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“God-ishness,” which to me represents belief without theological conviction, has long had a presence among Jews. Inquiry and doubt are woven into the practice of our faith; no synagogue forces a member to make a declaration of belief before the person can enter its doors. Instead, we are big on questions, which, by nature, accommodate humans’ capacity for original thought and honor the presence of mystery and subjectivity in the world around us. The evolution of our perception of God, from an anthropomorphized being to an abstract entity, from being defined by what God is to what God isn’t, reflects this tolerance, or even celebration, of the power of the question.
But we don’t have a monopoly on uncertainty. In an op-ed in The New York Times, T.M. Luhrmann, a professor of anthropology at Stanford University, writes about how at churches, at even the most deeply theologically conservative ones, many members express complicated and even conflicted ideas about God’s realness. She goes on to explain how the role of belief in religion has long been an overstated one, and cites Émile Durkheim’s theory that the presence of the supernatural is the result of that particular aliveness people tend to feel when they believe they are part of a social group. She also points out that the definition of “belief” has changed since the writing of the King James Bible, when it meant “hold dear” instead of to have confidence in the truth of something.
Considering all the advances in the realms of biology and physics, not to mention morality like civil rights and the ongoing emancipation of women, it takes a certain type of aggressive ignorance, or suspension of disbelief, to believe, in the modern sense, in the Bible’s version of God today. However, it also takes a certain type of aggressive ignorance or suspension of disbelief to believe, in the modern sense, in the power of science to explain everything. Ditto for the belief that the end of religion would somehow herald an era of rationality devoid of global conflict, as many atheists — including the long-departed Christopher Hitchens — have posited.
My God-ishness allows me to remain on the right side of progress, while still maintaining a place for the ember that all that science has yet to extinguish. It is a dual-passport really, one that gains me access to the secular world where I spend, and enjoy, most of my days, but also one that opens me up to that sense of stillness and awe I feel when I hear a room full of Jews chant the “Sh’ma.”
Talking about one’s relationship to God is personal. Maybe even more so than our relationship to our partners or our children. We share a common language for those — one forged by centuries of storytelling, including Victorian novels, sitcoms and mommy blogs — and maintain a certain confidence in our sameness. God, on the other hand, remains an experience that is for many of us deeply private and perhaps is best left that way.
Even after writing this, I am still not certain that I want to expose this most intimate of relationships to you, the public. Doing so makes me feel embarrassed, even a little ashamed. But I am going with it because I don’t want the discussion of belief to be dominated by the literalists on either side. The abiding presence of God, whether in our minds or far beyond them, merits more than that.
Elissa Strauss is a contributing editor to the Forward.