Shiur #08: Thinking about God

  • Rav Joshua Amaru

1.         The Paradox of Theological Imagery


The last two shiurim, about God’s relationship to time and His relationship to space and nature, both concluded with something of a paradox.  Philosophical reflection on God and His relationship to the world seems to leave us literally speechless – the cost of saying anything about God seems to involve imposing limitations on Him.  In the shiur about time, we saw that even thinking about God as the Creator involves attributing to Him the limitations of a subject who exists within a temporal framework.  In the following shiur, we saw that even claiming that God exists involves committing ourselves to conceiving Him in terms of some kind of substance (be it physical or spiritual) and as such limited to whatever limitations are inherent in the constitution of that substance.[1]  Yet the alternative – that God is outside of time and has no spatial or quasi-spatial existence – leaves us without any ability to think and talk about God. 


Moreover, our religious traditions, both Biblical and Rabbinic, do not seem to be at all inhibited in their use of either corporeal or anthropomorphic imagery.  God is related to and described as a person (albeit of a unique sort) who acts in time and space, and has emotions and concerns.  These descriptions of God are the cornerstones of our religious lives and they are what instill content into our prayers and our performance of mitzvot.  It would be inconceivable to brush them off as “mere metaphors” that do not really mean anything.  Yet philosophical reflection pushes us in this direction.   


If this difficulty were just a conflict between religion and philosophy, we could at least entertain the possibility of simply setting aside the philosophy: since it leads in such an obviously false direction – the denial of any substantial reality to Divinity – it must be misguided and is best just avoided.  There is such a voice in the tradition,[2] but I, and presumably most readers of this shiur, do not find it possible to identify with it.  The validity of rational reflection and scientific thought, alongside a conception of nature as bound by laws, are basic parts of how we conceive of the world; giving up on them is not a viable option.[3] 


In any case, the problem of understanding God is not merely a philosophical one; it is inherent in our religious tradition.  Despite their comfort with corporeal and anthropomorphic verbal imagery, the Rabbis share with the Bible an abhorrence of physical imagery to represent Divinity.[4]  The objection is not merely to polytheism with its attendant representations of gods with idols.  The objection is to even the attempt to physically represent God; the Torah asserts that no person, even Moshe Rabbeinu, can “see Me [God] and live” (Shemot 33:20), and forbids the creation of idols even if they are meant to represent God.  The story of the ultimate Divine revelation at Mt. Sinai goes to great lengths to emphasize that, despite the enormous impression that the revelation made, God did not show Himself visually: “God spoke to you from within the fire: the sound of words you hear but an image you do not see – only a voice” (Devarim 4:12).  Auditory experience of God is possible, but visual perception is not.  Likewise, verbal imagery is possible, and even necessary, but physical representation is forbidden.


The Torah thus contains an implicit critique of its own use of corporeal imagery.  The radical prohibition of idolatry alongside the use of such verbal imagery invites us to conceive of God anthropomorphically but at the same time to retract from it.  We are told that such imagery is a valid conception of God while at the same time it is a radically incomplete (and hence mistaken) one.


2.         Can We Really Do Metaphysics?


So we are left with a paradox that exists not merely between philosophy and traditional religion, but (in a slightly different form) within traditional religion itself.  The paradox forces us to two uncomfortable extremes. At one extreme, we may posit that God is ineffable, not subject to human understanding or representation, such that nothing that we say about Him can be true.  Alternatively, God is a supernatural person, and as such is subject to limitations that constitute personhood.  It is a mystery to us how God can be both of these. 


This way of framing the question assumes that our ability to speak and think about everyday objects is not at all mysterious.  Only when we turn to a transcendent God do we run into trouble.  But is it true that the world of physical objects and facts is really so obviously and easily accessible?  Is what we see, what there is?  How do we know?  I cannot really even begin to address these philosophical issues adequately here.  It is worth remembering, however, that ever since Kant (late 1700’s), many (quite possible most) philosophers have realized that we do not simply apprehend the world of objects and facts, causes and scientific laws.  Understanding, or even perception, is not passive: our conception of the world, even at the most basic level, is constructed out of the categories of possible experience.  In other words, we understand the world in terms of objects, cause and effect, etc., because that is how we are constructed to understand; the existence of such concepts is not so much a brute fact about the universe as a brute fact about our minds.


