G-d Is Not a Theory

March 24, 2011

Proofs

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Knowing G-d

I don’t know when, but at some point G-d became a theory – an idea that we had to prove or disprove and that we related to like we do any scientific theory.  This is a mistake – an intellectual and historical mistake.  G-d simply is not a theory.  G-d wasn’t proposed by a scientist or a philosopher to explain the workings of the universe.  He’s not the giant string-theory in the sky.  That’s not G-d – at least not the G-d that we are talking about.

The G-d that we ‘know’, discuss, debate, listen-to, obey, or even fight against is not the G-d of the philosophers.  It is not Plato’s or Aristotle’s understanding of G-d.  Rather, He is the G-d of the Prophets and revelation.  Long before Plato or Aristotle walked the earth, G-d was approached and encountered by a few lone individuals who eventually established a small, nomadic tribe known today as the Jewish people.

It is the understanding of G-d of these lone individuals (Avraham, Yitzkak and Yaakov) as presented in the Torah and continuously lived by the Jewish people that has survived, thrived and spread throughout history.  It is their notion of G-d that has captured the hearts, minds and souls of literally billions of people of all walks of life of all cultural, intellectual, social, economic and historic backgrounds.   It is this concept of G-d which has conquered nations, vanquished old religions and led to new ones.  It has inspired and moved.  Built up and brought down.

In other words, G-d was not proposed as an idea, rather He was approached as a reality.  And the result of that approach is a work and a religion which has been an active religious, political, historical, scientific, economic, psychological force in the history of mankind ever since.

When people discuss various ‘proofs’ of G-d they do not mean that this is how one comes to know G-d (although, for someone who is wondering, these proofs can be convincing). Rather, this is how one comes to confirm G-d or, more accurately, come to gain a deeper awareness of and understanding of G-d.  G-d came before the proof.  He is in our consciousness because of events and works that began almost 4,000 years ago and have not let up ever since.

This also means that responding to a ‘proof’ of G-d with a theoretical alternative explanation is missing the point.  Arguments for G-d’s existence are not coming to explain the workings of the physical universe, but rather to corroborate and deepen the understanding of that which had previously been revealed.

Thousands of years ago, before the Big Bang theory, before the discovery of DNA, before the modern ability to better demonstrate the marvelous workings of the physical and biological world, the Torah said that G-d created the heavens and the earth.  When a modern man reads that ancient line and looks at various aspects of modern science he can rightfully say – this is my G-d.

To respond that perhaps an ancient alien civilization or an infinite number of parallel universes is responsible for life is to misunderstand what is being said.  We are not working from the evidence to G-d.  We are working from G-d to the evidence.  G-d came first, the evidence came later (at times, thousands of years later).  And the evidence is still coming in.

True, there are challenges (and we will deal with those).  True, not everything always works in a neat little package (we will deal with that also), but it still doesn’t change the timeline.  We are not looking at the world and concluding G-d.  G- d came down to us (almost by imposition) from the annals of lived history.  He worked His way into the world’s consciousness.  The world has since looked for G-d and lo-and-behold, have found Him.

The word ‘proof’ is all wrong – the ‘proof’ came thousands of years ago and has been continuing ever since.  That is what we are involved in, a continuation of the proof that G-d Himself brought into history long ago.

So, in short, we are not proving, we are confirming G-d and that makes all of the difference.

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About Moshe

Moshe is the founder, researcher, writer, and all-around fix-it guy for MoreThinking.com

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  • EB

    I’m enjoying your essays, but would take them more seriously if you provided your background and qualifications, and sources (for example, for the way you describe God).

  • Moshe

    Glad you are enjoying the essays.

    In terms of background and qualifications – I’ve been learning in Yeshiva and/or Kollel for about the past 17 years (although these days I’m only part time in Kollel). In terms of the philosophy and science, I’ve been reading, studying, discussing and thinking about these topics for at least as long.

    I don’t have a degree in philosophy or science, I’ve just tried to read or watch serious works in those areas, make sure I understand what I’m reading or learning, and applied to the ideas, facts and concepts the same sort of critical thinking and analysis that I’ve learned in Yeshiva.

    In terms of the way I’ve described G-d – which aspects in particular would you like sources for? Let me know and I’ll see what I can find.

