Is God a 'Man in the Sky'?

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo at the Sistine chapel, Vatican city, Rome, Italy
The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo at the Sistine chapel, Vatican city, Rome, Italy

As a rabbi, I am often asked to define the word "God." And as a person whose life is centered on knowing God, I've attempted to give thoughtful responses. But I've discovered that my attempts, which are given with the intention of reducing misunderstandings, usually produce the opposite results, and create more misunderstandings. This is because whatever one's position -- from atheistic to fundamentalist and all points in between -- we all, as products of a culture steeped in religion, necessarily carry ideas about God, and many of these ideas can be held so stubbornly that any meaningful conversation is immediately derailed.

For many people, the word "God" just seems to ring badly. It feels stuffy, old-fashioned and self-righteousness -- a relic from a less enlightened age. For others, the answer has already been given by the doctrine of their religion, and so the issue is closed. For others, the very notion of God is absurd, and so the issue is also closed.

Perhaps the idea of God is such an individual matter that the attempt to create a definition is futile. And don't different religions worship different gods anyways? Yet we continue to try, believers and disbelievers alike.

One popular definition of God was made clear in 1961, after Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin returned from the first manned space flight. The Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev used the event to support his regime's policy of intolerance of religion. "Why should you clutch at God?" he asked. "Here is Gagarin who flew into space but saw no God there." As a young child in the early '60s, I too wondered if the astronauts would discover God floating above the Earth. I imagined God watching benevolently over His creation below (with, I pictured, binoculars in one hand, and a book to record what He sees in the other). I hoped that John Glenn would bump in to God and then take a good snapshot so that we could see if He resembled Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling image, which hung in our living room.

Fifty years ago, like Khrushchev, I thought that God is a magical man in the sky. Now, as an adult I certainly don't think of God like that.

A story tells of a young man who comes to see his community's wise elder. The young man says, "I have a confession. I don't believe in God."

"Really?" the elder says. "Why don't you believe in God?"

"Well, I don't believe that there is some kind of a physical being living above us who chooses one people over another, demands constant praise, makes innocent people needlessly suffer, and eternally punishes others for disobeying his arbitrary rules."

"I also have a confession," the elder responds. "I don't believe in the same God that you don't believe in."

In this way, I am an atheist to Khrushchev's juvenile idea of God. What, then, is a more mature, realistic definition of God?

This question is the basis of all theology, and some of humanity's greatest minds and most sensitive hearts have dedicated themselves to this pursuit. The following is a list of some definitions from various traditions:

John the Apostle: "God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him."

Anselm of Canterbury: "[God is] that than which nothing greater can be conceived."

Rumi: "You are the Absolute Existence, which causes transient [existences] to appear."

Baruch Spinoza: "Whatsoever is, is in God, and without God nothing can be, or be conceived."

Leo Tolstoy: "God is that infinite All of which man knows himself to be a finite part. God alone exists truly. Man manifests Him in time, space and matter... We acknowledge God only when we are conscious of His manifestation in us."

Amma: "God is pure Consciousness that dwells within everything. Understanding this truth, learn to accept and love everyone equally."

All these definitions point to God as something completely different from the concept of a man in the sky. All these definitions agree that God is not physical, is not bound by space, time, or matter, and can't be limited in any way. All agree that God is the intelligence that created the Universe, and is the source of consciousness that animates and sustains everything. And all agree that God is both transcendent -- completely beyond human comprehension; and immanent -- immediately knowable through experience, and accessible through human intention. While the names vary, billions of human beings believe in the existence of a transcendent, immanent, Creator and Sustainer.

Ultimately, though, no definition of God is adequate because God is not a concept, and we don't find God in definitions. We find God through personal experience; in the experience of the power of life itself. In the contact with God we know that creation is inherently meaningful, that love and gratitude are the actual materials of our lives, and that we are eternal beings who have been placed in physical form for a staggering purpose that will unfold over eons. The experience of God expands the possibilities for our lives and increases the feeling of mystery and curiosity about the world.

God is known through experience; the most immediately available experience to us if we will only have the courage to put our egos to the side and let ourselves open. This is an insight shared across times and places. I have discovered that regardless of one's cultural upbringing, religious orientation, or education, those who experience God share a common understanding. When I meet those who have had this experience I feel that we are seeing the same landscape from different vantage points. In this we recognize each other as brothers and sisters. Each of us has had a completely unique experience, and yet all came from contact with the one God And so, there are not different gods, but there is the One who is glimpsed by many, and who has been given many names - each partial and incomplete, including the descriptions in the Bible.

Paradoxically, the attempt to define God is at once impossible and essential. It is impossible because any definition of God will inevitably be inadequate and deceptive, and it is essential because God, whether we know it or not, is at the center of the most important concerns of our lives: the meaning of our existence, and our relationship with creation.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel provided an understanding of God that aligns with this knowledge, and gave us a simple and powerful definition, "God is not a hypothesis derived from logical assumptions, but an immediate insight, self-evident as light. God is not something to be sought in the darkness with the light of reason. God is the light."

This blog, and my previous blog, 'Is the Bible the Word of God?' are excerpted from my new book manuscript, 'The Rabbi Who Believes in Zeus: Popular Myths About Religion, Faith, and God.'