We are into the High Holy Days of Judaism, ‘the days of awe,’ as they are called: Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, or literally, the head of the year, and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.
The Jewish New Year is agricultural: in the northern hemisphere the crops have been, or are being harvested-the cycle begins with the planting of seeds to reaping the crops to provide sustenance for the winter.
It’s a time to express thanks. You can’t express appreciation if you are carrying anger, resentment, guilt and so forth. Those negative emotions get in the way. They contaminate the pure flow of appreciation, which is the heart of the spiritual life.
To clean the slate, then, you need to settle differences between you and other people-to apologize, if need be, so you can then go to the altar, literally or figuratively, where you settle differences between you and God, apologizing, first, then being able to give thanks for the blessings of life.
One of the things that often keeps us from this cleansing process is the difficulty we have with the notion of God. What does it mean, really, to confess to God, or to talk to God.
I was at an Interfaith Council meeting this week. We had a lunch meeting at the Friends Meeting House in Wilton and our hostess said, “Rather than the usual prayer before the meal we’ll observe a minute of silence. Quakers don’t have clergy-we talk directly to God.”
I smiled to myself as we observed a minute of silence, reminded of the old saying that Quakers are quiet Unitarians and Unitarians are talkative Quakers. And I smiled about the idea that the function of clergy is to talk to God on your behalf.
So I want to talk about God, on your behalf-to take a fresh look at the God of the Torah, what we used to call the Old Testament.
Since this is a two-part sermon, at least, let’s have a brief review of part I.
First of all, the point of this sermon series is simply to go back to the first books of the Bible, Genesis and Exodus, to see how the God that is portrayed in these early Bible stories changes or evolves, and by so doing to suggest that each of us undergoes a similar process of evolution in our thinking about God.
Most of us started out with a child-like image of God as a kind of supernatural person, who was probably male. You’ll remember the famous passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “When I was a child I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult I stopped being childish.”
There’s nothing wrong with a child-like innocence. Indeed, a certain kind of innocence is necessary. Without innocence we become overly cynical, suspicious and scornful. Humility, the child of spirituality, comes from that kind of innocence-the simple acknowledgement that we don’t have all the answers.
Arrogance-and hear I’m talking about religious arrogance-is the root cause of violence committed in the name of some distorted notion of God–a God who likes you and your group just a little bit better, a God who you come to believe encourages you to become a suicide bomber. That kind of belief engenders prejudice and hatred in general and violence in particular.
So, look again: Genesis opens with a God who creates everything out of nothing simply by saying a word. “God said let there be light and there was light.”
You’ll recall that the fourth Gospel in the New Testament-the Christian version of the Torah-opens, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”
The creation story has God look at his day’s work at the end of each of the first five days and it says, “And God saw that it was good.” This statement suggests that ‘it is finished.’ But at the end of the sixth day, after making humans, God doesn’t say that ‘it is good,’ suggesting that humanity is not complete-the work of creating humans isn’t done, yet.
Indeed, God has problems with the work he did on humans. They disobey his order not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In his anger, God evicts his humans from Paradise, from the Garden of Eden, and condemns them to a life of toil and pain, which will end in death as a punishment for their disobedience.
The first natural born human, Cain, killed the second, Abel, in a fit of jealousy. The story says that Abel found favor in the eyes of God. Cain didn’t. So God condemns Cain to a life of wandering and puts a mark on him. Adam and Eve have a third son, Seth, to whom Noah could be traced, and, indeed, all the other characters in the Bible, since Cain and Abel didn’t have any children.
God is extremely displeased with his human creation so he decides to destroy everything and start over. He has Noah build the ark and afterwards makes a covenant with Noah, who God called ‘a righteous man in his generation.’
The all-powerful God enlists Noah and forms a working relationship-a partnership-with his human creation.
Later God makes a covenant with Abram, telling him he will make a great nation of him and his descendents. Abram’s name is changed to Abraham. In the 12th chapter of Genesis God says to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse.”