    In the meantime, here are a few sources that come immediately to mind.

    * The Rambam in Yesodei HaTorah (in particular the first chapter) as well as select chapters of the Moreh Nevukhim
    * The Ramchal in the beginning of Derekh HaShem
    * Rav Hirsch in the beginning of the Chumash.

    At some point I’ll see if I can delve further into this subject as well as put together some primary sources (probably as a separate post since I am purposely writing my essays in a more general style so that it can be accessible to a wider audience).

    Thanks again for commenting and I look forward to hearing from you.

    Be well,

    Moshe

  • Sholem

    Hi Moshe.

    The basic problem with your assertion at the basis of this post is treating the existence of God as reality. In your words, your term God a “reality” and something that “had previously been revealed.” You also said, more correctly, that “God was not proposed as an idea, rather He was approached as a reality.”

    Indeed, God’s existence was not a revealed reality, rather He was APPROACHED as a reality. How is He depicted? Wherein is He depicted and “approached”? There is a literary work called the Bible (more specifically, the Pentateuch, the Torah)that describes the encounter of individual men with God from the time of Adam and Eve (where God even addresses a snake!) through numerous individuals/generations – Babel, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, etc.

    Now, if I am to accept God’s existence as a reality, that means I accept the depiction in the Bible as 100% fact. But, if I question this depiction, quite simply by investigating the literary/historical/factual nature of the Bible, I may very well conclude that just as a certain literary work of fiction creates and depicts characters, so too the Bible, a work of fiction, creates and depicts a character called God.

    So, if I accept the depiction of God in the Bible as an accurate record of history and God’s activities in the last 4000-5000 years, then, yes, God is a reality. If, however, I entertain the thought that a literary work composed at a certain time, within a specific culture, by an individual (or individuals) depicts God in a certain way, then I must address this as I would address Homer, Plato, Descartes or Shakespeare.

    The opening of this post should be: “I believe with absolute faith that the Bible is a 100% accurate record of history”; then everything else makes logical sense.

  • http://morethinking.com Moshe

    Hello Sholem,

    As you will shortly see, I have a rather long response to the points you made. I’m going to break up the responses, therefore, into different comments to make them easier to read. Here goes…

    YOU WROTE:
    The basic problem with your assertion at the basis of this post is treating the existence of God as reality. In your words, your term God a “reality” and something that “had previously been revealed.” You also said, more correctly, that “God was not proposed as an idea, rather He was approached as a reality.”

    MY RESPONSE
    One of the main goals of this article is to note the different means by which people gain knowledge of reality. One way that people have attempted to understand the world is vis-à-vis philosophy, another is vis-à-vis the scientific method. The ‘idea’ of G-d that we are all discussing today did not originate from either of these methods, but from a different ‘method’ – one of directly approaching and relating to G-d.

    If one wants to seriously discuss G-d, one needs to first and foremost relate to G-d in the way that G-d was ‘discovered’ and ‘transmitted’. That ‘method’ was rather successful in creating content and ideas that have been as (if not more) influential as any other religious or non-religious idea in the history of humanity.

    That success indicates that there is something to the ‘method’, something which fundamentally relates to reality and which demands to be explored. To ignore that fact is to simply ignore an observable aspect of reality.

    Now, one can argue that the approach was a human illusion of some sort (as Freud tried to – not very convincingly, but he at least tried). What one can’t do is ignore the fact that there was an approach and encounter.

    Another goal of this article is to note the philosophical value of various arguments for G-d – such as the argument for design. I do not think they should be related to as proofs in the same manner as a mathematical proof or a scientific experiment.

    Rather, I think their value lay in terms of confirming that which one already believes and/or providing a sound, rational reason for one who does not yet believe to explore further.

    Of course, for the believer the belief came first – but that doesn’t undermine the value of the proofs. There is value and legitimacy in confirming that which one already believes or thinks. There is also value in demonstrating that there is a reason to take the content of the approach seriously.

    To be continued…

  • http://morethinking.com Moshe

    YOU WROTE
    Indeed, God’s existence was not a revealed reality, rather He was APPROACHED as a reality. How is He depicted? Wherein is He depicted and “approached”? There is a literary work called the Bible (more specifically, the Pentateuch, the Torah) that describes the encounter of individual men with God from the time of Adam and Eve (where God even addresses a snake!) through numerous individuals/generations – Babel, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, etc.

