— Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
The Divinest knowledge of God, which is received through Unknowing, is obtained in that communion which transcends the mind, when the mind, turning away from all things and then leaving even itself behind, is united to the Dazzling Rays, being from them and in them, illumined by the unsearchable depth of wisdom.
— Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, The Divine Names
DURING THAT GLOAMING PERIOD between the medieval and the early modern, a group of inquisitors descended upon the Castilian town of Soira in the years between 1486 and 1500 in an attempt to investigate how widespread heresy was among the peasantry. Disturbed by the possibility that the copious population of conversos within that Iberian community may have been back-sliding into Judaism or Islam, the inquisitors tried to tabulate examples of blasphemy in Soira. As wasn’t uncommon among Marranos and Moriscos they discovered ostensible Catholics who abstained from pork, refused to work on the Sabbath, or avoided alcohol, but they also found something altogether more surprising. While playing a game of bowls in 1494, one Bernaldino Pajarillo shouted out in frustration: “I reject the whore of a God!” Seven years earlier, a draper identified only as Roderigo exclaimed in a similar attitude of game-based anger: “I don’t believe in God!”
Religious skepticism wasn’t limited to moments of the stubbed-toe variety, as recounted in John Edwards’s paper “Religious Faith and Doubt in Late Medieval Spain: Soira circa 1450–1500,” originally published in 1988 and appearing in the journal Past & Present, from which I’ve drawn these examples. More formal declarations of unbelief included a cleric named Diego Mexias of Aranda who stated that “there is nothing except being born and dying, and having a nice girlfriend and plenty to eat.” In 1494 another gentleman of Soira, Diego de Barrionuevo, said that “I swear to God that this hell and paradise is nothing more than a way of frightening us.” Edwards emphasizes that the “accused cover a wide social range,” including craftsmen, artisans, clerics, and scholars, as well as “a small number of tenant farmers.” He classified the variety of apostasy in Soira by noting that it included “blasphemy, which moved easily into humour and obscenity […] [and] materialistic views about this life and skepticism about an afterlife.”
What’s remarkable is the reaction of the inquisitors. When they encountered such doubts, they categorized them not as heresy, but as inaccuracy. Popular culture portrays the Middle Ages as times of grim despotism and zealous authoritarianism, and yet the Soira disbelievers were largely regarded with confusion rather than persecution. Such statements were understood as idiocy, foolishness, and absurdity. What they weren’t seen as, in an age permeated with the impossibility of not having faith, was particularly dangerous. When confronted with seeming actual atheism, and not just the bogeyman which that term rhetorically designated during the period, the Dominicans couldn’t even recognize what they had discovered among the populace. John H. Arnold notes in Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe that heresy “is always, in every circumstance, in the eye of the beholder,” and the inquisitors could recognize the statements of the Soira atheists as incorrect, muddled, even stupid, but not quite as heretical. Like the apocryphal story about the Australian aborigines unable to see Captain Cook’s armada upon the horizon because it matched nothing in their cognitive experience, so too did the inquisitors fail to identify atheism.
While it’s tempting to read the Soira skeptics as having embraced a modern materialist skepticism about God, it’s important not to project a post-Enlightenment atheism back onto them, even as there’s certainly an “emergent” quality to their thought (to borrow Raymond Williams’s language). If anything, their example confirms the sense of the medieval as a place dominated by religious faith, for when shown evidence of its opposite it’s not even recognized as such. The Dominicans feared not “Atheists” (other than in the sense which that word meant opposition to God), but Waldensians, Albigensians, and Hussites. Atheism may have been emotionally possible, but it was so far beyond the theological Overton Window of medieval thought that an encounter with an unbeliever would be a bit like talking to a skeptic of global capitalism in the year 2020. They may exist, but they don’t matter much. The religions of our respective eras are simply too all-consuming. If faith was the matrix by which the medieval mind organized itself, then declaring Christ to be a bastard, or a corpse to be feed for worms, was less dangerous than disagreeing that the Father was consubstantial with the Son. Living as we do in a “secular” era, it can be hard to conceive of how the minutia of doctrine dominated experience. Even de Barrionuevo made his statement of non-faith by recourse of swearing to God.
This was the episteme which dominated for more than a millennium, what Gregory of Nyssa could describe in the fourth century as related to the Christological disputations of the First Council of Constantinople by saying,
The whole city is full of it […] the squares, the market places, the cross-roads, the alleyways; old-clothes men, money changers, food sellers: they are all busy arguing. If you ask someone to give you change, he philosophizes about the Begotten and the Unbegotten […] if you ask “Is my bath ready?” the attendant answers that the Son was made out of nothing.
