Does God have a future?

If you have ever been to Millennium Park and have been thrilled, as I have, by its many spectacular attractions, including the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, the Lurie Garden, the Crown Fountain, the Joan and Irving Harris Theatre, and the Cloud Gate sculpture. Cloud Gate is an incredible, exciting work of art that seems to have something for everyone! It reflects our amazing Chicago skyline and it also reflects every single person who comes there to view it. Every visitor, for those few minutes that they are near Cloud Gate, gets to be a part of the sculpture.

Although the artist may not approve, most people affectionately refer to this sculpture simply as “The Bean.” However, if I had been asked, I would have entitled it “God’s Mirror” because it reminds me of a great rabbinic legend. There is a midrash, that goes as follows: The six hundred thousand Jews standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai heard only One Voice declaring, “I am the Eternal your God.” Remarkably, though the Voice addressed the entire people, each individual heard that Voice as if it were addressed individually to him or to her. How could that possibly be, the rabbis wondered? Rabbi Levi explained: “God appeared to them like a mirror in which many faces can be reflected. A thousand may look at it and it reflects each of them. Thus the text does not say: ‘Ani Adonai Elohaychem,’ ‘I am the Eternal your God,” with the plural form of the word ‘your.’ Rather, when it says ‘Ani Adonai Elohecha, ‘your God,’ the text intentionally uses the singular form.”

And Rabbi Yosé ben Chanina elaborated: “God spoke to each person according to that specific person’s needs and abilities. The Voice was One Voice, but it was perceived in thousands of different ways.” [To paraphrase]

The mirror is one, but the reflections are virtually endless. God is one; the human perceptions and interpretations of God are many.

This Midrash exhibits an incredibly candid insight into the nature of virtually all religious inquiry and practice. Despite the claims of the various religions, there can be no such thing as actual knowledge of God; there are only reflections in the mirror and, as with Cloud Gate, what a group perceives is mostly a consequence of where they stand. These perceptions of God, articulated all too often with a sense of such absolute certainty, even arrogance, are the reflection of each group’s experiences and its own chauvinism, including us. What a religion professes to know about God is, more than anything else, a reflection of its own needs and ethos.

In some respects, all theology is bunk; “theology” literally meaning “the study of God.” There can be no actual study of God, and anyone who claims to know otherwise should be treated with deep suspicion. And if you might think that these are the outrageous iconoclastic statements of a far-too-liberal Reform rabbi, I suggest that you read what Maimonides had to say on this subject 800 years ago. Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Maimonides, the greatest rabbinic scholar and most influential Jewish philosopher of all time, of 12th century Spain, stated this: that people can know nothing of God, that God is incomprehensible and inaccessible to human reason or perception.

So, in all candor, all we have are ideas about God, and that is what theology is…ideas and opinions about God, but no actual knowledge.

Some years ago, a former nun turned author and professor, Karen Armstrong, wrote a book entitled: “A History of God.” In her book, she shows how each of the great religions has held different concepts of God at various times through the centuries. She traces how these concepts of God developed over the ages, how these ideas were shaped by each generation, and influenced by the experiences of each religious community. Her book does not claim to be a history of the unknowable reality of God, but rather a history of the way the three monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, each have perceived God from the beginning of each religion to the present day. The idea of God has a definite history. A belief about God formed in one generation could be meaningless in another, and that is exactly what has happened many, many times. Consequently, there is no one unchanging idea contained in the word “God.” Instead the word God contains a whole constellation of meanings some of which are contradictory, and some of which are hopelessly obsolete.

This is actually a strength, and not a weakness. As Karen Armstrong observes, if the notion of God did not have this flexibility, belief in God would not have survived to be one of the greatest of all human ideas. When one concept has ceased to have meaning or relevance, a new one has quietly replaced it. Each generation has created an image of God that works for it. Ironically, the same happens to be true of atheism. The statement “I do not believe in God” has meant something different at each period of history. In fact, when someone tells me, as they often do, that they don’t believe in God, I always ask them to describe the God that they don’t believe in, and many times I will tell them that I don’t believe in that God either.

The last chapter of Karen Armstrong’s book is entitled “Does God have a future?” by which she did not mean: “Is God still going to be around?” but rather “Can our generation arrive at a new perception of God that will satisfy the needs and aspirations of our times?”

