What is God?

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			The second question – What is God? To be totally  honest, the second question of the  Four Questions should really  have  been the  first.  It  is,  after  all,  the  most  fundamental  of  the  questions,  and  really  serves  as  the basis for the others, at least from a religious point of view. So why is it  listed as #2? It is merely a quirk of the process by which this project developed. The first question we dealt with was the meaning/purpose of life/creation question. When we began delving into that question, we had not considered the possibility that we would eventually be dealing with other  fundamental  issues.  We  thought  that  it  would  be  a  one-question  project.  It  was  in the  course  of  researching  that  first  question  that  it  gradually  dawned  on  us  that  the meaning of life question could not really be fully understood without exploring the nature of  God.  The  two  questions  were  so  intricately  linked  that  they  had  to  be  explained  in tandem. 

What  is  God?  How  does  one  begin  to  answer  this  question?  Does  the  question  have  an answer at all? For starters, the question itself obviously assumes a positive answer to the related question, ‘Does God exist?’ One could ask what the basis  is  for that assumption. Is that such a sure thing that it warrants no discussion at all? There are billions of people who would vehemently disagree with that assumption. Among them are many who would assume  a  negative  answer.  To  simply  sweep  that  preliminary  question  under  the  rug  in order  to  get  to the  question  we  wish  to  address  does  seem  to  be  taking  a  great  deal  for granted. 

So we first have to deal with the question of ‘Does God exist?’ Until the beginning of the 20th  century,  this  question  would  not  have  generated  much  interest  other  than  among  a handful  of  philosophers  and  an  even  smaller  number  of  scientists.  Even  non-religious people believed in some version of a creator/source of existence. Most believed in a very real personal God who  intervened quite directly  in world and  individual affairs.  All that changed   with   the   discoveries,   events,   and   social   upheavals   of   the   last   century. Intellectuals, skeptics, and otherwise enlightened individuals of all types no longer would be caught dead admitting to the existence of a fairy tale creature like God. 

This ‘truth’ is so patently obvious to anybody worth consideration in secular society that it is no longer up for discussion. As  we  shall  see  towards  the  end  of  this  project,  this ‘truth’  is  no  truer  than  the  very religious  beliefs that atheists tend to dismiss out of  hand. In  fact, atheism  itself  is easily shown  to  be  a  kind  of  religious  belief,  complete  with  internal  debates  about  dogma  and lines of heresy that cannot be crossed. It is no more clearly evident that there is not a god than that there is a God. The question boils down to the following issue: Does that fact of our existence demonstrate that there must be a source of existence that exists independent of everything else? This is where everything hinges. It has nothing to do with salvation or divine wrath or the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. It is simply a matter of whether  or  not  we  are  here  by  chance  (whatever  that  may  mean)  or  by  the  purposeful  plan  of  a creator, upon whom convention has bestowed the term ‘God’. 

While  this  may  be  a  fascinating  question  that  is  worth  spending  some  time  on,  in  this project we are only going to mention it in passing. The issue and the two opposing sides will come up now and  again,  but  for the  most part we are simply taking one  side  in that great debate. We are taking the side that God exists and is the ‘outside’ source of our existence. Once we  have  staked  our  position,  we  can  proceed  onward  and  begin asking  the  question  of what this source of existence actually is. We must stress at this point that we have by no means proven our assumption. We freely admit that it is an assumption that allows us to move onwards in the direction we want to go.  On  the  other  hand,  we  do  believe  that  the  assumption  is quite  justified  and  is absolutely  impossible  to  disprove.  It  may  be  equally  impossible to  prove,  but  that equality makes either side a valid choice. We have chosen one side in this endless debate. God exists. Now that we have made that fateful choice, we can discuss what this God is. 

The  discussion  about  God  has  largely  been  dominated  by  religions.  There  have  been  a smattering  of  philosophers  who  have  worked  out  fairly  involved  ideas  concerning  God, but  they  are  in  the  minority.  In  a  sense  this  is  unfortunate.  Religions  tend  to  be  packed with dogma – fixed beliefs that cannot be seriously questioned. Usually, a religion’s idea about  its  deity  lies  in  the  most  sacred  spot  of  its  dogma. Hence,  when  it  comes  to  the nature  of  God, there  usually  isn’t  much  room  for  discussion  among  religions.  Whatever that  religion  believes  about  God  must  be  accepted  as  a  given  if  one  wishes  to  be  a follower of that religion. 