Today, this kind of sectarianism is unthinkable outside of divinity departments, if even there; regular believers simply don’t understand or care much about the distinctions between homoiousios and homoousios. Such was an age of metaphysics and faith, but ours is one of epistemology and doubt, where questions no longer concern the nature of God, only his existence. What Philip Almond describes in his concise book, God: A New Biography, as being the case that only “in the modern world has the existence of God become a matter of serious intellectual doubt and the option not to believe a genuine one.” The Soira apostates may have had the sentiments, but they had not yet the language.
I’m considering not a history of atheism, but a history of God. The two concepts are, however, inextricably defined in terms of each other, which is why it’s illuminating to study the parameters of how different ages have talked or not about God. Almond doesn’t mention “atheists” of the Soira variety. His account leans heavily on Church Fathers and theologians, philosophers and scientists, rather than the muddled inchoate views of the ordinary believers or unbelievers. What those Iberian freethinkers helpfully demonstrate, though, is the manner in which none of us can be divorced from the contexts of our societies, and that an atheist in an age of faith can scarcely fully be an atheist in the same way that an anarchist in our century is still implicated in capitalism. Furthermore, what Almond’s book does incredibly well is complicate our sense of what the word “God” has meant in different eras, in different religions and philosophies, and how what people believed (or disbelieved) in the 15th century is by necessity different from how they defined that word in the first century or the 21st. The God in which a medieval Dominican believed is not the same as the one in whom a contemporary megachurch pastor believes, nor is the God disbelieved by a Soira materialist as by a 21st-century “New” Atheist. Our images, definitions, thoughts, and experiences about the divine always change; “God’s capacity to survive through adaptation is his greatest asset,” notes Almond.
His book is part of a publishing trend to write “biographies” of the ineffable and provide narrative for that which is fundamentally unknowable. There’s a paradox here, which is normally reconciled by simply providing what is more often than not a fairly conventional religious history. That’s the method successfully deployed by Karen Armstrong in A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, in which she promises to present a “history of the idea and experience of God in the three related monotheistic faith,” where at their most sophisticated “God was a product of the creative imagination, like […] poetry and music.” While sometimes dismissed as offering an overly optimistic interpretation of religion, focusing on its allegorical traditions instead of crass literalism, Armstrong’s book remains a potent introduction to the idea that “God” has often meant something more complicated than the caricature (dis)believed by so many.
Reza Aslan tried something similar in God: A Human History, where he claims that the “compulsion to humanize the divine is hardwired in our brains” so that the “entire history of human spirituality can be viewed as one long, interconnected, ever-evolving, and remarkably cohesive effort to make sense of the divine by giving it our emotions and personalities.” Most sophisticated of the biographies of God is (with an almost identical title to Almond’s) God: A Biography, by Jack Miles, in which he writes “about the life of the Lord God as — and only as — the protagonist of a classic of world literature; namely, the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. I do not write about […] the Lord God as the object of religious belief. I do not attempt, as theology does, to make an original statement about God as extraliterary reality.”
Unlike Mile’s “old” biography of God, Almond’s “new” one is more intellectual history than phenomenological account of experiential changes, and would have perhaps benefited had it approached its subject in such a woolier manner. All the same, its great intervention is the simple reminder that the “story of God is that of a search for ultimate meaning, yet forever elusive.” Simple though that reminder may be, it’s certainly not simplistic, nor necessarily particularly obvious.
What Almond emphasizes is how the bodily God disbelieved by contemporary atheists hardly had exclusive purchase over the history of the concept. If working from his assumption that “God” has always been an umbrella term for how people discuss ultimate meaning, then a genealogy of the term means that:
God was the God of the Bible and the God of the philosophers. He was the God of the prophets and the God of the mystics. He was both the God of revelation and the God of reason. He was the God of knowledge but he was also the God of faith. He was the transcendent God of the monotheists, the transcendent and immanent God of the panentheists and the immanent God of the pantheists. He was the God of the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Qur’an.
Spoken with an admirable sense of biblical parallelism and antithesis, Almond’s observation expresses a crucial point. Any grappling with what we talk about when we talk about God must contend with the fact that we’re often talking about broadly contradictory things. There are two related arguments that I saw as coming out of the historical evidence of Almond’s study. The first concerns the fundamental ineffability of saying anything definitive about God, and thus the culturally particular commensurability about those things which we do say. By using that helpful definition of “God” as being nothing less or more than a cipher for how we talk about ultimate meaning, a biography of God is thus an account of how humans have oriented themselves to what this basically ineffable ultimate meaning can be interpreted as. Theology is thus a type of anthropology. God may not have an answer, but if ultimate meaning is conveyed entirely through the interrogative, that’s not an empty approach toward the ineffable.
