DAILY MAIL 29 March 2002
GOD by ALEXANDER WAUGH
The Late Auberon Waugh held that one’s relationship to God was ‘the most intimate and personal of all’. So, when he discovered that his son was planning a book on the subject, he offered to match his advance if he abandoned it. Anyone interested in theological debate will be grateful that Alexander Waugh declined.
Humanity’s relationship to its creator may be private but it is exceedingly well documented, Waugh’s God is the one worshipped variously by Christians, Jews and Moslems and the author draws on sacred writings and philosophical treatises from all three traditions.
The book is a resounding affirmation of pluralism. Waugh identifies the deep ambiguity at the heart of the Bible, Early Jewish religion was not as monotheistic as is often claimed. Its God, who belonged to a warring and incestuous tribe, was more akin to Thor and Zeus than anything worshipped in Rome or Jerusalem today.
Early Jewish religion was not a staid affair: indeed, its excesses so embarrassed biblical translators that a word which means ‘phallic effigies’ has been rendered as the English ‘groves’, thereby leaving Old Testament prophets to rage absurdly at harmless clumps of trees.
Waugh examines many of theology’s most contentious issues, such as what God did before creating the universe and how a supposedly benign and omniscient creator could place the Tree of Good and Evil in the garden of Eden, knowing that mankind would be drawn to eat its fruit and thus be condemned to a lifetime of misery.
Waugh depicts the desperate attempts by theologians to gloss over biblical complexities such as the episode of Jacob’s wrestling with God, who is often erroneously identified as an angel. Quite apart from wondering why God goes through such an undignified act, he raises other questions like why God can’t win, why he refuses to give his name and why he has a vampire-like dread of the dawn light.
Considerable space is devoted to the physical attributes of God. Christ claimed that ‘no man has seen God at any time’, thereby negating the accounts of Moses, Job and Isaiah. The writers of the books of Daniel and Revelation both compare God’s hair to ‘wool’, leading recent scholars to suggest that, since mankind was made in God’s image and human life began in Africa, God must be black.
Waugh succeeds better in enumerating God’s supposed physical characteristics than in analysing his metaphysical ones: ubiquity; immutability; omnipotence; benevolence. He is content to chart the contradictions implicit in our understanding of the divine and the futile philosophical attempts to circumvent them.
Midway through the Bible, God abruptly disappears. From the Book of Psalms to that of Revelation, he speaks only through the mouths of his angels and prophets. Waugh, in consequence, turns his attention to Christ. He notes various theories about Jesus’s parentage, most bizarrely that of the Odists, a group who lived up to their name when they declared that Jesus was conceived after Mary drank a concoction of milk from the two breasts of the Father, mixed together in the bosom of the Holy Spirit.
The most controversial chapters of the book will inevitably be those which suggest that Christ had a more positive attitude to sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular than reactionary clerics will allow. Waugh examines the full implications both of Christ’s nakedness at the Last Supper and of a recently discovered fragment from the Aramaic version of St Mark concerning Jesus’s intimacy with a young man whom he had raised from the dead.
Waugh’s style is less engaging than his content. He sets complex arguments and lengthy quotations from writers including Dante, Milton, Nietzsche and Kant within jokey headings such as ‘Walk on the Wild Side’, ‘Great Gods Think Alike’ and ‘All About Eve’. His commendable attempt at accessibility can lead to flippancy as in his reference to Abraham’s wife, Sarah, as a ‘hag’ and to God’s use of an angelic ‘courier service’.
The book is well researched and authoritative, although odd errors have crept in;
Abraham was Joseph’s great-grandfather and not, as here, his grandfather. Since, however, the mistake is placed in the mouth of God, whom Waugh is in the process of arraigning, this may be a subtle indication of divine fallibility.
One way of understanding God, practised by theologians such as Thomas Aquinas, is the via negativa, whereby God is approached through what he is not. Applying a similar principle to this book, one can say that it is not a synthesis. It offers neither a coherent portrait of God nor any original thought. Instead, it provides a fascinating collection of mystical and historical titbits which, ultimately, says less about the nature of the creator than about the intensity of the human quest to quantify the unknown.