and Eve sinned and God punished them to violent excess, blighting his own creation in the process. The "fall of man" was also the fall of God. After expelling Adam and Eve from Eden, God could no longer look at his world and say "It is good." Indeed, just before the flood, he said, "I am sorry I made them." His feelings remained ambivalent because the world was now in ruins, and he bore much of the responsibility for the ruination. But by allowing his creatures to join him in his own dying and then in his own rising, he found a way to give back what he had taken away.

 

Question:

If God let His Son be crucified for injustice in the world, and assuming He was successful then would that mean that there should be no more jails and prisons for those who commit unjust acts? For the injustice has already been paid in full.


Answer:

It is true that if the ultimately responsible party has accepted the supreme punishment, then no one else need be punished. When human beings imprison or punish other human beings, their justification--if you accept this vision of what God has done--cannot be to punish but only to deter.

 

Question:

Is it your contention that Jesus Christ is the second person of the Godhead (Colossians 2:9 - KJV) or that he is a good man?


Answer:

As a literary critic, I find that the divinity of Jesus, though it is not asserted in every line of the New Testament, has spread outward from those lines in which it is asserted to the point that it affects the whole. On literary terms, then, Colossians 2:9 puts it well: "in him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily." Later Christian theologians developed different conceptual ways to deal with the complexity and apparent contradictions of scripture, but essentially the view expressed in this verse won out.

 

Question:

I have been raised most of my life in the Baptist church. I know a lot about the Bible, Jesus and the life he lived while here on earth. I know that he died as a living sacrifice for my sins. I believe this with all my heart. I guess my question would be why is it so hard to follow his life as an example of a Christian? Isn't that what a Christian is? Christ Like? I am like the Apostle Paul--I know what is right and I want to do right, but sometimes I just cant help myself. Then I feel extremely guilty. Do you have a solution for this problem? Does Jesus/God really still love me after I continue to live my life in this manner? Sorry so many questions.


Answer:

Jesus was a sensation in his own day because of his lenience with sinners, not because of his severity with them. The Christian strives to model his life on Christ but trusts that when he fails, he will be forgiven. Meanwhile, the supreme rule is the rule of kindness to your fellow men. Read Matthew 25:31-46, and notice that the saved are surprised that they are saved. They didn't know how well they were doing.

 

Question:

Is what the Bible calls SIN the world's inherent flaws and its pervasive injustice and cruelty? And is that why a price had to be paid according to a moral and holy God that demands this high moral standard among His creation?


Answer:

You are speaking of sin as sinfulness, and it is sin in this sense that the Lamb of God takes away. Sins that have already been committed obviously cannot be taken away. They happened. They are "there." The damage is done. What can be taken away is the tendency to sin again. This tendency can be undercut if the thirst for revenge and the diffuse resentment that the world is no better than it is--those bitter feelings from which violent and hurtful behavior arises--are undercut. This is what happens when God both accepts responsibility for things as they are and offers a remedy in the promise of eternal life. Anger slips away because the guilty party has already been punished, and the "higher standard" you speak of, though scarcely easy, becomes imaginable.

 

Question:
 
Could Jesus pay for the world's "great crime" without the cross, without being crucified?
Answer:
 
It is possible to imagine a great many "rewrites" of the Bible. After the original sin of Adam and Eve, God could have forgiven them on the spot, never expelled them from Eden, never cursed their labor and sexuality, and never sentenced them and their descendants to capital punishment. But God didn't do that in the story as we have it, and a literary critic like me is "stuck" with what he has. At the late date when, as I see it, God decides to admit that he has failed the Jews, that he will not again become a warrior, and that creation itself must be renewed, there does seem something inevitable about the cross. Here's why.

If God was not going to be a warrior again, then Israel was going to be defenseless against Rome. But God had promised to defend Israel. A prophet who merely said that God had changed his mind could not possibly be believed. He would be instantly rejected as a false prophet. But if God himself becomes a Jew, if he says that, if he demands that of his followers, and if he then pays the price that they will have to pay by dying at the hands of Rome, then there is a chance that he will be believed.

