Postscript: God - Past, Present, and Future ‎

What is God? | Total Comments: 0 | Total Topics: 0

			God isn’t going away anytime soon. There has been some form of a deity for as far back as ‎recorded history goes, and probably a great deal beyond that. The simple question of what ‎happens after we die was enough to inspire the most primitive cave-dwelling, stone-age, Cro-‎Magnon man or woman to dread and fear the unknown and to respect it as a power in the ‎hands of greater beings. Questions of good and evil, of ultimate meaning, of finding order in ‎the heavens, and of understanding the human conscience, all led to a general consensus that ‎there must be some supernatural force or forces running the world. Different cultures came up ‎with different answers as to what that force was and what was behind it, but they all agreed ‎that it must be something. ‎
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The Jews are commonly credited with introducing monotheism to the world. Whether ‎monotheism was always a feature of Israelite society and whether the idea truly originated ‎with the Israelites are questions of great historical interest. We do know that at some point, ‎the Israelites, and then the Jews, developed/accepted this idea and based their society and ‎religious beliefs around it. However this happened, it was the first watershed moment in the ‎long history of God. ‎
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Of course, such a grand idea could not go long without reinterpretation and expansion. ‎Different times, different situations, different mindsets, and different needs resulted in the ‎many different Jewish images of God. As we have seen, some of these images exist ‘outside’ ‎of created reality and some exist ‘inside’ it. Some are primarily intellectual conceptions while ‎others border on the physical. Some have come about through the mechanism of prayer while ‎others are almost completely divorced from human needs and desires. The Jewish images of ‎God may not represent the entire spectrum of human spiritual ideals, but they certainly paint a ‎fairly complete picture of the strictly monotheistic pathways. ‎
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God’s past is filled with as much conflict and turmoil as the history of the Jews. Some have ‎claimed that no single idea has generated so much war and death as the idea of a deity. There ‎may be a good deal of truth to this claim. In defense of God, one can counter that it wasn’t ‎the idea of God that generated so much division and destruction as the social structures that ‎were built around the idea. But like all great ideas, the idea of God does not exist in a ‎vacuum that somehow sets it above human needs and weaknesses. Like other ideas, it is ‎forever bound within the nature of human psychology and corresponding forces of society ‎and cultural superiority. For better or for worse, the idea of a supernal and omnipotent God ‎has always been linked to the whims and powers of the very human and very mundane ‎concept of religion. ‎
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In many ancient cultures, this linkage to religion resulted in gods that were subject to the very ‎weaknesses and needs of their human devotees. The gods experienced jealousy and pride, ‎anger and depression. They took out their aggression on each other and on their hapless ‎subjects. The Israelite image of God indeed underwent all of these emotions, as is stated ‎explicitly in the Bible. But by the end of the Biblical period, the Jews had managed to elevate ‎their image of God to stand above these frailties and exist in a unique domain called heaven ‎that was free of these earthly urges and weaknesses. While it took centuries for this elevation ‎to take place, by second temple times it had been accomplished. By the end of the Biblical ‎period, the Jews could look back on unifying the supernatural forces into one great deity, and ‎making that deity free of human constraints. ‎
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The various stages of pre-rabbinic, rabbinic, philosophic, and mystic Judaism, all served to ‎finalize this process in every imaginable direction and to make the distinction between God ‎and man infinite. While there were many setbacks in this process, there is no question that the ‎trend was always heading in this direction. Jewish theologians had to create images of God ‎dwelling within creation in some manner, despite the risk of bringing God down to earth once ‎again. Christianity was the crucial breaking point between a human image of God and an ‎infinitely-above-human image of God. It was the next watershed moment in the history of ‎God – one that forever separated Judaism from Christianity, and that forever defined the ‎Jewish image as ultimately unknowable. It forced the Jews to find their images outside of the ‎limits of the human mind, a difficult step that made Judaism inaccessible to countless untold ‎people. It also resulted in the longest and most deadly battle that Jews would face in their ‎long and semi-tragic history. ‎