Whatever advantages there may be to such a religious belief system, the inevitable result is rote belief, heresy, and apostasy. To some degree, this is the history of religion. On the other hand,  if a religion  is open to discussion about what its God actually  is, the situation is completely different. First off, different images of God can develop  - images that  evolve  with  the  time  and  the  changing  needs  of  society.  This  does  not  necessarily mean  that  God’s  essence  changes.  It  does  mean,  however,  that  the  way  in  which  we imagine  God  to  be  changes  over  time.    This,  in  turn,  creates a  situation  in  which  there will  be  internal  debate  about  what  God  is.  This  debate  could  result  a  wide  spectrum  of acceptable  beliefs,  but  it  could  also  result  in  tremendous disharmony  leading  to  break-offs and accusations of heresy.  
Among  major  religions  of  the  world,  Judaism  is  probably  about  as  old  as  it  gets.  An argument  could  be  made  that  Hindu  predates  it,  but  this  is  a  matter  for  historians  of religion.  Whether  the  Bible  introduced the  religious  idea  of  monotheism  or  whether  the ancient Israelites  imported the idea  from the ancient Egyptians  is another such historical debate. The  important point  is that the religious  belief of ethical  monotheism – that one deity  created  the  world  and  guides  it  along  certain  paths  to reach  a  goal  that  is  deemed ethical by some religious standard – is a very ancient idea that comes from the Bible and has remained a hallmark of Judaism in almost all the various paths that it has paved. 

From  the  Bible,  it  is  quite  easy  to  walk  away  with  the  perception  that  there  is  only  one image  of  God.  From  Judaism,  it  is  equally  easy  to  get  the  impressions  that  the  single Biblical image has always been there and no attempt was ever made to veer from it. We believe that both of these conclusions are fundamental errors. The Bible itself has dozens of  images  of  the  deity,  some  of  which  are  compatible  with  each  other,  and  some  which appear to stand by themselves in opposition to all the rest. As we move further down the road in Judaism, we encounter even more variety and more incompatibility. Judaism  is  religion  that  not only  allows  for  multiple  images  of  God,  it  encourages  such multiplicity. 
This  does  not  mean  that  Judaism  is  a  polytheistic  religion  (though  that suggestion has been made both in regards to the Bible and certain Jewish beliefs). One of the great hallmarks of Judaism is its staunch belief in only one God. That God, however, needn’t  be  restricted  to  one  image.  If  anything,  the  great  variety of  images  of  God  that can  be  found  within  Judaism  lends  support  to  the  contention that  Judaism  is  a  religion that encourages theological trailblazing.  These images are the greatest clues we have as to what the Jewish idea of God is. Not all of them will tell us what God is, but many will add pieces to the great puzzle. 

The goal of the God portion of this project is to trace these images historically from the earliest stories of the  Bible  right  up  to  modern  times  to  uncover  those  pieces.  There  will  be  great  debate about many of our conclusions – both  in terms of the validity of the  interpretation of an image  and  in  terms  of  whether  the  image  should  be  considered  part  of  normative Judaism.  We  have  no  wish  to  discourage  such  debate.  On  the  contrary,  the  background purpose  of  this  entire  project  is  to  stimulate  discussion on  this  and  other  core  issues  of life.
At the end of the day, will we walk away with a firm idea, Jewish or otherwise, of what God is? This is a question that we cannot answer. We intend to lay out the background of the various images and to explain them as best we can. We will provide a brief section for how each  particular  image can  be perceived. There will also  be a question or two at the end  that  may  expose  unresolved  issues  or  problems  with  how  this  image  fits  into  our lives. We hope, by the end of the project, to be able to put a bigger picture together that reveals  some  idea  of  what  God  is  in  light  of  Judaism  and in  light  of  intellectual  and historical  developments  of  human  culture.   

Whether  or  not  this  idea  fits  into  Judaism  or into  any  individual’s  ideas  about  God  is  a  matter  for  each  participant  in  this  project  to decide.  We  want  to  know  what  Judaism  says  about  God.  We  also  want  to know  what  God  is. Hopefully,  the  two  goals  will  be  mutually  compatible  and  will  spur  each  other  along. These goals cannot possibly be fulfilled by a single project under the guidance of one or two  individuals.  It  can  only  be  accomplished  by  the  active  participation  of  those  who really  want  to  understand  these  vital  matters.   

This  project is  a  beginning –  it  is  the humble  and  perhaps  misguided  start of  a  discussion  that  should  have  happened  decades or even centuries ago but somehow never did. Why it never did is an interesting question in and of  itself. Regardless,  it  is  high time to get the discussion started once and  for all. This project, hopefully, will give those who want to get into this most important of Jewish topics a little bit of background and some idea of what paths they can head down as they venture into this no-man’s-land. It will be a rocky journey with a good deal of dead ends. But it will be a journey as worthwhile as any other. What is God?


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Does God exist sunny-denim-ostrich 10/23/16 at 09:54:24


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