On Humanism and "God"

Nothing drives me more crazy than when I hear an athlete thanking God for a 3-pointer, a twenty foot putt, or a touchdown. “Do you mean to tell me that God sits around guiding balls into particular places?” I wonder, “A God in the sky with two hundred channels of ESPN watching and working magic with each play?”

Moments like these make me tempted to buy into the philosophy of men like Sherwin Wine. Sherwin Wine, the Michigan Rabbi and chief proponent of Humanist Judaism has a lot to say about God. “God is an ordinary English word like ‘table’ ‘chair’ or ‘rug’”, Wine argues, a word which he is “sick and tired of using.” Wine views God-talk as irrational, and ultimately as a source of human confusion that undermines our ethical strivings.

So, would it be better to rid ourselves of the irrational God-talk that we hear from athletes, hurricane victims, movie stars, even public officials? Would it be in our interest to replace the outmoded prayers of synagogue life with poetic musings of a different sort?

After many years dwelling on this question, I’ve come to some conclusions.

The word “God” is not like “table” but a lot like the word “love”. Imagine writing a valentine to your sweetie which said “We are mutually compatible partners and we have developed a trusting relationship which I value very deeply”

They’d respond “What about saying ‘I Love You’?”

You’d argue—“Hey, I don’t ‘believe’ in ‘love’. But all the things that you mean by love are in my letter to you.”

They’d say “Just tell me that you love me!”

You’d reread the card. They’d begin packing their socks.

Here’s my analogy, “Love” like the word “God” is used to describe a totality of experience that we can’t fully describe.

For example, someone recovers from an illness, and they say “thank God”. I hear this a lot, but I don’t understand them as saying “thank the chief executive officer of bodily function in the sky”—what I hear is “I am in a state of gratitude to the totality of my experience—the doctors, the medicines, the nurses, the support of my family, the elements of chance, everything.” It is that everything which we cannot fully describe that we call God.

And that is what I use the word “God” to mean-- “the totality of connections that I can’t even begin to describe.”

Sherwin Wine would call my desire to reconcile with the word God a “apologizing, redefining, and explaining” of theology.

But I think that this definition of God is a healthy one, and one grounded in the tradition. The Kaddish says “God is beyond all blessings, poems, and worship” The Yigdal reads “God is unknowable, and there is no end to God’s unity” i.e. no language can capture what the word “God” means. In prayer “God” is a code word for “totality beyond description” like “love” is a code word for “feelings beyond description”

I could give other examples of how I understand Judaism to advocate for such a God. Yet the basic understanding is this—by removing God from the earth-bound (no idols or men are God) we have made “God” a force that is beyond body and language. And even though we may use body and language to speak of God, we are doing so poetically, conscious that the real picture is more than our personal descriptions.

The reality is that if we don’t take it into our own hands to “redefine” / “reconstruct” God, then we’re leaving it in the hands of some rather narrow-minded people. They will define “God”, and they have a pretty nasty track record concerning how their definition leads to irrational ends.
So there you have it, I believe in God. And though I cringe when I hear God attributed to a home run or a slicing backhand or a 7-10 split, part of me says “Yeah, this ball moving in such a way at this very moment is beyond description, and this person is experiencing the totality of existence…so, hey, why not?”