This is no reason for generalized skepticism about what we know;[5] we experience the world as divided into objects and in which one thing causes another, etc.  These experiences are real and that means that they are aspects of the world as it must appear to creatures like us.  It is not incorrect to say that the phenomena that we (can possibly) experience are, for our purposes, the world.  We cannot say anything substantial about what things are like from a Divine perspective, and hence we cannot presume that the nature of ultimate reality is exhausted by how we conceive it.


If we apply this insight to our understanding of God, it reinforces the objection to idolatry.  Making an image to represent God serves to suppress the consciousness of God’s radical transcendence a step further than simply thinking of Him in corporeal or anthropomorphic terms, which already involves a translation of Divinity into our own conceptual scheme.  The act of thinking about God is limited by who we are, and the further act of creating an image of that thought serves to make too substantial and significant the product of that limitation.


3.         Experiencing God 


The realization that metaphysical apprehension of God’s ultimate nature is unavailable also serves to free us of the presumption entailed by thinking that God’s appearance to us – or our experience of Him – is the whole story.  We can think about God and experience Him while recognizing that the paradoxes that arise in that activity are features of our own limitations and not of His.


Recognition of our own limitations also opens up the possibility of experiential truths that do not lead to metaphysical commitments.  With this in mind, the following, rather shocking, passages from Rav Soloveitchik’s book Worship of the Heart are worth considering:


Only … a full, sensuous experience of God gratifies the God-thirsty soul and arouses passion and ecstatic love in man for the living God, for whom he is willing to incur martyrdom.  Abstract experience does not inspire man.  It is in the aesthesis, in the immediate beholding and perceiving of God that a voice is heard: “And His voice you heard from within the fire” (Deut. 5:21).  “His glory and greatness” you have seen with the naked eye, His presence is sensed and felt with all its overpowering might, His splendor and beauty fascinates the sensuous man.  One does not only think of God or comply with His will.  One feels the touch of His hand and the warmth His eyes radiate.  “O taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:9).  In other words: experience God not through your faculties of abstracting conceptualization, which dismiss the ultimate reality, but by tasting Him, as it were, by feeling Him right here and right now… (p. 58)


We should not look askance at visionary mystics who actually see God.  Regardless of psychologistic interpretations of these images, they nurture the God-hungry soul and express an experience that is too rich and too dynamic to be satisfied with trite philosophical terms.  I could never feel sympathy for Maimonides’ horror at religious-sensuous portrayal. (p.63)


Rav Soloveitchik, the Talmudist and philosopher, does not need me to testify either to his Orthodox credentials or his philosophical sophistication.  Yet he expresses not just comfort but enthusiasm for an exceptionally corporeal image of God.  God is experienced directly by the senses, according to the Rav, and this experience is a necessary component in developing an ability to love God as we are commanded to do.  The Rav is impatient with the Rambam’s insistence on distancing our notion of Divinity from anything sensual or corporeal. 


We must read the Rav’s words in light of the Kantian perspective described above.  The Rav is well aware of the impossibility of attributing corporeality to God as a metaphysical claim.  His embrace of sensuous experience (i.e., experience through the senses) of God is possible because he does not equate sensuous experience of something with access to that thing’s metaphysical nature.  God can provide us with experiences that appear sensuous, without our being forced to conclude that God is a physical object.  The Rav’s description is daring insofar as he did not feel the need to make this point explicit.  He encourages us to embrace more than merely verbal corporeal imagery; we are even to experience God as the object of sensuous experience, to “taste and see” God.  Implicit in this encouragement is a subtle discouragement from even attempting metaphysical apprehension.  That is impossible, as Kant taught us, and to give up or explain away authentic religious experience based on a metaphysics that merely reflects our own limitations is nothing but hubris.


The Rav’s focus is on a quasi-mystical experience of God that he believes can be authentic.  Though such experiences may be limited to extraordinary individuals,[6] they are the foundation of religion that is based on revelation and prophecy, in which God speaks or expresses Himself to a human being.  Our understanding of revelation is necessarily through the categories of our experience (that is what understanding is).  Thus, if God speaks to His prophets, the fact that speech demands of us a conception of God as a subject is a function of our own necessary preconceptions.  We could not understand speech otherwise and so we must conceive of God in this way.


