The 20th Century and the Post-Modern World
What is God?
| Total Comments: 0
| Total Topics: 4
It is probably not an exaggeration to say that the social and technological changes that took place in the 20th century dwarfed whatever had occurred in the past. Other centuries experienced major changes. At some point in the distant past there was no writing. At some point they learned to work metals and glass. They developed new concepts in religion and philosophy, new ideas about nature and the role of human beings. Methods of mass production were invented as were countless inventions to give man power over the earth and the environment.
But this was all just warm-ups for what was to come. Electricity paved the way, but it was only a tool for the vast technological changes that came down the pipeline. Antibiotics, vaccines, and countless other sophisticated medical advances took place almost annually in the first half of the 20th century. Unheard-of machines forever altered the industrial landscape of the already revolutionized workplace. These machines entered the home, with radio, telephones, television, and recording devices. Quantum theory, first uncovered in the year 1900, eventually gave the world lasers, semiconductors, computers, and atomic power. Energy became virtually unlimited following the second World War, and was soon followed by huge advances in food production. Population boomed, as did all the problems of overpopulation. Genetic engineering, the genie that was let out of the bottle in the early 1950’s, became the replacement for God by the end of the century.
In addition to being major steps in human progress, these changes came with a price. Social alienation was a direct result of the computer, as were shorter attention spans and addictions to numerous forms of instant gratification. Drugs went from an aberration to another version of normalcy. Ethical and moral problems arose from the ability to play God and to determine life and death. Wars reached unheard of scales as did the use of technology in killing. Nobody knows where it will lead. Unlike almost every century before us, we have only the foggiest notion of what life will be like in 100 years.
Religion took the biggest hit of all. It would be an understatement to say that it became irrelevant in much of the modern world. It became an embarrassment. There are still huge numbers of people who were religious, but much of the modern world labels them extremists, fundamentalists, or flat-out nuts. They have their heads in the sand regarding evolution and the age of the universe. They are completely out of touch as far as marriage and sexual restrictions are concerned. Even their basic belief in a higher power smacks of an almost childlike ignorance and exudes an impression of being totally naïve.
Judaism was no more immune to these challenges than Christianity or Islam. Judaism would struggle in many different ways to accommodate the modern world. Some of these would involve abandoning cherished traditional beliefs with others staunchly maintaining them, along with numerous compromises in the middle that altered tradition without jettisoning it altogether.
These various approaches run the whole gamut of Judaism, from ultra-Orthodox to Modern Orthodox to Conservative to Reform to Reconstructionist to New Age to Atheist. By and large the further one goes along that list the more willing Jews are to ditch traditional notions of God. For atheist Jews, of course, there is no longer a question. For ultra-Orthodox, there never was a question. For Reconstructionist and Reform, there is no longer any taboo against non-belief, regardless of whatever any mission statements might say. Conservative has always sat on the fence on this and other issues, though hardly any Conservative Jew today would bat an eyelash upon hearing the person sitting next to them in the synagogue whisper that they no longer believed any of this nonsense. Modern Orthodox Jews are probably in the toughest position. They have to accommodate both the modern world and the traditional beliefs. It is frequently an uncomfortable partnership. The questions are strong, and the answers leave much to be desired.
In this section we will no longer be covering distinct images of God. We’ve covered all that already. There are other images out there that we have missed, but we managed to get the main ones. This section will focus on specific questions concerning God in any image. They are not necessarily exclusively 20th century questions, but they did become front and center issues during the last 100 years. These questions will be difficult. Not everybody will want to hear these questions, though almost everybody is familiar with them by now. There may be other tough questions concerning God that could or should be asked, but these are the five that we have selected. We believe that facing these tough issues is a fitting conclusion to this project.
The five questions are as follows:
1. How do we fit God into the scientific model of the world?
2. What, if anything, is the answer to the question of the Holocaust? How could an omnipotent and all-good God have allowed such evil?
3. Where is God? Is God still to be perceived as ‘out there’ – a removed and transcendent entity that is totally distinct from us; or is God perceived as ‘in there’ - part of us in every way and not distinct at all?
4. How can an educated modern person maintain a traditional belief in a God who directly intervenes in the running of the world?
5. What is God? When all the dust clears, is God personal or impersonal? Is God as real as us or is God just a figment of the imagination?
In attempting to deal with these questions we take no particular image of God as the definitive Jewish image. All bets are off and all prior assumptions are laid aside. We are looking for answers, not trying to justify tradition. How the cards fall is not our prime concern. We are groping for solid answers to difficult questions and cannot worry about proper decorum and political correctness. Our guides will be logic, common sense, an intuitive idea about truth, and gut feelings.
