By Michael Gellert. Prometheus Books, 2018. 286 pages. $26/hardcover; $11.99/eBook.
As a Conservative Jew—the muddled middle between Reform and Orthodox—I grew up on the Hebrew Bible. Now that I’m a Friend, I read the Gospels. But I’ve never touched a Qur’an. My experience mirrors the relative weight Michael Gellert gives to the Abrahamic religions in his “psychological thriller,” The Divine Mind.
Gellert’s book is the latest in a series of popular, idiosyncratic views of the monotheistic religions. Jack Miles focuses on the Hebrew Bible and the contradictions of the Five Books of Moses in God: A Biography, but ignores other scriptures. Karen Armstrong’s A History of God is more about the practices of the three religions than their conceptions of God; she seems to favor Islam. In God: A Human History, Reza Aslan examines the common denominators among all three, i.e., God is an image of the perfect human being.
Compared to the above books that run from 320 to nearly 500 pages, those of us who prefer a shorter read with a clear theme will find Gellert’s 220 pages (plus 40 of footnotes) to be written in an engaging and often provocative style. His dry wit is on display in such chapters as “God’s PTSD and Other Afflictions.”
A Jew turned Buddhist and Jungian analyst, Gellert uses a developmental approach to group the scriptures in a new way. First, there is the Pentateuch and other writings of the Hebrew Bible. Like Miles, he sees this God as stereotypically tribal and conflicted, but, in his interaction with Job, he has a wake-up call: “It’s time to get my act together as a caring Divine Being.”
Next are the Talmud, New Testament, Qur’an, and the Gnostic texts, which show us taking our sacred destinies into our own hands. The Talmud demonstrates how to act when God has abandoned you to exile—a form of self-love?—whereas the Incarnation is a step up in God’s love for his people. Gellert states, “In spite of Islam’s claim that it completes Judaism and Christianity . . . it is questionable whether the Qur’an genuinely advances God’s evolution.” Whoa!
And the author has a lot to say about Jewish and Christian Gnostics, but apparently there are no comparable Muslims until the Sufis come along (in part three). Oh well, even Buddhists can be human.
Then Gellert skips to the mysticism that he and Armstrong favor above all. We’re talking about the Hasidic Baal Shem Tov, Meister Eckhart and St. Teresa of Avila, and the Sufis.
Finally, as the son of Holocaust survivors, he bravely marshals “the [mystic] splendor of absolute nothingness” against the dark side of humanity. His conclusion: “It is important that we do not fall prey to a mystical quietism and dismiss evil simply because it is part and parcel of the structure of the universe. On a human level we must exercise our moral responsibility to deal with it. The mystics and sages of history have known this better than anyone.”
If Gellert gives in to sarcasm at times, it’s part of his strategy to provoke our thoughts, feelings, and actions. There’s much here for Friends to apply to our history and current leadings.
The first Quakers were keen on finding inspiration in the Scriptures. Rufus Jones brought our attention to how their right living was based on the guidance of that mystical Inner Light. And George Fox preached the Gospel at the end of a period when, according to Gellert, spiritual insiders believed “the Incarnation is happening all the time,” to quote him paraphrasing Meister Eckhart.
How many of us are wistful for those times when we made it to the mountain and reached out for the promised land on the other side? How long can Friends continue our good works when “that of God in everyone” and “continuing revelation” have become catchphrases?
These are tough questions and maybe we don’t like Michael Gellert bringing God down to our level and sometimes rubbing his face in our spiritual mud. But in the end he’s optimistic that, as Abraham Heschel suggested in God in Search of Man, redemption is a two-way street and God’s journey is a mirror of our own.