Friday, May 20, 2011

This I Would Like To Believe


I’ve spent the last seven years trying to convince myself that there’s a God. I think I'm getting closer.

Sometime in high school I had reached the conclusion that God might or might not exist, but there was no way of knowing and no reason to care. The argument went something like this: I knew that God, in order to be God, had to be omnipotent and omniscient. But there’s no way to prove omnipotence, so you could never be sure that God is God. Sure, some deity-claimant could come along and do miracles and stuff, but it will always take an inductive leap to conclude that it was all-powerful instead of just very powerful. (You can recognize that high school freshman logic at work, no?) (For reasons now lost to history, my favorite example was this: How would you ever know if "God" could do everything except create a green horse?) And if there were some pseudo-God who was megapotent and megascient, but couldn’t quite make it to omni-, there was always the possibility of real God being way up there somewhere, in charge of this not-quite-God, and who wants to deal with the middleman? And if God or the local pseudo-God had created one of the world’s religions, He’d given us no way of knowing which one it was, so he couldn’t really have expected me to sign up for it. Ergo, QED, game over, religion is useless. I saw a certain kind of vague pleasantness in religion, especially the way my father taught it, but none for me personally.

In April of 2004 I began my theistic endeavor with my third ever spiritual experience, courtesy of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. (The first two spiritual experiences were lovely, thank you, but didn’t really affect what I believed). He and my father were speaking together at a conference in Vancouver, and the family’s complimentary conference tickets got us in to some other event where Reverend Tutu was speaking. 

He talked about people shouting at each other over God, shouting at each other about what God wants them to do. “But God isn’t shouting,” he said. “God isn’t telling you you’re bad, or you’re sinful. God is whispering in your ear, ‘I love you, just as you are,’ every single moment.”

At school I’d been reading Emile Durkheim, a sociologist whose theory of religion said that God is Society: God/Society created man (as a thinking creature). God/Society instructs us in morality. And the experience often imagined as communion with God is really the effervescent rush of folks coming together in common action. Religion simply harnesses the same phenomenon experienced at concerts, riots, and football games. “Something” comes over you, and that something is labeled God.

Tutu's speech was such an effervescent moment. Durkheim and Tutu met and exploded together in my brain, and I suddenly felt God loving me, even though I didn’t think there was a God. I realized or decided or discovered that faith is wonderful and powerful even if it isn’t accurate. I started saying I believed in belief, or that God is so powerful, He didn’t even have to exist to make me believe in Him. (See that college freshman wit?)

Since that time, I’ve been chasing God on two fronts. One is the direct pursuit of a relationship: Spiritual experiences became more and more common as I contemplated faith, and I work hard on cultivating a relationship with the God of my experience. The other is my effort to understand what I‘m in a relationship with. I’ve continued to struggle between labeling that experienced God “God,” being something real which I experience, and labeling it “my experience of God,” being something I project onto natural human experiences. My difficulty in talking about God has been a constant hindrance in my talking to God, and I’ve spent these seven years, on and off, trying to reconcile the two conversations.

I find it helpful to think about the Touch of God and the Hand of God. I feel the Touch of God in my life. It pushes me forward and lifts me up. It guides me in the dark. It is warm shelter or a cool, comforting presence or a weight on my shoulders. But I don’t see the toucher that’s touching me, and I don’t see the Hand of God acting in the world, making miracles and carving tablets. The Touch of God is an experienced presence in my life and many other lives, and I call it Hashem (Hebrew for "The Name," a traditional euphemism for God). The Hand would be God’s perceptible active presence in the world, and I’ll label that Deus. I’m not satisfied with Durkheim’s particulars any longer, but I like that basic model. In Durkheim’s theory, Hashem is religious effervescence, and Deus is society itself. Hashem is real, at least like a mirage is a real mirage. But what causes Hashem? What, if anything, is Deus?

The encounter with Messrs Tutu and Durkheim set the model for all my highest spiritual moments since. I only have one epiphany, the same one again and again: God loves me. You might recognize this discovery from where I wrote about it before, here, here, here, and here, for instance. Every time, I’m overwhelmed by it. It’s so immediate, and so powerful. It’s exactly what I’ve always wanted, and I feel it in my deepest self. I tend to cry and smile big and talk softly for a few hours. But a couple days later, maybe a week, I don’t know it anymore. Maybe something lingers. Maybe some old wound is healed or new growth is planted. But that obvious, total awareness God Loves Me is driven out by I don’t know what that means. I believe that Hashem loves me, but it just seems illusory without a theory of Deus. I don’t know how to believe in a God that loves. Trying leaves me dissatisfied.

Now, I could imagine investigating that dissatisfaction on its own terms, taking for granted that I will never have a theory of Deus and trying to root out my futile desire to understand, but I don't want to. I could work on just feeling Hashem’s love despite my skepticism, just getting deeper and deeper into that romance as its own compelling experience. “God is mysterious and unfathomable. Questions are great for arousing awe, but not so great for answering. Have faith and stop trying,” is a common and spiritually powerful position (available in both God-realist and God-irrealist flavors), but I’m just not ready to embrace it yet.

