Originally published in Nova, 1965.
It might seem intolerably sentimental and priggish, an improper baring of soul, to write in a magazine on ‘What God means to me’. The old prophetic injunction to walk humbly with God refers not so much to modesty or meekness as to a decent reticence which ought to inhibit any wearing of the religious heart on the sleeve. For a rabbi to appear to indulge in religious exhibitionism might seem even more objectionable. The duty imposed on him by his profession is to teach the faith handed down by tradition, not to imply that he has a cosy little private religious world of his own. Yet, if it is true, as I believe it is, that the heart of religion consists of a personal relationship with God, to yield completely to the force of the above argument would be effectively to banish all talk of religion. If the subject is to be raised, a blend of frankness and reserve is called for. It is in the hope that there need be no contradiction between the two that the following observations are offered.
One of Judaism’s greatest religious poems is the Song of Moses, in which there occurs the verse: ‘This is my God and I will glorify Him, The God of my father and I will exalt Him.’ (Exodus 15: 2) There are two concepts here. The first is ‘my God’. Without this, without the intensely personal response of the individual soul, the worship of the God of tradition can easily degenerate into a worship of tradition. But the second concept, ‘God of my father’, is equally important. If a credo, however personal, is to avoid a surrender to whim, it must incorporate the insights of the community of believers.
Anyone who takes the trouble to read Herman Wouk’s bestseller This Is My God, for example, cannot proceed very far without noticing that the title is a misnomer and that what Wouk is really telling us about is the God of his father and grandfather. In practice this means that a considerable body of teachings about God has come down to the Jew from the past, but that he is bound to exercise a certain degree of selectivity in deciding which of these speaks to his own situation. He need not reject out of hand ideas which seem irrelevant to him; appreciating that matters of temperament, disposition, training and background are involved, he should be open-minded enough to acknowledge that even those notions which ring no bell for him might do so for others. In speaking of what God means to him he will not necessarily imply that this is what it ought to mean to everyone.
Indeed, the ancient teachers of Judaism, the rabbis, went further when they taught that a variety of conceptions is a sure test of the authenticity of man’s quest for the divine. The voice of God, they say, is heard according to the capacity or each human being; a man is bound to hear it differently from a woman, a child from an adolescent, a youth from an old man. Since God is infinite there can be no end to growth in understanding the truth about Him and His relationship to His creatures. According to the Jewish mystics the chief occupation of the saints in paradise is not harp-playing but a deepening consciousness of what God means to them.
‘What God means to me’ is here being considered in terms of significance, not of logic. The other question of the logical meaning of religious statements is, to be sure, at least as worthy of consideration. There is today a vast literature on how statements about God are to be ‘cashed’. But for our purpose it is sufficient to make clear that by God is meant the Supreme Being, all-good and all-powerful, Creator of the universe, whose providence extends over everything. In other words—the God of traditional theism. Only this God has any significance for me. I cannot myself, though others evidently can, feel any sympathy with the various attempts to keep the word ‘God’ alive (made by those for whom the God of traditional theism is dead) by using it to convey the idea of a force or power at work in the universe which guarantees that the noblest human aspirations will eventually win out. This idea of a built-in capacity for winning out is obviously radically different from the transcendent God of the Bible and, though profound, it is philosophically less subtle and psychologically less sound. It is hard to see how the mind of man—a reed, but, as Pascal says, a thinking reed—can bow in worship before a vague, impersonal, mindless ‘thing’. The God of my religious tradition is utterly beyond all human conception, but is best thought of by humans as the Being with whom one can enter into personal relationship.
Having said this I feel obliged to confess that some of the terms used in traditional theism have little direct significance for me. I can see, for instance, that to speak of God as Father is to call attention to His loving care for His creatures, and to speak of Him as King is to point to His dominion over all. For all that, I do not find the terms Father and King much evocative in my religious life. As a Jew I continue to use the terms and try hard to get as much significance out of them as I can, but must in all honesty admit that these terms do not really come alive as part of my religious vocabulary. The words simply do not ‘jell’—Father because of its all-too-human associations, and King because kings are altogether outside the range of my own experience, while those I have read about are nearly all weak or despotic or capricious or vain. I am not pleading for a revision of the traditional vocabulary; I am pretty sure that at this late hour no change can be accomplished and, in any event, it would surely be stupid to demand it on grounds which many would consider to be personal idiosyncrasy. All I am permitted to say is that these terms do not awaken much response in me, even by analogy, and that if I am to worship God I must rely on other terms which do evoke an emotional response.
