What is The Meaning of God Today?
Moment asks a diverse group of philosophers, scientists, writers, artists & clergy the age-old question that never gets old.
With: Nancy Ellen Abrams • Reza Aslan • Ruth Calderon • Patrick Desbois • Brian Greene • Edward Hirsch • Sara Hurwitz • T.D. Jakes • Howard Jachter • Sally Kempton • Irwin Kula • Richard Lenski • Jay Michaelson • Sharon Salzberg • Basya Schechter • Peter Singer • Stephen Tobolowsky • Drew Trotter • amina wadud • Paul Wason • Avivah Zornberg
Reza Aslan is an Iranian-American author and television host. He is the author of four books, including God: A Human History.
Throughout history, what have people most often meant when they used the word God? Usually the answer to that question is a divine version of themselves: A God who looks, acts, thinks and feels just as they do; a being who has their virtues and vices, their passions and prejudices, their likes and dislikes. When we use the lens of our own experience to define the divine, what we end up doing is implanting in God our own human emotions, attributes and motivations. We construct God as a divine being with human characteristics but without human limitations. That more than anything explains why religion can both be a force for good and a force for evil in the world. Basically anything that is good and bad about a religious system is just a reflection of everything that is good and bad about us as human beings. For instance, there are self-described Christians who go to the funerals of military personnel with signs saying “God hates fags”—while other Christians have reconciled their sexual orientation with the scriptures. Both can find something in the scriptures to back up their arguments, but the truth is that this doesn’t really have to do with scriptures. We insert our values into the scriptures. We pick and choose the things the scriptures tell us based on what we ourselves already believe or hold sacred. I believe that this way of defining God has been catastrophic for human civilizations. It is a dangerous definition that I am trying to challenge, if not overturn.
I grew up a Muslim, I converted to Christianity in high school, and then in college I converted back to Islam and found the Sunni tradition. For me, God is not a defined personality. God is the underlying creative force of the universe. God is the universe. There is no division in my mind between creator and creation, they are one and the same. My conception of God as a unified being does not allow for any kind of division between God and not-God. This is a very primal definition of God that can be traced back to our most ancient ancestors. It may even predate the existence of Homo sapiens as a species. It’s also a perception of God that allows for a much more modern, scientific and peaceful spirituality than the view of God we get from the major religions of the world.
Stephen Tobolowsky is an American actor, musician and comedian. He is the author of My Adventures with God.
If I were to say, “I believe in God,” everyone would know what I was saying, but no one would know what I was talking about. God is a great source of humor because we just don’t know what we’re talking about. There is the standard joke about God: There is a great flood and a man climbs up onto his roof to escape the waters. A boat comes by that he could get on, but the man says, “I am going to stay on the roof and pray to God to help me,” so the boat leaves. A second boat floats by and the people on it shout to the man, “Come, hurry up and get on,” but the man refuses, saying, “No, no, no. I’m praying to God. God’s going to help me.” Then a helicopter arrives to rescue him, but the man says, “I’m praying to God, God’s going to save me, I don’t need a damn helicopter.” The man ends up drowning and when he gets to heaven, he says to God, “You know, you let me down.” God says: “What are you talking about? I sent you two boats and a helicopter.” So God is the ultimate contradiction, we don’t really know what his job is and what our job is.
God is also a source of great drama and poignancy. When I am asked if I believe in God, I always say yes, but I also say, just don’t ask me what God is. But I know that there is a God. I once broke my neck. My surviving a potentially fatal injury was a coincidence, as much a matter of luck as anything else. But a miracle happened afterward; my vision of the world entirely changed. There is no explanation that I could think of, except what it says in the Talmud: A lot of times when we fall, it is easier for us to see heaven from the ground looking up. That is the beginning of the ultimate contradiction. At times we feel the presence of God most in his apparent absence.
Howard Jachter is an American Orthodox rabbi whose most recent book is Reason to Believe: Rational Explanations of Orthodox Jewish Faith.
The Orthodox belief is that the Torah is a divinely authored document and that the Jewish people are directly guided by God. I believe that firmly, and I believe that it is unreasonable not to believe that. The smart person recognizes this. The beliefs of the religious Orthodox are dramatically more reasonable than non-traditional, non-Orthodox and secular viewpoints. The only proven method of Jewish sustainability and continuity is by strictly abiding by halacha, the laws handed down to Jews by God. The evidence for this is that the traditional Orthodox community is the only Jewish community that is growing. Outside of Orthodoxy, there is a 73 percent assimilation rate.