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While it is impossible to blame historical Christian antipathy to Jews and Judaism entirely on ‎theology, it is equally impossible to ignore the part that theology played. Until recently, God ‎was the most important concept in human society. Getting it right was everything. It ‎determined one’s place in the now and the hereafter. It meant the difference between eternal ‎salvation and eternal damnation. It only made sense that earthly dominion and authority ‎should rest with the correct image of God. The Jews rejected the human image and chose the ‎unknowable image. This was their fatal mistake in the eyes of the Christians. ‎
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Islam made things better and worse for the Jews. It took some of the heat off the Jews by ‎venting Christian vengeance on Moslems. It also created an image that fit much better with ‎the Biblical God than the Christian Jesus. But it really only made a third party in the battle ‎over monotheism – two of which were opposing world powers with great resources to work ‎with, while the third existed uneasily among them and was frequently the enemy of both. The ‎Jews were not as ‘wrong’ to the Moslems as they were to the Christians, but they were still ‎stubborn rejectionists of a newer and better revelation. This alone relegated them to ‎permanent secondary status – tolerated but inherently subordinate. ‎
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The three monotheistic religions persisted through the centuries in an uneasy relationship of ‎tolerance, subservience, and war. The Moslems and the Christians battled until the Moslems ‎ran out of steam, at which point the Christians turned on each other. The Jews were always on ‎the receiving end of the violence. Following the Renaissance, the three rival religions were ‎joined by a new challenge – secular knowledge. This was another watershed period in the ‎history of God. The new force of secular knowledge confronted all three faiths by creating an ‎alternative source of ultimate truth – the discoveries of the natural world and the human ‎mind. It would bring them all down to earth and their God along with them. ‎
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The 20th century brought these converging trends to an inevitable clash, at the center of which ‎the Jews were always to be found.  Secular knowledge took God out of the driver’s seat once ‎and for all. That seat would be occupied by the impersonal forces of nature. The religious ‎theologians, who had previously monopolized questions and answers of ultimate truth, now ‎found themselves in a similar position to their deity. They were no longer sought out for ‎wisdom and knowledge. The new prophets were the scientists and the politicians. All three of ‎the monotheistic religions suffered blows to their prestige. The Jews, who were at the ‎forefront of the secular/scientific revolution during the 20th century, abandoned many of their ‎traditional beliefs, even while many maintained some semblance of tradition. The Christians ‎were able to retain a great deal more than the Jews, though they also took a major hit. The ‎Moslems, who were largely not involved in the secular revolution, emerged from it largely ‎unchanged. ‎
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The late 20th century and early 21st century is witnessing a great clash between the secular ‎‎(atheist) outlook and the religious (interventionist) outlook. The main protagonists in this clash ‎are neither the Jews, who never sought world-supremacy, nor the Christians, who have ‎abandoned their belief in a God who commands his faithful to conquer the world. Rather, it ‎is between the Moslems, who have maintained that belief, and the secularists, who rejected it ‎entirely. Ironically, the wrath of the atheists is not directed towards the Moslems, who are ‎diametrically opposed to almost everything they stand for, but towards the Christians and the ‎Jews, who only oppose them on relatively benign matters. The Moslems worship a deity ‎whose demands include defeating all enemies by war or submission. They have somehow ‎managed the logic-defying feat of garnering the favor of the liberal atheists. The left-leaning ‎academic world in particular is unable to acknowledge an essential and truth about Islam – to ‎a great degree it is a war-based religion whose primary goal is world domination under ‎Islamic law. ‎
