Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Human Understanding Of God

Human Understanding

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Isaiah 55:8-9, NIV Bible

Such explains what many religiously minded, bible-believing individuals around the world believe and use as an argument to explain our limited understanding of God. Simply put, he is way beyond human understanding. That does not stop Bible and Torah scholars, however, from trying to understand God's ways, but it is  often done through the lens of faith and acceptance of what the biblical narrative states. That is, God's goodness cannot really be questioned, in the same way that an authoritarian monarch or father cannot be questioned for his laws and rules—even if they defy human thinking of goodness, morality and justice, and don't make any rational sense from a modern human point of view.

Individuals will credit God with all manner of good, particularly when they are saved from death. When the Haiti earthquake happened (January 10, 2012), I remember reading about a survivor pulled from the rubble. One of his first words was, "Praise God, I am alive." Now, I am glad that this individual survived such a terrible natural disaster, which killed at least 220,000 of his countrymen, according to official estimates. But his words, although emotional, betray something bothersome. His words suggest that it was God who saved him, that God was responsible for his salvation. It also intimates something deeply dark, that the other 220,000 individuals killed were not worthy of being saved by God.

Here's another possible scenario that does not put God in the picture. The earthquake was a natural disaster, causing buildings to fall—50,000 residences and 30,000 commercial buildings collapsed due to the 7.0-magnitude earthquake. In an earthquake, individuals chiefly die from rubble falling directly on top of them—and not from the earthquake itself—a direct result of the collapse of the building in which they are in, either killing them quickly from a fatal blow or from being trapped or pinned under tons of rubble, eventually succumbing to asphyxiation or lack of water. The chance of survival increases if victims of an earthquake don't have severe injuries and they have access to food and water, and of course have access to an air pocket. It seems that this individual pulled from the rubble fits under such a category. He was fortunate that rescuers found him in time; they ought to get the credit, since they did the work. 

I have thought deeply about the existence of a personal God since I was five; and continue to do do, full of doubts. The chief problem is that there is no proof of God's existence; he doesn't show himself, for reasons unknown to us. It takes great faith to believe in both God's existence and in the idea that he has a personal interest in humanity. Those that have such faith are likely happier and more content as individuals. But it doesn't suggest that they have a human understanding of God, if he exists, that is.

There are a number of human views about God—these are not original ideas, and I list them for your review: 1) God exists and he is a personal, omniscient, omnipotent God who cares deeply about humanity, a Father Figure ("Abba" in Hebrew; 2) God exists, but he is uncompassionate, judgmental and an authoritarian ruler who periodically pours judgments upon Earth; 3) God exists, but after creating the Earth and its inhabitants, he does not involve himself directly with humanity, essentially Spinoza's God; 4) God exists, but he is tired of humanity's evil and has withdrawn himself; 5) God exists,  but because of free will, is powerless to act; 6) God exists, but acts only in extreme times, such as when humanity's existence is threatened; 7) God does not exist; and humans are left to themselves to better the world.

Let's consider no.3, Spinoza's God. In an article in The Guardian, Clare Carlisle writes the following:
In fact, Spinoza's God is an entirely impersonal power, and this means that he cannot respond to human beings' requests, needs and demands. Such a God neither rewards nor punishes – and this insight rids religious belief of fear and moralism.
This is closest to what I now consider my view. One of the bothersome questions that comes up is why would God, who according to the Book of Genesis, create us in his image, and yet give us so little knowledge of him, including proof of his existence? Equally important, why are we as humans so different in our thoughts, desires and actions from God? Truly, it takes a great amount of effort to come close to agreeing with the biblical narratives; they are generally foreign to our ways and modes of thinking. Humans are not naturally inclined to follow biblical directives; it takes great effort and an overcoming of our human desire for freedom from strictures (Adam and Eve disobeyed the only known restriction, likely because they wanted freedom). People who submit themselves willingly to the restrictive life often say they are happier as a result.

I have no doubt they believe they are, but it might be a view based on a limited engagement with general society, restricted to what they find inside their community, insulated and protected as it is. Concomitant with that is the often deep fear of venturing outside of their comfort zone. My attempts, however, to try to live a more observant life within the confines of Judaism over the years has not given me the happiness or peace that many claim they receive from such a life.

My rational mind rebels against such thinking; it's the way that I am built, a combination of my genetics and my environment; I have too many unanswered question. Such kind of debates, as to whether all humans need subscribe to a belief in a personal God, even of the intellectual kind, might initially have some merit, but they eventually lead to a dead road, often ending in personal attacks, which have no merit in such arguments. Is it possible for people to hold religious views without the need to impose these on others? Is this a necessary exercise in validation?

Back to the quote on top from the Book of Isaiah: Does not the prophet suggest that we can never humanly understand God, since his thoughts are beyond our human abilities? A close reading of the biblical narrative suggest that, rather than being understood, God wants obedience and praise. This does not prevent many individuals, however difficult the task, and with varying degrees of success, from an honest attempt to understand why this is necessary today.

I no longer bother. I am more inclined to follow my Jewish traditions as a way to impart to my children knowledge of who we are and to be part of a community that has a long and deep history; thus, I am also inclined to teach my children not only about  the wider Jewish secular culture, but also about the general importance and achievements of science, arts, literature, history and modern life.

Citizen of the world comes to mind.


  1. God asked Job a question from the whirlwind: “Where wast thou when I created the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding.”

    The words were addressed to Job in answer to his queries about why he had been subjected to so much suffering. We know the answer, of course. At the beginning of the Book of Job, God agrees to inflict suffering and tragedy upon Job in order to prove to Satan that Job will retain his faith. Satan was leading God into temptation. God sinned by bringing Job painful physical ailments, destroying his wealth, and killing his children in order to win His bet with Satan. By asking “Where wast thou …,” God is evading Job’s question.
    When the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, in addition to asking “Where wast thou …,” He asked “Knowest thou the time when wild goats of the rock bring forth? Or canst thou mark when the hinds do calve?” (Job: 39:1). I googled “mountain goat gestation” and learned that kids are born in May through June and that the gestation period of the mountain goat is 180 days. Once again, the Lord is evading Job’s question, knowing that Google, not yet having been invented, was not available to Job. The Lord was prevented by His vanity from simply admitting that Job had helped Him win His bet with Satan. He could not bring Himself to praise Job for his faith, loyalty, and patience.

  2. The biblical naarrative is consistent in only one sense. God does not want to be understand, only obeyed and praised.


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