The Evolution of God
What is God?
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Evolution is not a popular word in most Orthodox circles. It automatically brings up thoughts of Darwin, of dinosaurs and saber-toothed tigers, of apes evolving into people. For much of the Orthodox world all this is heresy of the first degree, despite whatever evidence there may be to back up the theory. Six days of creation are still six days of creation and not billions of years, no matter how some religious scientists spin the numbers. This debate is restricted to evolution of life, an important area of science but not all that big of a deal in the religious spectrum. The type of evolution we are going to examine is much more controversial as a religious matter. It concerns not the evolution of fruit flies or bacteria, but of God.
We’ve been dealing with images of God all through this project. Being as these are the classic images that the Bible and Judaism have created, it is almost axiomatic to assume that the images are really God in some way. But it has been pointed out many times in exploring these images, that they are no more actually God than what we see as blue is the color blue. It may look blue to us, but that is just the way we see it. Something else, to which that wavelength of light causes a different reaction, will see it completely differently. It is the same with an image of God. One person may see God as good, while another may see God as cruel. One religion may worship a deity that protects a single nation, while another worships a universal deity that watches over the entire world.
When one really thinks about the various images, and traces their development through the millennia, it becomes quite obvious that the images are not really God at all. How could God really change with the fate of one nation or with the insights of one individual? How could God’s reality possibly be dependent on the whims of the human mind reacting to the external events? God’s image is much more subjective than a color. It can change by the day, by the hour. It can change with the ups and downs of history or with the way an individual person chooses to see the events that occur is his or her life. According to this way of seeing things, any evolution God may have undergone is really an illusion. It is actually the evolution of God’s images. It is nothing more than the simple acknowledgment that different people have different images of God at different times of life and different phases of history.
In the long course of this series, we have attempted to rediscover the trail of these images. They went from the many Biblical images to the rabbinic, philosophical, and mystical images, to the more modern images which ultimately led to a Jewish version of panentheism. The scientific outlook challenged the dual need for an outer image of a Creator and an inner image that penetrates all creation. There was just existence, including the laws that determined how it played out. While not all the questions could be answered, it was enough to shake the older image to its very foundations. When these challenges were combined with the Holocaust, it almost destroyed whatever was left. God’s goodness and/or ability to intervene were put on trial. Believers were left scrambling for answers. They were forced to confront a reality in which God either could no longer intervene to prevent evil in the world, or chose not to. Either way, they were left with an image that was difficult to revere and to worship. They were forced to look in other directions.
Other than dropping God altogether, there were essentially three directions to choose. One was to insist that the old image(s) still held true and somehow maintained validity. This was the standard religious path. Another was to say that the old image was wrong and that God never could intervene in the affairs of the world other than to set things up and keep them going. This was the passive and indifferent God of Spinoza. The third was an uneasy path in which God’s interaction with the world is dependent on the manner that we image God.
The religious path may generate new images of God, and these images may or may not reflect God’s essence, but God remains the same. According to this path God is not the least bit effected by the way that we imagine God to be. Our images are nothing more than convenient ways that we have constructed to enable us to perceive God. If things like the Holocaust or scientific theories create obstacles that make it difficult for us to understand God’s role in the world, so be it. God is still God regardless of our understanding or our beliefs. This path is staunch and unwavering in its commitment to tradition, and will probably always be around in some portion of the Jewish people. It is simply too firmly embedded in Jewish tradition to ever be fully abandoned. That solid anchoring enables it to endure all challenges.
The second path claims that the old images no longer work and must be discarded. That they worked for so long is not a reflection of their validity, but of the ignorance that previous generations had of realities that were only revealed or realized in the 20th century. Specifically, the entire idea of a God who intervenes in the affairs of the world – a hallmark of the Biblical and rabbinic images of God – is seen as antiquated and obsolete. When looking back, it is not difficult to see that it was only a matter of time before the historical and intellectual direction of humanity resulted in God becoming either powerless or indifferent to affect the affairs of the world. The Holocaust may have hastened its coming, but it was in already in the pipeline.
The third possibility is, in a sense, a combination of the first two paths. It acknowledges the validity of earlier traditional paths but it also recognizes that at least some of those paths became obsolete for a good portion of humanity. This third path maintains that as human beings lost their ability or desire to believe in God’s direct intervention - that intervention ceased to be. This is the evolutionary element of this path. God’s interaction with the world changes with our image of God.
