HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Almighty? No Way! - Embracing the God We Already Love

by Bradley Shavit Artson Issue: The God Issue
TOPICS : Jewish Studies

Sometimes life presents us with challenges so arresting, so shattering that they change everything. This is the tale of a series of such moments, which began with my son’s diagnosis with autism, sending me into a tailspin, and sundering my conventional ideas of God and Torah.

This is the tale of my grieving, hopeful journey through libraries of science and philosophy as well as walking the streets of Jerusalem, out of which, I began to articulate what I believe is a revolutionary way of loving God, God’s creation, and God’s Torah. And, in the end, it is a tale of finding these revolutionary, liberating ideas hidden right where I had started—in the Torah, in the Talmud, in the Siddur, in the Kabbalah. I just needed open eyes to see what had been there from the beginning, hidden under the crust of the theology most people think religion is supposed to mean. I want to share a new way to receive and embrace God and Torah. But it’s also not new at all, because the God I now love is, I’m guessing, the One you love too, and already know.

When my beautiful son, Jacob, was diagnosed with autism as a child, some 20 years ago, at the age of three, I stopped putting on my tallit and tefillin. I had been taught that God was all-powerful, which meant that God could have prevented Jacob’s autism but didn’t.

There are several accessible explications of Process Thought available, each with bibliographies for further reading: John Cobb, Process Perspective: Frequently Asked Questions about Process Theology, Catherine Keller, On the Mystery: Discerning Divinity in Process, and Bradley Shavit Artson, God of Becoming and Relationship: The Dynamic Nature of Process Theology.

I could not pray to someone who could inflict autism (or choose not to prevent it). I said to God, “It’s better if we don’t talk for awhile. You’re not going to want to hear what I have to say, and I don’t want to make small talk.” And for a year and a half, God and I just didn’t converse (which is a bit awkward professionally, because I am, after all, a rabbi). I wrestled with tormenting thoughts: “I’m a good person; how could God do this to me? I keep kosher, I don’t mix linen and wool in my clothing; I help people all day long. I am fighting for the survival of the Jewish people, for the repair of the world. How could God let this happen to my beautiful, innocent son?” I know that life is not a quid-pro-quo; as Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, puts it, expecting the universe to make exceptions for you because you are a good person is like expecting a bull not to charge because you are a vegetarian!

I could not believe that my son’s burden was a trial, a test, or a punishment. But if God didn’t give Jacob his autism, doesn’t cause suffering and evil, then what is the explanation? In the words of Job: “If not God, then who?”

In order to uncover a deeper answer to this age-old question, we have to revisit the dogma of creation from nothing, a teaching derived from Aristotle and one that makes belief in God’s goodness so difficult for so many. It might surprise you to learn that the Bible doesn’t mention creation from nothing—indeed, it seems pretty clearly to deny it. What the Torah actually says is, “When God began creating heaven and earth, there was tohu va-vohu (chaos) and the ruach (wind/breath/spirit) of God was vibrating over the face of tehom, the deep, God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.” According to the Torah, was there tohu va-vohu, chaos, before God started creating? Yes. Unambiguously yes! When God launched the process of creating, tohu va-vohu was already existent, and the ruach of God flutters over tehom (that had to be there already for the spirit of God to be able to flutter over it)! The simple meaning of Genesis 1 is that there is pre-existent darkness and chaos. The tehom, the chaos, already exists—bubbly, uncontainable, and undomesticated. God’s creative act is not the special effect of something from nothing, but the steady chesed (loving kindness) of converting chaos into cosmos. Tohu va-vohu and the tehom have always existed, always will, and the chaos threatens still. God has always been, and is still, inviting/commanding the chaos into cosmos. We have misunderstood the nature of Divine creativity and power.

We are taught to think about God’s power as coercive, I suspect, because when we think about human strength and force, we think of coercive power: warriors, despots, pharaohs, führers, commissars, and terrorists. But it turns out throughout history that long-term power is rarely coercive; the most transformative power is persuasive. Pharaoh was brought down, and the persuasive ideals revealed among those ancient Hebrew slaves has been liberating people ever since. In your own life, think about the abiding impact of a really inspiring teacher. Reflect on how you have been transformed by a great mentor, or parent, or lover—people who broadened your vision, encouraged you, and made it possible for you to do something you never thought possible. They did not accomplish this task using mere coercive power; they invited you to become a better version yourself, lured you to surpass your prior limitations, inspired you to live in the light. Jewish sacred writings abound with examples of God using not coercive but persuasive power to enter into relationship with us, to enlist our participation in creating a worthy, covenanted future.

During my decade of reckoning with God and coming to terms with Jacob’s autism, I began to develop a different relationship with God and a different understanding God’s relationship to our world.

The ideas I’ve just sketched (a God whose power is persuasive, not coercive, of a God who works with chaos to invite it toward cosmos, who creates us and everything in freedom and invites us to be partners in the continuous process of creation), the ideas I now advocate are called Process Thought, and in researching these ideas, I was delighted to learn that I had “discovered” a powerful system of speculation and insight which others had articulated long before me, most notably by Alfred North Whitehead. According to Process Thought, the cosmos is not composed of solid substances that bang into each other from the outside. Instead, the universe is made of dynamic events that respond internally and intuitively to the choices made by each and every other event. Every aspect of creation, all participants, are in a dynamic process of becoming, and every process—you, me, the world, the cosmos, God—is not a substance, a thing, but rather a distinctive pattern of energy that retains some measure of constancy in the midst of change and growth. Rather than interacting in ways that endlessly repeat the same old patterns, we find ourselves in a universe of renewing novelty, of increasing complexity and deepening relationship.