Movements that don’t take this view of God, Torah and halacha, such as the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, don’t stand the test of time. These communities are not growing. I see it on college campuses and in other communities that count women as part of the minyan but still don’t manage to have a service on Shabbat—only the Orthodox community reliably has Shabbat services. Similarly, ordaining women as rabbis is not sustainable, and egalitarianism has not increased the viability of non-Orthodox congregations. If anything, it has done just the opposite. The Jewish people will survive and have continuity only by abiding by halacha and traditional Jewish values. Without those, people intuit that it’s not authentic Judaism and it doesn’t last. People in those other movements are well-meaning, but all over the country, Jews are moving from them to Chabad and to Orthodoxy.
The continued existence of the State of Israel itself is evidence for the correctness of the traditional view of God. It’s remarkable, a 70-year Hanukkah miracle. It should not be happening. You have seven million Jews surrounded by a sea of seething enemies. Yet we have managed to survive against all odds. It’s like winning the lottery. If you win the lottery once, that’s not a miracle, but if you win it continuously, that’s not coincidence—that shows that God is involved. That’s exactly what’s going on in the State of Israel. It’s a miracle that I exist, that you exist, that Moment Magazine exists. Jews should have disappeared along with the Assyrians, Babylonians, Philistines and the ancient Egyptians. Those nations have come and gone, but we Jews are around despite the many attempts to destroy us. Our survival is a compelling argument for God’s existence. All of this was predicted by the Torah; it predicts that we are an eternal nation.
Edward Hirsch, an American poet and literary critic, is the president of the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He has published nine books of poetry, including Gabriel: A Poem.
As an agnostic, I believe that faith is a gift and I don’t have it. I’m not certain that God does not exist. That’s why I don’t consider myself an atheist. But I’ve never been able to feel that God does exist. I’ve never been gifted with that belief. I’ve heard a lot of arguments about it. I’ve heard about the leap it takes, and I’ve just never been able to make that leap. I’ve been unable to commit to belief. So I’m a seeker. I believe in religious questions, not religious answers! I am on a quest to try to understand why we’re here, and to try to think through what it means to be here. I’m searching for a higher power, something beyond the immanent world, but I’ve never been able to find it.
On a very personal level, I think my son’s death confirmed what history has told us, which is that there is no righteous overwhelming power that makes suffering okay. There is no end justification for this suffering, for deaths or for the cruelty in the world. Religions have gone through huge contortions to try to argue that there are secret purposes for all that, but I simply don’t believe it. I think there is a tremendous sadness in relinquishing the idea that things have an ultimate meaning, that our mortality isn’t part of some greater plan. So the longing for transcendence, for some experience out of time, is very deep within me. The belief in God is an ongoing discussion and quarrel. It’s a quest. I don’t think that it comes to a satisfactory conclusion.
I can’t give up on the idea of God. One of the reasons that I write poetry, and have written poetry, is to try to find moments out of time, to rescue meaning from the flux of experience. But I have had only fleeting experiences, mere instances, that seem to freeze time or hold time or escape from time. Then inevitably I am back in the flow.
T.D. Jakes is a TV pastor, author and filmmaker. He is the bishop of The Potter’s House, a non-denominational megachurch.
As the New Testament informs us, God is the same yesterday, today and forever. There’s a consistency and coherence in our relationship with God that does not change with time; it is without beginning or end. More than ever in these uncertain and turbulent times, it’s critical to have the certainty of faith in an unchanging God as the foundation for everyday life. That provides incalculable security. Where modern Christianity differs from the past is in the concept of a personal relationship with God that was made possible through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Contemporary Christians are far less dependent on priests or pastors to garner information. This independence has created far more diversity than is found in traditional denominationalism or in Catholicism.
The Christian relationship with religion has changed with the dynamic social and cultural shifts of the past several decades. Church attendance in mainline denominations has declined over the years as have the numbers of people who would count themselves as Christians. Instead, there is a growing base of cyber Christians who ingest teaching and opt for the more nuanced relationships of fellowship through technology.
The greatest modern trend, however, is the politicizing of faith via movements like the so-called “religious right.” This has created a collective perception of Christianity as right-leaning and predominantly fundamentalist. However, many Christians diverge from those points of view, and others still embrace the importance of separation of church and state. The categorization of all Christians as “evangelical” is another misnomer. Furthermore, even within the category of evangelicals, race, age and theology have created a variety of perspectives among the base that are not always represented by the right-leaning Christians who tend to dominate the headlines. Other evangelicals are more moderate and some are even liberal. Christians are not a monolithic or singular voting bloc; Christianity is a faith that boasts many expressions, concepts and individualistic political ideals that may or may not agree with one another, as is true in all faiths practiced by fallible, changeable, imperfect human beings.
Peter Singer, an Australian moral philosopher, is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University. He is the author of Animal Liberation.
