What God is not

By Lambda Moses

Flying through the breeze, along the stretch of South California coast, with the blue crystal waves lining the road, suddenly, I arrived at Getty Villa, a 1st Century Roman villa that traveled through time and landed in 21st Century. I forgot about my modern clothes, my camera, and my phone, for I felt like an ancient Greek or Roman god, just like the numerous statues of Zeus, Venus, Muses, Dionysius, exhibited in the Villa in model temples and exhibition halls. I knew that I was not a god, nor are those sculptures. But what I saw and felt was a faulty understanding about God. In this article, I’m discussing what God is not according to the Quran.

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This photo shows a sarcophagus featuring the god Dionysius. The faces with open mouths are Greek theatre masks. Why masks? Dionysius is a god of theatre, wine, and afterlife, so the theatre masks are associated with blessings in the afterlife.

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This photo shows statuettes which can be donated as tributes to the gods. The gods could mate with ordinary humans, and they fought against giants who also had divine but limited power; the victory of gods against giants represents victory of Greeks against barbarians.

What’s shown here is that a god is an immortal person who has limitations in power and needs to be pleased, and that gods are at least partially used by people as tools to achieve their own desires, such as blessings that can be gained by tributes. It seems that those gods are still dependent on external criteria, as in Homer’s account, they are doing good and bad, while in fact, we need criteria to judge what’s good and what’s bad. And some atheists got it right that the universe is finely tuned by its laws and is not in need of a “god,” for the term “god” is understood as an immortal person who is not beyond natural laws and need to do something “extraordinary” to demonstrate its presence.

Now let’s turn to the Quran. I’m beginning with structure. From Chapter 10 to 24, there’s a trend that the negative examples of rejecters are countered by positive examples of servants of God. The trend begins at Chapter 10, which starts a phase distinct from Chapters 2-9, as Chapter 10 has a very different structure and topic from the previous few chapters, while its topic is more similar to the chapters following it. Although Chapter 10 looks a bit like Chapter 6, a closer look and the integral approach show that they have different focuses and different functions on the scale of several chapters. The ALM sequence (Chapters 10-15) is mostly negative examples, except Chapter 12 and part of Chapter 13, while positive examples take up greater proportion of the total volume of a passage in Chapters 17-24. The ALM sequence presents a stage of exodus, propelling us away from the status of being of rejecters, just as a rocket is accelerating, leaving the atmosphere. Chapters 16-17 are like stabilizing the improved status of being, just like the spacecraft is entering its orbit. In Chapters 17-24, there are negative examples, but they’re also contrasted with positive examples. I’m not yet sure what role Chapters 18-24 play, for my de novo movement has not yet gone that far, but at present, I suggest that they’re another phase of acceleration, just like a spacecraft leaving its orbit around Earth for somewhere else such as Moon. I’ll discuss the structure of ALR sequence and the few chapters following it in more detail in an upcoming article.

Theology itself plays a role in the entire trend of shift from negative to positive from Chapter 10 to 24. The shift, to me, is one fulfillment of the promise in Chapter 10 that “O people, advice has come to you from your Lord and a healing for what is in the chests, and a guidance and a mercy for the believers” (10:57). At first, I was puzzled by this promise, say, where is the advice? The advice does not lie in a list of rules; indeed, if the law exists as a dead list while not touching the nature of what it addresses, then no amount of detail can make the law complete, for only understanding the nature of the subject can make knowledge alive and evolve instead of being dead.

So what’s the faulty understanding about God? Chapter 10 presents the prototype of most, if not all, examples of bad theology in the following chapters. These characteristics are repeated in chapters after Chapter 10, so if I talk about them in those later chapters, I would focus on their structures and functions instead of content. Here’s a list of characteristics of bad theology in Chapter 10 and the corresponding good theology:

