from faith to trust Knowing God

Faith and Reason: Proving God Exists.
Rosh Hashanah 2019/5780

A philosopher was arguing with a respected rabbi about the existence of G-d. The philosopher felt that although there were persuasive arguments proving G-d’s existence, there were many equally persuasive one disproving His existence. After a time, the philosopher grew exasperated. “You are a wise man’ he said to the rabbi. ‘Why are you not moved by all of the arguments disputing G-ds existence?’
The rabbi smiled. ‘I envy you,’ he said to the philosopher, ‘because you are so involved in pondering the existence of G-d, you are always thinking about Him, while I spend most of my time thinking about myself.’ With that they parted ways.
The philosopher was flattered by the rabbi’s remarks, yet disturbed that the question was never answered. As time passed and he grew older, the true implications of the rabbi’s words finally dawned on him. “The rabbi actually insulted me, ‘ he reflected. “The reason I spend all my time pondering G-d’s existence is that I am certain that I exist, so the only question is whether G-d also exists. For the rabbi, G-d’s existence is a given, so the eternal question is whether he exists, and if so, why?

Tonight, Jews all over the world will celebrate Rosh haShanah, New Year, and they will offer prayers and confessions to God. Their God. The God of the children of Israel. At other times, Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Africans, Native Americans and other First People will all offer their own New Year prayers to their own God or gods. And there will many other people, for whom the very idea of dialoguing with God is absurd and meaningless.

These days there are many conversations, in the media and in popular books, about whether God exists or not. There have always been discussions about God. Until more recent times, most of these discussions have been less about the existence of God, and more on the role of faith and the value of rational thought, regarding an on-going relationship with God.

Before we explore these ideas, we need to address the view that modern atheists hold. One of the better-known contemporary exponents is Richard Dawkins, he of The God Delusion fame. Apparently the reason that people believe in God is because they don’t think, or they don’t think in the way that Dawkins thinks is thinking. One of Dawkins’s quotes more or less says everything he goes on to repeat in many books. “Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.” ‘Rational inquiry’ he calls it.

Dawkins is not the only, nor the smartest, person promoting the confused ‘apples with pears’ view that faith and reason oppose one another. That’s like saying that Modigliani paintings and Henry Moore sculptures are ‘rubbish’ because they are anatomically inaccurate. That would apply to a medical view, and not to art. Most evidence-based thinkers might ask questions such as what faith is, how does it arise, what function might it serve, why would humans feel that is valuable. Evolution theory says that, if some behaviour or feature is no longer useful, the organism develops away from that expression, and yet here we are, in a world where the majority still ‘believe’. Dawkins addresses the problem like any tyrant: intolerant of any disagreement. Just get rid of it. People who believe in God are simply ‘wrong thinking’. As even passing scholarship will expose, Dawkins is an unremarkable thinker, with little respect for the tradition of thinkers that have preceded him, for over 2000 years. Dick Dawkins is merely the most pompous, self-promoting and ignorant such person in modern times, sort of like the Donny Trump of theology and philosophy.

To better understand what is meant by God, we could start by asking, that if two people, of different religions, both said that they ‘believed in God’, would they mean the same thing, be referring to the same God? They would have different names, for sure. And perhaps each might secretly believe that they were ‘more right’, than the other person, who, for all their possible piety, was mistaken. Or perhaps they might say, ‘Oh, it’s all the same, you and me use different names and rituals, but we are really praising the same God.’

A quote from the sometimes-controversial psychiatrist R D Laing would be one way to widen this conversation.

“[N]owhere in the Bible is there any argument about the existence of gods, demons, angels. People did not first believe in God: they experienced His presence, as was true of other spiritual agencies. The question was not whether God existed, but whether this particular God was the greatest god of all, or the only God; and what was the relation of the various spiritual agencies to each other. Today, there is a public debate, not as to the trustworthiness of God, the particular place in the spiritual hierarchy of different spirits, etc., but whether God or such spirits even exist or ever have existed.”

This perspective changes the discussion. The question, in earlier times, is primarily not a challenge to whether God existed or not. People, everywhere on the planet, and this included thinking people, had their God or gods, and significant portions of their daily and communal efforts were devoted to maintaining a favourable relationship with their Deity. From the surviving records of humans that we possess, going back maybe 6 or 7 thousand years, almost all people, everywhere, believed in their personal or national God, or their many gods, built temples, offered prayers and sacrifices, and honoured or called on their gods at every point of human life from birth, though marriage and childbirth, through seasons and harvests and joy and suffering, in an endless variety of rituals, and finally in all aspects of death, including myths about the afterlife and possible rebirth or eternity.

Because many modern people no longer have the rituals and learning to open them to the experiences of living with God, they question whether He exists. It might be assumed that atheism is a new phenomenon, something that only developed in the past few hundred years in an increasingly materialist western society. However, there have always been those who doubted and those who believed. There are also very early writings that discuss every aspect of belief and rational thought. What really emerges is that it is possible that the question of faith and a dialogue with Deity might have meant something different to earlier people than what these terms mean in modern times.

