I Faith in “God”
Since I came out as an atheist a year ago, I have been searching for a word, or words, to place at the center of my ethical/existential thought. In these posts, I will trace my steps from “God” to “Sacred,” and subsequently give an account of my current struggles with the word “Good,” as a candidate for central term. My interest in all of this is examining what word(s) might serve best as a common way to enter/center conversations on what matters in life, what is worthy of human care.
I lost my faith in God years before I lost my faith in “God.” I probably stopped praying regularly around 2004, and yet graduated from Harvard Divinity School five years later with a higher degree in Theology. Why did I continue to pursue theology (talking about God) after my relationship with God had crumbled? I often like to use the metaphor of a mobile (like the kind that would hang above a crib). A mobile hangs from the ceiling, and holds a variety of items in dynamic balance. The crucial part of this balance is the single ring from which all the items ultimately hang. (A pic or two to help you visualize) For me, “God” was that ring. If I wanted to have a conversation that activated an individual’s sense of intense care for their existence, human life, human relationships, and other matters of ultimate meaning, “God” was the word from which to hang the conversation. As a teacher, I found that “God” was the short-cut through which otherwise unreflective students would feel motivated to make grand statements about human existence and ethics—thus the appeal of “God” for me as an educator.
Personally, I stayed faithful to “God” because I needed a central term that represented my encounter with life and reality as a whole. These were my “reconstructionist” years, in which I believed in God, but defined God as anything but “a supernatural personality with power.” Instead I dabbled in pantheism (God is all), panentheism (God is all, and then some), and Mordecai Kaplan’s original Reconstructionist theology (God is the natural force that makes for salvation). All of these theologies staved off atheism, but did little for my relationship with the Jewish religion. They afforded me the ability to continue to talk about God meaningfully, but never to relate to God actively. None of them brought me back to prayer or dialogue with God, which to me are the lifeblood of religious activity.
These theologies failed to revive my religiosity because they treat God as a password, rather than as a living being. If “God” means a lot, but it doesn’t mean “a supernatural personality with power” then the word has clearly been degraded— as Rabbi Adam Chalom of Congregation Kol Hadash of Chicago likes to challenge, “If by ‘God’ you mean ‘love,’ then use it in a sentence—‘I God You?’” (For more on my disappointment with an impersonal God (Aka God2), see my series on State of Formation, part 1 and part 2). Joking aside, it is generally harder (and rarer) to use these altered meanings of "God" in everyday life and language (besides in the sentence "God is...").