May 11, 2010
Almighty? No Way! Coming to Know the God We Already Love
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Reflect for a moment: The universe operates according to unchanging physical laws. If you were to do the same thing over and over and over again without change, wouldn’t the result be the same each time? Yet the universe has instantiated the same unchanging laws for 14 billion years, and new and increasingly complex events continue to emerge. You have got to ask yourself — why? I see God in that emerging novelty and increasing complexity. God is the One who makes relationships possible, the force that makes for greater complexity and deepening experience. God makes possible our ability to love, reach and help each other.
I don’t think God gave my son autism or could have stopped it. Tohu va-vohu is always present. I don’t believe God caused the Holocaust or could have prevented it. Creation is about containing the chaos, inviting order where there was none. The tehom is always bubbling chaos, and God is steadily extending cosmos. But the tohu va-vohu remains real, innovative and dangerous. The tehom continues to threaten and to beckon, bubbling over in crisis, tragedy and novelty alike.
God is the resilient force luring us/commanding us to rise to the best choices, celebrating our creation into freedom and asking us to covenant as partners (the rabbinic term is shutafim) in the continuing creation of the world. That we are given the God-like ability to create, to innovate, to perform deeds of lovingkindness and acts of justice is what it means to embody tzelem Elohim, God’s image, in the world. And God’s persuasive love is sufficiently resilient, sufficiently determined, to see us through in love.
In that sense, God is like the GPS system in my wife’s car; I call its voice “Glynnis.” When we drive, Glynnis routinely shows that it understands God better than I do. Glynnis and I will both say to my wife (the driver), “When you get to the stop sign, take a left.” And then, Elana, for reasons neither Glynnis nor I comprehend, will drive to the stop sign and keep going straight. This is where Glynnis and I part ways. Because I want to blurt out, “What are you doing? I told you you were supposed to ... ! You’re going to miss the exit!” But Glynnis simply says, “Recalibrating.” Then it offers a corrective next choice: “At the next corner, take a right, then a right, then a right.” Glynnis remains calm, unruffled and will recalibrate however often a driver makes a wrong choice.
I now know that God is like the GPS in that way. God doesn’t judge or condemn us; God doesn’t coerce us. God offers us the best possible choice (mitzvah) at this (and every) moment. If we rise to God’s lure, then God says, “Good — now here’s the subsequent best choice” (the next mitzvah). If we don’t accept the lure, God says, “Recalibrating. OK, given your last choice, here’s the best possible choice you can now make.” Like Glynnis, God persistently invites us, lures us, commands us to make the best choice. That model of God invites us onto a path of compassion, justice and resilient strength that the bully in the sky never could.
There is an old rabbinic tale about the wind and the sun arguing about who is stronger. Turns out it is a process story: The wind says, “I’ll show you that I’m stronger. I’m going to get those people to remove their jackets.” But the more the wind blew to force their jackets off, the more the people clutched their jackets tight. The sun said, “You’re trying the wrong kind of strength. Watch.” And the sun simply radiated light. And as the sun’s beams beckoned, the people loosened up their jackets. Eventually the sun’s light was so beautiful and so intoxicating that they chose to take their jackets off, because they wanted to. A God of invitational power is actually the God we believe in and one that process thought allows us to see in the unvarnished beauty of Torah and masorah (tradition). We now have the science and the philosophy to be able to embrace what we know and to live what we love.
I do not believe in the up there/out there bully in the sky. I would much rather celebrate the cosmic companion who is creating a universe in which I, and the rest of creation, am invited toward cosmos, connection, justice and love. You already know in your heart what your best choice is at this moment. Yet, even now, you remain free to demur, free to indulge your anger, your pettiness, your hunger, your exhaustion — whatever it is that makes you deviate from the mitzvah that awaits, and your truest, best self, the tzelem Elohim within. But God loves you with an ahavat olam, an abiding love. God bids you to make the best choice and gives you the capacity to make it. “See,” God says, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your children may live.”
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson (bradartson.com) holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine dean’s chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, where he is vice president. He teaches Jewish theology and philosophy as well as homiletics, and is the author of more than 200 articles and nine books, most recently “The Everyday Torah: Weekly Reflections and Inspirations” (McGraw-Hill). Rabbi Artson just received his doctorate from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Philosophy & Theology. He and his son, Jacob Artson, are co-authoring a popular book on process theology through the life journeys that brought them to these liberating insights.
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