Wednesday, August 6, 2008


I think the contemporary debate over the existence of a supernatural God focuses on a less important issue. By understanding God differently (although not that differently) the supernatural issue becomes subordinated to less controversial and more important ideas about goodness and godliness.

The classical understanding of God is that He is metaphysical, is outside of time and space, is ultimately unknowable, and operates in ways we cannot understand. Not surprisingly, God then becomes a difficult thing to discuss. Atheists argue that no God exists, and theists argue that this God does exist. Each side offers arguments, some persuasive and some not, but none of which ultimately wins the day. The bottom line is that this debate is doomed never to reach an answer. Because of God's supernatural nature, it is simply impossible to determine conclusively one way or another whether or not God exists.

But I think this entire debate, fascinating as it is, completely misses the mark. Even if a supernatural God does not exist, there is no doubt that Godliness exists. And much in Judaism is about bringing this Godliness into the world. This is the approach of some liberal or moderate philosophies or Judaism, and in fact it is a major theme in some branches of traditional Judaism, like Hasidism and mysticism (divine sparks and all). This is the understanding of God that unites us, and this understanding has the potential to help even the most atheistic Jews become more observant, at least in some ways, and the most charedi Jews ground at least some of their Judaism in humanistic terms. It ties in with prayer, ritual, and most mitzvot (all of which are the subject of future posts.)

Rabbi Harold Schulweis has an interesting approach to understanding God in this way. He calls it "predicate theology." He flips sentences around. He moves God from the subject to Godliness in the predicate, and moves what was the predicate into the subject. Here's how it works.

Take a sentence like "God heals the sick." When you read this sentence, you picture a supernatural God acting in some way — perhaps knowable, perhaps not — to heal the sick. He may have provided the laws of physics and chemistry and biology, given the body the natural power to heal itself, given doctors the knowledge and skill to heal, or performed a miracle resulting in an otherwise unexplained cure. People who believe in a supernatural God quickly defend this position, people who do not attack it, and we are instantly in the middle of a supernatural theological argument.

But note what is lost in this debate: any focus on the poor sick person. The debate quickly becomes otherworldly. But Rabbi Schulweis argues that we can solve this problem, as well as many other, by simply fliping the sentence around: "Healing the sick is godly." The focus of the sentence (like most sentences) is still on the subject, but the subject has changed from God to "healing the sick". The linguistic focus is now on the sick person and his sickness. And the predicate "is godly" is something that is now uncontroversial. It is good or godly to heal the sick. Of course that is true. And godliness certainly exists, regardless of whether a supernatural God exists. (For example, "unicorn-ness" exits too, even though unicorns do not. It involves looking like a horse and having one horn. Usually there is a rainbow and a 7-year-old girl involved somehow.)

Once we make this grammatical move, we are proclaiming that healing sick people is a good thing. And the obvious follow up question is on our actions: if so, what can we do to help heal someone? We are thus acting in partnership with God (whether or not God exists) to bring Godliness into the world.

With this understanding, God is simply the source of godliness. There could be an actual supernatural God or there could not be. Healing sick people might be Godly because a supernatural God would do it, or did do it, or wants us to do it. Or it could be Godly simply because it is good, even if there is no God. It does not really matter for these purposes. The important point is to focus on the very real and very this-worldly Godliness, not aspects of uncertain supernatural God.

Ironically, this belief is not all that radical and is found solidly within traditional Judaism. Perhaps the most commonly-said blessing by all Jews is the blessing over bread: hamotzi lechem min haaretz. We praise God for bringing bread from the earth. But of course God does not actually bring bread from the earth. At most, God (or the blind forces of nature) brings grain from the earth. People, not God, then turn the grain into bread. And there is a huge difference from our perspective between bread and hot, wet, yeasty, ground-up wheat, even though they are not all that difference chemically. The difference is goodness. Or godliness. Thus, people act in partnership with God or Godliness when they make bread. They bring Godliness into the world by taking raw ingredients and making them better.

The traditional blessing is to praise God for the complete process of "bringing forth bread from the earth." If understood the traditional way — a supernatural God made bread by a miracle — the blessing is absurd. God does not actually make the bread, just the wheat. But if the blessing is understood in terms of godliness, it simply means that bringing forth bread is godly or good. And that is a proposition that everyone can agree to. (Unless you are on a low-carb diet, and then it become more controversial.)

Rabbi Schulweis seems to suggest that under his understanding, a supernatural probably God does not exist. My co-blogger Diane has referred to God as a "non-ontological being", with the same suggestion. That is, God is like goodness or justice or kindness: an important and meaningful idea or ideal, but one without any correspondence to an actually existing object or thing.

I do not go this far. I do not see anything in this understanding of God that either precludes or requires that God be or not be a supernatural being. At the deepest level, I simply think it is impossible to know anything about the existence and nature of a supernatural God. One can believe in a supernatural God as a matter of faith or reason. Or one can refuse to believe in such a God as a matter of lack of evidence, lack of faith, or reason. Both positions are supportable, neither is compelling, and neither is all that interesting to me. I want to focus on bringing Godliness into the world, not on debating abstract and unresolvable questions.

A traditional theist would agree with everything I have said so far, but argue that this focus on godliness only captures part of the nature of God. That is, a traditional theist would not disagree with this claim but argue only that it is woefully incomplete.

An atheist would agree with everything I have said but argue that it is silly to use the words "God" or "godliness" to refer to purely naturalistic things when they are loaded with supernatural connotations.

Both points are partially valid. I concede the traditional theists' point, but relegate the other supernatural aspects of God to faith. And I agree with the atheist that God has some supernatural connotations, but also has some naturalist ones.

But here is why this approach is important and where this approach really pays off. Many people do not believe in a supernatural God, or are not sure whether they believe in God, and view this belief (or lack of belief) as an obstacle precluding their participation in Judaism, at least in a meaningful and significant way. Several readers of this blog fall into this category. I strenuously disagree, and I think this conclusion does not follow from the premise. Even if one does not believe in a supernatural God, one still can (and probably does) believe in godliness and goodness. And that is sufficient.

My (admittedly controversial) contention is that Jewish practices, beliefs, prayer, holidays, and rituals, are spectacular and spectacularly subtle ways of fostering Godliness and goodness. Thus, I think that even the most ardent Jewish atheist (in the classical sense) should become more observant, do more rituals, and even pray. I will be spelling out the details of some of these contentions in later posts. But for this post, I am simply contending that everyone should believe in God as the source — supernatural or natural, ontological or non-ontological — of goodness and Godliness.

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