To me God is a kind of fictional being that people tell themselves exists because that’s consoling to them or a psychological prop that helps them face the world. “God” may be part of their culture and upbringing, and they can’t consider rejecting that belief. For some people, God is mostly a psychological idea that they are comfortable with, that gives them meaning and purpose in their lives and perhaps provides some ethical motivation. For others, God anchors their whole life and helps them create an identity. That can have a whole variety of consequences, including good ones in terms of causing them to live by certain ethical standards, or terrible ones such as leading them to believe that people who don’t follow their religion are wrong, evil, and in extreme cases ought to be killed.
I believe that you can have an entire ethical system without needing the framework of God, religion or spirituality. It’s a very American idea that ethics presupposes religion. If we go back to the Greeks, there is a work by Plato, Euthyphro, in which Socrates is having an argument with Euthyphro. Euthyphro asserts that good behavior comes from doing what the gods want, and Socrates asks, “Why do the gods want that? Is it totally arbitrary? If the gods wanted something different, would that make it suddenly good?” To put that in modern terms, if there were no ethical judgments independent of God or gods, would that then mean that if God commanded us to torture children, it would be good to torture children? Or if God commanded us that it would be bad to help people in need, would it then be bad to help people in need? That seems like a crazy view. So clearly there is a view of what’s good and bad, right and wrong, that’s independent of belief in God. Even to say that God is good is to suggest a standard of goodness that is not just coming out of God. Otherwise it wouldn’t make sense to say that God is good.
Clearly, we have ethical beliefs that are independent of religion. For me, one of these is the concern for the well-being of everyone. My interests are not intrinsically any more significant than someone else’s or even of an animal. For instance, I’m an advocate for vegetarianism, but for me there isn’t a spiritual aspect to that. My concern is to reduce the suffering that we inflict on animals. I would describe that as an ethical concern, not a spiritual one.
Basya Schechter is an American Jewish composer, cantor and the lead singer of the folk rock band Pharaoh’s Daughter. She has released three albums, including her most recent, Raza.
I’ve been in conversation with God from my earliest consciousness. As a social introvert, I have always spent an inordinate amount of time by myself, and much of that time has been in conversation with an unseen divine creative power. I had a complex and difficult childhood. I broke open regularly, flooded with traumatic responses to my emotional inner life. The prayer “please help me” was almost always on my lips. Because I lived with constant suffering, I had a desperate desire to overcome it and find refuge. When I sat down to play an instrument and create music and melodies, I would enter a “zone.” That zone allowed me to tap into the divine. I could hear the collective yearnings and joys of humanity vibrating in the air as I played and composed music. I felt like part of something whole rather than someone who was discarded and forgotten. I could align with the unseen patterns of how the world was interconnected. I was given the gift of melodies and songs. Those words and notes became my friends. Over the years, I have been able to rest more in gratitude and praise in addition to the constant yearning and pain of my earlier years.
My musical life is where most of my conversations with God truly take place. So much of my music is related to prayer in some way. Throughout my life journey, art has been a vehicle for expressing my spirituality. As a hazzan, I think of Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat as “sacred pop-arts.” There’s interplay between the structure of these age-old mystical prayers and new melodies I compose. And now I see that God even shows up in rap music; it’s a way to speak Torah in a language humans understand. Through it, we can stretch the boundaries of prayer to create a fuller heart and fireworks in the mind. As a spiritual artist, I try to match my voice in this moment with the voice of the eternal. I believe that through the creative act, you embody the godly. Through my work, I experience the divine.
amina wadud is an American imam, activist and scholar. She is the author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective.
As an imam, my viewpoint of God is greatly informed by a statement in the Qur’an, the holy text, that says that God is not like created things; and humans are created. However, humans can aspire to god-like qualities and virtues. For example, mercy is an important aspect of God that is constantly invoked in the Qur’an. Humans are capable of mercy, but I don’t think it’s divine mercy. I believe that while the sacred is not ordinary, there is an ordinary aspect to the sacred. So humans possess a version of mercy, but we don’t have a “capital M” mercy.
In the Islamic faith, the most fundamental principle in terms of our belief in God is “Tawhid,” which means the absolute unity of God. The entire Islamic religion rests on this important central concept. There is, therefore, a dynamic relationship between the sacred and how the sacred manifests. So in the human or earthly form, Tawhid is essential for all aspects of social justice. I cannot conceive of God without justice.
I believe there is a greater sacred reality that is beyond the ordinary, and yet the mundane is infused with sacred divinity. Thus, all forms of expression about what is God, in some way, refer to this ultimate sacred reality. The Arabic word for this reality is Haqiqah. I do not believe it is male; I don’t believe it is female. It is beyond all differentiated manifest forms, including beyond gender. It is both intimate and infinite.
