Wednesday, May 25, 2011


I wrote last time about wanting to believe in God, and wanting to believe that God loves me. When I experience God loving me, that experience seems to involve a figure much like the God of my tradition, but I find it hard to reconcile the God of tradition with my experience or understanding of reality. I called the experience I identify as God "Hashem," and the unknown cause of that experience "Deus," and I asked what Deus is, and whether Deus really is God, and whether Deus really does love me. I would like to understand God and the universe such that I really believe God exists and loves me, but I don't yet have a vessel to hold that belief.

I ended up posing the question of what such a vessel would look like intellectually, suggesting that it might be more promising to consider what a satisfying theology might look like than to continue pursuing one 'blind.' This is my answer - what I, personally, would need in order to stop doubting - but I hope you might find it valuable as well.

I believe that the foundation of truth is integrity to experience. As I contemplate how a theory of Deus-as-Hashem-loving-me could maintain integrity to our collective experiences of reality and of Hashem, I see three things it needs to do:
  • Indicate some real part or aspect of the universe as its candidate for deity.
  • Demonstrate that this candidate Deus meets some reasonable characterization of Godhood.
  • Explain how Deus manifests as Hashem, the personal spiritual experience of God.
Doing it in this order will appeal to someone like me, who is more comfortable with their understanding of reality than of God. Early reviews of this blog-post have suggested that some people find it absurd to take reality for granted, and then search for a pre-defined image of God. I wish those people the best of luck in their own struggles, but I have to persist in mine. I trust my sense of reality, and I know what God feels like to me, and I'm trying to find that feeling in the universe I believe in.

There's more to be said about each of these steps:

“Indicate some real thing in the world as its candidate for deity.”
The tricky thing about this part is the word “real.” What makes something real?

Rocks are real. Society is real. Love, peace, war, jokes, happiness, upwards, centers of mass, potential energy, flavors, and your mind are all real. Unicorns are not real, but the idea of unicorns is real. Dinosaurs used to be real, but they aren’t real anymore. Dinosaur fossils are real. This list is not meant to be comprehensive :-)

The essence of real things, as I see it, is that you can interact with them in some reliable way. Ideally, I’d like to say that you can interact with any particular real thing in multiple ways, and it’s the congruence of these different interactions that verifies what you learn through each one. A lot of physicists these days think dark matter is real, and many of them were only convinced when multiple streams of observation supported the same theory. Now, I can only detect flavors one way, but I can rely on other people detecting flavors similarly, and I can interact with flavor predictably “from the outside.” I’m not sure you can interact with potential energy and centers of mass, per se, because they only act through objects whose behavior I could explain without them, but you can reliably use both of these concepts in shorthand. These are borderline cases of real-ness.

So when I wonder if Deus is real, one thing that I mean is that there should be some way to interact with the cause of Hashem other than through the experience of Hashem.[1]

A lot of us, these days, also think that real also means “part of the physical universe,” in some sense. It’s hard to define what that means, since we want to include love, peace, and the idea of unicorns, but I think you can say something like “you can’t change something real without causing some corresponding change in matter,” or “any real difference corresponds to a physical difference.” [2] Thought is not itself material, but thinking involves something material happening in the brain. So Deus doesn’t need to be material to real, but it needs to be physical in that broader sense, a part of the physical universe.[3]

And the physical universe has laws. Our knowledge of them is imperfect, but decent, and the great ingenuity of science is to frame those laws in direct experience. The scientific establishment might not be right about what the laws of the universe are, but that difference has to be detectible by the scientific process in order to mean anything.[4] To be real, Deus needs to conform to the laws of the physical universe. If you believe in a Deus that doesn’t conform to those laws as we understand them, it’s worth examining why you do, and where exactly you think the scientific establishment has it wrong.

Miracles by definition violate the laws of the universe. Unless you were lucky enough to witness one yourself, believing in miracles is necessarily not integrity to direct experience. (I mean the sea-splitting, from-the-dead-raising kind of miracles. Life is miraculous, but that's different.) I can’t believe in miracles, or in a God who works miracles. It’s tempting, and I’ve tried, but it just doesn’t stick for me. That’s just not my experience. It’s not the experience of the consensus I trust.[5]

Along with all the other miracles, I especially can’t believe in explicit, unfiltered revelation. I can’t say exactly what I mean by that, unfortunately, and I’m not satisfied with my own definitions here. I’ll explain below that I do believe in some kind of revelation, but the impossible hurdle for me, I think, is in believing that any record of revelation represents exactly God’s will for all time, without any temporal influence from the society and psychology through which it manifested. Sacred, permanently true text breaks the rules. If a theory of Deus relies on that kind of miracle, I have no justification for calling it true.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. A lot of characterizations of God involve miracles and revelation, but not all of them. So let’s grant that a candidate Deus ought to be real, and move on to what it takes to be Godlike.

