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Godology: In the Beginning

Godology: In the Beginning

Photo: Lily Padula

I recently wrote a column in which I examined my belief in God — or Godishness, as I called it. I spoke about how I have no rational or scientific reason to believe in God, how I have tried my darndest to talk myself out of it, but no matter how far I travel down that road of doubt I always eventually come back to belief. Alas, I am a believer. And yet that belief is much more amorphous and laced with questions than the belief of the devout.

Much of the conversation about God is influenced by our increasingly partisan news culture. The two choices are either right-wing fundamentalist believer or rational, left-wing nonbeliever. Absent are us in the middle, the Godish. But what exactly does this mean?

Rabbi Scott Perlo is a childhood friend who, to my surprise (and I think his), decided to walk down the rabbinic path. Scott does pluralistic outreach at the Sixth & I historic synagogue in Washington, trying to connect young professionals to Judaism’s spiritual core in ways that speak to them. Because he works on the edge of the Jewish community, he is intimately acquainted with the kinds of theological or spiritual questions that the Godish have.

In Godology, he and I are going to contemplate just those sorts of questions, through a monthly casual dialogue about the relevance of theology for the Godish many like me. What does it mean to be a non-halachic believer in the 21st century? Who exactly is my Jewish God? How do I interact with this God? Lastly, what does this presence mean for my moral, ethical, communal and emotional life? Inconsistencies, hypocrisies and too easy answers will not be ignored.

This isn’t an “Ask the Rabbi.” Scott has his own questions about God, and we’re aiming for an open dialogue about belief and its relevance. All this is an invitation. We hope that you’ll find your place in the conversation, too.

— Elissa Strauss

ELISSA: A recent Gallup Poll stated that 42% of Americans believe in the creationist view of human origins. I’m not one of them. While I can’t say I am confident that some otherworldly presence wasn’t a little involved in our existence, I lean more towards the scientific explanations of how the world was created — and it wasn’t in seven days.

SCOTT: I’m stunned by that statistic. Maybe I shouldn’t be: The Greeks took it as a given that the earth was round 300 years before the Common Era; Europe didn’t catch on until the 16th century.

I think that our generation’s choices are pretty lackluster. All that seems available are two fanatical certainties (fundamentalism and New Atheism) or a whole lot of spiritual haziness. As someone who self-identifies as part of the Godish middle, does the question of whether and in what way God created the world make a difference to you?

I’d like to say it doesn’t at all, but can hear the hollow ring of laziness echo through that answer. Of course it does. Correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t the fact that God is our creator a pretty central part of our system of belief?

Sure, you won’t hear me arguing about God being at the heart of Judaism (though lots of people in our time do). But every belief we hold has implications for the way we live. If I say, like the Torah seems to, that God created the world intentionally, consciously, then it stands to reason that God had a purpose for doing so. And if we were created just as purposefully, then a decent chunk of time should be spent figuring out and pursuing God’s purpose for us. That’s why religious believers are so concerned about the word of God: To believers, it isn’t just an opinion, it is what we were put here to do.

Right. And I wish I had that level of certainty and sense of direction, but I definitely don’t. I don’t even really think God wrote the Torah, let alone that it provides God’s instructions for how to live. And yet, I still think there might be some relationship between our purpose here and God. So, what do you make of me believing this without actually thinking God created us?

It’s like saying God is the engine of creation rather than specifically setting out to create everything that is. But what are the implications of that for you?

Before I answer that, please explain the difference between God as the engine of creation and God as the Creator.

It’s like the difference between being a chef and being a farmer. A chef creates a specific dish. That plate of food was intended; it was thought out and prepared specifically to order. A farmer, on the other hand, provides food knowing that it will be used in ways that were completely unintended and unexpected when that farmer was sowing seeds. So God as the engine of creation is much more like the farmer, providing the raw materials of creation but not dictating what we, or even the entire universe, will do with it.

