You Already Know that God Exists (Second Version)
This talk was given at the New North London Synagogue, Sivan 5773/2013.
The point of talking about God
As a person who is very focused on theology, and who is often talking about theology, I’m often told that theology, particularly for Judaism, is not important. People say that it that there’s no point in asking whether God exists, and whether God created the world or gave the Torah, because these are questions that nobody has any good answer for and really are just a waste of time.
Now, the fact is that I think that there is a lot of truth in the claim that theology is not important. First of all, it is often the case that discussions about God are both endless and pointless. Even more importantly, theology cannot replace religious study, discipline and practice. What really determines whether our Torah lives are powerful and transformative, or boring and superficial, is not what we say about God, but how we live Torah – how much we invest in it, to what extent we see the world through its lens.
But its here – in relation to trying to live a powerful Jewish religious life, that I think we begin to see where theology can be quite important. Because the stuff of Jewish life – the words of our prayers and the character of our symbols and rituals – is all organized around something or somebody called “God”. We talk to and about God constantly, and in our rituals we act out stories involving what God means to us.
And even while we do all that, talk and sing and do rituals involving God, I think that for a lot of liberal Jews, God is an extremely dubious entity. First of all, it’s not clear what the word God means, if anything. Second of all, if we think about the kinds of things that other people mean when they say God, not only does it seem quite likely that God does not exist, but, much worse than that, we’re probably all way better off with out Him, May He Be Blessed. Because He often sounds like a guy you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley, particularly, if you are a gay or a woman or just significantly unorthodox in one way or another – even Masorti God forbid!! And so while liberal Jews often have a warm corner somewhere in their heart for God, none the less, God doesn’t seem cut out for the role that Jewish life wants to give him.
And here is where theology becomes, I think, critically important. Because if what we mean when we say the word “God” is some vague combination of something that doesn’t exist and something that we’re not sure that we like, even if we are also a bit sentimental about Him, then Jewish prayer and ritual doesn’t make – at least as I see things – a whole lot of sense. If I am to talk about God all day, then I want to know that what I mean by God is worthy of my service and devotion.
Now, if there were really no good answers to the big questions that we have about God, then the fact that theology is important for religious life wouldn’t make any difference. However, I think that there are, in fact, perfectly good and solid answers to at least my questions about God.
To begin with, I think we expect both too much and too little from our idea of God. We expect too little from our idea of God when we are willing to apply this word to things that we think are immoral or untrue. If you think that the historical author of some text was a narrow minded racist, then the voice of that text cannot be God. The word God is not a proper name, but rather a condensed description. It means something like “that which I recognize as worthy of my service and devotion”. If you say something like, “perhaps God wrote this text, but I think its message is immoral”, then you are effectively saying, “This thing that is worthy of my service and devotion is not worthy of my service and devotion”. Either the thing you’re talking about is worth your most absolute faithfulness, or the thing you are talking is not God.
But at the same time, I think we liberal Jews often expect too much from our idea of God. We sort of expect a God who will blow us over and fulfill all of our most fantastical desires, sort of like what love looks like in Holywood movies. Now, I’m not saying that I don’t want that too, but I don’t need that in order for my prayers and rituals to make sense. What I need for the words of my prayers to be true is not a God who will provide me with eternal ecstasy but who is worthy of my service and worship and who motivates me to live a deeper Torah life. If I look at the world in the right way, I think that I know for a fact that this God exists.
Now, that doesn’t mean that I always daven well or perform the rituals of Torah life with adequate intention. But the reason I often fail at these things is for the same reasons that I’m often not the best father or husband. Just like I know what kind of father I don’t want to be, and then go on to be exactly that father too much of the time, I often don’t invest the necessary investment in Torah life. It’s not hard to pray because the prayers are talking about a God that I don’t believe in, but rather because it’s hard to focus my mind. This brings us back to the fact that theology can’t replace religious discipline and practice. But theology, if it’s done right, can help support the necessary investment in Torah that makes Torah life something that brings us closer to God.