These are footnotes. After these footnotes, the main text continues. The footnotes are probably going to be really annoying to most readers, but they're intended to address objections other people might care about.
[1] I’m struggling with a comparison to flavor, at the moment. I’m not sure how to differentiate the realness of God from the realness of flavor. Arguing the reality of God from flavor, however, leads you with Hashem as a real experience (which is tautological) but not necessarily caused by any God-like Deus.
[2] The Law of Conservation of Matter/Energy doesn’t change at all, on the other hand, and isn’t really in the universe, but I think we can fairly say that laws of the universe are a part of the universe.
[3] I’m sure this is boring enough already without getting into the nature of causality, but I think it’s an important part of the physical universe that it’s (after the very beginning) causally complete. If something is outside the universe causing events inside the universe, let’s just spread the tent of “universe” a little farther to include it. If that something doesn’t seem to have any law of its own being, I think it calls into question the reality of the whole universe, which is a road I don’t want to go down here and now. If this all seems pedantic, it is, but this is the stuff I think about.
[4] Okay. Try this one. I could imagine a kind of trickster God who works miracles all the time, but only under circumstances where no one (or very few people) will detect them. Attempting to prove a link between prayer and healing might be bad for people’s health, in this case, because such studies drive God into hiding. I couldn’t prove that God doesn’t work this way, but it’s hard to feel justified in believing he does. In any case, it seems like such a God is so committed to our not believing in him that it would be more blasphemous to worship than not.
[5] A true believer might say that they trust the direct experience reported by those who wrote the bible. A clever true believer would even compare this to my trust in the reported experience of various scientists whose claims I trust, even if I don't understand the experiments they're conducting. The only difference, I have to admit, is my judgment call that the reports of one camp are more reliable than the other. There are too many ways to explain the bible as not literally true for me to consider it a fair record of anyone's direct experience.

“Demonstrate that this candidate Deus meets some reasonable characterization of Godhood.”
What are the characteristics of Godhood?

This varies a lot from believer to believer, of course. But this is my blog, and my theological struggle. Based on my experience and my received tradition, here’s what I think makes for Goddity:

God created the universe. 
God created life and humanity within the universe.
God has desire, knowledge, and unity.
God has a will that is manifest in everything that happens. God’s will is or involves a purpose that suffuses all of existence. God has a purpose for human beings, and human joy and sorrow are meaningful in the context of God’s purpose.
God’s will for us is such that we can do or not do what God wants. God’s will is morally good. God wants to have a relationship with humanity and with individual human beings.
God knows everything and controls everything. God hears and values our prayers, such that praying to God can affect the world. God is utterly worthy of love and awe.
God is available for communion with human beings, by which we can know some small part of God and some small part of God’s will.
God in some sense created Judaism as a means of relating to God.
God loves all of us, totally and completely.
(Also, just FYI, God cannot create a rock that God can’t lift. I know a lot of you were worrying about that.)[1]

Now, I’m flexible on a lot of these, especially with on the particulars of the wording. We can’t go into the quest for God with the end too precisely fixed in our minds, or else we might miss what we’re really looking for. But this is how Hashem represents himself to me, and how I interpret others’ reported encounters with Hashem. If Deus doesn’t live up to this description, this is still the experience of Hashem that needs to be explained.

The one totally essential characteristic is God loving us. Without that, Deus just isn’t the Hashem I’ve encountered. If Hashem is caused by something that doesn’t love us, the most important moments of my life were illusory. I’m doing all of this work so as not to believe that.

But love alone isn’t sufficient. My mother loves me, and that’s a different kind of thing. In order for it to be God that loves me, the lover has to be great, somehow. Unimaginably greater than any human. The love of God seems to come from someone that knows me utterly, has total power over me, and has deployed me into action for the betterment of the world. A God we believe in should love all of us, and know all of us, and have created each one of us for the sake of something beautiful. For the sake of glory. I want to believe in a God whose purpose for this universe justifies all of the evil, all of the hatred, all of the boring, banal misery of the last 14 billion years. From that requirement, most of the rest of my list seems to follow. Certain items wouldn't necessarily follow from that Great Love - that God hears and values our prayers, for instance, or that Judaism is a way of relating to God - except that Judaism and prayer and the like are so bound up in the encounters that I’ve had with Hashem, and they have taught me so much about how to encounter Hashem more deeply.

So that’s how I experience God.

But if I’m trying to maintain integrity to direct experience, I’ve got to recognize how many people don’t experience God this way, or even experience God at all. Judaism can’t be the only means of relating to God, and “God” can’t be the only word for Deus. Other religions and spiritual traditions describe such similar heights of possible experience that I have to assume we’re all encountering fundamentally the same thing. I want my Jewish belief in God to be true, and I want my Christian and Muslim friends’ beliefs in God to be true, and I want my Buddhist friends’ belief in no-God,  and my Hindu friends’ belief in many Gods all to be true. A theory of the Deus behind my Hashem should also explain how that Deus can be encountered in so many other ways.

