In the biblical version of creation, God, having made Adam and Eve in his own image, sets them loose in the Garden of Eden with a simple command: “You may eat from any tree in the garden but do not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If you do, you shall die.” Of course, the serpent, the craftiest of God’s creations, tells them otherwise: “You will certainly not die,” he says. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Man and woman both eat the forbidden fruit, and neither die. The serpent was right. Thus, God banishes Adam and Eve from the garden as punishment for defying his command, and places angels bearing flaming swords at Eden’s gates to ensure that neither man nor woman could ever return.
When I read the Genesis story as a kid, I regarded it as a warning never to disobey God lest I, too, be punished. Now, as an adult, it seems to me that Adam and Eve were punished not for disobeying God, but for trying to become God. Perhaps, then, this myth is hiding a deeper truth, one that, as I demonstrate in my book, “God: A Human History,” our prehistoric ancestors seem to have understood intuitively but that we, who have transitioned from the pure animism of the past to the rigid religious doctrines of today, have forgotten.
God did not make us in his image; nor did we simply make God in ours. Rather, we are the image of God in the world — not in form or likeness, but in essence: We are God made manifest.
The term for this conception of the divine is pantheism, meaning “God is all” or “all is God.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines pantheism as “the view that God is identical with the cosmos, the view that there exists nothing which is outside of God, or else negatively as the rejection of any view that considers God as distinct from the universe.”
In its simplest form, pantheism is the belief that God and the universe are one and the same — that nothing exists outside of God’s existence, and so everything is God. In other words, what we call “the world” and what we call “God” are not independent or discreet. Rather, the world is God’s self-expression. It is God’s essence realized and experienced.
Think of God as a light that passes through a prism, refracting into countless colors. The individual colors seem different from one another but, in reality, they are the same. They have the same essence. They have the same source. In this way, what seems on the surface to be separate and distinct is in fact a single reality, and that reality is what we call God.
I came to pantheism through Sufism. But one can find the same doctrine in nearly every religious tradition. Then again, one need not arrive at pantheism through religion at all. One can simply look to science and its unifying conception of nature, the conservation of energy and matter and the inseparable nature of the two: The unalterable fact that everything that exists today has always existed and will always exist as long as the universe itself exists.
For me and other like-minded pantheists — regardless what religion they adhere to — the One is God. But how to relate to, let alone worship such a God — a God with no form, who is pure existence, without name, essence or personality?
One way to do so is to stop concerning yourself with trying to form a relationship with God, and instead become fully aware of the relationship that already exists between yourself and the world around you.
As a pantheist, I worship God not through fear and trembling but through awe and wonder at the workings of the universe, for the universe is God. I pray to God not to ask for things but to become one with God. I recognize that the knowledge of good and evil that the God of Genesis so feared humans may gain begins with the knowledge that good and evil are not metaphysical things but moral choices. I do not root my moral choices either in fear of eternal punishment or in hope of eternal reward. Instead, I recognize the divinity of the world and every being in it and respond to everyone and everything as though they were God — because they are.
Ultimately, faith is a choice. One can choose to believe that nothing exists beyond the material realm, that the universe originated purely through physical processes that reflect nothing more than the articulation of the most basic properties of matter and energy — without cause, value or purpose. Or one can view the universe itself as an animating spirit that binds together the souls of you and me and everyone else — perhaps everything else — that is or was or has ever been.
There is no proof either way. So make your choice. Eat the forbidden fruit. Don’t fear God. You are God.