What good does that do? None, unless he rises from the dead; and none again, unless he can share his resurrection with mankind. But on the terms of the story as a story, this is just what he does.

 

Question:

Do you agree with this statement: "God allowed the worst thing to happen; he allowed people to kill God. Then he made it the best thing that ever happened. There is nothing that God cannot use for his purpose and glory."?


Answer:

Yes, I do agree with that statement. I say in "Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God" that John Milton's four-word summary of the Bible will never be surpassed: "Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained." Never had everything seemed so lost as at the moment when God Incarnate cries out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" But what he said just hours before crying that cry was the truth of the matter: "Take heart, I have conquered the world."

 

Question:

Do you believe Christ died to pay the sin debt of every human, including you?


Answer:

Every human being, including me, and including God as well. Jesus is God Incarnate, the Word made flesh. When he undergoes baptism--a ritual of repentance--at the Jordan River, it is God who repents. And after repentance comes reparation.

 

Question:

When Jesus was arrested in the garden, one of his disciples cuts the ear off of one of the guards. My question is if Jesus was preaching turn the other cheek, why were some if not all disciples carring swords? Since it is her hard to hide a sword (even a Roman short sword), wouldn't Jesus have known that they were armed? Why wouldn't he have taken corrective action to his closest followers, prior to preaching to others?


Answer:

Nothing is a more constant feature of the Gospels than the slowness and wrongheadedness of Jesus' disciples. In "Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God," I draw attention to one instance of this that is almost comic. As Jesus is about to ascend to heaven, one of his disciples asks "Is it now that you will restore sovereignty to Israel?" After all that has happened, this disciple still doesn't "get it." But the story would be less brilliant as a story if Jesus had smarter and braver disciples. He has come to save sinners, not the just, and the weak and slow seem especially dear to him.

 

Question:

Are the more notorious characters of the New Testament, such as Judas and Pilate, victims of their own free will, or were they pre-destined to fill a role in the sacrifice of Christ? If they were pre-destined, does that make them any less culpable?


Answer:

They were pre-destined to play a role, and that does make them less culpable. See Acts 3:17-18: "Now I know, brothers, that neither you nor your leaders had any idea what you were really doing; but this was the way God carried out what he had foretold when he said through all his prophets that his Christ would suffer."

 

Question:

Why would you say the New Testement is a mythological text?


Answer:

I understand myth, as distinct from other kinds of story, to have to do with the very construction of the world and the way that human behavior is linked to the world's construction. The New Testament, by continuing the life story of God, eventually revises the Bible's account of creation itself. There is, ultimately, to be a new heaven and a new earth in which every tear will be wiped away. God's first creation was effortless, but it ended in failure; his second creation was in agony, but it ends in success.

 

Question:

Dear Dr Miles,

I have a question relating to what God is. I have recently been reading Joseph Campbell's "Thou Art That", a volume written after his death compiling various writings about his interpretation of religion and mythology. In it, he explains that each tradition, be it Western or Eastern, contains the notion of some Ultimate Truth, which transcends all else, is beyond definition and which is revealed by following the guidance of that tradition (eg. Buddha's teachings on enlightenment).

Campell argues that since the Ultimate Truth is transcendent of everything, it is beyond the scope of what we can label. Therefore, in order to make spiritual progress and move towards it, we use metaphors to describe how to get there and what it is.

In fact, most of Campell's book is dedicated to the use of metaphor. According to Campbell this transcendent reality is something we must find in ourselves, and he quotes "The Kingdom Of God is within you" and other such passages. He writes that God is something beyond the scope of reason, something we cannot fully understand in any conventional way and that God IS this Ultimate Truth or reality. However, he says that the way in which we relate to God is through personification. We relate to him as though to a character, he speaks in the Bible and so on. He says that what we call "God" is a metaphor for the Ultimate Reality, and argues that Christ's role (as it is of other saviors in other traditions) is to bring us closer to this ultimate reality, which we call God. Campbell outlines a similar message in "The Hero With A Thousand Faces", though it is not the focus of the book.

