In There or Out There – Where is God?
What is God?
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A remarkable and largely ignored book appeared in 1982. The author was Aryeh Kaplan, the visionary of Jewish spirituality whose premature death in 1983 cut short the life of one of the most influential personalities of modern Judaism. This particular book, called ‘Jewish Meditation’, covers in great detail a subject that hardly any Jews at the time even knew existed. Towards the beginning he gives a general introduction to the idea of spiritual meditation. He ventures into the subject of meditating about meaning in life, finally getting to the remarkable statement: ‘You may find yourself pondering not only the meaning of your own life, but the very meaning of existence in general. At this point, you will have discovered God’.
Hardly allowing the reader to catch his or her breath, he goes on to discuss two different aspects of God that we are very familiar with already:
‘We often think of God as being “out there”, far away from the world. But it is important to realize that God is also “in there” – in the deepest recesses of the soul.
Here are two ways in which a person can discover God.
First, a person can reflect on questions such as these: What is beyond space and time? How did the world come into existence? Why does the world exist? What came before time? By pondering such questions, a person can find God, but he will find God only in the sense that God is “out there”. The second way in which one can find God is by delving deeper and deeper into the self in the manner discussed earlier. Here also one finds God, but one is finding Him in the sense that He is “in there”.’ (p.17-18)
The ‘in there-out there’ dual existence of God has been the subject of much of this portion of this project. The ‘out there’ aspect has been ‘there’ from the very beginning with the Creator. It adopted the role of the Guide. It appeared in several other images along the way, including the Master of the Universe, and the unknowable God of the philosophers, before ending up as the mystical En Sof. The ‘in there’ aspect began with the Biblical ‘Glory’, continued with Philo’s ‘Logos’, was renamed the rabbinic ‘Shechina’, and eventually found a permanent home in the Kabbalistic ‘Sefirot’. It is tempting to speculate that in Biblical times the outside aspect was called Elohim while the inside aspect was called Hashem, but this explanation is difficult to sustain. The two images switch back and forth from ‘in there’ to ‘out there’ so often that it is impossible to guess which one should be which.
Leaving that tempting possibility for others, we will concentrate on the question of the title of this essay: Where is God? As time went on, Jewish theology progressively pushed the outer aspect into increasingly distant regions. In the Bible it didn’t seem all that ‘out there’, at least until the later stages when it was placed in the Heaven of Heavens. Through much of rabbinic times it remained firmly embedded as the arena for all creation – the Place of the universe. The philosophers, with their rational drive to make God unknowable, pushed the image out beyond all perception and made it more of a concept. The mystics took up this distancing and labeled it the En Sof, a term that encapsulates the infinite gap between God and creation.
Paralleling this steady separation is the increasing closeness of the inner aspect of God to the created world. In the Bible it was there but was somehow apart. The Glory was barely perceivable under only the most unique of circumstances. The Logos was hardly everyday fair either, though its appearance as wisdom gave it more familiarity. The Shechina seemed like a ghostly presence that could come and go around the world, seemingly defying any rules of physicality. But the philosophers were reluctant to grant absolute divinity to this presence, considering it to be more of a created force that God could use to accomplish things in the world.
It took the mystics and the Kabbalah to firmly establish the inner aspect within the confines of the world through the various stages of transformation from the En Sof into the Vacated Space. But after all the seemingly reluctant steps to make God’s presence real, it did become real in the form of the Sefirot. The Hasidim took the final step of calling everything in creation a manifestation of God. Even thoughts in the mind, emotions, and forces of evil, were nothing more than heavily veiled disguises for God’s presence. In this regard, they agreed with Spinoza’s pantheism declaring that the natural world with all of its laws is simply God once and for all. But they differed from Spinoza in maintaining the traditional belief in the outer aspect of God, thus bringing the panentheist conception of God to its final form.
Where is God? We still need the unknown and unknowable aspect of God to be the Source of existence - the ‘Ground of being’. This is an image of God that even many borderline atheists are willing to concede. No matter what equations scientists may come up with, and no matter what laws are discovered in nature, the question of who breathes fire into the equations and who makes the rules apply will always be there. ‘Out there’, according to this image, is simply recognizing the evident fact that we exist and something must make us exist. Where is God – God is everywhere. In fact, it could more accurately be stated that God is ‘every where’. This is the old ‘Place’ image of God resurrected in a more modern form. There is nothing really new about this image and what it says about where God is. It is an image that goes beyond the bounds of ‘where’.
