What is God – A 21st Century Image
What is God?
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Judaism tends to stress the unknowable quality of God as a cardinal element of faith. This has the advantage of not limiting God to any finite image. It allows God the freedom to exist beyond any human conception or perception. But it suffers from the perpetual problem of remaining nothing more than a vague concept of the mind and not a real part of experiential life. This is the dilemma of Jewish belief – God can never be fully understood, for to do so would be to put God into a box that is no bigger than the human mind.
So what are we to do about this dilemma? How can we remain somewhat faithful to Jewish tradition and yet venture forth into a territory that goes beyond Jewish tradition? We do have some clues as to the direction we could head. We have collected these clues from images of the distant past, the more recent past, and the present. Maybe we can piece some ideas together to formulate at least a path to an answer. Whatever we come up with, of course, will be nothing more than a suggestion cobbled together from personal leanings and assumptions. It cannot be stressed enough that each person has to come up with their own answer.
We can gather at least four specific clues from the 20th century images:
1. God is the Source of existence
2. God is the dual reality of a transcendent ‘out there’ existence and an immanent ‘in there’ existence
3. God no longer directly intervenes on a global level in the manner described in the Bible
4. God’s image evolves with the changes that take place in the created world
Numbers 1 and 2 are solidly grounded in Jewish tradition. Number 3 is directly at odds with both the Bible and rabbinic beliefs, and with mainstream views of Jewish philosophy and mysticism. It is a highly controversial position that is sure to rile up a great amount of disagreement and resentment. It simply appears to be a necessity in light of evidence like the Holocaust and modern science. Number 4 is the least compelling of the clues and the most dispensable. However, it does mitigate, to some degree, the problems with tradition that emerge from number 3.
There is one more clue that we have that is even more debatable than any of the others. This is an idea that has been tossed around in religious circles in one form or another for centuries. This clue takes the form of the ‘God shaped hole in the human conscience’ that has grown steadily since God began being pushed out of the picture in relatively recent times. This idea claims that God is something that has to be found in the human conscience and dismissing it always comes with the price of a feeling of loss. While many people disagree with the whole idea, and others may agree with it but are willing to live with it, it does seem like a fairly solid guideline in looking for our slippery answer. We need God. God must be something that fits squarely into a basic human need.
With these clues we can proceed. We are venturing out into the realm of speculative theology that will unavoidably cross somebody’s limits of heresy. But we are looking for an answer to an extremely vital and exceedingly difficult question. Forbidden lines are going to have to be crossed.
God is the Source of existence. The very reality of being is the greatest demonstration of God’s existence. No scientific theory can ever dislodge this idea. It may not fit into many people’s idea of what God should be, but it is the most basic concept possible. This idea, of course, can be traced to the Bible, but there it appears as more of an outside Creator. What we are talking about encompasses the Biblical conception but also includes the mystical idea of all of existence emanating from God’s essence. These two images, Creator and Emanator, can work together if one allows that creation (meaning existence) took place within God rather than outside of God. This is the first clue and will probably prove to be the most useful.
God is not only the Source of existence, but God is the existing reality itself. This is the pantheist portion of the panentheist view that seems to be the ultimate product of Jewish theological tradition. This idea is surprisingly difficult to assimilate in light of the classical bias towards an ‘outside’ God that is so strong in the Bible and rabbinic tradition. However, it is essential to a theology that includes the discoveries of modern science. Any view that maintains God’s transcendence but not God’s immanence is bound to run into the problem of pushing God out of the picture. God’s immanence guarantees that however firmly we embed the workings of the physical world within a set of natural laws, God will always be present in everything.
A crucial component that emerges from the combination of the transcendent and immanent aspects of God is the existence of a spiritual dimension. This dimension is entirely lacking and extraneous in the purely physical view of atheism. It is a product of the creation process itself. The very fact that God is the Source of existence and that God is found within all of existence, embeds the spiritual within the physical. Spirituality, according to this view, does not arise from an outside domain that exists beyond the physical, but is an inherent quality of all things that can be found everywhere if one only chooses to look for it. It is the innate presence of God that is within all and is all.
