I believe…. therefore I wonder…

God: The Two Questions
by Rabbi Neil Gillman

The two perennial questions regarding our human awareness of God are “How?” and “Who?” The “How?” question asks “How can we know anything about God?” The “Who?” question asks “Who is this God about whom we are inquiring?” Each question assumes at least some tentative answer to the other. To ask how we know anything about God assumes some minimal agreement as to the nature of this God. Similarly, to inquire about the character of this God assumes something about how we can know anything about God’s nature. Both inquiries should be conducted simultaneously, however impossible the task.

To begin with the How question, in my first book, Sacred Fragments, I suggested that there were three classical pathways to an awareness of God: rationalism, empiricism, and existentialism. I am now inclined to conflate the latter two, recalling that some existentialist thinkers have suggested “radical empiricism” as an alternative name for their approach. These two approaches are not totally mutually exclusive, but the distinction remains helpful at least for pedagogic reasons. Rationalists assume that God can be reached primarily by the use of reason, by thinking, by argumentation. Empiricists contend that God can be reached by looking and/or listening, or, to use a more general term, by perceiving.

I clearly am not a rationalist, but I also have learned that human perception is an enormously complicated affair. We know that we don’t see with our eyes – we see with our brains. In fact, 60 different parts of the brain are involved in the simplest act of seeing anything. Part of the process is biological – the complex exchanges among the billions of neurons in our brains – but we also bring everything that we are into our seeing – background, culture, gender, education, age, and the rest. Seeing is an aggressively interpretive activity. We are not passive recipients of a premade reality “out there.” Rather, we construct the reality that we see. And if this is the case in seeing an apple, how much more is it the case when we claim to perceive God.

Seeing is not believing. We see what we believe we are going to see, or are prepared to see, or wish to see. Besides, we Jews do not claim that God is perceivable as an apple is perceivable; even in the Bible itself, instances of human beings perceiving God are very rare. Moses, we recall, was told, at least once, that he could not see God’s face, that no human being could see God’s face and live. More likely, seeing God is like seeing a pattern. I have used the analogy of connecting the dots in our childhood drawing games, except that now there are far more dots to connect and many numbers assigned to each of them.

This is why I conflate empiricism and existentialism. The first claims that we can invoke experiences, data of some kind – nature, history, the human experience in its totality – to support our perception of God. The second insists that there is no data; there are no perceptions. Awareness of God is a “leap” beyond the data; it is a decision, a choice, a judgment call, totally interpretive and subjective. But with our newfound understanding of human perception, that subjective quality seems to be omnipresent in all of our experiences. Even perceiving an apple is apparently somewhat subjective; perceiving a pattern is all the more so. If there is a range of subjectivity in human perception – for example, from seeing an apple, to seeing a subatomic particle, to seeing Freud’s ego in a human being – I am inclined to locate seeing God on the more extreme point. Awareness of God is very much a subjective call, a choice, a basic orientation to the world.

One final word on the How question. All knowledge is essentially the work of the brain – that organ that science is just beginning to understand. How chemical reactions in our brains produce an idea of God is infinitely mysterious. I can envision an emerging discipline, neurotheology, which will inquire into the neural basis for our theological inquiries, parallel to such other disciplines as neuroethics, neuroaesthetics, and the rest.

Now to the Who question. We all carry with us some image of God, from the bearded old man in a white robe sitting among the clouds to Mordecai Kaplan’s “power that makes for salvation.” The Bible itself presents a veritable kaleidoscope of such images that morph from chapter to chapter. And beyond the Bible, rabbinic aggadot, the visions of the mystics, Maimonides’ “knowledge knowing knowledge,” the God that inhabits the poetry of Yehuda Amichai simply extend the range. I call these images “word pictures” because though our ancestors did not produce graven images of God, they did create a rich variety of pictures using words rather than paint or metals. Maimonides referred to all of these images of God as metaphors that convey the same truth: Our ways of talking or thinking of God cannot be literally true. No human being can know what or who God is in God’s essence. God in God’s essence is not “really” the way we envisage God.

Whence these images? When I could no longer believe that Torah was the result of a verbal revelation from a supernatural God, the only other alternative was to view it as the creation of a human community, whatever role God played in that process. (This raises the issue of a theology of revelation, which would take us far afield.) Clearly, then, the images of God in Torah were created over generations by human beings, by men and women much like you and me.

Where did they get these images? From knowing themselves.

This may explain an additional dimension of these word pictures. The God of the Bible is strikingly human – in the biblical anthropomorphisms, in the vividness of God’s emotional life, in God’s propensity for entering into intense interpersonal relationships, in the complex motivations that God invokes in dealing with humanity. This God is a thoroughly personal God. Hence my conclusion: Theology recapitulates anthropology. We can trace a one-to-one nexus between our ancestors’ evolving selfawareness and their changing images of God.

This God is also exceedingly vulnerable. None of the conventional characterizations of God seems more questionable than the claim that God is omnipotent. If the Bible testifies to anything about God’s dealings with humanity, it is the testimony of failure. God never gets what God wants – from Adam and Eve in the creation story to the destruction of the Temple, the ultimate punishment of Israel’s rebellion against God’s wishes, and the ultimate testimony to God’s failure as the midrashim on God’s reaction to the destruction of the Temple confirm.

Where is God? Hopefully not everywhere, however we may wish to use that response to our children’s inquiries. Obviously not in space, as God is not in time. Both space and time are human conventions, not applicable to any reality beyond nature and the human. My own preference is to reverse that chasidic answer to the Where question. Rather than claiming that God is “wherever we let God in,” I prefer, “wherever we put God in.” Our ancestors put God into nature and into history – first in the biblical era, and then throughout the rest of their historical experience. That “putting in” reflected their consensual reading of nature and history, viewed as one giant, unified panorama, all under God’s supervision.

Our own Conservative rabbinic authorities followed the same pattern when they composed an Al HaNissim (On the Miracles) liturgy for Israeli Independence Day. Of course there is no objective evidence that God was miraculously responsible for the victory of the Israeli Defense Forces, just as there is no objective evidence that God was responsible for the victory of the Maccabees, a post-biblical event. But in antiquity, our ancestors put God into that victory, and our own authorities did the same in our day. That call was thoroughly subjective; the Orthodox world does not recite that liturgy.

Phoning God?
Finally, my colleague Professor Steven Brown suggests that in place of the Where question, we should ask the When question – “When is God?” – and locate those moments in our lives when we sensed God’s presence most acutely. Abraham Joshua Heschel would have applauded this suggestion. In his most beloved and influential book, The Sabbath, Heschel suggests that Judaism is a religion of time and that Jewish ritual is “architecture of time.” That striking metaphor captures the fact that we live our lives subject to the iron rule of time, and that we must learn to treasure those sacred moments when we touch transcendence.

I am hardly unaware that this approach to the God question may trouble many believers. It eschews objectivity, triumphalism, and certitude in favor of tension, ambiguity, and a degree of agnosticism. It encourages pluralism, admits the legitimacy of atheism for those who see the world differently than believers, and cautions that the cardinal theological sin is security. For this believer, at least, it represents a path that is both intellectually honest and even to a degree emotionally gratifying. But that judgment represents my own subjectivity asserting itself.


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