Many of the old ideas about God simply don’t work for us. I happen to believe that we would be best served by confronting this dilemma, rather than pretending there is no problem. We may read of God having established a covenant with Abraham, and having selected the Jewish people for the tasks outlined in the Torah, but to many people, including most Reform Jews, the concept of a Chosen People, that God would actually select one certain people smacks of unreality and also of chauvinism. Actually, the chosen people concept is somewhat uncomfortable, and almost impossible to explain satisfactorily to non-Jews.

Nearly 4000 years ago, in seeking to establish our people’s own unique identity, the people of Abraham and Sarah’s generation devised the idea of the Covenant. Several times in the Torah, God is described as establishing that Covenant with the Jewish people. God is depicted as speaking directly with Abraham, then later with Moses and the other Hebrew prophets. It is much more likely that it happened the other way around. It was our people who invented…yes, invented… this Covenant with God. Thus arose this unfortunate moniker of the Chosen People, when it fact we have been only a choosing people, having chosen to follow the Torah’s discipline.

For many, if not most Jews today, most of the traditional Jewish ideas of God became impossible to continue believing since the Holocaust. In the definitive book on this subject entitled “After Auschwitz” written in the 1960’s, Rabbi Richard Rubenstein described the traumatization of Jewish belief. The writer Elie Wiesel describes, from personal experience, his disillusionment with belief in an all-wise, all-powerful God. Wiesel spent the first part of his childhood immersed in the world of the Talmud, certain of God’s power and beneficence. But then, he was deported to Auschwitz and later to Buchenwald. During his first night in the death camp, watching the black smoke coiling to the sky from the crematorium where the bodies of his mother and sister were to be thrown, he knew that the flames had consumed his faith forever. Years later, he wrote: “Never shall I forget these moments which murdered my God and my soul, and turned my dreams to dust.”

Many Jewish people can no longer subscribe to the Biblical idea of a God who manifests Himself in history. For many Jews, the idea and the ideal of God died at Auschwitz, and now, more than a half-century later, we are still struggling to redefine what God means to our generation.

So, does God have a future? This is not an irreverent or facetious question at all. For 4000 years, the idea of God continuously has been adapted to meet the demands of the present, but in our own century, more and more people -not just the Jews- have found that it no longer works for them. And, as Karen Armstrong observes, when religious ideas cease to be effective, they fade away. Perhaps God, as an all-wise, all-knowing, all-powerful Divine Parent really is an idea of the past.

There is considerable evidence to support this view. Atheism is no longer regarded as the painfully acquired ideology of a few daring intellectuals, but rather almost a prevailing mood. Notwithstanding the multitude of TV evangelists and mega-churches, it is apparent that we are living in secular times, where God plays a minor role, at best. Far from finding the prospect of life without God to be distressing, there are many who actually may find it liberating.

The truth be told, I know that there are many people who, when they do attend religious services may be reading along with the rabbi in the prayer book, and yet who hardly believe a word of it. I often observe from the bima that there are many who would rather sit in mute silence rather than mouth prayers you don’t believe in. Going to the synagogue on the High Holy Days is what Jewish people do, but it’s just as well that no one will ask how many really believe what these prayers convey.

Most of the people I encounter, Jews and non-Jews alike, make very little effort to confront what they actually believe about God. As I observe it, in matters of religion, most people do not ask many questions or really seek answers. They assume a neutrality, of neither cynic nor believer, neither denier nor affirmer of their faith. They pay their dues, attend an occasional worship service, and answer “yes” when pollsters ask them whether they believe in God. Parents register their children for Religious School. They send their children to know about the Jewish religion, but not to believe; to know about how to perform the rituals, but not actually to observe; to know how to pray, but not actually to pray.

The distinction must be made: To know about one’s religion is not the same as believing in that religion.

Publicly, most people are respectful of religion, as the Holy Days attest. Yet the majority of affiliated and non-affiliated alike do not speak much either to God or about God. This reticence is testimony to the prevailing coolness towards religious faith and practice. Not that long ago, the National Jewish Outreach Institute announced the results of its poll, which provided the statistic that 70% of worshippers say they are bored by High Holy Days services. Many are bored with services, bored with prayer, bored with sermons. And such boredom cannot really be relieved by more zippy music or shorter sermons or liturgical creativity. Boredom is a symptom, not a cause, and it cannot be overcome by retooling services. This boredom reflects the quiet collapse of conventional faith. Boredom is merely an outer manifestation of disbelief in the wisdom and value of conventional religion.