In wider society, ideas about God are so diverse that we sometimes lose sight of how there might be a seamless flow between them, and that God is beyond the differences. That transcendent Reality is present in all our many ways of observing and worshipping. Unfortunately, many people become extremely wedded to their particular ideas of the divine and tend to reject the ideas that they are uncomfortable with.
I have had fulfilling experiences, first as a Christian, then as a Buddhist and now as a Muslim. I cannot abandon spiritual expressions that differ from mine, and nothing I learned through each experience has been lost. However, the Islamic notion of Tawhid has helped to unify my discrepant experiences, and it allows me to go beyond the everyday for a direct encounter with the all-encompassing sacred Truth.
Richard Lenski is a professor of microbiology and evolutionary biology at Michigan State University, a former MacArthur Fellow and a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.
Evolutionary biologists study changes in the forms of life that have taken place over time and the processes that produce change. Mutation and selection continue to operate today, and so we can see evolution in action. In my lab, we’ve been watching 12 populations of bacteria evolve in and adapt to the new environment where I put them 30 years ago. The bacteria have passed their DNA from generation to generation—l’dor va’dor—68,000 generations and counting, with each lineage accumulating genetic changes and now growing almost twice as fast as their ancestor. As scientists, we analyze these changes using methodological naturalism, in other words without invoking miracles or supernatural forces.
I was raised in a Christian family, but now I belong to a Reconstructionist synagogue. Do I believe in God? There are deep mysteries about the origins of life and the universe itself that I don’t understand, but which science might—or might not—eventually answer. Someone in my wife’s family once said that nobody got thrown out of temple just because they don’t believe in God, and that works for me. Of course, others have different views on this matter.
But should others care what I believe when it comes to God? I don’t think so. There’s a passage from an obscure old book that speaks to me across the centuries. Telliamed was written by Benoît de Maillet (1656-1738) as a discourse between a Frenchman and an “Indian Philosopher.” It tried to explain the evolution of our planet and its inhabitants based on what the author saw during his travels. Today we know his theory was wrong, but I admire the opening passage where the author asks his alter ego about his religion, and the philosopher responds: “Sir, I have always declined speaking to you of my Religion, because it can be of no use to you…I would not have even spoke my Sentiments to you…if I had not discerned in you, a Soul capable of triumphing over the Prejudices of Birth and Education…the Things I intend to communicate [may seem] opposite to what is contained in your sacred Books, yet I hope in the End to convince you that they are not really so.” As a scientist, I try to understand and explain how the natural world works—and you must decide how science affects your beliefs.
Avivah Zornberg is a British author and Torah scholar. She is the author of seven books, most recently Moses: A Human Life.
In the past it might have been easier to talk about God in an absolute and dogmatic tone, but today it is very difficult to talk about God that way. The questions around God are so vociferous that the only way one can really talk about God today, it seems to me, is in an intimate and personal tone. One of the Hasidic rabbis that I love to consult says that we should talk about God in a whisper; that is the only way to make statements about God such as “God is good.” How can you say that out loud? How can you say that shouting from the rooftops? When one sees the suffering in the world, one struggles to see how this expresses the goodness of God.
One of the main Jewish questions has always been: Why do the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper? There is a midrashic tradition that when Moses ascended Mount Sinai and wanted to see the face of God, it was because he wanted to ask God this question, he wanted to understand why God who is both just and good allows so much suffering in the world. Since the Holocaust, I think this question has become particularly acute. In the face of such enormous evil, we struggle to see how we can still assert our faith in God. I would say that the only way we can do this is somehow in a tone of intimacy, speaking from the depths of one’s heart to someone who is open to listening. Personally, I have always struggled with this question of God’s goodness.
I think that the only way we can live in a world that is connected to God is by openly acknowledging brokenness. We are broken, and our ideas of God are so fragmentary that we struggle to keep them alive. It’s comforting to me that there are traditional Hebrew texts that show ways in which God appreciates imperfection. The same Hasidic rabbi says that when God utters the word Anochi (“I am [the Lord]”) at Mount Sinai, the Hebrew letters can be read to intimate a kind of modesty in his language. God says “I will become who I will become.” This is who he is for us at this time and place and as human history develops, he will change for us. God is not trying to imprint himself on us in an absolute way; he does not say that this is who he will be forever. Instead, his language is an invitation to develop, to grow and change and deepen our understanding of God. I find that enlivening. It acknowledges that nothing is whole and that our understanding of God is never complete.
I like to imagine God as a teacher, particularly as a music teacher. Through talking and listening, the teacher creates a connection with the student that gradually transforms the music. Such a relationship is an intimate one; it is expressed in the music of a life.
Paul Wason is an anthropologist who specializes in prehistoric archaeology. He is director of life sciences at the John Templeton Foundation.
