Thursday, April 25, 2013

Believing in God

[Well, this isn't exactly the post I thought I was sitting down to write. And, I'm not sure how much sense it actually makes. But, in the spirit of blogging I'll just put it out there. Hopefully, it's interesting.]

For a while now, I've kept a list of topics and articles about which I want to blog, always planning to find some time to write. But, you know how that goes — life gets busy, and the urgent gets in the way of the important. And, before you know it, you've got a long list of blog ideas, and you still haven't made any progress towards them…

And, relatedly, I've been promising (threatening?) myself, and on this blog a couple of times, to start doing some writing about my theology. As any of you who know me, or read this blog at all regularly, know by now, my personal belief is nothing like what most people consider "traditional belief." I do not believe in a God who is "out there" and I certainly don't believe in a God who controls the world, in any literal way. I read and think about that so much, and talk about it in certain contexts so often, that I forget that not everyone really knows what I do believe (although, I guess I did actually give a sermon all about this on Yom Kippur). It's probably important that they do — I am, after all, a Rabbi.

And so, I finally found myself with a free hour, and some motivation (and hopefully, some focus) to write. And as I scanned through my list of blog topics, looking for one which inspires me, I came across this article from a little over a year ago*. In it, Jeffrey Small is discussing his conception of God. And, although it certainly isn't exactly what/how I believe, there's a whole lot of overlap.

* Note to self: write more often, or stop bothering collecting blog ideas...

Start with "classical" God imagery:
God as the potter, the watchmaker or the chess master has lost its relevance for many in our post-modern world. The response to this critique by some is to close their eyes to science and the realities of existence.
I don't really want to get into a refutation of this image of God (if you want to get semi technical, this is usually referred to as an "Active God," or a "God of History." Basically,  it's the God who is an independent, factual reality, and who can, if He so chooses, act in our world directly). Maybe I'll do that some other time, but I still think that Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation does a powerful, if slightly obnoxious, job of that. Suffice it to say, for now, that I find this idea of God completely untenable and, frankly, undesirable. As I've often said, if there is a God who is capable of curing a child of cancer, but chooses not to for whatever reason, then I need a new job, because I'm not working for that God anymore.

But, if I don't believe in that God, then what, exactly, do I believe in? Well, let's start with what Small believes:
I have come to understand God, not as a transcendent Zeus-like figure, but instead as the infinite creative source of existence.
By "creative source" here, I do not mean to say that I think of God as creating existence by waving a magic wand from afar, but rather that all of existence -- matter, energy, the physical laws which govern the universe, even our consciousness -- comes out of God. This understanding of God is rooted not in Creationism, Intelligent Design or a desire for a father figure, but rather comes from this simple question posed first by the ancient Greek philosopher Parminedes (b. 510 BCE): Why is there existence in the first place, instead of nothing?
You know what? As I'm rereading that, I realize that it doesn't describe so well what I believe. It's not that I disagree with it so much, it's more that it doesn't resonate. That's the problem with this less literal understanding of God — it's not so much about describing, in specific detail, the God in which I believe. Rather, it's about describing an image of God which resonates. Theology becomes a matter of perspective and awareness — not a statement about understanding how the universe works, but rather about what the universe means.

Some people will hear this and, whether or not they like this imagery/approach, will think to themselves "that isn't God." It might be nice, and it might be true. But it isn't God. Right?

This probably just turns into an argument about semantics, which is rarely interesting (although, strangely, often quite strident). If you define "God" as an all-powerful being with independent existence then, no, this isn't God. But if you define God as something else, something more general — as, perhaps, "the ultimate" — and this can, indeed, be God. This is a description of the fundamental, transcendent, holy basis of creation. Some people will find it inadequate — will say that, if this is really God, then God is useless, because God can't do anything. To them, I guess I have two responses. 

First of all, whether or not we like something has no bearing on whether or not it is true. The God described in the Bible is quite powerful, indeed. But, that God doesn't actually exist. And, my wishing (or yours) that He did doesn't change that.

But, more importantly, this God can do something. Just in a different way than we're used to thinking:
What I may have lost from the illusory "comfort" of believing in a supernatural father figure who may or may not intervene on my behalf, I have more than made up for with a new realization: I can touch and experience a God that is the ground of my being (though I'll never fully understand or see God) at a much more intimate level, because God is the spark of light within me. 
I've managed, really without intending to, to write an entire (somewhat rambling) blog post about my theology without actually saying a whole lot (barely anything, really) about what I actually believe. That's okay — I'll be doing that soon enough (I promise). For now, maybe it's enough to keep talking about the fact that even if you don't believe in the God in which you thought you were supposed to believe, that's okay. I don't believe in that God, either.

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