How could this be? How could God’s interaction with the world change with something as whimsical as human perceptions or feelings? Perhaps the situation is analogous to the relationship between a child and a parent. As an infant, the child is totally dependent on the parent and sees the parent’s intervention as something that is absolutely essential and expected. As the child grows, the need and the desire for that direct intervention steadily diminishes. Eventually, things reach the point in which the child is no longer a child and has neither the need nor desire for parental intervention. The parent no longer plays the role of God in the child’s life, no matter how much that parent would like to maintain that role. The child’s independence has changed the parent-child relationship. According to this analogy, humanity matured until it no longer needed or desired God’s direct intervention. Consequently, God no longer direct intervenes in world affairs.
There is really nothing all that mysterious or heretical about this idea once we allow for the dual (in there and out there) nature of God. That the ‘in there’ aspect changes should be no surprise. We are part of that ‘in there’ aspect of God. We change. So does the world. Doesn’t this mean that the ‘in there’ aspect of God changes with all these changes? But if the ‘in there’ aspect changes, why shouldn’t this result in a change in the way that God interacts with the world? What is God’s interaction with the world if not the ‘in there’ component of God? We are part of the world. We call some of the shots in the world. To some degree, we dictate the manner and the power of God’s intervention in the world.
Perhaps as we assumed a greater degree of control over our world and saw a diminished role for God in running the world, it resulted in a change in the way that God intervenes in the world. Perhaps at one time God could and did intervene on a regular basis, but the intervention diminished as human beings took over more and more of the business. Maybe in Biblical times people were more willing to believe that their lives were in the hands of an all-powerful deity who could move them around like pieces on a chessboard. But as time went on, people lost their ability or desire to think of things in this way. The ‘in there’ aspect of God absorbed this trend and changed with the times. According to this, God’s current evolutionary state is non-interventionist, but it wasn’t necessarily always like this. We change; the world changes; God changes.
Perceiving the Image
On second thought, this is pretty radical. This cuts through some pretty traditional ideas about God. What kind of a god changes with the whims of people? It would have to be a pretty flexible deity – one who doesn’t insist on things always being a certain way. Is there such a deity in all the long annals of religion? Without going into a survey of other religions, perhaps Judaism can accommodate it. There certainly has been a long list of images to which God has had to adapt. As far as we know, He has done a pretty good job of adapting. This latest adaptation may prove the most difficult of all.
But maybe this is our own misconception. Maybe we are the ones who have problems with a God who goes through changes. We have an inbred need for permanence in our lives and God has classically fit the bill as the Rock. So perhaps we have to go through a little adjustment to allow for a changing God. God goes with the flow. God adjusts to the times. God will find a way to fit in no matter how much we leave Him out of the picture. God will be as much of a Rock as we want Him to be, and God will be as soft as flowing water if that is our choice. Letting God be God means allowing God the elbow room to move around a bit and find another niche.
If we are the ones responsible for God having to change, and if we are going through radical changes in our own direction, we should expect to have to adjust to God’s changes. How are we to go about making this adjustment? First off, it wouldn’t hurt to recognize how significant that ‘in there’ aspect of God really is and the role that we play in shaping it. We are part of that inner God. When we change, it changes. Whoever we become, both individually and collectively, and however we reshape our world, partially determines the shape that the inner God will take. Our changes are God’s changes. We should not see our changes as anything less than that. Anything else would be sacrilege.
It is vital for us to choose the proper direction in our individual and collective lives. The stakes are high. Botching things up is not just losing at the video game and starting over. Each move has cosmic significance, even bordering on the divine. God, for better or worse, has put some of His fate in our little hands. Let’s make sure He doesn’t regret it.
Why is it that some people insist so much on an unchanging image of God that they are willing to negate God altogether rather than allow God to change? Which would we rather have – an unchanging but anachronistic God, or a changing God who is there with us wherever we go?
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Date: 03/08/19 at 05:13:47
This piece is so well thought-out and so well put-together. Rabbi, it is clear that this is something you have come to appreciate after years of contemplation. Thank you for writing so thoughtfully. We see God changing even throughout Tanak"h itself. Like any good parent, God slowly allows his children to take the reins of destiny in the cosmic drama that is the world stage.