Yes, And . . . God: Humanity’s Muse

Tomorrow, Tuesday, November 14th, scholar of religions Reza Aslan will give an original, multi-media presentation on his new book, God: A Human History, an interfaith exploration of how different ideas of God have both united and divided us for millennia, as part of our 2017/18 SAL Presents Series. Tickets are still available here!

In anticipation of Reza’s talk, WITS Writer-in-Residence Cody Pherigo presents us with his reflections after reading God: A Human History, a book he found to deeply resonate with the human impulse to be creative. (Plus, a Reza Aslan-inspired writing prompt!)

By: Cody Pherigo, WITS Writer-in-Residence

God: A Human History by Reza Aslan traces a paradoxical tight-rope path from our prehistoric ancestors to the present, and the many ways we’ve conceived of and related to god(s). He opens with an introduction titled “In Our Image,” and immediately I knew this would be, for me at least, a path that also echoes the creative writing process.

While much of the text is classically academic and thus devoted to (as any research worth its salt and sugar) dozens of pages of endnotes, I detect, too, the shadow of a poet. One of my favorites lines comes early on, as he renders a new story of Adam and Eve. Aslan says that while Adam may take up to a week to hunt and bring home a lump of meat, Eve and their children gather daily a prorated equivalent amount of food—plants, fish (netted), small prey (trapped and clubbed), and nuts, which have the same amount of protein per pound as meat—plus, “nuts do not fight back” (save for those with allergies).

We begin with Part 1: The Embodied Soul, where the idea of a “soul” emerges as an innate feeling and deep knowing, the source of our “religious impulse.” Here, Aslan suggests what may be humanity’s first belief: a kind of animism, or, I’d offer imagination. What I noticed for the duration of reading God: A Human History is a continuity of pillars within the creative process, from symbols and metaphors to the development of language, writing, and the problem/blessing/turn of translation. To me, these creative “bones” parallel and mirror the religious impulse, what Aslan shows is an impulse that is at the root of what it is to be human.

One of the first gathering places for spiritual experiences were caves—all over the world, they have been been adorned with drawings placed so intentionally onto the cave walls that, Aslan suggests, “The cave becomes a mythogram; it is meant to be read, the way one reads scripture.” Here, too, was found evidence of animal bones burned, as a sort of incense or “mediating element.” What’s interesting here is the metaphor and resilience of bones, how they act as a stand-in for bodies past, bodies passed down the way words and stories are passed down, and both for posterity. Or, the repetition of a story—the idea of a soul making its way from body to body, retelling itself.

Later, he cites a key turning point in humanity’s lifestyle: the switch from hunter-gather to farmer, which, he posits, may revolve around the building of our first major temple, the Göbekli Tepe, as the center of “the birth of organized religion.” This transition in human lifestyle was a “revolution of symbols” (Aslan credits Jacques Cauvin here). I wonder, too, how this changed our relationship with metaphors, as humans have put themselves in the “center of the spiritual plane,” where humanity’s story about god seems to switch from fiction to memoir. Read more…