What is God?
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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