“Where is G-d?” After stumping his Chassidim, the Kotzker is reported to have answered his own question: “Wherever you will let Him in.” This profound and beautiful approach only works for those who are thoroughly convinced of His existence, and mildly familiar with the methods for inviting Him in. What are others to do? Some thoughts on recent attempts, and a consideration of where we differ.
What could be better, I thought, than a take-down by Jack Miles of the whole lot of New Atheists – and in the pages of The Atlantic, no less. Jack Miles recently finished editing The Norton Anthology of World Religions, and might therefore know a thing or two about belief. His Atlantic essay, “Why G-d Will Not Die,” is taken from his postscript to that compendium, and is therefore his last word on the state of religion after pondering the rich assortment of faith-systems. Alas, his argument could not knock a one-legged agnostic stork off his perch. It does contain, however, some delectable tidbits and one-liners.
The story begins with a younger author delighting in the words of arch-atheist (and Israel-hater) Bertrand Russell:
That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.
Especially significant to Miles were Russell’s final words in that paragraph:
Only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.
In these words, the young Miles found release and liberty:
Unyielding despair! Here was the habitation that my soul had been seeking! Throw that master switch and feel the relief spread through your mind and body, feel the burden of hope lift from your shoulders, feel the freedom of no longer needing to make anything happen for anybody, including yourself.
Years later, he had cause to reevaluate Russell’s prescription for happiness, and found them not as smug and complacent as they needed to be:
I noticed that Russell had claimed only that the science on which he had laid his firm foundation of despair was “nearly certain.” I noticed that I had no independent knowledge of the scientific basis for his existential claims. And I reflected that, in any case, science itself must surely have moved on in important ways since his day.
Not only did faith rest on the unknowable, so did denial.
Still, the implications of his agnosticism about agnosticism took time to take hold. Besides Russell, others had contributed to his rejection of ultimate meaning. Camus considered the mythical Sisyphus, condemned by the gods to laboriously push a large rock to the top of a mountain only to see it tumble each time he approached his goal to the bottom. Camus wrote, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Nobel laureate molecular biologist Jacques Monod had also spoken of banishing the illusion of meaning and purpose:
Man must finally awaken from his age-old dream to discover his total solitude, his radical strangeness. He knows now that, like a nomad, he stands at the margin of the universe where he must live. A universe deaf to his music, as indifferent to his hopes as to his sufferings—or to his crimes.
Between Russell, Camus and Monod, the young Miles found what he later realized he had really been looking for:
What I had wanted was simply closure, a way to stop thinking about questions whose answers were beyond my reach.
Who could have predicted that it would be religion that would disturb his idyll? Drifting occasionally into a church for no apparent reason, he was taken aback by the claim of a hymn, “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in His excellent word!” Something was amiss here:
I was accustomed to the idea that religion was a refuge for those not brave enough to face the uncertainties of the real world. But now I asked: Had not Russell, too, sought a refuge, a “soul’s habitation,” and had he not finally claimed rather more firmness for it than was really there?
Even granting that faith was “ridiculous” (the word I heard so often from my friends), was it any less ridiculous to pretend that one was Sisyphus and then declare that by sheer force of imagination one was happy about it? Absurd indeed! Why should this form of nonsense be regarded as any less ridiculous than religion, once the spell of eloquence was broken? But then, too, why belittle Camus for coping with his perceived dilemma as well as he could?
There it was, like Koheles discovering that a common fate befell all men, wise and ignorant. To Miles, that fate was finding “some way of coping with our own invincible ignorance.”
While scientists and other illuminati liked to believe they were that close to knowing everything, he continues, the reality was very different. Every new scientific discovery brings breathtaking insight – and a greater number of new questions than we had faced before. “If religion rests on human ignorance, it rests on a firm foundation indeed,” because nothing else will better conquer that ignorance. “You may die never having learned the one fact that would have changed everything for you.”
We have arrived at the justification for religion, tenuous as its claims are: “Religion is among the ways that humankind has coped with the permanence and imponderability of human ignorance.” If it works for you, it is as good a coping mechanism as any. Since it apparently does work for many millions of people, there is little reason to think that G-d will become unemployed in the near future.
Properly, then, religion is not about what we know, but a balm for what we don’t. In fact, we ought to differentiate between different kinds of religious quest:
Religion seems to me to assume one aspect when considered as a special claim to knowledge and quite another aspect when considered as a ritualized confession of ignorance.
Confession of ignorance is good and a mark of humility; claims of special knowledge are “smug, loud, insufferable.” Reasonable people prefer the former, which offers a new formula for interfaith understanding: Since we all understand that our religions are only becalming our nervousness about not knowing, we can all get along. Thus his bottom line:
Science keeps revealing how much we don’t, perhaps can’t, know. Yet humans seek closure, which should make religious pluralists of us all.
