Judaism Beyond God

God and Human Knowledge

“God and Human Knowledge” from Judaism Beyond God, (1985)

God was the central figure in the world of tradition. The universe was his creation. He could do with it whatever he wanted. As an all-powerful, demanding, intervening superfather, he dwarfed the rest of reality. God was part of a supernatural world of angels and demons who did not have to obey the laws of nature and who possessed extraordinary powers that natural creatures did not have and could not understand. The world of faith was a frightening place, loaded with natural disaster and supernatural terror.

God was an unchallenged given. In the age of faith, you might argue about the nature of his personality and desires, but you never challenged his existence. Jews, Christians, and Muslims disputed endlessly. But atheists were never part of the discussion. To question the reality of God was to question the validity of faith.

The need to prove the existence of God is the beginning of his end. It means that people are starting to doubt. An organization where the employees begin to doubt the existence of their employer is in deep trouble. As reason grew in strength, more and more religious philosophers became embarrassed with their divine superstar and his behavior. Why does an all-powerful God allow the suffering he can certainly prevent? Why does an all-knowing God hold people responsible for behavior he already knows they will perform? Why is a God of the whole universe interested in the daily behavior of an insignificant peasant?

Answers were not easy to come by. Ultimately, God was turned into a vague abstract retired superstar who was so distant and mysterious that nothing positive could be said about him. Any atheist could almost be comfortable with the God of Maimonides. But then why bother with God at all?

As modem science revealed the vastness of the universe, a divine father figure with a personal interest in planet Earth became less believable. The world of Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton made people too small to be noticeable and God too big to be approachable. For many thoughtful people, having him around was pragmatically the same as not having him around. Since he had lost his power to intimidate, God became a perfunctory sweet frosting on the natural cake of the world.

Ultimately, Immanuel Kant, the philosopher of Koenigsberg, a mild and unpretentious man, did God in. He demonstrated that the existence of a supreme being was problematical and that reason could neither prove his reality nor disprove it. This unseemly slaughter transformed theology. The main question shifted from “Does God really exist?” to “Do people need God?” Theology became a department of psychology. The issue was no longer whether God was really there, only whether people needed God to be there. How humiliating! By the twentieth century, the religious experience—which, at least, is open to

study and investigation— became the new focus of theology. Believing in God became a new form of psychotherapy.

The age of reason did not kill God through angry disbelief. It disposed of him in a much more deadly fashion. It made him too vague to be interesting. Theology passed from the excitement of hell, fire, and brimstone to the boredom of abstraction with capital letters. The “All,” the “One,” the “Ground of Being” are like the emperor’s clothing. You are not even sure they are there. And if they are, who cares? Ultimately, the masters of contemporary religion refused to admit to any God that was meaningful. He lingered on as a word of reverence. Most people believed—but there was nothing to believe in.

In a world without God, people’s attention turned to the natural world. Theology was replaced by physics, chemistry, biology, and geology. These new sciences changed our view of the world. The planet Earth became a small satellite spinning around a small star. The earth grew older and older. And humanity discovered that it was the cousin of the ape.

Divine creation was out. Evolution was in.

Evolution is the monumental epic story of the secular age. It is more than the story of the development of life. It includes the entire universe—from the moment of the Big Bang to the present. It starts with electrons and photons, gravitons and gluons. It moves on to atoms, stars, and galaxies. It features explosions, transformations, and glorious fires. It encompasses the birth and death of millions of suns, the formation of billions of moons. Nothing ever stops changing, always turning from one thing into another.

The stuff of evolution is not the divine word. It is elusive energy. Everything is a disguise for energy. Comets and leopards, rocks and people—all share the same little particles, the same little flashes of substance. The evolution of earthly life is only a small chapter in the saga of a changing universe.

Bible stories cannot match the grandeur of this unfolding epic. Boiling rocks and flying reptiles are only two of a trillion wonders. Instead of emerging neatly packaged and classified for human use, the universe moves on its messy way in cruel indifference to human desire.

The Garden of Eden has been replaced by East African gorges. Adam and Eve walk upright, but they have sloping foreheads and jutting jaws. Our roots are not in heaven. They are in water holes and swamps. And our embryonic bodies cannot hide the fact that fish and frogs are part of our family tree.

Reason has presented us with a new setting. The world we live in is both messy and orderly. All units of energy under the same conditions behave in the same way, no matter where they are or when they are.

Since the universe is a collection of events, not a thing, it was not “manufactured” or “created.” Energy changes form and association. It may squeeze together or thinly spread. It may contract and explode. But its universal drama has no beginning and no end.

Events in the universe have causes. But the universe, as a whole, has no cause. The question, “Who made the World?” is naive. Even if we incorrectly assume that the world is a manufactured object, the conventional answer, “God,” is unsatisfying. For if one can legitimately ask, “Who made the world?” one can, with equal justice, ask, “Who made God?” The logical answer, “Super-God,” leads us down a trail of regression that provides no enlightenment. If we can imagine a God without a beginning, we can much more easily imagine a world without a beginning.

The age of reason is the age without God. While nostalgia preserves him in the vocabulary of the powerful, he has lost his substance. The terrifying heavenly super father has been replaced by a dispensable philosophical abstraction. He has lost his ability to intimidate and to attract. The world he supposedly created is now more interesting than he is. Science has replaced theology as the intellectual commitment of modern times. If science and modem theology appear compatible, it is hardly a tribute to religion. Liberal religion has produced a God too vacuous to be taken seriously. Fundamentalist religion, as the surviving popular resistance to the age of reason, may be rude and assaultive. But at least its God is worth noticing. The God of the fundamentalists can enforce what he commands.

The problem in the contemporary world is not the power of God. It is the power of people. The technology that is born of science has given humanity the intimidating force that was formerly reserved for divinity. In a time of biological engineering and computer slaves, new “deities” of knowledge and power have emerged. The natural world, all by itself, provides us with access to overwhelming might.

In the age of science, the leaders of humanity are faced with the question only gods used to ask: “How do we use the terrifying power we possess?” The tricks of old Yahveh on mountaintops are now easily duplicated by run-of-the-mill military establishments. And the non-traditional electric switch has turned “Let there be light” into a routine human experience.

No redefining the word God will change the reality we now perceive. The world that reason has revealed to us may give us more anxiety than we want. Or it may fill us with the pleasant anticipation of new adventure and opportunity. But its new face cannot be easily denied.