And heck. I don’t even always believe Hashem loves me. That’s why I keep having my one epiphany. The notion of God that I’ve received is so demanding and judgmental, it’s very easy to fall back into thinking I’ve disappointed my maker. It’s easy to wonder if I’d be better off going black-hat orthodox, submitting myself totally to the tradition, and I can almost believe I should. It’s easy to imagine, also, that God is nonsense I’d be better off without, and Hashem is nothing more than a projection onto the void. Maybe it was a helpful projection once, but aren’t we over that now? It’s difficult to face these temptations directly, but when I really open myself to each possibility, it tends in the end to affirm my faith that Deus must be real, but not dogmatic. My hope is that pursuing the truth of Deus could keep me on that middle path more steadily.

In the end, I think there is truth to be had about Deus - limited, human, non-Ultimate truth - that could support a deeper, truer romance with Hashem. Truth that could be a vessel for God’s love in my life and could help me be of service to others. I ask Hashem, sometimes, if it’s wasteful or blasphemous for me to be searching for truth about Deus. He tells me to keep my heart open and keep looking. The truth is out there and the quest is valid.*

Living in Jerusalem and studying Judaism has really pushed the issue for me, and given me a lot of opportunity to work on it. I’ve been reading and thinking and talking and listening, and it feels like I’ve gotten a lot closer to some answers I can rely on. I’m putting a story together I can tell my inner skeptic, a story about what it is, out there, that I’m praying to and why it makes sense for me to pray to it. I'm also still struggling hard, and trying to figure it all out gets in the way just as often as it moves me forward. I've gotten to hear this year about some other people's struggles with God, or the idea of God, and learn how different those struggles can be. It encourages me to dive back into mine with patience and persistence.



I’ve been reading Mordecai Kaplan’s Judaism as a Civilization, and I’m quite taken with his portrayal of religion and naturalism. 
…[I]t is possible to have religion without subscribing to the supernatural character of its origin. To steer clear both of rigid traditionalism and irreligion, the [seeker] will have to realize that religion is rooted in human nature, and that the belief in the existence of God, and the attributes ascribed to him, must be derived from and made to refer to the experience of the average man and woman.
The reorientation which is essential to the survival of… religion cannot be effected merely by trying to harmonize the traditional teachings of religion with the results achieved by modern science. It calls for nothing less than an approach to the religious interpretation of life with the same unbiased empirical attitude as that which constitutes the spirit of science, that spirit which regards truth not as something absolute and final, but as an active process of the mind whereby error is gradually eliminated. A conflict between science and religion is possible only when we assume that our knowledge of God originates not from our understanding of the universe and of human life, but from some supernatural revelation which is entirely extraneous to the natural powers of the human mind….
The approach to reality characteristic of modern though has rendered the dichotomy of natural and supernatural irrelevant. The tendency nowadays is to enlarge the concept of the natural so that it might include that plus aspect of reality which the traditional outlook did indeed sense but not altogether apprehend. From various quarters there have been launched onslaughts against the oversimplified view of nature as synonymous with the working of blind mechanical forces. All advanced thinking nowadays tends to recognize that the mechanistic interpretation of existence is only a half-truth. The fact that the minutest fraction of reality is determined by the whole of reality, and that each living organism determines as a totality the behavior of every part of itself, introduces the entire cluster of meanings and values which constitute the spiritual aspect of life. …“What a deep faith in the rationality of the structure of the world,” writes Albert Einstein, “and what a longing to understand even a small glimpse of the reason revealed to the world there must have been in Kepler and Newton to enable them to unravel the mechanism of the heavens in long years of lonely work.”

That’s the kind of theory of Deus I’m looking for. I have a deep faith in the rationality of the structure of our transcendent experiences.

On my recent meditation retreat, I found myself chasing my tail through these questions yet again. With the kind of remove available in meditation, I asked myself, "What need is this process satisfying? What would it take for me to stop?" Now, that's a really good question from a meditative point of view - what am I seeking or avoiding by leaving the raw present moment in order to philosophize? - but it's a good theological meta-question, too. I'd never thought of it like that before. So I continued to avoid the raw present, but instead of asking “What is God?” I started philosophizing about how I would know if I ever found the answer. What are the criteria for appraising a theology? What would an intellectual vessel for God's love look like? I want to believe with my rational mind that God exists, and God loves me, and God has a purpose for me. I want to embody that belief with my whole life. What would it take for that rational mind to be convinced?

I've got some early answers to that question, and I'll be back here in a week to share them. In the mean time I want to put it to you. Whatever quest you happen to be on, with God or religion or spirituality or whatever, what would it take for you to stop searching? 




* I want to clarify that I don’t think God talks to me as such. When I hear Hashem as a voice, for instance, it’s quite clear to me that I’m providing the words. (It often feels more like a guess-and-check system, even, where God and I are playing charades, and I ask him “do you mean this?” or “do you mean that?” and eventually interpret a hunch as a statement.) I’ll talk more about how I think Deus manifests as Hashem, but for the time being it’s enough to say I trust that Hashem’s will – What I experience to be the will of God as I encounter him – represents at least the best of my own wisdom and intentions. That is to say, in this case, I trust that pursuing theology is to some degree healthy and helpful, and not only a distraction from immediate experience.

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