So why do the majority of people ‘believe’ in some form of deity, how does this arise within us, and to whom were these prayers and actions directed?

The Cambridge classical scholar, Jane Ellen Harrison, offers a useful perspective on these ‘early times’, and what ‘an experience of God’ might feel like. On archaic and ancient religious practices, she says:

“In all the primitive rituals so far examined.. one surprising fact stands out clean and clear; we have nothing that we in our modern sense of the words could call the worship of a god – of sanctity we have an abundance, of divinity nothing. Yet all the while, if we examine the matter closely, there are elements which must and did go to the making of a god. Only it is important to grasp as the outset firmly this fact, that it is possible to have a living and vigorous religion without a theology.”

To understand this curious sentence, we should consider what that ‘sense of sanctity’ might be. Surprisingly, it is a simple enough matter for a person to experience this sense of wonder and awe and reverence, and a sacred sense of inclusion with creation, than that of our usual ego-bound existence. Everyone who has witnessed a baby being born, seen a whale breaching through the ocean surface, stood on a mountain and looked down at a canyon, watched a lunar eclipse or a full moon rising large on the horizon, looked into eyes of a beloved and said ‘I love you’ will know immediately what this feeling of sanctity is. No one needs to be taught how to have this experience. It is inbuilt into our range of abilities as a human, an inborn instinct.

The value of this perspective is that it allows for an experience of Divinity before these experiences were described or classified as belonging to any specifically named god.

This sounds similar to the point made by atheist naturalists, that the world is full of awe and wonder, but that does not prove the existence of God. So we will need to consider other perspectives on what could be meant by God, when people say they believe in God.

In a famous interview with Carl Jung, in 1959, when Jung was already in his 80’s, he was asked whether he believed in God. He answered that he did not believe, he knew that God exists. This led to a media outcry and Jung explained what he meant in a subsequent letter. Jung believes in a sense of Deity, a personal God, but does not limit this belief to having one god over another. He says, “I did not say in the broadcast, ‘There is a God.’ I said ‘I do not need to believe in God; I know.’ Which does not mean: I do know a certain God (Zeus, Jahwe, Allah, the Trinitarian God, etc.) but rather: I do know that I am obviously confronted with a factor unknown in itself, which I call ‘God’ in consensu omnium [consent of everyone]..”

At this point it appears that the modern rational narrative got close to uncovering the mystery, but dropped the ball when it mattered most. They imagine God like a person, only much bigger and with great power and questionable emotions. Which probably is what God is for many people. But that’s not what God is, a bloke in heaven with long beard. What they missed is that God is the very universe itself, infinite and self-creating.

This idea is clarified in the teachings of the great Islamic and Sufi scholar, Henry Corbin. In explicating Corbin’s ideas, Tom Cheetham writes:

“[T]he ultimate Real, the active and living source of reality, is a personal God… Don’t think ‘person’ in a finite human sense… God is not ‘a being’ at all, not even an infinite one. God is Be-ing in the sense that without God, nothing can be… God is not a being that can be known, but rather should be revisioned as the open field of imagination itself.”

And there you have it. Existence itself is God, all of it, every part of existence, and if you like, the possibility of non-existence as well. That is what is meant by God, before anyone or any group go on to then name their own favourite ways of defining their experience and what they feel are the qualities and characteristics of their God.

This view is consistent with the perspective of the Kabbalah. In an exploration of the Sefer Yetzira, a highly regarded early Kabbalistic text, Rav Aryeh Kaplan says,

“It is in the same vein that some of the earliest Kabbalists interpret the first verse of Genesis to read, ‘In the beginning He created Elohim, along with the heaven and the earth’. The first thing that the Infinite Being created was the name Elohim..”

Here Rav Kaplan examines the very first line of the entire Torah. The translation usually reads ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’. However, the actual translation, as the words are written in Hebrew, would read ‘In the beginning created God..’. The Kabbalah teaches us that before Elokim, there is a force or power, existence itself, identified as ‘in the beginning’, that creates Elokim. Elokim then continues to create the heavens and the earth. That original force cannot be named, because any name would be inadequate and miss the point. It points to the force of creation itself, Being, which then expresses Itself in time and space as Elokim.

Later, when Adam is created (on erev Rosh haShanah), a different name of God is used, the name Yahweh, or yud-hey-vav-hey, or the Tetragrammaton. This is the name that is used to point to the unfathomable, ultimate name for God, as the conscious and creative force of the universe, the ‘ein sof’ or infinite existence. When Moses has his barefoot encounter with God at the burning bush, God ‘explains’ His name as meaning ‘I am that I am’, Being Itself. And not as an absent deity or intellectual idea, but as a moving, immanent, embodied and personal encounter.

