Monday, May 3, 2010

A Relationship With God? Yeah, Right.

XGH asks a good question: how can someone have a non-delusional relationship with God. If God does not exist, no relationship is possible. And if God does exists, how can one have a relationship if God does not directly respond. XGH analogizes this to someone who writes letters to Queen Elizabeth and Britney Spears and claims to have a relationship with them. XGH dismisses the conventional response -- God answers me in cryptic ways -- as delusional and indistinguishable (in theory) from a terrorist's claim that God told him to kill innocent people. In the comment section, Evanston Jew proposes two responses (walking and talking with God, and inwardness), but acknowledges the difficulties. He notes -- correctly and insightfully -- that the problem stems from Maimonidean rationalism.

I want to pick up on EJ's last point and the offer a possible solution to XGH's question. As I have argued before, I do not think the Enlightenment has been kind to traditional Judaism. I am a huge fan of the Enlightenment. Its philosophical progeny -- strong forms of rationalism, empiricism, and skepticism -- have done a tremendous amount to advance science, eliminate false ideas, advance true one, and improve the world. These philosophical ideas are useful in explaining many things, but are not useful as the exclusive approaches for explaining or understanding Judaism.

Traditional Judaism claims that God spoke at Sinai and entered into an eternal covenant with the Jews. A modern approach to Judaism tries to analyze this claim scientifically, looking for evidence of all kinds to support or refute this claim: archaeological, textual, historical, etc. The result seems to be a lot of foolishness on one side and a sad abandonment of Judaism on the other. At one extreme, we have rabbis with no scientific training arguing against biologists and paleontologists about DNA and the fossil record. And at the other extreme, we have ordinary Jews concluding that "Judaism is false" and either leaving it completely or treating it as someone quaint and childish, but nothing that has anything of serious value to a sensible adult.

I think both extremes suffer from trying to fit Judaism into a modern scientific framework. This approach gained traction after Maimonides and continued through the 19th or 20th century. Maimonides helped bring Judaism into the medieval period, but it may be time to move forward.

One better approach to Judaism (as I have argued here, here and here) is to ignore the scientific questions about God and focus instead on our own experiences of God. That is, we don't ask whether God exists or what God's properties are, but instead ask how we experience God (regardless of whether God exists or not). God is simply the name we give to the things we experience as Godly. There's a lot to say about this, as discussed in the posts quoted above.

Under this approach, a relationship with God is then like a relationship with any abstract thing. There are all sorts of things that "exist" but do not have a corresponding physical entity. For example, goodness, the American spirit, and mathematics all exist in the sense that the terms meaningfully describe things, but the things they describe are not actual objects. So we can have a relationship with God the same way we can have a relationship with goodness, the American spirit, and mathematics, but not the same way we have a relationship with Queen Elizabeth and Britny Spears.

We have a relationship with goodness by doing good and thinking about goodness. We have a relationship with the American spirit by feeling proud to be an American, knowing something about America and American history, and observing American holidays and rituals. And we have a relationship with mathematics by knowing, doing, and appreciating mathematics. As we describe these relationships, we necessarily are speaking subjectively. The mathematician would simply be speaking of his own inner feelings towards mathematical, and those feelings are real. It would be absurd to argue that there is no physical entity that corresponds to the work "mathematics" and thus the
mathematician is delusional.

Along the same lines, we have a relationship with God by knowing about God and doing Godly things. There are many ways to do this, including prayer. One could imagine talking to goodness, or America, or mathematics to further or deepen that relationship. We do not typically do this, but that is largely out of custom, and we sometimes do (sort of) speak to these things. People commonly say "My goodness." We pledge allegiance to the flag as a symbol of America. We are not addressing the flag directly (we don't say "I pledge allegiance to you") but we are talking to nobody in particular about pledging allegiance to the flag. So it is neither inconceivable nor delusional to speak directly to the goodness, America, or mathematics without making some strong ontological claim. I do not see prayer as any different.

None of this denies or affirms the traditional understanding of God as a real entity that responds to prayer. This approach simply goes in a different direction.

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