With all that said, I’ll now try to tell you something about what I mean by God. But before I do, I need to make crystal clear what my goal is. My goal is to learn to think about God in a way that brings Jewish prayer and ritual alive; that transforms the practices of Torah life into technologies which bring me closer to the God that I really do love with all my heart, and soul and everything that I’ve got. If the way I think about God is different than my ancestors, that’s fine with me. I’m not looking to believe what somebody before me believed, but rather to be true to what I honestly recognize as worthy of my absolute service and faithfulness in a way that jives with the Torah life that I lead.
I’ll try to express my idea of God in two different ways. First, I’ll present my idea of God in a rather abstract way. As this way of talking doesn’t necessarily work for everybody, I’ll also present my idea through a story. Afterwards I hope we’ll have time for discussion.
The One, Logos and the Good
The One – The One is the point of singularity, and the nothingness before the big bang, and everything in the universe, and everything that ever was, and ever will be. The One contains all – the One Is, Was and Will be Forever. There is nothing, ultimately, except the One.
Logos. Logos is the essential nature, or essence, or logic, of all things. It governs how matter and energy emerged from singularity, and contains physics, chemistry, biology, the life of the mind – and everything else that exists. All things manifest the logos of the One. Nothing stands outside it.
The Good – The Good is what I know as worthy of my service and faithfulness. It is the person I seek to be and the ideals that I try to live by. Examples of the good are love, justice and freedom.
The “One” and “Logos” are not truth claims but rather are definitional. They represent a way of looking at the world and a way of defining one’s vocabulary. The idea of the Good, however, does involve some quite controversial truth claims (as well as a way of looking at things), and I’ll try to explain this now.
It’s very fashionable in our day to talk as if we don’t know what the good is. We say things like, “how do I know that love is really good or that justice is really binding?”. My answer to this is that I know that love is good and that justice is binding with the same surety that I know that I exist. The reason for this is that the knowledge that love is good – and that I should seek love with my family and friends – and the justice is binding – that I must seek justice for human beings – is among the central building blocks of my identity. If there were no such things as love and justice, then I – as I know myself and my life – would not exist. I would be an incoherent pile of bits of pieces w/o direction and w/o identity. I know that love and justice are real because they are critical parts of my self, which exists. And I think that this line argument is true about everybody in this room.
Now, one might say, perhaps you’re right that your idea of love and justice are part of what you call your “self”, but who says that the self exists? Maybe the “self” is an illusion? In fact, brain science teaches us that the self is no more than a pattern of highly complex information processing, like on a computer. They teach us that we are simply bio-robo computers, and what we experience as our “selves” is just what its like to be a bio central processing unit from the inside! And since my self – my I – is just what its like to be a bio-robo computer from the inside, love and justice are just part of that same subjective experience!
The truth is, that’s exactly how I think. While I don’t really know any science, I do think of us as bio-robo computers, and I expect that my soul or self, and the things I know to be good like love and justice, are just what its like to be a human bio-robo computer from the inside. The part I disagree with is that any of this makes the self, love and justice less real.
In fact, I think that to argue that our selves – with their building blocks of love and justice – are not “real”, that they do not “exist”, is thoroughly irrational. There are no functional people who live or think as if they do not exist. In regular language, to say that something is not real, that it does not exist, means that it has no impact on my life. I can’t meaningfully say, “phenomenon X, which does not exist, has a huge impact on me”. And for that reason it simply makes no sense to say that the self, love and justice “do not exist”. Words like “real” and “exists”, rationally speaking, must be defined so as to include the fundamental elements of my experience. I think William James called this approach “radical empiricism”.
I think we sometimes talk as if the self “doesn’t exist” because we want to limit words like “real” and “exists” to physical objects and mathematical truths. But the real world – the one that we live in – is not constituted by matter and logic alone. My self is part of the world that I know. And love and justice and the other things I know as good are part of what my self is.
In this sense, at my very essence, I am Will, I am telos, I am an arrow that points at the good. That is the reality of what the One has made me (through physics, biology, evolution etc.). And since my self and my knowledge of the good, like all things, manifest the logos of the One, I know that the very same force which creates black holes and distant galaxies also commands me to the seek the good. The One not only creates the world, but reveals the good. If I take the Torah as the name for the good, then the One not only separated the waters from the earth and hung the luminaries the sky, but also gave us the Torah, revealing the Word of God to Israel for all time.
