IN THE BIBLICAL VERSION of creation—or rather, in one of the two biblical versions of creation (the Yahwist)—God, having made Adam and Eve in his own image, sets them loose in the Garden of Eden with a simple command: “You may eat from any tree in the garden but do not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. If you do, you shall die.”
But the serpent, the craftiest of God’s creations, tells them otherwise. “You will certainly not die,” he says. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Man and woman both eat the forbidden fruit, and neither die. The serpent was right. God admits as much to his heavenly court: “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”
So God banishes Adam and Eve from the garden and places angels bearing flaming swords at Eden’s gates to ensure that neither man nor woman ever return.
When I read this story as a kid, I regarded it as a warning never to disobey God lest I, too, be punished as Adam and Eve were. Now it seems clear to me that Adam and Eve were punished not for disobeying God, but for trying to become God. Perhaps this ancient folk memory is hiding a deeper truth, one that our prehistoric ancestors seem to have understood intuitively but which we, who have transitioned from the pure animism of the past to the rigid religious doctrines of today, have forgotten: God did not make us in his image; nor did we simply make God in ours. Rather, we are the image of God in the world—not in form or likeness, but in essence.1
I arrived at this epiphany through my own long, and admittedly circuitous, spiritual journey—both as a scholar of religions and as a person of faith. Indeed, the history of human spirituality that I outline in this book closely mirrors my own faith journey from a spiritually inclined child who thought of God as an old man with magical powers, to a devout Christian who imagined God as the perfect human being; from a scholastic Muslim who rejected Christianity in favor of the purer monotheism of Islam, to a Sufi forced to admit that the only way to accept the proposition of a singular, eternal, and indivisible God was to obliterate any distinction between Creator and creation.
There is a modern term for this conception of the divine: pantheism, meaning “God is all” or “all is God.” In its simplest form, pantheism is the belief that God and the universe are one and the same—that nothing exists outside of God’s necessary existence. As the pantheistic philosopher Michael P. Levine puts it: “Nothing can be substantially independent of God because there is nothing else but God.” In other words, what we call the world and what we call God are not independent or discrete. Rather, the world is God’s self-expression. It is God’s essence realized and experienced.2
Think of God as a light that passes through a prism, refracting into countless colors. The individual colors seem different from each other but in reality they are the same. They have the same essence. They have the same source. In this way, what seems on the surface to be separate and distinct is in fact a single reality, and that reality is what we call God.3
This is essentially what our prehistoric ancestors believed. Their primitive animism was predicated on the belief that all things—living or not—share a single essence: a single soul, if you will. The same belief spurred the ancient Mesopotamians to deify the elements of nature, long before they began to transform those elements into individual, personalized gods. It lay at the heart of the early Egyptian belief in the existence of a divine force that manifested itself in both gods and humans. It is what the Greek philosophers meant when they spoke of “one god” as the singular, unified principle steering all of creation. All of these belief systems can be viewed as different expressions of the pantheistic conception of God as the sum of all things.
I arrived at pantheism through Sufism. But one can find the same belief in nearly every religious tradition. Pantheism exists in Hinduism, both in the Vedas and the Upanishads, but particularly in the Vedanta tradition, which holds that the Brahman (Absolute Reality) alone is real and everything else is illusion: “Nothing is which is not God, and God is everything which is.” It can be found in the Buddhist principle that the world and everything in it are merely aspects of the Buddha—that all phenomena have their being in a single reality. As the great Zen master Dogen Zenji (1200–1253 C.E.) said, “All existents are Buddha nature.” It is deeply embedded in Taoism, where the divine principle is presented as the ground of all being. “There is nowhere [the Tao] is not….There is not a single thing without Tao,” wrote the fourth-century B.C.E. Chinese philosopher Chuang-Tze.4
One can arrive at a form of pantheism through Jewish mysticism and the concept of tzimtzum, or “divine withdrawal”—the belief that God had to make room within himself to allow for the universe to come into being. Even in Christianity, the quintessentially humanizing religion, one finds pantheistic trends in the works of mystical thinkers such as Meister Eckhart, who famously wrote, “God is Being and from him all being comes directly.”5
One need not arrive at pantheism through religion at all, but rather through philosophy. It was in fact the rationalist philosopher Benedict Spinoza (1632–1677 C.E.) who is credited with popularizing pantheism in the west by arguing that since there could be but one “substance” in the universe displaying infinite attributes, then whether that substance is called God or Nature, it must exist as a single, undifferentiated reality.6
Or ignore God altogether and simply look to science and its unifying conception of nature, in the conservation of energy and matter and the inseparable nature of the two: the unalterable fact that everything that exists today has always existed and will always exist as long as the universe itself exists.