Shortly after this promise is made to Abraham God tells Abraham that that he ‘s going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. God confides in Abraham? How does his partner respond?
Abraham protests, challenging God. He says, “Wilt thou indeed destroy the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous men within the city; wilt thou then destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty. Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
God says he won’t do it, if fifty righteous men are found. Abraham haggles with God: ‘suppose five of the fifty are found to be lacking.” God agrees. Then he goes to forty and thirty and twenty, and God agrees not to destroy the great city if even ten righteous ones are found. This is where the idea of the minyan comes from: in Orthodox Judaism there must be at least ten men in order to have a religious service, ten being a number that constitutes a social entity, a community.
The first chapters of Genesis paint a picture of God as creator and absolute ruler over Creation. If he’s not pleased or satisfied with His Creation He can destroy what He has created, and he does.
Notice the difference between Noah and Abraham. Noah does what he’s told. Abraham protests, he argues with God, he demands justice from God. God has ceased to be the absolute ruler. Man is free to challenge God by referring to God’s own promises-the covenant.
God referred to Noah as a just man in his generation. But Abraham marks the beginning of a new generation, moving from blind obedience to God to a partner who challenges God and demands justice.
The next major step in the evolution of God in the Bible comes in the book of Exodus, when Moses encounters God at the burning bush. Though there are still elements of the old anthropomorphic God who ‘speaks,’ and ‘dwells on the mountain,’ a radically new notion of God emerges. When Moses asks God to tell his name he says, “I AM WHO I AM.”
That’s a strange name. I AM or Eheyeh, is the first person of the imperfect tense of the Hebrew verb ‘to be.’ It means, “I will be what I will be.” This strange name suggests that God ‘is,’ but is not a thing which is complete, but a process. This makes God a verb, not a noun. The God of the burning bush is evolving, always.
It is a giant step away from having God be an idol, a thing, which is worshiped. Things have names; idols have names. The burning bush God does not have a name, and this is extremely important My seminary professor, Harrell Beck said, “The Old Testament is one long warning against the dangers of idolatry.”
Fromm says, “This God who manifests himself in history cannot be represented by any kind of image, neither by an image of sound-that is, a name-nor by an image of stone or wood. This prohibition of any kind of representation of God is clearly expressed in the Ten Commandments, which forbid man to bow down before any ‘graven image, nor any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” (Ex. 20:4)
This commandment against making a graven image, against idolatry, is ‘one of the most fundamental principles of Jewish theology.’ Observing Jews will not pronounce the name God nor write it. They will write G-d, as a way of referring to that which is nameless, the sacred, the holy.
Talking to God in prayer is encouraged, but talking about God is not.
Failure to observe this restriction results in people saying that they know what God wants, what God is thinking, who God likes better and best, who God wants destroyed, and so forth. You see where this leads. It leads to the insanity of a man killing a doctor in the name of God at an abortion clinic. It leads to the atrocity of September 11.
So the concept of God in the Bible moves through an evolutionary process beginning with God who creates with a word, moving to the angry God of Adam and Eve, the jealous God of Cain and Abel, the destructive God of the flood, then a God who forms partnerships with Noah and Abraham, culminating in the nameless God of Moses.
The all-powerful creator God of Genesis I becomes a self-limiting God who acknowledges that He needs help from his human creatures. God and man become co-creators, continuing the work begun in the first chapters of Genesis. It’s as if God says, “I can’t do it alone. I need you.”
There are some who suggest that the God of Exodus, who intervenes in history to free the Israelites from bondage in Egypt, promotes passivity. “God will come again and fix things for us, we just have to wait. But the story suggests that God chose Moses as a partner, suggesting, again, that He couldn’t do it alone. God can send the plagues to force the Egyptians to let his people go, but he couldn’t liberate the people-he couldn’t make a decree that would make people free in the deeper sense.
Humans have a deep ambivalence about freedom, which prompted Erich Fromm to write a book he titled Escape From Freedom, and prompted Sartre to say, “We’ re condemned to freedom.” This is illustrated when the Israelites complain to Moses about not knowing where their next meal was coming from and they said, “At least in Egypt we had security, we had something to eat and drink.”