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Why is this simple acknowledgment so difficult? Nobody knows the full answer to this ‎question because the situation that created it is surprisingly complex. One factor in the mix ‎concerns our subject – God. The atheists appear to be either unwilling or unable to really take ‎hard-core believers seriously. They seem to think that all belief is really just a facade that can ‎be overcome with a strong dose of the wonders of the science and technology, and the ‎freedoms of an open society. In other words, they believe that they have replaced God with ‎something better and that it’s only a matter of time before everyone comes over to their side. ‎Any alternative, such as devoutly religious people taking their God with utmost seriousness ‎and sacrificial devotion, is simply unthinkable. Religious Jews and Christians have no problem ‎understanding this feature of Islam. Even though they may no longer truly worship a deity ‎who wants to conquer the world, they have enough of a tradition to grasp that somebody else ‎does. ‎
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Where is God in all this? God was pushed out of the interventionist role by the Holocaust and ‎forced into retirement by the development of science and technology. Yet God lingers on ‎in emeritus status as a spiritual necessity that just won’t go away. No matter how much Jews ‎have tried to eliminate God from their lives, they seem unable to finish the job. The real ‎reason for this inability is that God lies at the core of that most essential ingredient of life – ‎meaning and purpose. With God, life is ultimately meaningful; without God it is ultimately ‎meaningless. ‎
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In spite of that essential role, at present (2018) God lies in the unenviable position of being ‎rejected as a superstitious illusion by much of the secular world, acclaimed as an icon of war ‎by much of the Moslem world, glorified in his human form by much of the Christian world, ‎and going almost unnoticed by much of the Jewish world. Even religious Jews rarely discuss ‎God in frank and thoughtful conversation. It is a taboo topic in most yeshiva and shul circles, ‎relegated to the dusty volumes of Jewish philosophy and mysticism. Most religious Jews ‎listen to God’s Biblical exploits with half an ear during the weekly Torah reading. They have ‎no desire to reject the miracles and divine interaction that happens so naturally and regularly ‎in the Bible. By the same token, they hardly expect any of this to happen to them and look ‎askance at anyone who claims that it does. God is more like a revered ancient relic than a ‎living presence. The name ‘Hashem’ is a buzz word that is used with such disturbing ‎frequency that it has lost almost any sense of awe and power. ‎
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It is rather surprising to outsiders that God is so rarely contemplated or even discussed in ‎Jewish religious circles. Non-religious Jews are probably under the impression that religious ‎Jews do nothing else with their lives. Religious Jews, who may not be all that God-conscious ‎most of the time, hope that the rabbis and the rabbinic students are still carrying the ball. But ‎such is not the case. Rabbinic law and rabbinic discussion only rarely touches upon matters of ‎God and genuine spirituality. The question of what God actually is and how we are to ‎experience God is pretty much off-limits. In the synagogues, where the most serious attempt ‎to directly connect to God is supposed to take place, God-consciousness plays a distant ‎second fiddle to davening. It is a timed and choreographed procedure with a lot of ‎mandatory mumbling and very little and very optional real spirituality. Even Jewish ‎mysticism, that former bastion of the inner and outer search for God, is dominated by an ‎almost mathematical structure of divine realms and spiritual influences. It makes almost no ‎attempt to create a genuine and personal spiritual path. This is a very unfortunate and rather ‎unenthusiastic overall picture of the state of Jewish spirituality. It is the reason this project ‎was undertaken. ‎
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So what’s next? What lies in store for God’s future? Is God going to slowly fade away into ‎irrelevance like angels, demons, and monsters, or will God somehow survive that fate and ‎remain a force in the human conscience? We can rest assured that the religious idea of a God ‎intervening in our lives will not go away anytime soon. For religious Christians and Jews this ‎intervention is subtle and largely personal, but it is still there. It always has been a firm feature ‎of religion and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. It is simply too essential a ‎spiritual need, and too permanent a fixture of God’s identity. ‎