We have many insights about God, both from previous revelations and from people’s personal experiences. But one of the most important contemporary questions is: Can we use the scientific method and the findings of modern science to expand our understanding of God? I would say yes. Science and God are not at odds with each other.
Potentially, future research in life sciences may give us a picture of the world that’s radically different from the one science now usually provides. Often science emphasizes the living world as one of pure competition and says that dog-eat-dog is the law of nature. But there is also a symbiosis between organisms that depend on one another; this is also true among humans and to a lesser extent among primates. There’s cooperation among individuals and groups. Scientific research into this could have radical implications for our understanding of God. When we want to understand an artist, we examine his or her work. Similarly, if God is creator of the universe, a better understanding of the natural world and of genetics could help us understand God.
It’s my personal view that both science and theology are ways of understanding the world better. Scientific methods differ from theological methods because of the nature of the subject matter. The sciences study physical phenomena, and theology is ultimately about God. But the two relate. Many people believe that the sciences are pushing back against theology, and that the more we learn about the world, the less of a role there will be for God and that theology will have less value. But actually, since the known universe is the creation of God and humans are created beings, anything you learn about natural creation is a potential insight into God.
Sara Hurwitz is an Orthodox Rabba on the rabbinic staff of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. She is the cofounder and president of Yeshivat Maharat, the first Orthodox yeshiva to ordain women as clergy.
Humans are naturally seekers. Some people are seeking connection to a higher being, while others are seeking higher meaning or higher purpose. Making a leap of faith to a belief in God results in a more spiritually connected life with a greater sense of direction. One of my students once told me that she thinks some people have the God gene, and some people don’t. I thought that was a really interesting way of looking at belief and faith, because some people are naturally able to hold on to a belief system and some people really struggle with it. It’s a blessing to be able to integrate a belief of God into your life, especially in the 21st century when we are pulled in so many directions and have so many different priorities. It is meaningful to be able to organize our life around some larger kind of purpose.
In Judaism, our belief in God is often manifested through actions. Our system of commandments and halacha are meant to be ways in which we strengthen our relationship with God. Orthodox Jews feel a commitment to tradition and to a system of laws because they provide a way to get closer to God. For example, the minutiae of keeping kosher or observing Shabbat, rules such as not mixing milk and meat, are not simply like separating your peas from your carrots. The opportunity and challenge for all Jews is to see these commandments as a prism and a lens for seeking a greater connection to God.
The great thing about our religious tradition is that on one hand it doesn’t change. There are certain foundational beliefs that are core to the Jewish belief system. You will find them in the 6th century, the 16th century and now the 21st century—some of these even go back to Genesis. On the other hand, I think the lived experience of Judaism has evolved and that the way we think about God post-Holocaust must be slightly different than before the war. Of course there were tragedies before the Holocaust, but today, the big question for Jews is, why do bad things happen to good people? And how could such mass destruction occur? This makes it more likely that we will struggle toward articulating a belief system that fully works with our modern world. Today we have to see God and our belief system through a world that includes great challenges and destruction.
Nancy Ellen Abrams
Nancy Ellen Abrams is a philosopher of science, a lawyer and an author. She has written three books including A God That Could Be Real: Spirituality, Science, And The Future Of Our Planet.
I have no interest in a God that has to be believed in, but I am very interested if God is real. I wondered, could anything exist in the universe as we scientifically understand it that is worthy of the name God?
It turns out there is something real that exists wherever there is human society, and it wields enormous influence over our minds, our sense of reality, and all shared meaning from infancy till death. The way to understand it is through the concept of “emergence.” In any dynamic system, as the complexity of the interactions among its parts increases, something radically new comes into existence on a larger size scale. This “emergent phenomenon” is not the sum of the parts but something radically different, operating by different laws. From random motion of trillions of air molecules, a temperature emerges. From complex interactions among your trillions of cells, a person, yourself, emerges. From many individuals trading and wanting things, an economy emerges, operating by laws that never existed before and which we have to discover. Many sweeping phenomena emerge from humans interacting over time, such as medicine, governments, the media. These emergent phenomena have immeasurable power over our lives, yet they only exist because of us. I’m suggesting that the most ancient and powerful of all such emergent phenomena is so ubiquitous it’s not even recognized: it’s endlessly emerging from the staggering complexity of all humanity’s aspirations interacting.
Aspirations are what truly distinguish us from the other animals, so an emerging God became possible with us. It didn’t create the universe, but it created the meaning of the universe, because aspirations underlay every step toward language, art, and symbolic thinking. We’re connected through it to everyone, alive, dead, and future, whose contributions either fed into it, or who will be affected by how our aspirations improve or degrade it. This is a dynamic planetary phenomenon, possibly unique in the Galaxy, and if recognized it could unify humanity. You don’t have to call it God, but it’s real, and there is nothing in existence more worthy of the Name.