All the intricacies of nature, from the vastness of the universe to the complexity of life to the inner workings of the mind come into being through the ‘outerness’ of God. But they include the ‘innerness’ in the way they occur. Those equations and those rules – what exactly are they? Did they just happen to work out that way? Why couldn’t they be any other way? Scientists are working hard to answer these questions, but whatever they come up with will always be tinged with an element of ‘it had to be this way because this is the way that it is’. That essential nature of the way things are is the innerness of God in physical form. When a law of nature is refined in some way to reveal a more accurate or more inclusive understanding of the world, it is God’s innerness taking a more defined shape.
If God is so ‘in there’ why might God not intervene in world affairs? The answer to this question is very elusive, assuming it exists at all. When we assume that God intervenes, we generally imagine the ‘out there’ aspect sticking its divine hand inside and manipulating things so that they come out more in accordance with the divine plan. But what if the intervention takes a different form? What if the intervention does not occur through some miraculous ‘outside’ manipulation, but through the very ‘innerness’ that is always present? In other words, the innerness of God in creation is the extent of God’s intervention.
God may not intervene to alter the thoughts of human beings by suspending their power of free will, but God does intervene through the very existence that power. This is not direct intervention in the usual sense expected of God. It is a more constant form of intervention, which is so permanent as to no longer be properly called intervention. ‘Intervention’, in this new sense, is really just God being ‘in there’. We can choose to see it as intervention or we can choose to see it as just the way things are. It is all a matter of perspective. Up until fairly modern times, people were generally unable to see the workings of the world as anything but classic divine intervention. Perhaps recent events and discoveries have forced us to expand that limited vision to view them as simply the innerness of God.
When looked at in this way, panentheism is almost an automatic belief. God is ‘out there’ and God is ‘in there’. The two work together in such a seamless interface that it is difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. The unknowable outerness penetrates into the knowable innerness. The knowable innerness dissolves into the unknowable outerness. Each needs the other to fill the gaps in the whole picture. When combined, the two images are no longer an image at all. They are the complete reality. The human mind has created an image that so encompasses the whole that it actually is the whole. Panentheism takes God out of the domain of any one belief and once and for all tells us where God is. God is above all, within all, and underneath all.
Perceiving the Image
It is a little odd to think of God as everything that is. There is an almost reflexive tendency to consider God to be outside of us, like a third party who observes from a distance and sometimes interjects something pertinent. To think of God as being right there inside us, as our thoughts, our feelings, our hopes and our bad breath - is cutting things a bit too close. It is a little protective to put a comfortable distance between ourselves and God. Perhaps it is even more protective to get rid of God altogether. It allows us to just do our own thing and not really have to worry about some ‘higher force’ breathing down our necks.
What does it mean to perceive God as the Source of everything that is, while also being everything that is? It means that every single thing, from the most distant stars to the fleetest thought, is God’s body and mind. The oneness of it all is truly awesome. It is not strictly the oneness of Biblical monotheism, which introduced the revolutionary notion that there was only one deity instead of a whole collection of deities. Neither is it restricted to the oneness of rabbinic monotheism in which the devotee must be willing to show total dedication to only one power and spare nothing for anything else. It is not even the oneness of the medieval philosophers in which God was the single source of the existence of everything, though this is getting much closer.
The oneness of this image is found in the seamless transition from the Creator to the creation. There is no Creator because there is no creation. There is just God becoming. It may have happened as a Big Bang and may have evolved through the complicated and profound laws of nature. It really doesn’t matter for the question that we are addressing and for the image that we are attempting to perceive. It was God before all and it is God throughout all and it will be God after all is said and done. We are a part of God’s becoming real. We - our minds, our thoughts, our choices - are a little corner of God’s mind, God’s thoughts, God’s choices. Every other person, no matter how rude or noble, shares this little divinity with us. So do rocks and air, empty space and numbers. Where is God? God is within all that. Isn’t it high time we peeled away the layers and perceived the reality?
Why is it that we are so insistent on putting a distance between ourselves and God? We have only succeeded in driving God out of our lives. What exactly is accomplished by keeping God at arm’s length other than guaranteeing our own inevitable meaninglessness? Is this what we really want?
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