  1. Hasty in enjoyment of the worldly life; derived from this is understanding God as a tool of blessings. This is exemplified in 10:12, “And when hardship touches man, he calls upon Us on his side or sitting or standing. But when We remove his hardship from him, he carries on as if he never called upon Us for a hardship which touched him! Thus it was made to appear good to the transgressors what they had done.” Here God is merely a tool to remove disasters instead of the True Lord of the universe; people serve God for their own interests, rather than for the sake of truth, or people are not taking God seriously. This is repeated in 10:22-23. Instead, we should follow the truth, so we may deserve God’s awards, not we want God’s awards for the sake of awards. The worldly enjoyment will pass away (10:24; 13:26; 18:45). Regarding the hereafter, a mere belief in the hereafter without following the truth is not enough. An example is the story of the gardens in 18:32-42, in which the person who expected rewards in the hereafter while indulging in the worldly life got his garden destroyed.
  2. 10:15 “And when Our clear revelations were recited to them, those who do not wish to meet Us said: ‘Bring a Qur’an other than this, or change it!’ Say: ‘It is not for me to change it of my own accord, I merely follow what is inspired to me. I fear, if I disobeyed my Lord, the retribution of a great Day!’” This represents a view about God that God is not really God, but just a cultural formation, so the nature of God should be shaped by our own needs and wishes. This is somewhat similar to character #1. Indeed, clergymen in the past have largely utilized this wrong understanding about God; many primitive religions have foundation stories justifying the power of kings and priests and social inequalities on theological grounds, and gods can be syncretic, as Greek, Roman, and Egyptian gods once merged, like Zeus and Jupiter, and a chart was produced to translate one god into another. Instead, God’s decree is absolute, and God is not confined by religion. I don’t mean that we should follow a scripture blindly, for if a scripture is not true, then it’s not God’s scripture. If “God’s” scripture is not true, then it’s no different from what people lie about God, then it’s contradicting itself. So there should be ways to prove that Quran has something special.
  3. 10:18 “And they serve besides God what does not harm them or benefit them, and they say: ‘These are our intercessors with God.’ Say: ‘Are you informing God of what He does not know in the heavens or the earth?’ Be He glorified and exalted above what they set up.” Intercession implies that God is a person who is not omniscient and whose decree is not absolute. If God’s decree is absolute, then no intercession will work, for nothing can change God’s decree. If God is Omniscient, then no intercession is necessary, for God already knows what you’re thinking about.
  4. 10:20 “And they say: ‘If only a sign was sent down to him from His Lord.’ Say: ‘The future is with God, so wait, and I will wait with you.’” This is the same kind of understanding about God as expecting God to send down angels. The wrong understanding thinks that God must do something “extraordinary” in order to be God, while what’s “ordinary” is already a sign of God. This means that God is governed by, instead of above, the “natural” laws. “Say: ‘Who provides for you from the heavens and the earth? Who possesses the hearing and the eyesight? And who brings the living out from the dead and brings the dead out from the living? And who manages all affairs?’ They will say: ‘God.’ Say: ‘Will you not be righteous!’” (10:31) So why not pay attention to what’s “ordinary”? In the history of science, many things that were “ordinary” turned out to be extraordinary, such as gravity, but most people don’t take heed. (Also see 13:7, and remember the context; Chapter 13 is more focused on natural phenomena) But remember that God is not confined by natural laws, so He has the power to override them and let something “extraordinary” to occur, or redefine natural laws.
  5. 10:34-35 “Say: ‘Are there any from those whom you have set up as partners who can initiate the creation and then return it?’ Say: ‘God initiates the creation and then returns it.’ How are you deluded! Say: ‘Are there any of those whom you set up as partners who can guide to the truth?’ Say: ‘God guides to the truth. Is He who guides to the truth more worthy of being followed, or he who does not guide except after he is guided? What is wrong with you, how do you judge?’” This is similar to other accounts of idolaters that their idols can’t do them any favor. This also shows that God should not be considered something governed by natural laws and something not absolute. Instead, God is above and beyond natural laws, for He created the universe out of nothing, while natural law is still something. “O people, an example is being put forth so listen to it: those you call upon besides God will not create a fly even if they all gathered to do so. And if the fly takes anything from them, they will not be able to return anything from it. Weak is both the seeker and the sought!” (22:73) I mean, probably you can make something like a fly using artificial selection, but you still have to begin with what’s existing; I believe in evolution; but can you design all the laws governing those atoms and all the matter and energy so they can form molecules which can form organisms which can reproduce and undergo evolution without using other existing laws? I recommend Edip Yuksel’s article on evolution here; although I think he doesn’t show a very good understanding of evolution in the section about what his article is not about, he made a pretty good point about the relationship between evolution and God.
  6. 10:48 “And they say: ‘When is this promise if you are truthful?’’’ Still, this shows personification of God, considering God an arbitrary person who is governed by natural laws. My understanding is that, those who are sinful will get punishment is the same rule as a machine designed with wrong math and wrong physical laws won’t work. It won’t work, but you can choose to do it, for you have freewill. (I may write about the problem of evil in the future, and see this article about problem of evil) In other words, you don’t serve God because you want to escape hell and want to get into paradise; but you serve God because you follow the truth, and then you will deserve God’s rewards. This is the same as in character #1. And this is why I consider some atheists, agnostics, and deists de facto Monotheists.

In sum, the common characteristics of bad theology is over-personification of God, and considering God as not absolute and being governed by instead of governing natural laws. Giving God sacrifice and attributing to God manmade rituals is still by nature over-personification, for God doesn’t need your sacrifice as He owns everything in the universe and He has given those things you want to sacrifice to you. The common characteristics of people holding bad theology is either indulging in worldly life or blind following (lies about God can also refrain indulgence, such as forbidding what God did not forbid), but the nature of them both is that those people’s hearts are blind (22:46). And the characteristics of those people can give rise to the bad theology, since such faulty understandings of God can help them to further their own interests. In contrast, good theology stops us from being like those rejecters; at least, with good theology, we will reflect if what we believe in is correct or not, so our hearts won’t go blind. See my first post in this blog.

In sum, good theology is that God is absolute. I haven’t cited many verses in the list with bad theology and corresponding good theology, since there’re simply too many relevant verses and a structural approach can make stuff clearer. Structurally speaking, in Chapter 10, verses about bad theology alternates with those about good theology; in some cases, bad theology and the corresponding good theology appear in the same verse, such as 10:18. This also occurs in Chapters 21-22, though in those two chapters, such alternations bracket a longer section about something else. This alternation may mean that good theology is cited to counter the bad examples. This comes clear in the latter half of Chapter 22, where there’s interaction between the righteous “you” and the “them” who are rejecters. And in that section, the good theology is directly stated in 22:61-66, addressing the “you.”

Finally, I’m sharing another photo from last week’s trip.

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This is Zeus, the king of Olympian gods. But Zeus didn’t protect his own statue; the statue sank into the sea, with the half in lighter color buried in the sand, and the half in darker color exposed in the water, and corroded by marine organisms. The idol is nothing in front of God’s law, which governs the marine organisms and the ocean.

“No, We cast with the truth upon the falsehood, so it disrupts it, and then it retreats. And woe to you for what you have described. And to Him is whoever is in the heavens and on the earth. And those who are near Him are not too proud to serve Him, nor do they complain. They glorify in the night and the day, they do not cease.” (21:18-20)

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