The Divine Mind:
Exploring the Psychological History of God's Inner Journey
by Michael Gellert
Prometheus Books, 2018
Jungian analyst Michael Gellert, in his new book The Divine Mind: Exploring the Psychological History of God's Inner Journey, sifts through the Old Testament, the Talmud, the New Testament, the Koran, and the Hadith in order to trace the mental and moral growth of the central character, the God of the three Abrahamic religions. The goal of The Divine Mind is to make some sense out of the figure Richard Dawkins refers to as “the most unpleasant character in all fiction”; in these pages, Gellert is asking the same question Scriptural scholars have asked all the way back to Saint Augustine and that believers have been asking in one phrasing or another since Adam and Eve were bustled out of the Garden of Eden: “What is it with this Guy?”
“The Bible itself confirmed God's dark side through a multitude of condemning episodes,” Gellert points out early on. “He meted out fatal punishments for trivial violations of his Law. His ferocious temper would erupt when his chosen people threatened his sovereignty over them by worshiping other gods. He was, by his own admission, a jealous God.” He lies, He grandstands, He contradicts Himself, and those are on good days. He revels in His own cruelty and brags about it; He's vain and buffoonish, bloodthirsty both to His favorites and their mortal enemies in almost equal measure; He, as Gellert puts it, “took pleasure in his wrath.”
Gellert relates that theologian Raymund Schwager counted roughly one thousand instances in the Hebrew Bible when Yahweh is savagely violent … more times, in fact, than the humans in the same text. The Divine Mind follows Him from atrocity to atrocity, always seeking to detect some pattern of insight or learning, some indication of what, in human terms, might be called psychological growth. Readers will be familiar with a recent virtuoso similar performance by Jack Miles in his God: A Biography and Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God; Gellert's book ranges far more widely, seeking evidence of God's growth in all of the Abrahamic Scriptures. Like many scholars before him, he notices that a certain spring seems to go out of God's step once He becomes a father; God never upstages the more or less mundane activities of Jesus in the New Testament, and He's entirely a product of hearsay in the Koran. As James Kugel examined in his wonderful 2017 book The Great Shift, a fundamental change takes place at some point in the Abrahamic tradition as God moves from personal to mythological.
“Yahweh's dark side is presented as larger than ours since the image of God is, as one would expect, larger than life,” Gellert writes. “His dark side reflects his character – that is, his character as the biblical authors implicitly saw it – more than our own.” To which most readers will say, “You're bloody right it does.” No human characters in the Old Testament are even remotely as psychopathic as God is; in fact, humans in the Hebrew Bible are often surprised and baffled by the seemingly gratuitous murderous excesses of their patron God.
Jungian analysis is a mere fly-speck against such a monstrous portrait, of course, and Gellert surely knows that. Where his book really shines instead is in its off-the-clock exegesis; Gellert is a deep and thrilling thinker about the texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Even long-time students of these traditions will find much in these pages to challenge them, and virtually every page features a gem of phrasing like: “Revelation is early Christianity's salute to the overpowering return of Yahweh's Sturm und Drang onto the stage of history. Jesus's humanity is all but consumed by it.”
Gellert, who studied with a Zen master in Japan, concludes his book with a broad-brush spiritual urging. “Only when we know [the Divine Mind] firsthand as the wellspring from which all waters flow, and back into which all waters flow, will we be truly relieved of our existential worries and inner conflicts.” But readers who are white-faced and trembling after having force-marched their way through the gallery of Heavenly gore and lies and terror might come away with a much stronger imperative: Stay the hell away from this particular God.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.