    MY RESPONSE
    You can it a literary work, but it certainly is not presented as a literary work nor has it been related to as such historically speaking. To call it a literary work is to attempt to do to the Torah what I have objected to concerning G-d – i.e., to redefine the Torah in a manner that makes it easier to NOT take the Torah seriously.

    If G-d is a scientific theory then I can treat and reject G-d like any other scientific theory. If the Torah is a literary work, then I can treat and reject the Torah like any other literary work. Similarly, if religious experiences are just psychological illusions then obviously I can discount the meaning of religious experience.

    But all of this is just words and rhetoric. It’s simply a manner of framing the conversation in a manner which enables one to lead the conversation to the conclusions that one wants and ignores the unique features, facets and aspects of the subjects being discussed.

    In terms of the Torah, as I mentioned in the article, the Torah has a history and influence that no other work has. Its content was unique in its time and even after its time and its influence has also been unique (topics I hope to thoroughly cover and document in the future). All of this indicates that it is not just another work.

    Either way, for the purposes of this article, the question is whether or not there is any reason to assume that the personalities mentioned in the Bible did not engage G-d? Similarly, one needs to provide a reason for believing that there wasn’t a mass ‘spiritual experience’ that was described as G-d’s revelation (particularly since religious experience is something that we are acutely aware of either from personal experience or from observing others).

    If it is just blind skepticism that leads one to doubt, then that’s not worth much. One needs to provide a reason for skepticism, not just mention that one is skeptical and expect the other person to answer all of one’s skeptical doubts until they are satisfied (particularly since they are never satisfied).

    If the response is talking snakes and miracles, I’m happy to have that conversation – so long as it is a serious conversation that takes place around the great works that have addressed these issues over the centuries. To simply read one aspect of the bible, express incredulity and conclude that none of it ever happened is not a serious approach (not to mention a radical conclusion not borne by the evidence presented).

    In short, there is no reason to doubt that there were a large number of people over a vast period of time (from the Patriarchs up until the last of the Prophets) who had intense, substantive spiritual experiences which they understood as a direct connection and interaction with G-d and which have been captured in various ways in the various books of the Bible.

    What’s more, the interaction didn’t end with the Bible, although prophecy did. Well after the end of the biblical period (up until and including today), people have still prayed, felt that G-d was somehow or other looking over them, been inspired by the words of the Torah and the wise-men of Israel, etc.

    We are aware of these people – and their experiences also need to be noted (not to mention that they lend credence to the idea that the personalities of the bible had real spiritual experiences which were captured down in writing and passed on orally vis-à-vis the tradition).

    All this can be agreed upon by believer and non-believer alike – at which point we can discuss the significance of this fact.

    To be continued…

  • http://morethinking.com Moshe

    YOU WROTE
    Now, if I am to accept God’s existence as a reality, that means I accept the depiction in the Bible as 100% fact.

    MY RESPONSE
    Well, I’m not sure this is logically true, but either way I’m not talking about what one accepts – I’m talking about the source of ideas and how we relate to them. The source for the ‘idea’ of G-d was spiritual and personal commitment and experience. What is noteworthy is the content of these experiences and their historical influence.

    To be continued…

  • http://morethinking.com Moshe

    YOU WROTE
    But, if I question this depiction, quite simply by investigating the literary/historical/factual nature of the Bible, I may very well conclude that just as a certain literary work of fiction creates and depicts characters, so too the Bible, a work of fiction, creates and depicts a character called God.

    MY RESPONSE
    One can always try and argue for a possible interpretation. However, it’s worth noting that there is no end to the reinterpretation game (just like there is no end to the speculative theory game). It just goes on and on.

    If all they have to offer is another plausible-sounding (if that) explanation then there is no reason to take them seriously. The history of ideas is full of plausible sounding theories which have been just plain wrong. What they need is to offer some sort of solid reason to take them seriously.

    And by reason, I mean a reading or interpretation which seems to flow from the text rather than the mind of the reader or else something akin to what science developed – solid evidence, demonstration, predictive power, etc. A documentary hypothesis without a document is simply a hypothesis. No reason to take it seriously. A literary reading which reads into the text rather than out of it is just a reading. No reason to take it seriously.