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For Moslems, God’s intervening role will only grow stronger as time goes on. Their true ‎battle, which is neither with the Christians or the Jews but with the secularists, will ‎increasingly convince them that they and they alone are carrying the banner of God. The ‎secular atheists will eventually identify their true enemy as the Moslems and not the ‎Christians or the Jews, but it will require considerable time and great anguish to make this ‎leap. In the true battle of our time - atheism versus belief in an interventionist God - one of ‎the two sides will have to vanquish the other. Either Allah will triumph and the atheists will ‎go into hiding, or Allah will lose and the Moslems will fade into the background. ‎
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There is one more course available for God that can survive this roll of the dice. This is the ‎almost unnoticed and not necessarily religious path of meaningful existence. God, as we have ‎seen, is generally identified by His role of intervening in creation. However, we have also ‎seen that God plays a subtler but perhaps more powerful role of the Source of Being. We ‎have also seen that this ‘out there’ role is complemented by the ‘in there’ role of permeating ‎creation. This panentheist image of God may be the only route out of God’s most difficult ‎existentialist dilemma – either ceasing to exist or vanquishing all His enemies. This is a third ‎route. It is a route that mainstream religion may reject and almost definitely will ignore. But it ‎is there, and it probably always will be. ‎
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Meaningful existence is very possibly the next watershed step in God’s all-too-torturous saga. ‎It came in bits and pieces dating back to Biblical times. It occasionally slipped into rabbinic ‎images, but was always overshadowed by the more dramatic and more accessible ‎interventionist images. It resurfaced in philosophy but only in an intellectual form that ‎provided little or no direct spiritual access. The mystics attempted to fill this gap, but they ‎also got bound up in their own ideas and ended up bundling up the image in a complex ‎package that was accessible to only a few isolated initiates. It was left for a heretic like ‎Spinoza and an unlikely assortment of early Hasidic and more modern eclectic seekers to dig ‎it out of the mothballs and dust it off. But it is back and ready for its next incarnation. ‎
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God’s future is in doubt. God is nowhere near as secure as in the past when people had little ‎or no understanding of the workings of the world. Nature was a collection of supernatural ‎forces. Human thought was as mysterious as the paths of the heavenly bodies. Both were in ‎the hands of the gods. At some point the Israelites/Jews unified the all the forces/gods into ‎one great power, called God. About 2,000 years ago the issue of how human and personal ‎this God was, came to a head. What became the more popular view insisted on God’s ‎humanity to the point of God taking human form. The Jews rejected this view as too limiting, ‎and too high of a price to pay to achieve the goal of making God accessible. The Jewish ‎image was fated to remain mysterious and unknowable. At some point about 500 years ago ‎people began questioning the entire notion of a supernatural God to explain the workings of ‎the world. By the mid-20th century there was little room left for a supernatural God. God was ‎no longer needed except to fill in a few rapidly shrinking gaps, to inspire some people to be ‎good, and to inspire others to kill. ‎
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But abandoning God comes with its own price. It means facing a future which is devoid of ‎all ultimate meaning. It means treating death as the end of a meaningless life. It means that ‎good and evil, love and hate, hope and despondence, are all chemical variations in a relatively ‎complex chance product of evolutionary selection on a small rock orbiting a fairly normal star ‎in a spiral galaxy floating around the vast emptiness of one universe. Is this the future that we ‎want? Is this the fate that we, God’s board of directors, want for our only hope for ultimate ‎meaning and purpose? We may be fed up with justifying wars and killing on the whims and ‎wishes of our imaginary deity, but that does not mean that we have to throw the baby out ‎with the bathwater. ‎
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There is another option. God can still be as real to us as the air that we breathe, as the life that ‎we live, as the thoughts that we think, as the love that we share. God can occupy every bit of ‎space and exist in every moment of time. God grows in the earth and remains still in stone; ‎God shines in light and is profound emptiness in darkness. God lives our lives and thinks our ‎thoughts and expands and contracts with our emotions. All life is spiritual if one only chooses ‎to experience it as it really is and not as mechanical process that is less exciting than a ‎computer game. To experience life is to experience God. That is our task, our quest, our ‎future. ‎

		


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