The Good Word

Yours, Mine, and Ours

Whose God is it, anyway?

The 1956 swords-and-sandals epic The Ten Commandments has long since turned into a pillar of kitsch, but certain moments in the movie remain improbably vivid. One is the sneering query put by the slave master Edward G. Robinson to the humbled Israelite leader Charlton Heston: “Where is your God now, Moses?” Back then, the use of a personal pronoun before “God” signaled a clash of civilizations: The outlook of the whole Nilotic world was being contrasted with that of the whole Chosen People. Similarly, the our in Martin Luther’s stirring anthem “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” takes for granted the cultural cohesiveness of the God concept. Today, the personal pronouns my, his, her, their, and our are being deployed before “God” as never before: Such locutions have become a pervasive social trope. But it’s hard to pin down just what they now signify. A new polytheism? A divinely sanctioned solipsism?

The most prominent recent example comes from Bill Clinton’s Aug. 17 speech to the nation: “Now this matter is between me and the two people I love most–my wife and our daughter–and our God.” Clinton, of course, broke no new rhetorical ground here. Commentators routinely describe abortion as a matter “between a woman, her physician, and her God” (although former Sen. Steve Symms, R-Idaho, in a novel twist, once called abortion a decision between “a man and his God”). An article in the Washington Post last year about charitable giving contained the sentence “What goes on in this room is strictly between you, your God, and the Internal Revenue Service.” I have seen references to issues that lie “between me, my scale, and our God” (an article about dieting); “me, my stylist, and our God” (an article about hair care); and “me and the officer with the radar trap and our God” (an article about highway speeding). The attorney Alan Dershowitz has stated that a lawyer should not have a position about a client’s guilt: “His guilt is a matter for him and his God.” Echoing Dershowitz, an August article in the Los Angeles Times, appearing days after the Clinton speech, contained the words “between him, his toad, and their God.” The article was not about Clinton but about the subject of a tabloid Weekly World News report titled “Teen Hacks Mom to Death With Hatchet Because She Killed the Toad He Licked to Get High.”

The legend on American coins proclaims, “In God We Trust.” The president taking the oath of office has historically spoken the words “so help me God.” But if the evidence of common speech is any guide, the idea of God has been rapidly devolving from the generalized to the particular, from the awesomely abstract to the intensely (even idiosyncratically) personal.

There has always been a tension between these two concepts of God. I brought the matter up with Jack Miles, whose book, God: A Biography, won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. Miles sets the situation into historical context: “What made the fortune, so to speak, of the God of Israel,” he observes, “was that he combined two functions previously separate: on the one hand, the function of the Mesopotamian personal God, a kind of guardian angel whose responsibilities were concentrated on one man or woman but whose powers were also limited; on the other, the function of the Canaanite/Mesopotamian high God, El, whose attention to any individual man or woman was slight or unpredictable but whose powers were universal. Before this historic synthesis, you got either one or the other. After it, you had the electrifying possibility that the top God was also our God and even my personal God. After it, of course, you also had the whole range of unanswerable questions of the sort ‘How could a good God–and El was an essentially benign, judgelike figure–permit X to happen to us, or to me?’ “

Is the “top God”-“my God” synthesis coming undone? Even as a great deal of the “top God” discussion drifts into remote realms of cosmology, much of the “my God” discussion becomes ever more individualized. Evangelical Protestantism has especially cherished the notion of a personal God, and this continues to be reflected in the heartfelt speech of ordinary people and even of nonbelievers. (Recall the reaction of Lt. Scheisskopf’s wife, in Catch 22, to Yossarian’s famous tirade against God. Yossarian asks why she is so upset, since she doesn’t believe in God to begin with. She replies, “But the God I don’t believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God.”)

The personal God of the sincerely born-again Christian bears little resemblance to a different sort of personalized God, the customized kind that one acquires as one might a personal trainer, though the workouts often are not as strenuous. This latter sort of personalized God may amount at best to a synonym for “conscience” or “serenity.” The dark analogs of the personalized God are one’s personal demons–which represent the individually customized version of what used to go by the nontechnical terms Bad Behavior or Guilt or simply Evil. (Those malevolent imps are tenacious and bothersome: Robert S. McNamara, the former secretary of defense, was once seen by the Washington Post trying to “wriggle loose from his personal demons.” The Chicago Tribune once witnessed the tennis player John McEnroe “swearing at personal demons.”)

Another form the personal God may take involves a fragmentation of the concept of divinity itself. Thus, writing in The New Yorker in December 1996, Louis Menand posited the breakdown of traditional monotheism into “genetic polytheism,” in which personal behavior is attributable to an individualized genetic pantheon. Where once there was a God of Anger, now there is a gene of aggression. Where once there was a God of Wine, now there is a gene of alcoholism. In ancient Greece, Phobos was the God of Fear. Today he is gene SLC6A4, whose specific Olympian dwelling place is chromosome 17q12.

And then there is the God module, which is not so much polytheistic as polymorphous. According to researchers at the University of California at San Diego, there is a region of the temporal lobe the stimulation of which, sometimes manifested in the form of seizures, can now be correlated with certain intangible mental experiences. One of the California researchers, Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, making public his team’s findings late last year at the annual meeting of the Society of Neuroscience, stated, “We like to suggest there may be neural circuits in the temporal lobe that may be part of the machinery of the brain that is involved in mystical experiences and God.” The researchers have christened these neural circuits the “God module.” “Now this is a matter between me, the two people I love most … and our god modules.” We have not heard these words yet, the Lord be praised.