Either way this fundamental truth remains: All is One, and One is All. It is simply up to the individual to decide what “the One” is: how it should be defined, and how it should be experienced.
For me, and for countless others, “the One” is what I call God. But the God I believe in is not a personalized God. It is a dehumanized God: a God with no material form; a God who is pure existence, without name, essence, or personality.
Often when I speak about God like this I am confronted with the same negative reaction that Akhenaten, Zarathustra, Xenophanes, and nearly every other religious reformer who has tried to dehumanize the divine faced. People simply do not know how to commune with a God who has no human features, attributes, or needs. How can one form a meaningful relationship with such a God? After all, we are, as we have seen, evolutionarily adapted to conceptualize God in human terms. It is a function of our brains, which is why those who have managed to cast off this humanizing impulse have done so deliberately and with great effort.
But perhaps we should consider the possibility that the entire reason we have a cognitive impulse to think of God as a divine reflection of ourselves is because we are, every one of us, God. Perhaps rather than concerning ourselves with trying to form a relationship with God, we should instead become fully aware of the relationship that already exists.
I have spent most of my spiritual life trying to bridge the chasm that I imagined exists between God and me, either through faith or scholarship or some combination of the two. What I believe now is that there is no chasm because there is no distinction between us. I am, in my essential reality, God made manifest. We all are.
As a believer and a pantheist, I worship God not through fear and trembling but through awe and wonder at the workings of the universe—for the universe is God. I pray to God not to ask for things but to become one with God. I recognize that the knowledge of good and evil that the God of Genesis so feared humans might attain begins with the knowledge that good and evil are not metaphysical things but moral choices. I root my moral choices neither in fear of eternal punishment nor in hope of eternal reward. I recognize the divinity of the world and every being in it and respond to everyone and everything as though they were God—because they are. And I understand that the only way I can truly know God is by relying on the only thing I can truly know: myself. As Ibn al-Arabi said, “He who knows his soul knows his Lord.”
It is no coincidence that this book ends where it began, with the soul. Call it what you want: whether psyche, per the Greeks; or nefesh, as the Hebrews preferred; or chi’i, as in China; or brahman in India. Call it Buddha Nature or purusa. Consider it comaterial with the mind, or coexistent with the universe. Imagine it reuniting with God after death, or transmigrating from body to body. Experience it as the seat of your personal essence or as an impersonal force underlying all creation. However you define it, belief in the soul as separate from the body is universal. It is our firstbelief, far older than our belief in God. It is the belief that begat our belief in God.
Numerous studies on the cognition of children have shown an instinctual propensity for “substance dualism”—the belief that the body and mind/soul are distinct in form and nature. That means we enter the world with an innate sense—untaught, unforced, unprompted—that we are more than just our physical bodies. There are certain cognitive processes that can lead us to apply this inborn belief in the soul to others—human and nonhuman alike. But when it comes to belief in the soul, we are, to put it simply, born believers.7
Whether we remain believers is, once again, nothing more or less than a choice. One can choose to view humanity’s universal belief in the soul as born of confusion or faulty reasoning: a trick of the mind or an accident of evolution. Indeed, one can believe that everything—the Big Bang, the distribution of space and time, the balance between mass and energy, and so on—is all just an accident of atoms. Creation may very well have originated purely through physical processes that reflect nothing more than the articulation of the most basic properties of matter and energy—without cause, value, or purpose. That is a perfectly plausible explanation for the existence of the universe and everything in it. It is, in fact, just as plausible—and just as impossible to prove—as the existence of an animating spirit that underlies the universe, that binds together the souls of you and me and everyone else—perhaps everything else—that is or was or has ever been.
So then, make your choice.
Believe in God or not. Define God how you will. Either way, take a lesson from our mythological ancestors Adam and Eve and eat the forbidden fruit. You need not fear God.
You are God.