Drew Trotter is the executive director of the Consortium of Christian Study Centers and the author of Interpreting the Epistle to the Hebrews.
God expects us, and is willing to help us, to become the kind of people he wants us to be. But we are not yet those people. In the New Testament in his Epistle to the Romans, Paul says that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. God wants us to work against that innate sinfulness, and to become more like Christ who was without sin.
I am an Orthodox Christian, a belief summarized in the Apostles Creed. I believe that God is the same yesterday, today and forever and that he has revealed himself as the God of scripture as one God in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. For most people, the meaning of God today in the world goes all over the map. I think it usually refers to a very big concept, a sort of nice easy answer to all the deeper questions people don’t want to work on or really think about. So they just say, “God created us, God is overseeing us and helping us, and letting us do this, that or the other thing” and that is as far as it goes. So many people do not have an understanding that God requires anything of us. They accept the notion of God loving us but usually if you talk to them long enough, what they mean by that is, “He loves us in that he lets us do whatever we want to do.” So our capacity to understand God is limited by our finitude and by our selfishness.
I am a proselytizer. I believe Christianity has to affirm and does affirm that the whole world needs to love and recognize God’s love being extended to them in and through Jesus Christ. He is the one who best and most fully exemplifies who God is, and it is important for all of us to recognize that and bow before him. Having said that, I am repelled by some methods of proselytization that are used in our culture and by Christians. I want to clearly separate myself from them. But if you came to me and said, “Drew, I’m looking into Christianity. I’m a good Jew. Should I look into Christianity?” I would say, “Absolutely and let me help you in any way that I can to argue the case for Christian belief.” If you ask, I should try to answer your questions, but I should absolutely never try to impose Christianity upon you.
I believe that Christianity is the truth and should rightly be thought of that way. But if you are not a Christian, I still have the responsibility to recognize the image of God in you and therefore to respect you as another human being. I must love you in any way that I can. People who divide people on the basis of race or people who think less of other people because they have a different set of beliefs or a different gender or even a different gender orientation are not following the biblical teachings of who we are supposed to be as Christians and how we are supposed to behave. We are simply supposed to love one another.
Sharon Salzberg is a Buddhist author and cofounder of the U.S. Insight Meditation Society. Her most recent book is Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection.
“God” is not a term that tends to be used in the Buddhist tradition. When the Buddha was asked about the presence or the absence of God or a supreme being, he remained silent because he lived in disputatious times when people liked to argue about terminology and about sectarian views. They didn’t focus on what he considered to be the most important thing, their own personal experience. Similarly, I am interested in the things that we can directly experience, like a sense of connection to all of life and those moments when we see ourselves in someone else or get a glimpse of the bigger fabric of life of which we are a part. We can gain a sense of love and nature and that things aren’t just happening randomly.
I think the very notion of some kind of spiritual principle can give our lives meaning: The meaning is in having a sense of meaning at all. Too many people today find their life meaningless. It’s just about accumulating endless possessions. People think they would feel happiest putting other people down and squelching them. There are so many myths and, frankly, lies that we tend to believe. A sense of a spiritual presence, finding a deeper meaning in our actions and the power of good-heartedness can align us with forces for good in this world.
I do not identify myself as a Buddhist. I don’t even think there is such a thing in my understanding of the Buddhist teaching. The first night of my first retreat, the teacher said that the Buddha did not teach Buddhism; the Buddha taught a way of life. That way of life is available for anyone who is interested.
Patrick Desbois, a French Roman Catholic priest, received the Légion d´honneur, France’s highest honor, for documenting the Holocaust. His most recent book is In Broad Daylight: The Secret Procedures Behind the Holocaust by Bullets.
Not only am I a Catholic priest, I have worked to document genocides for 17 years. I’ve chronicled the genocide of Yazidis in Iraq, the mass shootings of the Roma and the murder of millions of Jews during World War II. As I’ve investigated all sorts of unimaginably horrifying genocides, mass killings and killers, I find myself confronting God. It’s so hard to reconcile God with these situations. I find myself shouting to God, “See, look what has happened! Why has this happened?” The fact is that sometimes in the modern world we are fighting with God, and other times we are fighting in front of God. How we find God depends on where we are and when we are. When everything is going well and you feel happy, it is easy to find God. When we confront a mass grave or the fact that children and young girls have been raped and sold for sex, it is not so easy. One of my friends says that we have to help God in these cases.
When I began my investigations, a Jewish friend told me that I was bringing love where evil had succeeded. I believe that much of the meaning of God today can be found when we choose to bring love and justice to places where evil has reigned. God is not in a book or in a computer. God is not in a mass grave or a gun. God is in bringing love to other people, God is in searching for the truth and God is in seeking justice. My faith derives from listening to survivors, to people who participated in killings and to those who stood by and did nothing. I try to respond in a way that has affinity with God.