What makes the Bible Holy, or Sacred, is that it tells the truth about humans, it reveals deeper Truths about what it means to be born, to grow up, to struggle and to die.
The Biblical God is a very human-like God, as contrasted with the god of the Greeks. The Greeks painted a portrait of god as unchanging, eternal, not involved in human affairs. The Greeks couldn’t comprehend a God who has a relationship to humans, who needs to form a partnership with humans. Their god was perfection itself, completely self-sufficient, with nothing to do but think. And what did the god of the Greeks think about? He thought about himself, thinking. God, living high atop Mt. Olympus, is ‘thought on thought on himself.’ God is completely and absolutely separate from humans.
The Biblical God is vulnerable to man, which is why he seeks relationship. The God of the Bible needs us. He seeks intimacy.
God provides the Ten Commandments not to have power and control over humans, but to provide a way for humans to become liberated by being reminded that they are not alone, that they are living in the presence of God.
It’s interesting to notice that God forms relationships with particular individuals: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham, Moses. Intimacy requires particularity. God cannot have a close, working relationship with humanity, per se.
After the temple was destroyed and the people could no longer come to worship simply by offering burnt offerings on the altar and witnessing rituals, the practicing Jew did his (sic) religion by the way he lived his life. Everything he does takes on a religious quality-the dietary laws: what he eats, how the food is prepared and animals slaughtered, how he’s married and to whom, the circumcision, what he wears, how and when he prays, and so forth.
It’s interesting to note, however, that each practicing Jew is expected to read and interpret the meanings of the Bible stories for himself. Rabbi David Hartman says, “The Bible is God’s first edition. It’s not final. It’ s evolving.” He said, “We should read the Torah as if God delivered it to us today, like this morning’s newspaper. Receive it as if you are seeing it for the first time, and see how it fits into your life today, see the truths as they relate to all your experience to this date.”
In other words, it needs to be re-interpreted, and the meanings evolve. God, then, is an evolving concept in the Bible because the concept of God evolves for each and every person.
Moses asked, “Who should I say sent me?” The voice from the burning bush said, “EHEYEH asher EHEYEH,” I am that I am, or I will be what I will be.
It says ‘God is,’ but his being is not yet completed, like that of a thing. (Fromm) God is a living process, a becoming. Fromm says, “A free translation is, ‘My name is Nameless,” and he adds, “Only idols have names, because they are things.”
You and I will determine what God will be or ‘become.’
I promised to tell you my current concept of God, as it has evolved so far. I relate to Buckminster Fuller’s comment: “I believe in God, but I spell it Nature.”
I have an intuitive sense of a deep, eternal connection to the Cosmic Life Force, even though I acknowledge that I have no idea what eternity really means. I can’t conceive of endlessness.
For me, God is not a being, but the idea or the process of being and becoming.
Buddhism best expresses my idea of religion. Sometimes I call myself a Buddhist, but I do not identify with those who say they are ‘practicing Buddhism.’ I see Buddhism as a paradoxical religion similar to the nameless God that spoke to Moses out of the burning bush. The paradox of Buddhism, for me, is that it puts the responsibility for one’s theology or spirituality in one’s own lap.
I practice Buddhism by practicing being me, and moving into a new, changing, evolving self. I do not feel the need to have my beliefs validated by others. This is why I have a deep and abiding appreciation for the Unitarian Universalist approach: it encourages me to spiritual growth, and that growth must have something to with ethical work.
When I try to say to explain my beliefs I realize that the words fall so far short of the mark that I often wish I could take them back in mid-sentence, and almost always with I could try to explain myself again.
I have an affinity for mysticism while embracing a down-to-earth, practical and rational humanism. Now what about you? What do you think about God? Where have you been on your own evolutionary journey so far? I’d be interested to hear from you. Drop me a note or an email at Frank@uuwestport.org.