So there we have it. The discovery of G-d is hardly accompanied by the sound of the beating of wings of a thousand heavenly seraphim, gathering in adoration of Man’s insight. Miles’ formulation is minimalist and defeatist. Since all of us are out shopping for the same bottle of psychological Benadryl to ease the irritation of our ignorance, we can glumly hold hands with everyone else engaged in willful self-delusion. Pascal’s wager has returned, in post-modern garb: Living with closure is better than not having closure, and doesn’t cost you anything. So head down to your local religion supermarket and pick any product off the shelf. They are pretty much all the same.
Strangely missing in this piece is what should be Jack Miles’ signature accomplishment. In 1996, he wrote G-d: A Biography. In this essay, we see no indication that the author ever got to meet his Subject. There is no talk of connection, or relationship. David Bentley Hart tries to take us to a very different place in his introduction to The Experience of G-d, which comes recommended to the rafters by Ryan Anderson (whom readers may remember was one of the most successful presenters at last summer’s Tikvah Yeshivah Program). Explaining what his book will set out to do, he writes:
This book … takes the structure of personal experience … not only as an authentic way of approaching the mystery of the divine but as powerful evidence of the reality of God….I start from the conviction that many of the most important things we know are things we know before we can speak them; indeed we know them … even as children, and see them with the greatest immediacy when we look at them with the eyes of innocence. But …we tend to put them out of mind as we grow older and make ourselves oblivious to them and try to silence the voice of knowledge that speaks within our own experiences of the world. Wisdom is the recovery of innocence at the far end of experience; it is the ability to see again what most of us have forgotten how to see…
He expresses wariness at what this admission might do. Who will pay any attention to anything as subjective as personal experience, especially notions from our younger days of innocence? Nonetheless, he insists on validating ideas he considers to be near-universal. It brings to mind the prescription often advanced by the Slonimer Rebbe in Nesivos Shalom, citing an earlier rebbe – and an appeal to a past when things were clearer. When one finds his belief wavering, “he should have emunah that he has emunah.”
Many will resist the idea that our perception of the ultimate reality grows murkier as we grow older and hopefully wiser, and that we need to hearken to an earlier, less mature but more insightful voice. Is there anything more…appealing out there for us? Hey – Rambam (unlike Ramban) considers emunah a mitzvah, not a jumping off point for observance. If G-d expects it of us, He should be providing some ways to acquire it and to take it to the next level, should He not?
Telling G-d what He must do is fraught, to say the least. So is creating a roadmap for belief. Doubtless, there is not a single path (or two, or three) towards deeper connection with HKBH. I don’t wish to imply that I have discovered the single best way to build emunah. I do wish to showcase one of the methods in our mesorah that appears particularly attractive when stood up next to some other attempts, such as the ones above. We often can better appreciate what we have when we examine the alternatives.
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (Bereishis 28:18) contrasts matzevah, which featured prominently in the avodah of the avos, with mizbeach, which became the rule after Sinai. The former, he explains, is a single stone, arising in Nature. At one point in history, G-d was known – and therefore served – through how He made Himself manifest through His supervising Creation. That changed, he says, with the giving of the Torah. From that point on, Hashem orders us as Jews to find Him in what we do, not in what He does. A mizbeach is assembled by human hands. Our mission is now to serve Him not merely in acknowledging what He has given us, but in performing according to His directives. Although I cannot prove this, it seems to me that Rav Hirsch means two things. We serve Hashem best by doing. We also find Him best in the same way. Within the law, within living the life of Torah Jews, we connect with Him, we experience Him not in a random, chaotic manner, but according to a coordinated, systematic plan that He Himself mapped out, and then engineered our souls to be responsive to it.
The Shelah ha-Kadosh speaks of a variation on this theme. In several places, he makes passing reference to an ohr of emunah that Hashem placed within mitzvos. In other words, one of the gifts of the mitzvah system, besides other goals of inner change, is that He validates Himself to us experientially through them. Experiencing Him is indeed important, and experience is not haphazard, depending on chance encounters between Man and G-d. He reveals Himself to us through interactions that are normative and binding – and that containing within them packets of Elokus that we can relate to subliminally and bond with. It is these small, repeated interactions with Elokus that firm up our emunah, that connect us with their Source.
Thus we find, at least as Jews, another way to find Him, not through the capitulation of despair, and not through embracing notions somehow engineered into our earliest understanding. We can come to understand more as we grow older and wiser, not just recover earlier notions. Moreover, we have a shot at deepening our understanding every day of our lives, so long as we live.
I would think that this would make the journey more inviting and satisfying.