Ken Wilber has addressed this question very clearly, and I just borrow his answer. Wilber says that God exists and manifests in all things, including you. So he divides spiritual paths into first-person, second-person, and third-person methodologies. Judaism and other traditional Theisms are second-person methodologies which foster a personal (I-Thou) relationship with a God who is not you. Many forms of Buddhism and certain other introspective paths are first-person methodologies, which encourage identifying with and engaging the divinity within. Nature-shamanism and similar paths (including a lot of scientific atheisms) wonder at the divinity of the grand world-system of which we are a part. Wilber emphasizes that these are each different ways of engaging with the same reality, using the natural human modes of first-, second-, and third- person relationship. The consequence for my project of theology, then, is that Deus should exist and manifest in all things, as Wilber says, and be equally available for engagement in each of these modes.[2]

I had an experience a little while after Reverend Tutu which speaks to this. I’d started meditating, and feeling weird energy flows with shapes and colors and stuff. I found myself deep in meditation, feeling connected to everything, surrounded by bright white light. I am God, I realized, terrified. I didn’t want to be God. I pulled away from the experience, and found myself standing outside a pillar of light pouring down from heaven in front of me, reaching above and below to infinity. I felt lonely out there, too far removed from this powerful truth, and curious about it. I approached it again carefully until I was just at the edge of the pillar, pressing my face up against the light. Here, I thought, I’m at home.

I don’t think that the second-person relationship I cultivate is truer or righter than any other path, but I’m comfortable there. I continue to have first- and third-person experiences sometimes, but it’s the I-Thou relationship that feels like home. Chassidic Jewish masters talk about pressing your face up against the light as d’veikut, cleaving to God. That’s the relationship I want with Deus, but I love that it’s my choice. Some stand inside the pillar, some stand outside. Ma, I suspect, stands inside the pillar with her face pressed against the darkness. Where do you belong?

Now, it doesn’t seem like an accident that I grew up in a Jewish house and I happen to want a second-person relationship in a Jewish framework. The face of Hashem that any given person encounters is clearly influenced by their own psychology and cultural context. Shared traditional accounts of God clearly carry some extra weight from the time and place where they originated, even after we strip off the obvious dogmas and prejudices. I suspect there’s no way to encounter God purely, without the intermediaries of tradition and personality: Ten out of ten mystics agree, the mask makes the conversation possible. These influences don't invalidate Hashem, but a relationship with Hashem needs to account for them. So ultimately, a satisfying theory of Deus will attribute to Deus some of the desired characteristics of God and explain how other characteristics arose as the product of social and psychological forces.

[1] C. S. Lewis settled that one, as far as I’m concerned. He says that “A rock that God can’t lift” is as nonsensical an object as a square circle or a three-legged dog with four legs. God could change what the words mean, but God couldn’t create something that matches a nonsense description. And this doesn’t limit God’s omnipotence - it’s the descriptions’ fault, not God’s.
[2] There’s also work to be done characterizing what faiths and spiritual paths are not valid. Some spiritual paths are redeemable with the right theology (You’re welcome, World), but I don’t think that all are. I’m not sure if I have anything to say at the moment about how to tell which are which.

“Explain how Deus manifests as Hashem.”
Having acknowledged those influences, how can a God-belief can still possibly be accurate?

I don’t believe that God created my ideas about God (directly and as such). I believe that they arose through same natural processes as my ideas about anything else.  Arguably, those natural processes come down to exactly the same social and psychological forces that might explain away the whole experience. In other words, there are so many excellent atheist theories of how Hashem could exist without a Godlike Deus that a theology needs to counter with a story of how the reality of God is still, somehow, responsible for faith.[1]

I don’t have much of an answer for that yet. Explaining how Deus manifests as Hashem seems like most of the work of a theology. But by working backwards, I think I can say a little bit. The natural human forces that shape Hashem must be a part of Deus, but I can hope they are not the whole of it.

If I believe God is powerful but doesn’t act through miracles, then the flow of the universe according to its law needs to be, somehow, the action of God. If there’s a purpose to the universe, the same psychological and social forces which distort Hashem have to make him available to me in the first place. I maintain hope that there is some pattern in the grand motions of everything which points to the Godliness of Deus. If so, the natural human processes which produced the Touch of God would be a part of that pattern.

There’s a little bit of evidence for this. As much as God has been used as a reason for evil, the experience of God can often lead people to goodness. I see that a relationship with Hashem (in the first-, second-, or third-person) helps people live better and more richly. If there is a purpose to the universe, I think the relationships that people have with Hashem must support it. Even if those relationships are a natural part of the human experience, I think they might still be encounters with a Godly Deus.

