What is the Meaning of God Today? Moment asks a diverse group of philosophers, scientists, writers, artists & clergy the age-old question that never gets old.

Author:Cooper, Marilyn
Position:A Moment Symposium

Reza Asian * Ruth Calderon * Patrick Desbois Brian Greene * Edward Hirsch * Sara Hurwitz T.D. Jakes * Howard Jachter * Sally Kempton Irwin Kula * Richard Lenski * Jay Michaelson Sharon Salzberg * Basya Schechter * Peter Singer Stephen Tobolowsky * Drew Trotter * amina wadud Paul Wason * Avivah Zornberg

Throughout history, what have people most often meant when they used the word God? Usually the answer to that question is a divine version of themselves: A God who looks, acts, thinks and feels just as they do; a being who has their virtues and vices, their passions and prejudices, their likes and dislikes. When we use the lens of our own experience to define the divine, what we end up doing is implanting in God our own human emotions, attributes and motivations. We construct God as a divine being with human characteristics but without human limitations. That more than anything explains why religion can both be a force for good and a force for evil in the world. Basically anything that is good and bad about a religious system is just a reflection of everything that is good and bad about us as human beings. For instance, there are self-described Christians who go to the funerals of military personnel with signs saying "God hates fags"--while other Christians have reconciled their sexual orientation with the scriptures. Both can find something in the scriptures to back up their arguments, but the truth is that this doesn't really have to do with scriptures. We insert our values into the scriptures. We pick and choose the things the scriptures tell us based on what we ourselves already believe or hold sacred. I believe that this way of defining God has been catastrophic for human civilizations. It is a dangerous definition that I am trying to challenge, if not overturn.

I grew up a Muslim, I converted to Christianity in high school, and then in college I converted back to Islam and found the Sunni tradition. For me, God is not a defined personality. God is the underlying creative force of the universe. God is the universe. There is no division in my mind between creator and creation, they are one and the same. My conception of God as a unified being does not allow for any kind of division between God and not-God. This is a very primal definition of God that can be traced back to our most ancient ancestors. It may even predate the existence of Homo sapiens as a species. It's also a perception of God that allows for a much more modern, scientific and peaceful spirituality than the view of God we get from the major religions of the world.

If I were to say, "I believe in God," everyone would know what I was saying, but no one would know what I was talking about. God is a great source of humor because we just don't know what we're talking about. There is the standard joke about God: There is a great flood and a man climbs up onto his roof to escape the waters. A boat comes by that he could get on, but the man says, "I am going to stay on the roof and pray to God to help me," so the boat leaves. A second boat floats by and the people on it shout to the man, "Come, hurry up and get on," but the man refuses, saying, "No, no, no. I'm praying to God. God's going to help me." Then a helicopter arrives to rescue him, but the man says, "I'm praying to God, God's going to save me, I don't need a damn helicopter." The man ends up drowning and when he gets to heaven, he says to God, "You know, you let me down." God says: "What are you talking about? I sent you two boats and a helicopter." So God is the ultimate contradiction, we don't really know what his job is and what our job is.

God is also a source of great drama and poignancy. When I am asked if I believe in God, I always say yes, but I also say, just don't ask me what God is. But I know that there is a God. I once broke my neck. My surviving a potentially fatal injury was a coincidence, as much a matter of luck as anything else. But a miracle happened afterward; my vision of the world entirely changed. There is no explanation that I could think of, except what it says in the Talmud: A lot of times when we fall, it is easier for us to see heaven from the ground looking up. That is the beginning of the ultimate contradiction. At times we feel the presence of God most in his apparent absence.

The Orthodox belief is that the Torah is a divinely authored document and that the Jewish people are directly guided by God. I believe that firmly, and I believe that it is unreasonable not to believe that. The smart person recognizes this. The beliefs of the religious Orthodox are dramatically more reasonable than non-traditional, non-Orthodox and secular viewpoints. The only proven method of Jewish sustainability and continuity is by strictly abiding by halacha, the laws handed down to Jews by God. The evidence for this is that the traditional Orthodox community is the only Jewish community that is growing. Outside of Orthodoxy, there is a 73 percent assimilation rate.

Movements that don't take this view of God, Torah and halacha, such as the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, don't stand the test of time. These communities are not growing. I see it on college campuses and in other communities that count women as part of the minyan but still don't manage to have a service on Shabbat--only the Orthodox community reliably has Shabbat services. Similarly, ordaining women as rabbis is not sustainable, and egalitarianism has not increased the viability of non-Orthodox congregations. If anything, it has done just the opposite. The Jewish people will survive and have continuity only by abiding by halacha and traditional Jewish values. Without those, people intuit that it's not authentic Judaism and it doesn't last. People in those other movements are well-meaning, but all over the country, Jews are moving from them to Chabad and to Orthodoxy.

The continued existence of the State of Israel itself is evidence for the correctness of the traditional view of God. It's remarkable, a 70-year Hanukkah miracle. It should not be happening. You have seven million Jews surrounded by a sea of seething enemies. Yet we have managed to survive against all odds. It's like winning the lottery. If you win the lottery once, that's not a miracle, but if you win it continuously, that's not coincidence--that shows that God is involved. That's exactly what's going on in the State of Israel. It's a miracle that I exist, that you exist, that Moment Magazine exists. Jews should have disappeared along with the Assyrians, Babylonians, Philistines and the ancient Egyptians. Those nations have come and gone, but we Jews are around despite the many attempts to destroy us. Our survival is a compelling argument for God's existence. All of this was predicted by the Torah; it predicts that we are an eternal nation.

As an agnostic, I believe that faith is a gift and I don't have it. I'm not certain that God does not exist. That's why I don't consider myself an atheist. But I've never been able to feel that God does exist. I've never been gifted with that belief. I've heard a lot of arguments about it. I've heard about the leap it takes, and I've just never been able to make that leap. I've been unable to commit to belief. So I'm a seeker. I believe in religious questions, not religious answers! I am on a quest to try to understand why we're here, and to try to think through what it means to be here. I'm searching for a higher power, something beyond the immanent world, but I've never been able to find it.

On a very personal level, I think my son's death confirmed what history has told us, which is that there is no righteous overwhelming power that makes suffering okay. There is no end justification for this suffering, for deaths or for the cruelty in the world. Religions have gone through huge contortions to try to argue that there are secret purposes for all that, but I simply don't believe it. I think there is a tremendous sadness in relinquishing the idea that things have an ultimate meaning, that our mortality isn't part of some greater plan. So the longing for transcendence, for some experience out of time, is very deep within me. The belief in God is an ongoing discussion and quarrel. It's a quest. I don't think that it comes to a satisfactory conclusion.

I can't give up on the idea of God. One of the reasons that I write poetry, and have written poetry, is to try to find moments out of time, to rescue meaning from the flux of experience. But I have had only fleeting experiences, mere instances, that seem to freeze time or hold time or escape from time. Then inevitably I am back in the flow.

As the New Testament informs us, God is the same yesterday, today and forever. There's a consistency and coherence in our relationship with God that does not change with time; it is without beginning or end. More than ever in these uncertain and turbulent times, it's critical to have the certainty of faith in an unchanging God as the foundation for everyday life. That provides incalculable security. Where modern Christianity...

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