God Squad: Musing about our perception of God

God Squad

Rabbi Marc Gellman God Squad

Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.

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Man created God. True or false?

-- K., via email


The answer is: false. The answer is also: true.

It is true that people (not "Man") created the idea of God, but it's not true that people created the reality of God. People created the name for elephants, but people did not create elephants. The difference between God and elephants is that elephants are beings in the natural world, while God is a being outside the natural world who, in fact, created the natural world.

We get our ideas about elephants by observing them, although even in science there are limits to what we can know about them. We can know their physiognomy and genetic code, but there are some behaviors of elephants that seem to elude scientific explanation. Elephants, for example, gather around a dead elephant and touch that elephant with their trunks in what seems like an act of grief and love.

Also, you know the story of the blind wise men, each of whom touched a different part of an elephant and so came up with very different ideas of what an elephant was really like (a tree trunk, a snake, etc). We did not create elephants, but we did create the scientific architecture of understanding elephants. So, in a way, we created elephants.

What is true about elephants is also (mostly) true about God. We did not create God, but we did create the ways to know about God. This concept, I admit, is hard to grasp because elephants are visible objects in the natural world, while God is an invisible being outside the natural world who, nonetheless, contacts the natural world in a variety of ways.

The first way we know that God is real, outside our own desires to believe or not to believe in God, is the evidence of purposefulness and order in the natural world.

The Greek word for this world order is telos. Because the world shows order, this leads us to conclude that there is an Orderer. It's like finding a watch on the seashore. We know immediately by its gears and its design that the watch could not have been formed by the processes of natural evolution that forms seashells. God, we conclude, is the world's watchmaker, because the world runs better than any watch.

The next way we learn that God is real is the fact that we're here now, and that if there was an infinite amount of time before this moment, we would never have arrived at . . . now. This leads us to conclude there was a beginning to time that was not preceded by any other moment of time. We call this the Creation, and an uncaused creation requires an uncaused Creator, whom we call God.

We also learn that God is real independent of our thinking or desires by our moral instincts. The ability of human beings to sense and respond to moral duty -- to know the differences between right and wrong -- seems utterly unique among all life-forms on Earth. So we conclude that this unique capacity for moral self-regulation comes from a God who wants us to do the right thing.

Some people think we give ourselves our own moral code, and that may be true. However, it is strange that all sustaining moral codes are merely replications of the moral code revealed in Sacred Scripture. The Golden Rule, for example, points to a moral God who revealed the fundaments of all true morality.

These reasons God is real, and not a figment of our imagination, are serious and ancient, but they are not conclusive. Because God is invisible and the only nonmaterial being in the universe, the option for atheism will always be an enticing and intellectually respectable option for those who don't wish to take the leap of faith.

I have no interest in cutting off this lively and enduring debate. I'm satisfied that seeing the effects of God on the world and on our moral nature is like "seeing" God. I know our desire to have precise knowledge of God's nature has led religious thinkers to vastly different conclusions about who God is and what God wants from us.

My solution to this theological discord and the atheist critique is simply humility. Even if God is real, the mystery of God's ultimate nature is most certainly vast and incomprehensible, and if we did create God, the mystery of where order and hope and goodness come from is an equally daunting mystery. Humility before the ultimate mystery of existence seems to me the only stance that satisfies both piety and reason.

 

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