I have been speaking with considerably more candor than you may be accustomed to hearing from a rabbi. But I do not feel that I am conveying a pessimistic message so much as a wake-up call. What I have just described need not be a catastrophe. When certain religious ideas have lost their viability, they have faded away. If the prevailing ideas of God, whether Jewish or otherwise, no longer work in this day and age, these ideas need to be revised or discarded.

Therefore, the question “Does God have a future?” is especially important for us. And, lest there be any doubt, let me state it clearly: Absolutely, God does have a future. I am sure that God is much relieved to hear this! Human beings have always found ways to reinvent their faith for themselves, in order to cultivate their sense of the wonder and the meaning of life itself. And I am certain we will do the same.

Where are we going to turn to replace the God that no longer seems to works for so many people? There can be no single answer or panacea, of course, and I would not pretend otherwise. However, I would like to share with you what I regard as one of the most intelligent and creative ideas to come along in a very long time. Rabbi Harold Schulweis, of Encino, California has been the most influential pulpit rabbi in America. He is respected for both his intellect and also his willingness to think and express himself, as they say, “outside the box.” A few years ago, he wrote a little book entitled “For Those Who Can’t Believe.” Let me read for you one excerpt:

“I propose a shift of focus, from noun to verb, from subject to predicate, from God as a person to Godliness…Godliness is exhibited in the activities of doing justly, healing the sick, raising the fallen, supporting the disadvantaged…. To believe in Godliness is to believe in the verbs that refer to the activities of divinity. To behave in a Godly fashion is to realize in one’s life the attributes of Godliness that are present in all human energies…the question to be asked of those who seek God is not whether they believe in the noun that cannot be known but whether they believe in the verbs of Godliness: healing the sick, feeding the hungry, supporting the fallen, pursuing peace, loving the neighbor…If we know anything about God, it is not God the noun but God the verb, not God the inscrutable but God’s knowable qualities that may be reflected in human behavior.”

What Rabbi Schuweis suggests is that we should try to do away with the conventional assumption that God behaves as a Personality, with His own motivations and emotions. We should also do away with the assumptions that God responds to flattery as in many conventional prayers, or that God can be bargained with. If we can, at last, free ourselves of the unintentional and yet almost inevitable manner of thinking of God anthropomorphically, then we can also stop ascribing to God attributes, behaviors and emotions which really don’t make much sense any more, and which are destined to disappoint.

You might wonder then, what could possibly be the purpose of reciting prayers and of public worship, if God indeed is not listening. The answer is actually very simple. We are the ones that need to be listening. When we take to heart the essence of our worship, then our prayers reach their intended destination, that destination being the spirit of Godliness that is in each of us. To the question, “Does prayer move God to act?” the answer is that prayer moves God only if we who pray are moved to respond with Godliness.. If we pray and do not hear, or pray and do not intend to act, then we are just hoping for magic. The real question is not whether God is listening, but whether we are. Where am I in all this? Am I listening to my own prayers? Can I myself answer any part of that for which I pray?

Rabbi Schulweis’ ideas are not as novel as you might think. In the Book of Isaiah, we read: “You are my witnesses, says the Eternal One.” To this statement, the commentary adds, “If you are my witnesses, then I am God. If you are not my witnesses, then I am, as it were, not God.”

To put this a little more succinctly, what Rabbi Schulweis teaches is that we can never know God, but we can know a lot about Godliness. And that Godliness is close at hand. It is planted in each human soul, and is the source of all of our best and highest values.

Another Midrash: It is said that the angels grew jealous of God’s intention to endow Adam and Eve with His own image. Should mere mortals be so gifted? They plotted to hide the Divine Image. Some angels proposed that it be hidden beneath the seas, others that it be buried in the tallest mountains. But the shrewdest angel dismissed their plans. ‘These human being are ambitious. They will search high and low to find the treasure. Let us hide it within the soul of the human being. It is the last place in the world that they will think of looking for it.”

Rabbi Menachem Mendel once said: “All my life I have struggled in vain to know what human existence is all about. Now I know. People are the language of God.” And, if I may be so bold as to modify his words, I would say: People are God’s mirror. Each of us is a unique and reflection of Godliness. May that awareness of our own Godliness remain with us in word and in deed, in the year that lies before us.

A Yom Kippur sermon given at Chicago Sinai Congregation