I’ll conclude the abstract discussion with one last abstraction. Does it make sense to pray to the One? This would seem to depend on another question: is the One free, like a person, or necessary, like the laws of physics? If you say that the One is fixed and necessary like the laws of physics, then I ask you – how did it come to be you? And if you say that the One is like you are – then how can physics be true? It seems clear that the One is both free and not free, personal and not personal. (By the way, I think that’s true of human beings, too). And so when we seek to connect to God personally, we should talk to God. And when we seek to understand the material universe, we should study physics.
In the beginning, there was the big bang. And before the big bang, there was nothing. Its not that there wasn’t anything, it’s just that there was no “there”, and so we don’t have words to talk about it. And then, somehow, from that nothingness, emerged a point of singularity. The entire universe, that was later to unfold in the patterns of physics, chemistry, biology and psychology, somehow existed as one unified point – without dimensions and without distinctions, in that point of singularity, almost 14 billion years ago.
And then matter and energy, and later planets and stars and solar systems, emanated forth and became the universe. A long time later, roughly 4 billion years ago, life emerged on our planet and began to evolve until, according to some, homo sapiens appeared some 200,000 years ago. And we were, as Yuval Harrari puts it, rather mediocre mammals smack in the middle of the food chain. But then, roughly 70,000 years ago, we started to talk – and not just to talk – but to create a whole labyrinth of symbolic and linguistic meanings that gave us an evolutionary advantage that evidently put an end to all other hominoid species, and shot us – homo sapiens – right up to the top of the food chain.
Roughly 10,000 years ago, we underwent the agricultural revolution. The new ability to cultivate mass amounts of food caused much suffering, but also pushed human culture forward. Within five thousand years, we began to write. And then, about 2,500 years after that, or roughly 500 BCE, a massive cultural shift takes place in humanity – a shift in which human beings all across the planet – from Greece and Israel to India and China, start to think more about spirit than about matter.
Robert Bella, a well respected sociologist of religion, points out that the religions of this age – from the Bible to the Buddha, emphasize the need to transcend the body and the material world and to live in the realm of the spirit. He suggests that the depth and complexity of humanity’s symbolic and linguistic structures enabled people for the first time to live in a world of non-material meanings. He suggests that this is parallel to the stage in which a young child stops thinking of her body as herself, and begins to think of herself as constituted by her role in the family, her membership in her tribe, and other non-material things. At that stage, when the child says “I”, she no longer means her physical body, but rather a whole host of meanings that only exist in the world of language and symbols. So roughly at 500 BCE, says Robert Bella, when people thought about themselves, they didn’t identify themselves just with their bodies, but started to perceive their very existence as a matter of non material spiritual things.
And so it was that humanity moved upstairs, as it were, and transcended mere physical existence. And on that second floor, in a realm of spirit and language and symbols, we could hear God – the One – speak for the first time. And that voice of spirit, love and justice that we heard must have existed, at least in potential, in the nothingness before the big bang, and in the point of singularity, and in the matter and energy of the universe before the emergence of life, because everything that is came from what was, and all things are manifestations of the logos of the One.
Before the advent of a species that could live in the realm of spirit, that potential – the potential for consciousness and for transcendence and for higher morality, that potential hovered over the deep in the absolute darkness. It was the spirit of God as described in Genesis before creation. And it could only come into the light, and become revealed, when there existed a species able to see that beyond the physical world there is a world of higher meanings – like truth, love, justice and beauty – and that we can live for those meanings, and in fact we must live for those meanings, simply because absolute value requires absolute faithfulness.
At Har Sinai, we were confronted with the undeniable truth that the true meaning of our lives lies beyond material things and narrow interests. Having climbed up onto the second floor, into the realm of spirit and symbol, the roof that housed our world opened up, and what we saw above was not the physical heavens but the possibility of transcendence. And so for the first time God could speak to us, and we could hear God’s voice. And God offered us the path to our redemption, and we set out on that path.
Today, 2,500 years later, we still seek to walk that path. When we do Torah right, Torah is the path to our higher humanity. Our response to the voice of God that we heard, and that we hear, is to seek to be higher humanity, as individuals and as collectives, as Jews and as human beings. Every individual and every nation, has something unique to contribute to the unfolding of God’s spirit in the universe and in humanity. Torah is our unique path and identity, it is our part, as the People Israel, in pushing our species towards greater and higher things.