The first question concerns God and science. This is not a new issue. It has certainly been around since the Renaissance and probably a good deal before that. Spinoza focused the world of philosophy in on the matter and it never went away. Spinoza equated God with nature; though he viewed nature in a much broader sense then we do today. Since then the question has only gotten stronger. It boils down to this: if nature and its laws guide the universe, who needs God? If God is existence, then why not just call it existence and leave out the G-word? There are several approaches to this question and we will attempt to steer a course that takes science at face value and does not disregard its discoveries. We will also try to remain faithful to an idea of God as a supernatural being and not simply the sum-total of everything natural. It won’t be easy.
The second question is the toughest. The Holocaust, for better or worse, is the show-stopper when it comes to traditional belief. The answers that may have been acceptable in previous centuries for the presence of evil in the world lost almost all their credibility during the Holocaust. The Ramchal’s image of God being the ultimate good puts this question right in the bull’s-eye. Is it still possible to maintain such an image after the Holocaust? Is that image just naïve wishful thinking that the modern mind can no longer stomach? If God is good and omnipotent, how could God have allowed this to happen? Maybe God is not omnipotent. Maybe God is not good. Maybe the Holocaust wasn’t all that evil. All three approaches seem either heretical or impossible, but something has to give. Which one will we drop?
The third question is one that most people are not particularly bothered by. People who are interested in religious questions want to know if God exists or not. They are not so concerned with the details. But God is in the details. The question about whether or not God exists is intricately linked with how one understands God. If God is ‘out there’, one version of God is presented to either believe in or to reject. If God is ‘in there’, a completely different choice has to be made. The panentheist image that we saw from Kabbalistic and Hasidic sources asserts that both are true. God is both ‘outside’ and ‘inside’. As all-inclusive an approach as this may be, is it really possible to accept and to believe in? Is it simply a type of theological hand waving that brushes over the problems without really answering anything? This is not just a theoretical question. The way that a person understands where God is determines how they relate to God. If God is ‘outside’ it means that God is really separate and apart from us. If God is ‘inside’ no such distinction is possible. How could both be true?
The fourth question is the most controversial. This question cuts to the core of whether traditional religion still has relevance in the modern world. There is no denying that even asking this question is threatening to religious people. Bringing the subject up obviously puts them on the defensive. Since the modern outlook is so diametrically opposed to traditional religious beliefs about God’s interaction with the world, such beliefs seem little better than superstition. The modern religious person has to walk an intellectual tightrope. This person either has to draw very narrow limits of what is acceptable from tradition, or they must compartmentalize religious beliefs so that they do not infringe upon ‘facts’ like science, history, or other forms of knowledge. The question is whether there is any way to fit a modern image of God within traditional Judaism, or if the two are totally incompatible. If they are incompatible, what does this say about the ‘truth’ of the earlier images?
The fifth question is really the purpose of this project. What is God? We have plenty of images, but for many, an image is not enough. Some want to know the reality of God in whatever way they can. This may be impossible, but that does not stop the desire to know. This question will attempt to get down to the basic nature of what God actually is, as opposed to how we choose to perceive God. The personal/impersonal divide is crucial to this question. Equally vital is the reality of God’s involvement in the world, which is really the same issue from a different angle. But there is a third aspect to this question which concerns the actuality of God’s existence. At the end of the day, is it real or is it something that the human mind had to imagine? If the latter is the case, its existence is contingent upon us. Does that make God any less real?
These are questions that go beyond the scope of Judaism and even beyond the bounds of religion in general. They should be the concern of all human beings, regardless of their personal beliefs or religious convictions. They cut to the core of what it means to be human. They force us to confront our own true reality and to try to understand what it means to exist and to be alive. They confront the nature of morality and the definition of good and evil. These questions may not have definitive answers. In all likelihood, none of them has an answer that will satisfy everybody. Where we go with any of these questions is a matter of personal choice. But to make those choices we need to understand the issues. The questions are about God, but they are also about us. When we examine God, we examine ourselves in kind of spiritual mirror. What reflection do we see?
Aren't confident enough to comment? Send an email to the author about any question pertaining to the essay
- Please keep comments and questions short and to the point.
- Try to keep things civil and overall try to keep the conversations respectful.
- No four letter words.
- No missionizing.
- Site moderators reserve the right to delete your comments if they do not follow the guidlines or are off-topic.
There are no Comments to show. Comment and start the discussion.