    At the same time, this game has been going on for a few hundred years now – it’s worth looking at the success of their ideas. How reasonable does the documentary hypothesis seems today? How reasonable do Freud’s explanations seem today. How accurate do the conclusions and statements some archeologists made 100 odd years ago seem today? If for the most part the old explanations fall short, then why should I take seriously the new ones.

    Furthermore, what these interpretations often fail to take into account or consider is why has the Torah been so overwhelmingly influential? 3000+ years is a long time – a lot has been written and transpired since then. And there have been written many other religious works since then. If this is just another work of fiction, then why is this one so popular and influential among such a vast variety of peoples over such a long period of time? People who fight and disagree or differ about almost everything else all seem to center around this one book and this one ‘idea’.

    To be continued…

  • http://morethinking.com Moshe

    YOU WROTE
    So, if I accept the depiction of God in the Bible as an accurate record of history and God’s activities in the last 4000-5000 years, then, yes, God is a reality. If, however, I entertain the thought that a literary work composed at a certain time, within a specific culture, by an individual (or individuals) depicts God in a certain way, then I must address this as I would address Homer, Plato, Descartes or Shakespeare.

    MY RESPONSE
    Again, what is noteworthy is that one particular work, written at one particular time, in one particular region of the world, from the midst of one particular culture, should end up with such a universal appeal and influence. Homer, Plato, Descartes and Shakespeare don’t have that – not even close.

    Not that these works weren’t influential (as has been noted, philosophy is one long foot-note on Plato), but their particular influence has waned to an extent. Some people are aware of the works of Homer, others of Plato, still others Descartes or Shakesepare. They have their appeal and influence, but it is of a radically different kind, much more limited and particular. The Torah, on the other hand, has reached a level of universal appeal and influence that none of these (or any other) works can touch.

    One does not need to start out believing the Torah is divine to note that fact. Similarly, one can note the radical difference in content between the Torah and these works – regardless of their religious beliefs or affiliations.

    Let’s take Plato. Plato was concerned with justice and the ‘good’. Let’s compare what Plato came up with and what the Torah came up with. Is there anything like respect for the stranger, taking care of the poor, loving thy neighbor as oneself, etc.

    Who was concerned with cruelty to animals, not abusing capital punishment, making sure that trials were fair, that people were honest in the work-place, etc. And what were their suggestions for dealing with these problems and issues.

    If one wants to argue that the Torah is simply another work of literature, then they need to back that up – and that means a serious, rigorous comparison. A comparison in terms of the types of stories told, the content of the stories, the underlining philosophy, the moral system, etc. If time and time again the Torah’s content is shown to be radically unique, then that is also noteworthy.

    In fact, I would venture to suggest that reason, logic, philosophy, science, literature, etc. originate certain types of ideas, but that there is a category of ideas that solely originate from the religious personality in general and the Torah in particular (I would also argue that the Torah has been a massive influence on reason, logic, philosophy, science, literature, etc.).

    If this is true, then that would indicate that the attempt to treat the Torah as another literary work says a lot about the person making the suggestion and little about the Torah itself.

    Either way, if one wants to take this project seriously – then they need to do a lot more research than I have seen done. I, for my part, think that the results of a serious comparison would show the uniqueness of the Torah, not its similarities.

    To be continued…

  • http://morethinking.com Moshe

    YOU WROTE
    The opening of this post should be: “I believe with absolute faith that the Bible is a 100% accurate record of history”; then everything else makes logical sense.

    MY RESPONSE
    Needless to say, I don’t think this needs to be the opening. Anyone who takes the time to investigate can see that something unique is going on here – and what true intellects and honest people do when they see something unique is they try and understand it in its context and according to its terms.

    What many modern conversations attempt to do is to relate to G-d and the Torah on their terms in their context and then argue that G-d and the Torah don’t need to be taken seriously. I hold that that is not a serious position to take and actually leads to the conclusions that those driving the conversation want in the first place.

    If one wants to seriously relate to G-d, then one needs to note how serious people throughout history have related to him – and then take the time to do likewise themselves.

    Be well,

    Moshe