יום שבת, נובמבר 11, 2006

 

On Atheism

As I alluded to in the previous post, I was once a (nominal) Lutheran. I was baptized (though I can't say that I recall) and confirmed (though I barely recall more of that than of my baptism). I guess that means I was a Lutheran--at least in the institutionally recognized sense. But I never really was a Lutheran, or any kind of Christian, for a very simple reason: The Jesus Gap. I could not bridge the gap between the story of Jesus as related over and over again in Christian teachings, and my own beliefs--whatever those might have been, and whatever those might be now.

I probably last attended a Christian service (other than weddings or funerals) in my late teens or very early twenties. I just ceased to have any interest. I don't think I ever believed in Jesus as Son of God, and at some point I simply stopped even asking myself whether I believed in God at all.

Somewhere in my later twenties I came to be interested in Judaism, but I still did not address the issue of God, per se. I was interested in the cultural and historical aspects of the Jewish tradition, but I considered myself agnostic. I never considered myself atheist, but I was probably pretty close. It just did not matter to me.

The subjects of atheism and what it means, and the relation of concepts held by agnostics and atheists of how the world works and our place in it, have been on my mind again recently, for two reasons.

First, our senior rabbi made an interesting remark during the Kol Nidre service about atheism and Jewish concepts of God. She said that atheists who look closely at their beliefs might find that their ideas actually match a Jewish concept of God pretty closely. (As an aside, I wonder if atheists examine their beliefs any more than some of the most fervent Christians do.)

The rabbi's comment began with the observation that we all "wrestle with God" (a formulation I never heard in my Lutheran days, but have heard over and over since attending a synagogue--a reform synagogue--regularly). She added that Judaism has given us a broad spectrum of beliefs about God, with many contradictions, but a general notion that God, to Jews, is simply beyond any genuine human ability to describe.

The rabbi then related a story of a man who went village to village searching for God. In one village, the rabbi assured the man that if he stayed a while in the village, surely he would come to know God. Whenever he felt lonely, he went to the house of study, where villagers engaged him in uplifting stories about Judaism's long and rich history. At one point, he became ill. Villagers cared for him.

The man ended up staying for many years. Then one day, the rabbi asked him if he had found God yet. He replied that he had indeed, right here in the village, in study and in the people who were so kind.

The lesson in the story, of course, is that God can be found everywhere.

The second reason for thinking about atheism and responses to it was an item in the local newspaper, originally published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, about a new book defending atheism. (Another aside: If it has to be defended as a set of beliefs--or even as a set of non-beliefs--is atheism just another religion after all?)


The newspaper story is an interview with Richard Dawkins, a professor at Oxford who has written a recent book called The God Delusion, in which he aims to advance the notion that:



All religion is superstition... and faith breeds ignorance, oppression and strife. We respect it too much and question it too little; meanwhile, evolutionary science, which offers a brilliant and beautiful explanation of origins and existence, is bashed by ignoramuses...



In addition to that remark about science and evolution--which I will come back to--a few things in the interview struck me. For instance, Dawkins was asked about the great works of art and architecture that have been inspired over the generations by religion. Dawkins responded:


We can look at a lot of those things as historical or cultural relics. One reason art has historically been linked with religion is because works were commissioned by the church. Had that not been the case, perhaps Bach's oratorios would have been inspired by the beauty of the Milky Way; perhaps Michelangelo's gifts as displayed in the Sistine Chapel would have been laid out elsewhere in praise of scientific principles, which also can inspire great wonder.



That is all quite valid. And, indeed, those who would deny evolution--and its teaching in schools (whether public or private)--in the name of religion are indeed "ignoramuses." But can anyone claim that science has an answer to all of the mysteries of the universe and creation? Of course not. Maybe it will some day, maybe it never will. But if we are inspired by the "beauty of the Milky Way" or the "great wonder" of scientific principles, or the majesty of mountains and trees and other things in nature, what are we doing? We are seeing the unity of the many components of time and space that are beyond our full comprehension.

And while I am new to this whole idea of Jewish spirituality, that all sounds like a very Jewish conception to me.

One last comment about Dawkins. He is asked in the interview, "What would you most like to tell people of faith?" He responds:

Be skeptical -- truly examine your faith. Ask yourself if there is evidence for your beliefs.


Well, indeed. And that sounds like wrestling with God. (Do atheists wrestle with their "a-God"? Would that be the same thing?). Dawkins continues:

Reflect on the fact that you are most likely of the faith you happen to have been brought up in, and that if you'd been born into a different faith, you'd be equally fervent about it.


Ah, most likely, but not necessarily!

Comments:
In reading your post the notion of "wrestling with God" struck a memory--and there is a passage in Genesis where Jacob wrestles with an angel and is it is then that he is given the name Israel.

One translation renders the language as follows: "The man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob but Israel [He Struggles With God], because you have struggled with God and with men-and you have won."

A series of parallel translations can be found here: http://bible.cc/genesis/32-28.htm

I concur, btw, about your statements concerning beauty and inspiration
 
And, for what it is worth, I find that I, too, find myself "wrestling with God" in the sense you mentioned in your post.
 
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