The Kantian withdrawal from traditional metaphysics described above allows us to escape rather than overcome the paradox of how a transcendent God could act or communicate.  The paradoxes are not about God’s nature but about our own conceptions of it.  However, the theological difficulty, or perhaps, theological uneasiness, has not disappeared.  We are forbidden, in the world as we conceive it (in Kantian terms – the phenomenal world), from representing God in a physical form, yet at the same time both the Bible and the Rabbis do not hesitate to conceive of God in radically anthropomorphic ways.  This conception places God inside of nature and time, while our most basic theological conception of God requires that He must transcend nature and time.  So we need not say that it impossible that God is both inside and outside of time and nature, but it looks like we are unable to have a coherent, non-paradoxical conception of God.


4.         Responding to the Paradox


There are two basic ways of responding to a paradox, to a fundamental limitation on understanding that we see no way of overcoming.  One way is to conceive of it as a tragedy: since reflection about some issue leads to a logical impasse, we must discard everything we know about it, since it is clearly wrong.  We are then left knowing nothing, and must go back to the beginning and reconsider the question without taking anything for granted.  This reconsideration will generally lead to embracing one horn of the dilemma: in our case, this would mean forcing us into either accepting a radically limited conception of God, who acts in the world, or accepting a radically transcendent conception of God and re-interpreting all of the anthropomorphic and corporeal imagery as “mere” metaphor.  The medieval Jewish philosophers, from the Kuzari to the Rambam and his followers, all took something like this route, doing their best to soften the choices and qualify the consequences of their choices.[7]


There is an alternative to taking paradox as tragedy.  This alternative comes into sight once we back down from the presumption that our understanding is somehow directly accessing the ultimate nature of the universe.  A paradox can result in a productive dialectic to approaching a mystery.  God’s nature is a mystery; it is beyond our human capacities to grasp, as becomes apparent when we attempt to do so.  At the same time, He has given us tools through which we can approach the mystery and come into contact with Him.  These are not only the various forms of revelation through which He expresses Himself to us (Torah she-be’al Peh and Torah she-bikhtav), but also the logical, philosophical and scientific abilities that are no less His creation.  The combination of all these leads to an impasse, but we do not need to get stuck there.  We can move back and forth between the various modes of thought available to us, and in that back and forth movement we can achieve a deeper understanding of that which is beyond us than we would if we insisted on a non-dynamic coherence.  This dynamic understanding is never settled or complete, but it need not be conceived as empty.  At times, we will be forced for practical reasons to choose one mode over the other, and either reject or convert into metaphor some part of our conceptions.  I do not believe that we need to do this nearly as much as some people seem to think; philosophical coherence, in and of itself, is an over-rated value.


[1]      To repeat a point made in the previous shiur, the possibility of a substance that has no limitations tends to collapse into incoherence: what does being “made of” something or another consist in if it has no properties and hence no limitations?  Having a property, of any sort, is at the very least a limitation in that it involves not lacking that property.  There is more to be said on this topic, but this is not the place for it. 

[2]      Perhaps the most prominent exponent of something like this position is Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, who discouraged his followers from studying the Rambam’s Guide.

[3]      There are people who claim to do so, and assert a radically anti-rational world-view in which nature and logic are merely illusions.  I would hazard to say that often such people are engaged in a degree of self-deception.  They are not so much giving up on rationality as ignoring or disrespecting it.  But here is not the place for this discussion.

[4]      This point is so pervasive that it does not really to be proven.  Consider the second commandment, which forbids the making of idols of any sort, alongside the Rabbinic restrictions on imagery when it is not for specifically permitted religious purposes detailed in Rosh Hashana 24a-b.

[5]      In fact, in most formulations of this thought it is a response to the possibility of skepticism.

[6]      For the Rav, in his insistence on the exoteric nature of the Halakha, such experience must be in principle accessible to all, insofar as it is part of halakhic practice.  The passages quoted are part of a longer discourse on the praise and thanksgiving aspects of prayer, indicating that at least some level of direct experience of God is possible to anyone commanded to pray.

[7]      Of course, the Kuzari and the Rambam chose the opposite horns of the paradox.  R. Yehuda Halevi concluded that philosophical religion was false because it could not account for the reality of revelation.  Large sections of the book can be understood as the attempt to see what philosophy can be salvaged from this choice.  The Rambam, famously, goes to great lengths to show how Biblical language can and should be interpreted metaphorically and how such imagery does not stand in the way of a philosophical approach to God.