What are these terms? They are those which suggest that God is above all terminology. If the paradox is allowed they are no-term terms. I am thinking, for example, of the Jewish mystics’ use of ‘nothing’ to speak of God as He is in Himself, because of Him nothing can be said. I do not think that I am now contradicting what has been said earlier regarding the inadequacy of terms like Force or Power. If a term is to be used it should be a personal one because God is more, not less, than personality. A ‘thing’ cannot be worshipped because it is less than the worshipper. But the no-term terms are there to remind us that God is infinitely more than anything we can imagine. They imply that when we have extracted all the meaning we can out of life there is still so much more of awe and wonder and yearning that an eternity is required for its appropriation.
The mood is expressed in the very well-known ‘Adon Olam’ (Lord of the Universe) hymn:
‘And when the All shall cease to be,
In dread lone splendour He shall reign,
He was, He is, He shall remain
In glorious eternity.’
And in another mediaeval hymn of the synagogue: ‘They told of Thee, but not as Thou must be, Since from Thy work they tried to body Thee. To countless visions did their pictures run, Behold through all the visions Thou art one.’ In these and similar hymns God is Mystery of mysteries (another term popular with the Jewish mystics), the source of all wonder, utterly beyond the most audacious speculation, the Name which cannot be uttered.
Attempting to psychoanalyse oneself is not the most profitable of occupations. Yet I am bound to recognize that preference for this aspect of the deity has its dubious elements. There is something of the prurient in it, a desire to pierce the veil, to embrace the mysterious for its own sake, even to feel a cut above the more pedestrian worshipper. Worse, it can serve what in Judaism is treated as an ultimate sin, a wallowing in religiosity divorced from the concrete expression of religion in acts of kindness, sympathy, fair play and justice. It is all too easy to evade by dwelling on the impersonal side of deity. But for all the soul-searching I remain convinced that the deeper meaning of religion is to be found in man’s confrontation by That which endows everything else with meaning, but which Itself is utterly beyond all meaning. I am no mystic myself, but am completely unrepentant in my admiration for what the mystics were haltingly trying to say.
How terribly unctuous all this sounds! Who am I, preoccupied with material things, to speak of the transcendence of God? Rejecting so frequently the opportunities my religion affords me of bringing a little holiness into life, how dare I presume to admire the mystics? My only excuse is that the tension between the vision and the realities which frustrate it is precisely what religion is about, certainly what my religion, Judaism, is about. I notice that others are bothered by the same tensions, that – as the rabbis say – man’s good inclination is at war with his evil inclination and that even temporary victory is only possible because God helps man in his struggle. What God means to me is that He never lets me forget completely that I am created in His image though descended from the ape.
Possibly man’s deepest need is for his life to have significance. To speak nowadays of Heaven or eternal life is unpopular. When you are dead you are dead, he runs the dominant contemporary philosophy. But it seems overwhelmingly convincing to me, as it has seemed to so many of my ancestors, that God does not create for permanent waste and destruction. If man’s intellectual and spiritual powers, if all his creativity and goodness, all his achievements and his dreams, are doomed to eventual annihilation, then there is no ultimate meaning to life. I cannot pretend to have any adequate conception of eternal life nor can I affirm that such is always an attractive prospect for me. We all have moods when we prefer to be without anchorage of any kind, when we feel terrified at the thought that nothing is lost, when we are exhilarated at contemplating that nothing matters. But most of the time I do feel a psychological need for that which I do to be of significance and I suspect that this feeling is shared by others. Nothing but ultimate significance can satisfy this need and only God can provide this. ‘Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter,’ says the Preacher, ‘Fear God and keep His commandments.’ What God means to me is that there is a conclusion to the whole matter, a conclusion so sublime that it can only be hinted at by speaking of sharing of God’s goodness forever. The alternatives are real. Either the universe will expire with a bang or a whimper or else men will one day (or, better, outside time altogether) enter into their inheritance as the children of God.