Ruth Calderon is an Israeli politician and Talmud scholar specializing in the secular study of sacred texts. She was a member of the Knesset from 2013 to 2015 and is currently a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.
I usually feel embarrassed when I talk about religiosity or God. I think that’s because I’m a secular Israeli and therefore not used to those kinds of conversations. Where I grew up, talk about such things is very private. But when I say I am a secular Israeli, that in no way means that I do not have the concept of God in my life or that God is not meaningful to me. I do think about and talk to God quite often and even pray at times. However, that is not something I would choose to do publicly or in an institutional setting. I was taught that it is not polite to speak too much about something so personal and important. I am not comfortable with making students pray. I feel that prayer should happen at times and in places where there is a climate of freedom, and prayer should be left to the student’s choice.
Personally, I have a very strong concept of God. To me, God is a secret, a mystery, a hope that I will never fully understand. There is a magical quality to God. In the Jewish story that I am part of, God is the most important protagonist; he is an artist, an architect and a father. God made this world for us to live in, ruled it in biblical stories but retreated to the heavens after the destruction of the Temple—he is there now, watching what we are doing to his world. In the Talmud, God is an old father or king who needs us to take part and care for the world. God’s real name is not known to humans. That is part of the power and beauty of God. There is a significant part of existence that we simply can’t understand, but we somehow feel it. We can’t put our hands around it though. In that way, faith in God has a fairytale-like quality.
I sometimes tell people that Israelis are a Catholic Jewish community and Americans are a Protestant Jewish community. In America, there’s more of the feminine side to God, and Americans have the urge to relate God and sacred texts to the way they feel about the world. In Israel, when one says God in a public space, it means a big father who is in our favor. For many Israeli Jews, we see God as the very masculine head of the tribe. And I say that as a lifelong feminist!
Irwin Kula is an American Conservative rabbi and the president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
God is diversity on steroids. As human beings, we share that diversity. So we have as many different ways of understanding God as we have groups, tribes and people. People mean everything by God. There is nothing that you can think of that someone else hasn’t already thought God is. People think God is a creator. People think God is a destroyer. People think God is a liberator. People think God is an enslaver. People think God is everything. People think God is nothing. People think God is good. People think God is evil.
People get the God that they need. So if you are an authoritarian, you organize yourself around a God who commands and orders, who rewards and punishes, who is clear about order and about what’s good and bad. If you have a more integrated personality and don’t divide things up quite as neatly as that, then you are going to believe in a more flowing, seamless God who is less supreme and external, but more loving and intimate. When one way of viewing God no longer works for us, we discover, reveal and uncover a new way of organizing our reality. Right now, the interesting and challenging thing about being human is the explosion of voices. This explosion of diversity is literally breaking down any one group’s sense that their conception of God is the “one-all, be-all.”
The issue for me is less about what God is, and more how we understand the job God does. Whenever I talk about God, I am very conscious of how I have employed God. I ask myself—what job is God getting done for me right now? It’s really important to know that. Am I using God to express anger or purely to protect what I already believe? My sense right now in Jewish life is that God is used to deflect any serious conversation about the complexity of life. Instead “God” is employed as the ultimate cheerleader armed with distinct political and psychological views. Personally I know that when I am 100 percent sure about a political view or something in my interpersonal life or what Judaism says, then God’s role for me is to mess that up. Because from God’s perspective, all human perspectives come from God. When I have a perspective that I am so certain of, there is another perspective I am probably dissing, demonizing, missing or devaluing. I have to account for God’s perspective: Everything is somehow true. I call that sacred messiness. We never have a handle on God. We’re always growing and God is always growing. So when someone asks me, “Do you think God exists?” I always answer, “Not yet.”
Sally Kempton is an author and a teacher of meditation and spiritual philosophy. Her most recent book is Awakening Shakti: The Transformative Power of the Goddesses of Yoga.
For me, the divine is Shakti, the primordial transcendent Presence that manifests worlds, and lives within every atom and quark and molecule, including our own bodies.
In the eastern tradition, the Absolute has two aspects, the “masculine”, which is pure illumination, and the “feminine” or Goddess aspect, which is pure creative energy and love. The feminine aspect is called Shakti, which means power, or subtle cosmic energy.
Most Hindu traditions hold that while Absolute reality has no form, it can manifest in various divine forms, known as deities. Some of these are direct portals into the Absolute; when you invoke one through meditation and mantra, she can awaken in your life and empower you to realize your own divine nature. I’ve found it powerful to invoke various deity forms in my practice, particularly goddess forms.
