Chief character in the greatest story evertold

December 15, 1995

Some western thinkers reject God but also regret his non-existence. Friedrich Nietzsche was the pioneer of this psychology of regret in a godless universe. Jack Miles, like Karen Armstrong and Don Cupitt, has effectively abandoned the legion but the regret lingers on. There is no God but we need him. Faith is like first love: it takes ages to get over it.

Miles is an ex-Jesuit who has finally earned the right to reject God. Disingenuously, he writes: "Knowledge of God as a literary character neither precludes nor requires belief in God." It does not require it but it does preclude it. It is religiously impermissible to see God as a literary figure or the Bible merely as literature that has sold well. But what is impious is still possible. However, no Muslim reads the Arabic Koran as literature. It is the modern western respect for agnosticism that permits Miles to demythologise his scripture. Literature, not theology, is the latest intellectual source of salvation.

Miles reads the Jewish canon (the Old Testament) as the history of Yahweh's character development from tribal deity of the patriarchs to universal judge of mankind. This cannot be a theme of faith, only of literature. In Islam, even today, Allah remains the eternally perfect God all of whose 99 names are compliments. Miles, however, reduces Yahweh to a split personality: cruel and wrathful but also kind, forgiving, and diffident in his relationship to man. ("Is man only God's mistake or God only man's mistake," wonders Nietzsche.) The Bible is a classic about a single good combining incompatible qualities. If it were a tale of many gods, says Miles, it would be no different from other Middle Eastern myths.

But, for a tribal tale, it is well told. "It was subtle of God," quips Nietzsche, "to learn Greek when he wanted to become a writer - and equally subtle of him not to learn it any better." There are errors in the canon but their presence arouses no anxiety among sophisticated Jews and Christians. Miles insists that many biblical events have no status as history. And given our knowledge of geography, parts of the Bible are a masterpiece of inaccuracy. Palestine is a land of blood and tears, not milk and honey - but then error is grander than the truth.

Miles claims that God is the most famous character in history. But is he famous in extent or depth, known widely or known intimately? God is a famous mystery. Perhaps Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and some Indian film stars are as famous as God. And the Beatles are said to be more popular than God. In literature, Oliver Twist is probably as widely known as God.

Miles shows convincingly how the domestication and humanisation of Yahweh is achieved within the Jewish canon. In the Protestant ordering, Prophecy closes the canon after the Torah and the Writings; in the Rabbinic arrangement, the canon ends with the writings, Prophecy being in the middle. In both, God begins life as a creator, destroyer, liberator, legislator, conqueror and king who guides Israel. Later he becomes a father to Solomon. After the collapse of the Israelite monarchy, the prophets cry in the wilderness. Prophecy fails; apocalypse is born. Things are gloomy now but the text promises a messiah. An only God with plans for the living and the dead declines gradually into a senile and silent presence. The books of Daniel, Esther, Ezra and Nehemiah give the Lord plenty of scope to meditate on his dispensability while a self-reliant Jewry struggles under foreign rule and exile. The canon ends with 2 Chronicles in which an ageing King David addresses God.

Yahweh never speaks directly after his whirlwind encounter with the innocent sufferer Job. The silence of Yahweh, not Job, argues Miles, is the real tragedy - the tragedy of a God who learns to improve himself and thus bequeaths to western man the ultimately secular legacy of perennial moral reform. An imperialist god with a superiority complex, conquering Canaan in a divinely sanctioned ethnic cleansing, is eventually chastened into merely a background moral presence in the life of the Jewish nation. He becomes the useless God who once made man in his own image - because he needed an image. The patriarchs, says Miles, knew Yahweh for what he was. After the Holocaust, where Jacob's children were cooked as deicides, perhaps everyone knows him for what he is.

In The Anti-Christ, Nietzsche traced the history of a warrior god who "condescended" to become the God of Love only to die on the cross. Miles rightly does not discuss the Gospels but he should have examined some parts of the Old Testament Apocrypha. In 1 and 2 Maccabbees, accepted as canonical by Catholics, Yahweh reappears as a warrior helping the Jews to resist the Greek oppressors. If considered canonical, where would the rabbis place these scrolls?

Miles acknowledges the aid of his editor and Philip Roth (the Jewish heretic) -and God. Even this learned trio, however, cannot prevent Miles from making a few mistakes in this sensationally titled book. Miles notes that the Pentateuch does not mention the name of Moses's father, leading to speculation that Moses was an illegitimate child. But Miles fails to note that 1 Chronicles 6:3 identifies Amram the Levite as Moses's father.

Miles proves that the book of Job is morally subversive of Jewish monotheism. Job hath a controversy with the Lord disguised as the Devil: we should repent not of sin but of religion itself. If virtue fails to achieve rewards, then virtue is its own reward. Yes; but both Miles and Job are innocent of that nobler Norse morality where vice is also its own reward. It is Nietzsche who clinches the case: we are deservedly punished for our virtues; and the Devil is merely the idleness of God on the seventh day.

The Lord hath a controversy with the philosophers; and this time the theologians are silent. God died of metaphysical incoherence. No, retorts Miles, God died of tragedy. But surely God died of being God. Since his death, however, his popularity has increased. Death, it may be said without levity, is sometimes a wise career move.

Shabbir Akhtar is a philosopher of religion, who teaches at the International Islamic University, Malaysia.

God: A Biography

Author - Jack Miles
ISBN - 0671 71178 4
Publisher - Simon & Schuster
Price - £20.00
Pages - 446

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