Note: I've said this before, but I feel the need to say it again. I recognize that it would be much better if my work cited more sources to prove my points. I'd love to make this completely professional, but unfortunately, as the stay-at-home mommy of an active three-year-old boy, it's hard enough for me to get something posted once a month as it is. I really hope that someday I'll be able to come back to these posts and add in the missing citations. Thank you for your patience in the meantime. :)
My younger brother recommended Karen Armstrong's A History of God to me a few months ago, so I checked it out from the library and read it. One point the author makes in her book is that anthropomorphic ideas about God are more dangerous than impersonal ideas. When you believe God is a person, you can say “He wants this, He doesn't want that, He hates such-and-such,” and without realizing it, you might be making a religion out of what are really your own (or your family's / society's / culture's) philosophies and phobias – often unfortunately leading to suffering for those who happen to be different from you. (Side note: atheists point to this very same fact to glorify atheism as seldom driving anyone to kill or persecute their neighbor for their beliefs. Doesn't this hint that impersonalism and atheism are nearly synonymous???)
Indeed, Srila Prabhupada has several times pointed out that what goes by the name of “religion” in this world is often nothing more than loyalty to the culture one was born into.
However, is it truly sound policy to throw something out entirely just because it's been misused? If we threw out everything that got misused, we'd be throwing out a heck of a lot of “babies” along with all that “bathwater.” Instead of just reacting to past bad experience by avoiding, rejecting, shunning and shutting out all hint of something that has the potential to be a good idea if done right, isn't it healthier and more balanced to first of all consider which is truly the most ideal option, and then support that?
In the exact same book by Karen Armstrong, the phenomenon of people not being satisfied with the impersonal conception of God and gravitating naturally / irresistibly toward the personal conception was also documented.
“In both Buddhism and Hinduism there had been a surge of devotion to exalted beings, such as the Buddha himself or Hindu gods which had appeared in human form. This kind of personal devotion, known as bhakti, expressed what seems to be a perennial human yearning for humanized religion.”
“The development of bhakti answered a deep-rooted popular need for some kind of personal relationship with the ultimate. Having established Brahman as utterly transcendent, there is a danger that it could become too rarefied and, like the ancient Sky God, fade from human consciousness. The evolution of the bodhisattva ideal in Buddhism and the avatars of Vishnu seem to represent another stage in religious development when people insist that the Absolute cannot be less than human.”
I love that phrase, “deep-rooted popular need.” I love that she chose the word “need.” When – as here acknowledged even by someone who seems strongly in favor of an impersonal conception of God – people in general take to bhakti like a fish to water, and find the need to add it in later whenever there's a religious tradition (like Buddhism) that doesn't originally feature it, how could the perfect religion – one that would both do no harm, only good, AND satisfy man's every positive / good / beneficial / healthy hankering, yearning or need – fail to include a conception of God as a lovable Person with whom we have the opportunity to enter into relationship? For many if not most people, I contend that religion would be missing something vital without that aspect.
In India, at least, impersonalists are aware of this point, and they actually respond to it by encouraging the popular devotion to personal forms of God; but, their philosophy is that this so-called “bhakti” is supposed to continue only up to the point at which it is no longer needed – namely, when the worshipper finally realizes that he and his beloved Lord are actually one and the same: that he himself, the soul who has been suffering in this miserable world and battered about by the laws of nature, is actually the Supreme Lord, and under the influence of illusion he had just been forgetting it.
Mmm-hmm. Ooookay. That's why we call them Mayavadis (maya = illusion, vadi = theorist): because their philosophy leads to the idea that material nature and illusion are stronger than God. What kind of God is that, who can be covered by illusion and forgetfulness, forced to take birth over and over in so many species of life, and made to suffer every sort of pain and indignity while in that condition, even to things like lying passed out in his own throw-up in a gutter as a drunken bum?!? “We are ALL God, we just don't know it! God is none other than us! We simply have to realize it!” Well, if there's no one higher or greater than us, and we've all got an equal chance of reaching the top, then how can you call that a belief in God at all?! “There is no God but ourselves.” Sounds like defiance to me. Can you see why we would say that their philosophy minimizes, belittles and offends the Supreme Lord? Sets up human beings as His (tiny, weak, and absurd) competitors, who want to deny His existence and become God in His place? Offensive upstarts!
To be continued...