God’s intervention in the world comes about through God’s immanence in the world. The two are one and the same. God is no longer to be looked upon as an outside deity who imposes His will upon His creations, but as a spiritual power embedded within those creations that permeates every level of their existence. This may seem to be a diminishing of God’s powers, but it is the only way to preserve any semblance of divine intervention in the post-modern world. God’s omnipotence, according to this view, is the very allowance of things to evolve in a way that goes outside of the strict boundaries of any set plan. God immanent reality could be all possible outcomes, but it becomes the one that happens. It is a subtle form of intervention, so subtle that most people would hesitate to use the term. But it is intervention in the sense that anything that happens is also a part of reality, and thus is a part of God. God remains within the changes; God is the changes.
This final idea represents a fundamental split from the classical image of God which was forever unchangeable. This modern image reveals God as the entirety of created reality – a reality in which change not only must be tolerated but is its most essential feature. Reality is not a mere snapshot of God. It is God in motion, in action. It is God becoming real.
Now that we have these fundamentals laid down, we can deal with plugging up that hole in the conscience. Assuming there is some truth to that description of the hole, we can learn something from it. God’s shape is the shape of that hole. If we can somehow learn something about the shape of that hole, we can learn a corresponding thing about God’s shape. What is the shape of that hole? What was left empty when people began abandoning traditional belief in God or belief in God altogether?
It happens to be that there is more to this hole than just a deity to pray to in times of trouble. In fact, it may be that the interventionist function of God is only a minor part of God’s true repertoire. There is another, much more profound and essential quality that began to vanish when people started to lose their belief in a deity. This is the sense that life is fundamentally meaningful and has an ultimate purpose. This is such a basic part of our human experience that even those who deny it on purely rational grounds have tremendous trouble actually believing what they profess. It is almost impossible for a human being to truly believe that life is utterly devoid of meaning and purpose. To do so would be to admit that nothing anyone does has any significance whatsoever. Does anyone truly look at their actions and thoughts in this way? It is difficult to believe that such a thing is humanly possible.
Having a God as the Source of existence and having God be within all of existence, gives ultimate meaning to everything. That hole has the shape of meaning. The void is the void of meaninglessness. Is this an imaginary void or is it the most real thing in our lives? When we lost our sense of God, we lost our sense of meaning. We lost something as real as our very existence. The only way to regain the sense of meaning in life is to reclaim God’s natural place in the conscience. God is not just the source of existence and the reality of existence. God is the meaning behind existence, the sense that it exists for a purpose. This is the final piece in the puzzle. God is existence with a purpose.
Perceiving the Image
God is the source and reality of purposeful existence. There it is right in a nutshell. Could someone print it across a T-shirt or plaster it on the bumper of a car? Maybe at the very least, it will inspire other people to think of their own answer. Go ahead, what are you waiting for? What is God to you?
Being as this is the answer on the table, we have to ask if it is possible to truly treat this image as one expects to treat God. Can this image be worshiped or revered? Can it be prayed to? Does it bring a sense of spirituality to life? The answer to most of those questions is very possibly a resounding ‘yes’. The source and reality of purposeful existence, as clumsy as it sounds, is about as godly and as spiritual a thing as could be imagined. Existence has a purposeful source which continues to infuse it with meaning. This is the most spiritual property one could possibly find for reality. It is not just ‘there’ – it exists with a cause and for a reason. Its very continuity reveals this cause and this reason in every possible manner. If this is not God, it is difficult to imagine what might qualify as God.
Can it be worshiped and prayed to? This is a bit of a tougher question to deal with. This is very personal and is dependent on the spiritual needs of the individual worshiper. If one expects the solace of knowing that there is Someone or Something at the other end of the line listening to the prayers and perhaps drumming up a positive response, this image probably won’t meet expectations. But if one has no such expectations, and is only looking for a genuine experiential awareness that existence and life truly matter, and that what we do with our time here actually has some ultimate meaning, this image may be just what the doctor ordered. It can be worshiped in the sense that it is the ultimate reality that permeates all the mundane and the glitz. It is what we seek when we truly search for meaningful existence.
Will it answer anyone’s prayers? That depends on what one calls an answer. It won’t necessarily get you a raise, or a healthier body, or a better love life. But it just may inspire you enough that you work a little harder, or reprioritize things in life, or make yourself a more lovable person, or make others seem a little more lovable to you. These are also pretty important and they may accomplish everything you prayed for without having to resort to supernatural intervention. Or maybe whatever changes happen as a result of your prayers really was supernatural intervention. It’s almost the same thing – God’s hand altering reality or reality changing reality. It’s still God all the way down.
Does this final image fill in the missing pieces or is it just one more image in this long line of images of God? This is a question for all of us. What is your image? What is God?
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