Ultimately, it would seem that the immediate and personal experience of God as Being is what is most valuable. This would be the irrefutable ground for a belief of anything, despite what others might tell you. For example, if you had a swim in the sea, and then later, someone challenged you and said you had not been in the ocean, you would not be much bothered. Your own direct experience would sustain you, regardless of anyone else’s opinion. The same is true with an experience of God.

Now the question becomes, OK then, how does a person experience this infinite creative force, personally and directly. There is a simple answer. For this to happen, one needs to activate a very specific and highly sophisticated human faculty: Faith, the capacity to believe.

There is an opinion amongst some thinkers that reason is the highest faculty that humans possess, an ability superior to sensation and emotions. And that faith is sort of inferior emotion, based on need, wishful thinking or perhaps fear. But there are other opinions, that faith is a highly evolved, subtle and complex faculty of human consciousness, neither easy to open to, nor easy to use. This potential is activated by the Imagination, that same faculty we have that has made every single discovery, and has created every single work of art and science that human beings have accomplished. If we cannot first imagine, we could not achieve or understand or experience anything. Rather than considering imagination as a poor relative in the family of our human abilities, or think that imagination is only good for childish mind games, we might rather consider that the Imaginal faculty is the richest resource, and contains the best of what humans can accomplish. It is the ultimate source of all achievement, and all religious experience.

This not saying that we ‘imagine’ God, or make God up. It is important here to differentiate ‘fantasy’, which is just making something up, from an entirely different sort of sublime activity of opening to Imaginal Reality. Like any natural talent, to open to the imaginal realm, faith must be nurtured and practiced before one gets much good at it. Consider faith by analogy to reading or arithmetic. People have the latent potential to be able to access these useful skills, but they don’t simply ‘happen’ without guidance and training and practice.

So too with faith. Not the unreflected or blind faith of a child, but a different sort of faith, the ability to apply one’s consciousness to the possibility of an encounter with the Divine. And then to learn how to surrender into the experience when it occurs.

Maimonides discusses this matter of the Imaginal in detail, when he explores what is the necessary foundation for an authentic experience of God:

“Prophesy is, in truth and reality, an emanation sent forth by the Divine Being through the Active Intellect, in the first instance to man’s rational faculty, and then to his imaginal faculty; it is the highest degree and greatest perfection man can attain.. Part of the functions of the imaginative faculty.. is performed when the senses are at rest and pause in their action, for then it receives, to some extent, divine inspiration..”

The psychologist James Hillman makes a similar point, emphasising the difference between ‘making something up’ and ‘opening to the imaginal’:

“Imagination and its development is perhaps a religious problem, because imagination becomes real only through belief. As theology tells us, belief is an act of faith, or it is faith itself as a primary investment of energy in something that makes that something real. Inner life is pale and ephemeral (just as is the outer world in depressed states) when the ego does not turn to it, believe in it and endow it with reality. This investment, this commitment to inner life, increases its importance and gives it substance.. Only devotedly faithful attention can turn fantasy into imagination.”

Finally, the question of proving that God exists gets down to figuring out what we want to accomplish, and then using the correct ‘instrument’. One does not measure the dimensions of a table using a thermometer. Similarly, one cannot enter the imaginal realms by using the mind. The mind does a different job. The way to experience God is by way of the Imagination, through belief. And genuine belief is attained through the continual efforts and application of faith. This action is called ‘making soul’, slowly and steadily developing a relationship with the Divine, experiencing different ways of perceiving our being in reality.

The simplest and most profound expression I have found, regarding the matter of reason and faith, are addressed in a passage from the writings of James Hillman. He is speaking to the consideration of the idea of immortality, which is another aspect of the ‘conversation’ about God’, he says,

“Searching for proof and demonstration of immortality is muddled thinking, because proof and demonstration are categories of science and logic. The mind uses these categories and the mind is convinced by proof. That is why the mind can be replaced by machines and the soul not. Soul is not mind and has other categories for dealing with its problem of [God and] immortality. For the soul, the equivalents of proof and demonstration are belief and meaning. They are as difficult to develop and make clear, as hard to wrestle with, as is proof. The soul struggles with the afterlife question in terms of its experience. Out of these experiences, not out of dogma or logic or empirical evidence, the positions of faith are built. And the fact alone that the psyche has this faculty of belief, unaffected by proof or demonstration, presses us towards the possibility of psychic immortality.”

Faith is often an act of choosing to believe in something, even if initially a person is not completely certain about the matter. With continued application, God reveals Himself as personal experience. With these occurrences, which always arrive as a result of sustaining one’s efforts, faith finally evolves into an unshakable trust. The proof of the existence of God is attained by way of applying our belief, and discovering an intimate sense of meaning. Here, we experience the Sacred – and we are surprised, for we discover that God seems to want a relationship with us as much as we want a relationship with God.

Then one can say, ‘I don’t believe in God. I know God exists.’

We trust that we will certainly be blessed and inscribed in the Books of Life, for a happy and sweet year. 

And may He who blesses us be doubly blessed.