The second and related observation, made manifest in Almond’s account of the various antithetical approaches to God, are that humans have broadly understood ultimate meaning through a schema of binary oppositions. Humanity’s ongoing conversation about God often falls into dichotomies: unity/plurality, transcendence/immanence, eternity/temporality, literalism/metaphor, reason/revelation. Reading Almond’s book gives sense of how individuals, denominations, traditions, and religions negotiate these polarities; sometimes reconciling them, sometimes glorying in the divine paradoxes. What needs to be continually affirmed is that the language concerning God doesn’t necessarily conform to a strict correspondence theory of truth, so that imprecision is to be expected when considering that which is ineffable. The other crucial observation is that what any given theologian might be “thinking” of when they “think about God” is by nature mercurial, precisely so that it’s possible to consider writing such a biography as Almond’s.
Almond provides precise account of how these views have shifted over time, from the disagreements about Christological positions between Arianism and Trinitarianism as mediated at the Council of Nicaea, to the ways in which thinkers like Maimonides, Averroes, and Thomas Aquinas parsed the relationship between reason and revelation, faith and logic. If there is a narrative thrust to God: A New Biography, one which exists in part to provide explanation for the conditions of modernity, it’s the manner in which reason and revelation were reconciled in both the Neoplatonism of late antiquity and the Aristotelianism of the Middle Ages, only to be permanently torn asunder by Protestantism, which ushered in literalism, positivism, and scientificity. Almond writes that “Reformation created an unbridgeable gap between the God of the theologians and the God of the Platonic philosopher.” Ironically, it was precisely that split between reason and revelation that also made atheism possible, the persnickety bastard child of the Protestant Reformation. Even more ironically, the bastard was born alongside a twin: religious fundamentalism.
Almond doesn’t reduce the medieval Jewish, Christian, and Islamic approaches into one another. He emphasizes that “for Maimonides, reason and revelation were complementary to each other,” though for Aquinas “the truth of revelation could be contrary to reason and then reason gave way to revelation,” while in Averroes’s estimation the “reverse was the case, and where there was conflict between the two, revelation gave way to reason.” While the Abrahamic traditions had disagreements about this relationship between reason and revelation, Almond affirms that they at least agreed that there was some sort of relationship. There are theological implications, then, about how we read scripture, especially regarding the relationship between a text’s plain meaning and any allegorical significance it might have. He writes that Protestant “sola scriptura meant the rejection of possible readings of the Bible ‘behind’ its literal (historical, plain, grammatical) meaning.” Martin Luther confirms that view, arguing that the literal is “the highest, best, strongest, in short, the whole substance, nature and foundation of the holy scripture.” What results, even among secular thought, is Immanuel Kant’s contention in 1787’s The Critique of Pure Reason that “I have therefore found it necessary […] to deny knowledge, in order to make room for faith.”
Though Almond doesn’t outright say it, God: A New Biography implies that the various Reformation theologies emerging in early modernity were responsible not just for separating God from rational philosophical approximation, but for a certain anemic flattening of our language concerning the divine as well. What is thus born is the “God” whom most of us think of when we hear that word; not the cloud of unknowing of apophatic mystics or the “Ground of Being” of post-modern theologians, but the white-haired “Nobodaddy” dismissed by William Blake. Such a God has little to do with conceptions of ultimate meaning, and is rather a projected dictatorial figure, not the domain of ultimate significance to be discussed, but rather an idol to be dismissed. Rejected, for that matter, by the forward-thinking peasants of Soira and dismissed by many today (including myself). It would be a mistake to read that as necessarily an atheism. Speaking for myself, what I reject is that limited definition of God, rather than the discourse toward ultimate meaning which Almond so capably describes over the course of his book.
An honest reader must conclude that there is no getting beyond God, since what God means always changes, even if the desired destination remains ultimate meaning. Even in meaninglessness, there is paradoxically a quest for meaning, for nihilism can be its own form of enchantment. Almond writes that the “question of God cannot be reduced to a philosophical puzzle and an intellectual riddle. For it is also a question of how we should think about the world, of how we should feel about it, of how we should comport ourselves towards it and of how we should act within it.” Affirm or deny Nobodaddy, Almond discusses important theological issues in that second sentence — issues that won’t go away. God is not simply a “Just So” story, a type of pseudo-scientific hypothesis, but has historically been “a matter of ultimate meaning, ultimate concern and deep importance,” because the word has just as often been “about the intelligibility of the universe, the nature of human existence and the meaning of our lives.” A hope in that, for if more glorious, creative, fascinating, moving, aesthetic, powerful, transcendent, and numinous conceptions of God have been occluded in this period of long modernity, there’s no reason to assume that such discussions couldn’t move out of the cloister of rarefied theological discussion and back into normative religion.
Almond writes that “the biography of the unchangeable God is the story of his seemingly infinite capacity to change,” and as we’ve been living in the dusk of Nobodaddy, there’s always the possibility for a dawn of new conceptions about God. Perhaps, we’re made to wonder, if there isn’t cause and hope for some sort of new Reformation. Maybe God Herself can be born again.
Ed Simon is a staff writer at The Millions and an editor at Berfrois. His latest book is Furnace of This World; or 36 Observations about Goodness, available from Zero Books.