God – a work in progress

Rabbi Justin Goldstein
January 3, 2013
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“What is your personal relationship to, and perspective of, God?”  That’s how I remember the question being worded.  I remember staring at the words.  I hate writing response to vague questions.  How does one concisely, accurately and with integrity explain their “personal relationship to, and perspective of, God?”  I suppose it’s a reasonable question to ask an individual who is applying to rabbinical school… I suppose it’s a reasonable thing to presume that a rabbi could, in some way or another, explain their “personal relationship to, and perspective of, God.”  I have no recollection of what I wrote, I’m not particularly interested – I would be surprised if it was so relevant to me now.

I’ve never been completely comfortable speaking about God; it’s always felt somewhat forced.  Something I should say.  Something akin to my relationship with the Grateful Dead.  I kind of had to force myself to like them, but once I did I fell madly in love.  It took me a number of years to come to terms with the fact that as talented as any of the individuals who made up the Grateful Dead may are or had been, as a band they weren’t the greatest.  But ultimately, it’s not only about the music.  Love flows on many levels.

Where this analogy falls apart, with me, is that I while my love for the Grateful Dead has proven constant the same cannot be said for my relationship with God.  Truth be told, I am not so sure I ever really have believed in God.  At least not what most people mean.  And I know I am not alone, not by a long shot.

I’ve heard the phrase used by a number of people, mainly rabbis, “I don’t believe in the God you don’t believe in,” as a response to the frequently heard statement, “rabbi, I don’t believe in God.”  And as has been gaining much media attention in the last year, most recently in the New York Times, that 20% of Americans profess no religious affiliation.  Referred to in the media as “nones,” this group makes up the fastest growing “religious affiliation” in the country.  What is fascinating about this, and apparently difficult for demographers to accurately portray, is that a substantial number of this 20% still believe.  People are simply growing less comfortable saying, “I am a Lutheran,” or “I am a Reform Jew,” or take your pick.  This is also  different than the oft derided classification of “spiritual but not religious.”  Some of this group of “nones” are still members of synagogues and churches, sometimes more than one, and they might regularly attend communal worship in institutions of organized religions – they are also more comfortable attending these events at a variety of institutions.

There is a natural reaction, especially those concerned with “preserving” what is perceived as “authentic” tradition, to view this as threatening or indicative of a bleak future for religion in America, but I see this as something much more significant.

This trend of people disassociating from particularistic organized religion is not unique to America, it is worldwide.  In a totally sensationalist way, I think that we could be seeing the beginnings of a major shift in human perspective on what we have until this point, in one language or another, referred to as God.

As the Rambam so eloquently wrote in both the Mishneh Torah and the Moreh Nevukhim, God is not bound by the language we have at our disposal.  Whatever words we could possible come up with to describe God are simply metaphors.  The basic idea being, while God inherently transcends all restriction of language, as humans we are restricted to our language to discuss God.  Language, itself is an inherently fluid, living and evolving phenomenon.  Words come in and out of usage all the time, words are borrowed and lent between languages, words take on different meaning in speech and in writing let alone context.  Language is very much a perpetual work in progress.  So, if we are restricted to our language to discuss God, then God becomes a work in progress.  Metaphors rely on cultural context, and cultural context is, like language, constantly in flux.

Religion has, in fact, always been a process of borrowing and lending between cultures.  Much of what we think of as quintessentially Jewish, and things which are in fact fundamental to our religious customs and laws – like tzitzit, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Shabbat, circumcision, for example – were borrowed from other religious traditions.  And we, in turn, have lent our customs to other religions.  So much so that today, in the United States, there are more Christians who wear tallit (and with tekheilet!) regularly than Jews.  And it doesn’t mean the same exact thing to them as it means to us, just like tzitzit don’t mean the same thing to us as they meant to the Egyptian priests whom we borrowed the custom from.  Nor does any of it diminish to beauty, sanctity and meaning of any of these traditions.  Human beings have, for our entire existence, expressed their “relationship to, and perspective of, God.”  We have just constantly changed how we express it.

So what I see, potentially, come out of this phenomenon of the growing “nones” is what could blossom into the most significant spiritual renaissance since the Reformation.  That we could be in the first stages of what is the end of a many of the metaphors we have grown so used to and so increasingly uncomfortable with.

It’s not just that there are less kings in the world so it’s hard to relate to God as King; nor is it as simple as the “traditional family model” has changed and continues to changed so it’s more challenging to relate to God the Father.  This is not a matter of gender.

This also goes deeper than the juvenile debates between the “new atheists” and their detractors.  This is not about Evolution v. Creationism or climate change or wars in the Middle East.

The metaphors utilized by organized religion lacks meaning to a growing number of people.  With the world changing so rapidly, technology connecting people in much faster ways to an endless array of information, the answers people find to their deepest questions of the meaning of life and the nature of the universe are no longer being answered by the same responses.  The metaphor is changing faster than our language.  People are constantly coming up with new metaphors that speak truth to Truth, like String Theory or the Higgs boson – other metaphors to describe the indescribable.

The human collective is constantly reframing it’s “relationship to, and perspective of, God.”  The failure of religion is not in the message it delivers, but in how it frames its message.  Because while the questions behind the message appear to drive to the core of the human experience and are therefore timeless, the framing of the message needs to change in order to stay relevant.

God, in its outmoded metaphors, is becoming irrelevant.  When Neitzsche declared God “dead” at the end of the 19th century, Buber resurrected God for a sizable number of Jews in the mid-20th century.  What is interesting now is that it is not the concept of God which is dying, it is the conception of God which is changing.  As our cultures and languages evolve as works in progress, so too does God (or whatever word we’ll be using in the future).

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Rabbi Justin Goldstein Ordained in 2011 by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, CA, Justin serves as rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Asheville, NC. Rabbi Goldstein was selected as a 2012-2013 Fellow with Rabbis Without Borders. His writings can be found in various books, at the Jew and the Carrot - Hazon's blog at the Forward and at On1Foot.com . Find Justin at rabbijustingoldstein.com, on Twitter @RabbiJDG and at facebook.com/rabbiJDG

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