My father calls this the theotropic urge. Just as flowers are heliotropic and grow towards the sun, human beings are theotropic and grow towards God. I flip the order around, though, and say that real human growth must support the real purpose of life and the universe. Even if our growth is aimed by the physical world, whatever direction we grow in points to God.

That might all be totally circular reasoning, though. I’m not sure.[2]

[1] Someone might naively propose the alternative, that my belief in God arose independently of its accuracy, but that’s very hard to believe in. That would make it simply an amazing coincidence that God exists AND I believe in him. I don’t see how that’s a rational belief. “There are invisible elves all around us that we can’t interact with in any way. We have no effect on them and they have no effect on us, but I’m certain they exist and I hate them.”
[2] Somewhere in this section, I’m not sure where, I think the following needs to be said:
My current belief in God is the direct descendant of ancient mud-dwellers’ chants about the big chief in the sky-hut. I can’t deny it, and I don’t want to try to take their opinions literally. But if I’m going to believe in a Hashem so clearly influenced by those cretins, any theory of Deus needs to explain how Deus was accessible to them as well as to me. Pointing at grand patterns in the universe is all well and good, but it falls apart if you can only see the pattern through the Hubblescope.

One other thing

It’s often said that you can’t know God. A relationship with God must be predicated on faith. If God could be delineated and characterized, or belief in God fit with the laws of science, then there wouldn’t be any need for faith and awe. God isn’t subject to the same kind of truth and rationality as the mundane world. Some people take that to mean the kind of theology I’m hoping for is impossible, but I totally disagree.

Consider your best friend or your lover. It’s a truism that we can know people, but we can never know them fully. If I ask you to identify this person, you can do that for me. You can characterize him or her, maybe even well enough for me to identify him or her on my own. You know this person. But that doesn’t mean you’ll ever stop learning more about them. If you really stop to contemplate, you might even be drawn to awe and wonder at the infinite unknowability of this favorite person of yours. You know exactly who they are, you just don’t know who they are. Who they arrrrre, Matey. That’s what I’m reaching for with God.

A Godly Deus, however we might define him, has to remain totally mysterious. Deus should  be fabulously unknowable, eternally unknowable. Certain particular aspects of God should be knowable in principle, but never yet, so that there’s ample room for faith. Someday I want to be able to tell you what God is, while always having room to get to know God infinitely better. Not only that, I want the definition of God to invite that process of getting to know God better, to motivate that kind of unending quest because each step is just so gosh-darn satisfying. Anything less, I think, and it wouldn’t be God.

So I’m trying to point at something real and label it “God.” In order to earn that label, I see three kinds of conditions something has to meet – conditions to qualify as God, conditions to qualify as real, and conditions my knowing that it is God – and I’ve listed a few of each. I want to emphasize again that these are my conditions, and other people might not agree with them as being necessary features of theology, but I think they capture the essentials necessary for a contemporary faith. I’m very, very curious where other people differ.

I could say that I’m trying to use my spiritual experiences with the language and traditions of “God”-worship to enchant the humanist and physicalist world I believe in, but I‘m afraid that statement may not convey the reality I’m trying to attribute to God. I believe that God really is a real aspect/element/part of the universe available to humanism and physicalism. In its na├»ve form, I recognize my belief as unsubstantiated by the evidence, but I can’t shake it. 

When I try to believe that God doesn’t exist, the thought of a Godless universe fills me with such wonder and awe that I love God (or do something which I feel compelled to label “loving God”) that much more. So I’m instead trying to marry my belief in God to the world I find plausible. I’m trying to pull my recurring sense that God loves me out of the heights of heights and into my daily experience, in a way that’s authentic to the whole of my experience.  I want to live with God but here, where I already live.

1 comment:

  1. I love your conclusion, Yotam.

    On good days, I am proud to be a little conscious speck floating in the expansive ocean of existence, which extends far beyond my particular experience of life, the world and the universe. Just being so small in the vastness somehow gives me comfort. Gives me permission, somehow, to surrender some of my suffering to the cosmos and receive love and support from some kind of power that lives inside of me and all around me--whether it is "real" is totally a mystery to me, but it helps nonetheless.

    Perhaps my interaction with something that might approach the concept of "god" is just to be happy here, in my little unnoticed corner of the universe, just another of god's happy little mass of molecules. I like to think that I have been entrusted, in this short life that I have, with witnessing myself, life, love, brutality, darkness, my own coming demise, and that my godlike nature is in the witnessing. "I too was here, lived, loved and died." Perhaps no one notices except for a few hundred or so who have lived, loved and died with me. I experience some kind of god in this witnessing, this chance encountering of wonder over and over again in my daily life.