The God Challenge

Allen: Aron, let’s talk about God. It’s become a cliche that Judaism, unlike Christianity, doesn’t compel belief; in Heschel’s words, Judaism requires a “leap of action”, so our practice shouldn’t depend on any prior system of belief. That’s not quite historically accurate (see, for example, Mishneh Torah, Yesodei Ha-Torah), and, at least in my view, psychologically unsatisfying. The famous critic and novelist G.K. Chesterton once remarked: “The most practical and important thing about a man is his view of the universe. For a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know his income; but still more important to know his philosophy.” Unfortunately, most New York City landlords disagree. But Chesterton’s getting at a key point here: it’s hard to deny that how we view the world has at least some impact on how we lead our lives. That’s why it’s important to say loud and clear what we stand for, even as each day’s headlines pull the ground out from under us.

So, fellow lodger, I think it’s time you spelled out your own religious worldview in more depth. Specifically, you’ve thrown around the terms “God”, “sanctity”, and “holiness” over the past few posts, and I’ve called you out on it. Here’s your chance to get a word in edgewise. I’ll throw out a few questions to begin with; feel free to pick and choose those that grab you. Do you believe in God? If so, what kind of God do you believe in? What does God command of you and why? If you don’t believe in a God, what do you mean when you call something “holy”? Is holiness actually something that exists in the world? What does it look like?

Aron: I’ll begin by admitting that all I have is a tentative negative theology. I don’t know whether I believe in God. I know that I don’t believe in a God who acts concretely in history or in our lives. I haven’t heard a formulation of that belief that doesn’t lead to unconscionable conclusions (e.g. God intended the Rwandan Genocide).I don’t know if I can believe in a God who commands; that God seems too personal to be believable. If there is a God I can believe in, it is one who compels — a God that creates that feeling in your kishkes; a God that allows for an innate sense of right and wrong, courage and duty, love and longing.

There’s a limit to how much we can logically debate about God. We can, I think, make tentative negative statements about God based on our experience (e.g. If I believe a “good” God would not allow children to be abused and I know that children are abused, then I can reasonably argue that such a God doesn’t exist). We can also debate the inferences of particular assumptions (e.g. If we assume that God exists and compels us to act morally, what is the extent of our moral obligations?).

I think “holiness” is the word I use to describe the non-instrumentalism of life and life’s potential. The fact that life insists on being, even if just for the sake of being. Planets and deserts have no say over whether they continue to exist as they are; bacteria do. Bacteria are holy, planets and deserts are not. Holiness is also that quality concretized by God, if God exists: pure, non-instrumental being and potential being.

To sanctify a moment is to recognize the holiness of the beings within it. It is, perhaps, a joining of our holiness with other holinesses. If there is a God, maybe sanctity is also that act of reaching out to God; searching for God in the gathering dark. Sanctity is momentary. A particular place is sanctified at a particular time by our conscious recognition. That place only remains sanctified so long as we actively recognize the holiness that resides in its inhabitants.

It may be, too, that God is the ultimate sanctifier: the only being that can fully recognize our holiness. When we reach out to God, I think we are trying to see ourselves and each other the way God might.

Allen: Aron, for someone who claims not to have a concrete theology, you managed to pack quite a few genuine insights into a short response. Though there’s a lot of overlap between your views and mine, I’ll focus on the areas I think you could elaborate a bit further– but on the whole, kudos for a thoughtful religious outlook.

You say you might believe in a God who “compels rather than commands.” Don’t those two verbs really amount to the same thing? If I hold that some moral demands are non-negotiable, unescapable, present in every single decision I make, then there’s a sense in which I’m fundamentally commanded, even in the absence of Michelangelo’s white-haired, bearded Commander. Maybe a better word is “obligate”, which shares a Latin root with “ligament”– to bind. We are bound by our relationships; morality is never entirely up to us. As philosopher Christine Korsgaard wrote in response to John Mackie’s famous claim that “there are no objective values,”:

According to Mackie, it is fantastic to think that the world contains objective values, or intrinsically normative entities […] John Mackie must have been alone in his room with the Scientific World View when he wrote those words. For it is the most familiar fact of human life that the world contains entities that can tell us what to do and make us do it. They are people, and the other animals.

If we think about God in this sense, as the source of moral obligation, then it makes a lot more sense to say that God acts concretely in history and in our lives. I’ll give an example. An aristocratic, petty, dissolute Russian army veteran by the name of Leo Tolstoy realized in a moment of despair that he wasn’t a good man. Many years later, the aging Tolstoy, by this point a moral figure of international stature, preached his theory of nonviolent resistance in response to letters from an earnest young Indian lawyer, Mohandas Gandhi. And when Gandhi himself had long since passed away, his disciple James Lawson traveled across the ocean to make contact with the leaders of an emerging bus boycott in Montgomery. That’s about as concrete as history gets.

Here’s another question for you: aren’t we both playing fast and loose with our terms here? As much as I like your definition of holiness (you may want to check out Lenn Goodman‘s work), would any serious Jew up until the last century recognize it? Is “non-instrumentalism” really what Seder Kodashim is about?  I realize the same could be said about my own religious language.

Aron: Would they use the term “non-instrumentalism”? No. But I think they’d agree that “holiness” describes an irreducible quality of our being.

You’re right about compel and command being reduced to obligate. I’m willing to believe in a God whose existence obligates us to uphold certain moral standards. This gets us into some tricky territory, though: if God is the source of moral obligation, then what obligates an atheist? An atheist (at least one who believed in moral obligations) might offer some other “source” of moral obligations, and we’d really be arguing about whether to use the word “God” to describe that source.

I suppose the difference between the average theist and atheist is that the theist believes that there is a single source for all the intangible phenomena in our lives — morals, love, life — and that that source is neither a process (like evolution or history) nor purely internal (like consciousness or hormones).

As for your description of God “acting” in history, I wonder whether it invites a belief in dualism: if God is the source of moral obligations, is there also a source of immoral impulses? Does that source also operate through us in history? Does that mean God, the source of moral obligations, is locked in an unending struggle with the source of immoral impulses? (My description also invites a dualism: if God is the source of morals, love, and life, then why not believe that there is a unified, external source of immorality, hatred, and death?)

There are a few typical responses. One is the argument that those things — hatred, evil — stem from us, not God. The issue with this is that if we define God as the source of life, then hatred and evil would still ultimately be derived from God.

Another argument is that those things are an absence of God, and not distinct phenomena in and of themselves, just as the way that darkness is just a lack of light. The (potential) issue with this is that it suggests a God that isn’t omnipresent. How do we know where such a God can be found, and where such a God is absent?

Maybe we don’t feel God at a particular place or time because God is there but rather, God exists wherever we feel those qualities derived from God: love, awe, obligation. A few weeks ago, you accused me of quoting the Rebbe of Kotzk without subscribing to his premises. I think, though, that his words are apt: “God resides wherever people let God in.”


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