So — and warning, I am about to take this very literally — the idea here is that whatever was swirling in the atmosphere at the time of the Big Bang came from God? Meaning — and please tell me if I am getting this right — that we can simultaneously believe in everything science has discovered about our origins over the past century, and a half while also maintaining our faith, thanks to the fact that at some point down the line of scientific explanations for creation, we stumble upon mystery?

Exactly. In fact, if we can’t incorporate what we know from science with what we believe in religion, I don’t know how to be faithful. I’m not alone; Maimonides begins his magnum opus, “The Guide for the Perplexed,” by saying, “The object of this treatise is to enlighten a religious man who has been trained to believe in the truth of our holy Law, who conscientiously fulfils his moral and religious duties, and at the same time has been successful in his philosophical studies.” Sorry for the sexism; it was written a long time ago.

Though don’t we know so much more now? Sure, there is still some mystery to how it all began in this day and age, but it is a fraction of a sliver of what those great rabbis had to contend with. Or, to put this more simply, there is much less weight to the phrase ”Our Father, our King“ when I say it than when they did. So what do we do with the idea of God as our Father or Creator now that God’s role in creation has been minimized to the degree it has?

We do know more, but we aren’t the first generation to deal with advances in science. The tension between what we believe and what we’ve discovered has been there since the beginning — including for someone like Maimonides. So my concern isn’t that “our father, our king” has less weight — I don’t think it does. My concern is that it might be the wrong metaphor.

Okay, so what should the metaphor be? And isn’t the whole idea of God as Father pretty fundamental to our whole belief system? Why would we care if God the Plumber, or God the Farmer or God the Traffic Cop judges us on Yom Kippur?

God the Plumber would make for an interesting Kol Nidre: “Unclog your drains and flush those sins away.” What does “fundamental” mean in this case? That a person can’t believe unless believing that God has a beard and mansplains everything? Metaphors for God, and I mean this in the best way possible, are our best guess at the nature of the universe. The difference from science is a choice to understand that relationship as personal — that God cares about us and that we are accountable, how we act matters. So maybe the idea of God as parent isn’t such a bad one.

Right, but if we struggle with the idea of God as Creator, then the parent metaphor falls a little flat, right? I feel like my sense of moral responsibility that my parents instilled in me is bound up with the fact that they are responsible for my existence. Like there is some informal pact: You give me life, and I will make sure that life isn’t wasted. So what becomes of our sense of responsibility in the eyes of God, Whatever/Whoever He/She/It may be, when we aren’t convinced this entity is responsible for our communal coming to being, that it is responsible for no more than that initial spark?

Do you mean that you think that God didn’t necessarily intend you, Elissa Strauss, to be, but is the origin of things? Or that, in Godishness, God just wasn’t involved in the creation of you?

Eh. The former. No. The latter. To be honest, I’m not sure. What I do know is to whatever extent I can honor the possibility that God had something to do with my creation, it is not enough for the father metaphor to really work for me. Or, that I should behave because God is why I am here in the first place. All this said, my sense of moral responsibility is still bound up in God, for some reason. How about you?

About the same, but from a different angle. It would seem weird for my parents to tell me to “behave” at age 35. But it does make sense for me to align myself, and my actions, with the source of all things. I can’t imagine some divine finger shaking at me because I was naughty, but I can see that there’s always an invitation out there, beckoning me towards the good and the beautiful. I think that invitation comes from God.

I like that. And I suppose the mystery and wonder and moments of grace strengthen this invitation rather than weaken it. Reminds me of this passage from Simone Weil’s essay, “Human Personality,” which is a favorite:

“At the bottom of the heart of every human being, from earliest infancy until the tomb, there is something that goes on indomitably expecting, in the teeth of all experience of crimes committed, suffered and witnessed, that good and not evil will be done to him. It is this above all that is sacred in every being.

“The good is the only source of the sacred. There is nothing sacred except the good and what pertains to it.”

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