Also a psychologist called Ken Wilber argues along similar lines in "Spectrum of Consiousness" and I've also read passages of Carl Jungs which allude to something similar. There is also Aldous Huxley's "Perennial Philosophy" which goes on similar lines.

My question to you (and I apologise for its long introduction) is "how are we to understand God?" and perhaps "What IS 'God' in relation to us?" Is it theologically sound to consider the concept of "God" as a metaphor for an Ultimate Truth that underlies human experience and the universe as a whole?

It's been said that other traditions, ranging from Buddhism to Ancient Greece, also point to this "truth" but use different metaphors to point to it. I was wondering what your take on it is, whether from the perspective of a Christian, a literary critic, theologian, or otherwise. Thank you for your time.


Answer: An Indian sage, a practitioner of bhakti yoga, not the kind of Hinduism that Campbell favored or ever practiced, once said: "I want to taste the sugar, I don't want to be the sugar." Between this view and "Thou Art That" the distinction is theological; and rather than discovering the core of all religion, Campbell's works announce his religious preference. They announce, as well, a serene confidence that ultimate reality is somehow within reach, within us, near at hand, or the equivalent.

My own religious reflection begins with humility regarding the best efforts of my own mind and skepticism toward those of other minds. We stand in a relationship of 98% genetic identity with the chimpanzee. Does it not seem likely, a priori, that something large may be escaping our mental capacity? String theory--the best current effort at a TOE or Theory Of Everything--sees millions of possible calculations, each complex beyond current computing capability. I add that each of those calculations is vitiated by the Goedel Incompleteness Theorem, which affects all mathematical calculations without exception.

From this combination of incapacity and disarray as a starting point, how does the individual man or woman proceed to life choices that are grounded on anything other than the whim of the moment? Science, whose ability to infer an ought from an is does not grow with the complexity of the is, stands silent. Traditional religious moral codes, whenever they link themselves to quasi-scientific (Genesis was right after all!) proofs, are vulnerable to scientific refutation and, more often than not, receive it. Philosophy, in its postmodernist dead end, offers no help.

And yet life goes on. The human being is a social animal and will herd up--indeed must herd up--on one basis or another. Most of the current bases in American culture are, quite literally, distractions. Entertainment seeks to take your mind off your own life for a while but returns you to it unchanged and with no assignment of any kind. Those who decline to be entertained that way may find a cause of some kind or may--perhaps more often do--simply retreat into private life and wait for life to end as painlessly as possible. In this cultural setting, traditional religion, practiced in a fairly rigorous way, retains a practical appeal even when (or especially after) its intellectual weakness has been appreciated and contextualized within the general and inescapable intellectual weakness of the human species. Religion is a crutch, in other words, but mankind has a broken leg that will never heal.

For an example of someone choosing traditional religion, you may enjoy reading "Why I Send Sam to Church" by the novelist and essayist Anne LaMott in Unity magazine, September-October 2003. I know nothing about this magazine. This is the first issue I've seen. But I do know that LaMott is a tough-minded single mother with a wicked sense of humor. She may not have read Campbell or Richard Rorty, but she sees what she and her son are up against, and she would rather team up with the kind of people she finds inside certain churches than with anybody else. Rigor in religion is not fundamentalism, by the way. Fundamentalism often masks a great deal of cultural accommodation. Rigor is a matter of both offering and demanding a great deal, and the practical side--charity, given and received--is as important as the faith side. Faith gets you through the door, or maybe hope gets you through the door, and faith gets you into the pew. Charity has to take over after that. I could go further but this letter is long enough.

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