What We Mean When We Say 'God'

We need religion that encourages personal questioning and critical thinking. We need less doctrine and more humble acknowledgement of mystery. We need more of what the early Hasidic rabbis of Eastern Europe called-- an open, expansive mind.
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Each night, my wife and I sing a Hebrew prayer to our children at bedtime. We sing the Sh'ma, which is what Jews call the line from Deuteronomy 6:5, "Hear Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One." This led one day to a short discussion between my then 4-year-old son Justin and his mother:

"Mom, God sees everything, right?"


"But God has no eyes."

"Right." She smiled. We were very impressed he had already discovered the power of religious metaphor. Well, almost.

"And God is a baby."


"God is a baby."

"Uh... why do you think God is a baby?"

"Because God is 1 -- and I am 4, and Samantha is 5."

Oops. So much for transmitting deep theological truth.

While we may not be as literal as my son, many of us still struggle with childhood notions of God. As a rabbi working in a congregation, I regularly teach that as we grow, what we mean when we say the word "God" can expand and deepen.

One of the ways I do so is to ask teenagers to draw how they picture God in their heads. I have them fold a piece of paper into four sections. In the first corner, I tell them to draw God as they pictured God when they were a child. In the next corner, I ask them to draw God as they think of God when they are in synagogue. In the third box, they should illustrate their everyday idea of God, such as when they are on the street, at school or in nature. Finally, in the fourth box they should draw how they think they might picture God in the future.

What reveals itself is usually a miniature version of James Fowler's stages of faith development. The childhood picture of God is almost always an old man with a white beard sitting on a cloud. The synagogue picture usually focuses on some symbol found in the sanctuary, such as the Torah or the Eternal Light hanging above the Ark. The everyday picture often has people holding hands or wavy lines between the sun or the trees.

But there is no real pattern for the fourth picture. To me, the last picture is the most exciting, for it captures the idea of God as an infinite mystery and unknown.

I try to tell my students I am less interested in each picture as the realization their ideas of God can grow and develop over time. By acknowledging they visualize something different now than what they did when they were small children, they may feel free to think and revise their ideas as they grow older.

What happens on the micro level of the individual is also true in the history of humankind. For example, a Jewish understanding of monotheism has changed over time. The Hebrew Bible describes a 1,000-year struggle against idolatry and the move to a more intangible understanding of the Divine. And what Moses meant when he declared "God is One" (also found in the Christian Bible in Mark 12:29) is different than what 12th century Maimonides thought, which is different than the 16th century Kabbalists' theories, which is in turn different from modern day academics. As I explore in my book Witnesses to the One: the Spiritual History of the Sh'ma, monotheism is understood as a great human discovery and accomplishment, not an overnight revelation.

But the individual level of growth is the most personal and perhaps the most profound. Unfortunately, many people stop discussing God when they cease going to religious school, which for Jewish kids is often age 13. I then meet sophisticated adults with graduate degrees who confront the world with an adolescent's ideas about God. This is especially unhelpful in a moment of crisis, such as the death of a loved one.

We need religion that encourages personal questioning and critical thinking. We need less doctrine and more humble acknowledgement of mystery. We need more of what the early Hasidic rabbis of Eastern Europe called mochin d'gadlut (an open, expansive mind) and less mochin d'katnut (a constricted, closed mind).

What is your path to the One? What is the last book you read about God? What burning, forbidden question did you always want to ask?

It is time to restore questioning and wonder to our spiritual lives. After all, it is the fourth box, the one of what might be, where true learning lies.

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