Shakti, who is the formless source of everything, assumes various forms as different goddesses. Each is a personification of the variety of energies that make up the world and our own consciousness or awareness. Carl Jung viewed Greek gods as archetypes of universal psychic energies; I believe that the Hindu deities are similarly part of our psychic structure, and that once we learn to recognize them, they personify energies we have felt, but may never have thought to name or invoke. Each goddess represents energies that are present in every part of our lives—the physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual. They are active equally in men and in women. So goddess practice is not just a “girl thing.” The Goddess transcends gender.
Goddess practice is increasingly important. The political and social empowerment of women in the last 100 years has created a generation of women who believe that masculine and feminine are equal. The goddess archetypes make sense and resonate with these empowered women. We are now in a social revolution which includes the belief that the divine must be feminine as well as masculine. The old patriarchal idea that God is a man seems completely illogical to women as they come to understand their own power and capacities. Once you start recognizing the divine feminine playing in her different flavors throughout reality, you begin to see how the whole world—including you—is expressing different faces of the Goddess. To embrace this understanding about sacred energy is deeply liberating. It is a pathway that can help heal humanity.
Brian Greene, a professor at Columbia University, is an American theoretical physicist, mathematician and string theorist.
The laws of physics are the closest thing in the world today that I would align with a theological perspective. I view the world as extraordinarily coherent and harmonious because of the way the fundamental laws of physics are able, with just a few symbols etched on a piece of paper, to describe a wealth of phenomena, from subatomic particles to the edge of the universe. That resonates with me in a similar way as the order, organization and explanation for the universe that adherents of religion will ascribe to a deity. From my perspective, that order and organization come from fundamental physical laws; for others, that’s the role that God plays.
The question is, what role do we envision God playing in the world? For some, it’s to give an explanation for where the world came from and where it is going. For others, it’s to discover the meaning of existing and why we are here. For the former, I absolutely think the better approach is to use the laws of physics because they are predictive and actually give you insights, whereas referring to a deity doesn’t do much beyond replacing one mystery with another mystery. But if one is looking inward as opposed to outward and trying to gain some sense of historical cohesion and how we got here as a species, then I think the theological perspective is extremely valuable because it captures through religious stories the qualities that have been most important to us.
I think of myself as a spiritual person, but not in a traditional religious sense. I look at the world with awe and wonder. I am struck by the spectacular way that the universe is put together. I believe that too much weight is placed on religion as providing an ethical perspective on the world. Equating a religious view to an ethical perspective on the world is a false connection. We, as human beings, naturally come to views of right and wrong—we don’t need God in the background overlooking what we’re doing to live an ethical life. Ethics come from upbringing, living in the modern world and having a rational view of what it means to live a life that’s compatible with a wider culture. It has very little to do with religion or theology.
Jay Michaelson is a non-denominational ordained rabbi and the author of six books, including God vs Gay? The Religious Case for Equality.
We are at an interesting moment right now in America because there is a decline in traditional religious affiliation and an increase in spiritual searching. Religions such as Judaism and Christianity are becoming smaller, more traditional, more Orthodox and more right-wing. At the same time, record numbers of people are taking up meditation, yoga and other contemplative practices, whether they are spiritual or not. In the Jewish community, large institutions seem more interested in tribe, nationalism and Israel and less interested in what people are actually looking for—those valuable contemplative practices. When we talk about God and what God means in the 21st century, we need to recognize that fewer and fewer people understand it as traditionally defined. That is a challenge and an opportunity.
The data are pretty clear that in each religion, there is a big cleavage between traditionalists and non-traditionalists. For traditionalists, it’s remarkable how much the very traditional concept of God as a sort of father figure has endured, regardless of whether he is literally in the sky or has a son. I am definitely not in the traditional camp. I can’t square that understanding of God with what we know about history and developments in science. My personal God concept is a kind of wishy-washy, new-age, everything is God and God is a way of understanding our relationship to all that is. When I say the letters of the Hebrew word for God—yud, hay, vav, hay—I see the words “was,” “is,” “will be” and “just what is.” Personally, I find that any spiritual practice that affords a bit of a break from the mind’s usual neurosis can be conducive to gratitude, wonder and a sense of awe. So non-indigenously Jewish practices such as yoga and meditation are really like rocket fuel for traditional Jewish practices.
For me, God has something to do with awe at what is and responding to that awe in a way that lessens suffering for others. There is the Jewish dichotomy between responsibility to the divine or to what is, and our responsibilities to other people. In that way, becoming a parent has increased my sense of getting beyond myself, my feelings of awe and of a larger continuum that “Jay” is only a tiny part of. That’s not an entirely new idea for me, but certainly that experience has become much richer as I look at this new life and feel all those love chemicals like serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin floating around in my brain. I have that sense that what’s continuing is a mystery. I hope that mystery will continue long after I am gone.