Postscript: God - Past, Present, and Future
What is God?
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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