Indeed, for the past 14 billion years, our cosmos has been emerging in more complexity, more mindfulness, more connections. Process thinkers see a kind of directionality at work, inviting the cosmos toward that greater relationality and expanded capacity for experience. We perceive that directionality to be made possible by, and to come from, God who provides the grounds for our creativity, our becoming more connected, more just, more compassionate, more loving. God cannot break the rules, but God can and does work with creation, through creatures, to give us a sense of the optimal next step each of us can choose to take. And God gives us the capacity to make that optimal choice, which Process thinkers call “the Lure.”

Take a moment and let this new articulation sink in: the universe operates according to unchanging physical laws. If you were to do the same thing over and over and over again without change, wouldn’t the result be the same each time? Yet the universe has instantiated the same unchanging laws for 14 billion years, and new and increasingly complex events continue to emerge. Why? I see God in that emerging novelty and increasing complexity. God is the One who makes relationship possible; the force that makes for greater complexity and deepening experience. God makes possible our ability to love, reach, and help each other.

It is God, working through Jacob, who allows Jacob to triumph over his autism day by day.

I stumbled upon Process Thought almost by accident, researching new approaches to integrating science and religion, and to how God relates to the world. The external, bullying, punishing ideas of God melted in the mist, leaving a transformative, healing balm of relationship, novelty and persuasion. I fell in love again with God as understood through Process, and with God’s creation as a continuing expression of loving, relating, and of novelty. And in that rediscovery, I returned to a more biblical view of God and covenant as freely entered and lived in love.

John Levenson has documented a similar vision of God throughout Torah and the Wisdom literature (in his brilliant book Creation and the Persistence of Evil). This view of God accounts for the rabbinic openness to telling stories in midrash, to a sense of living Torah and developing halakhic process, and it carries deep parallels to the kabbalistic notion of a dynamic God of yearning, broken vessels and striving becoming, and the chasidic notions of a God who both surrounds and fills the cosmos. Process Theology allowed my intuitions about God to weave more profoundly with Jewish insights and writings, with a timely God who loves and chooses and journeys.

The insights of Process Thought saved my love of God, because instead of looking to God to be the all-powerful exception to the rules (the up there/out there Bully-In-The-Sky), I started looking to God as the very exemplar of the rules: the One who makes it possible for us to surpass ourselves, the One who inspires us to ever new levels of love and creativity. Instead of looking for God in magic, I look for God in Jacob’s refusal to let himself be defined or limited by his autism. I see God in Elana, my resilient and courageous wife’s refusal to abandon our son to a marginal existence. I see God’s persistent lure in people in the community who look past the autistic label and embrace Jacob as a young man of hope, strength, joy and astonishing wisdom. Working with, in and through creation is the arena for God’s unique amazing persuasive power. Tanks can knock walls down, but there isn’t an army in the world that can give Jacob the capacity to sit through a class for an hour and a half. That transformation requires the resilient, determined, persuasive love of God, manifest not as the exception to the rules of physics and biology, not in the suspension of Jacob’s autism, but as the way the very universe is tilted towards interrelationship, complexity, and creativity. God doesn’t work from outside creation, intervening from afar. God bubbles up from within, working in us, through us, and with us.

I don’t think that God gave my son autism, or could have stopped it. Tohu va-vohu is always seeping through the cracks of creation. I don’t believe that God caused the Holocaust or could have prevented it. Creation is about containing the chaos, inviting order where there was none. The tehom is always bubbling chaos, and God is steadily extending cosmos. But the tohu va-vohu remains real, innovative, and dangerous. The tehom continues to threaten and to beckon, bubbling over in crisis, tragedy, and novelty alike.

God is the resilient force luring us/commanding us to rise to the best choices, celebrating our creation into freedom and asking us to covenant as partners (the rabbinic term is shutafim) in the continuing creation of the world. That we are given the Godlike ability to create, to innovate, to perform deeds of loving kindness and acts of justice is what it means to embody tzelem Elohim, God’s image, in the world. And God’s persuasive love is sufficiently resilient, sufficiently determined, to see us through in love.

In that sense, God is like the GPS system in my wife’s car. When we drive, the GPS routinely models a Process understanding of God for me. The GPS suggests the best way to reach my personal destination: “When you get to the stop sign, take a left.” Sometimes, for reasons beyond comprehension, I won’t listen to the suggestion. I might, for example, drive to the stop sign and then keep going straight. This is where the GPS and a conventional view of God part ways. No damnation for not having heeded, no rage or exile or plague threatened. The GPS simply says, “Recalibrating,” and then offers a corrective next choice that integrates and builds on my previous driving decision: “At the next corner, take a right, then a right, then a right.” The GPS remains calm, unruffled, and will recalibrate however often a driver makes a wrong choice.

I now know that God is like the GPS in that way: God doesn’t judge or condemn us; God doesn’t coerce us. God offers us the best possible choice (mitzvah) at this (and every) moment. If we rise to God’s lure, then God says, “Good. Now here’s the subsequent best choice (the next mitzvah).” If we don’t accept the lure, God says, “Recalibrating. OK, given your last choice, here’s the optimal choice you can now make.” Like the GPS, God persistently invites us, lures us, commands us to make the best choice. That model of God invites us onto a path of compassion, justice, and resilient strength that the Bully in the Sky never could.

There is an old rabbinic tale about the wind and the sun arguing about who is stronger. Turns out it is a Process story. The wind says, “I’ll show you that I’m stronger. I’m going to get those people to remove their jackets.” But the more the wind blew to force their jackets off, the more the people clutched their jackets tightly. The Sun said, “You’re trying the wrong kind of strength. Watch.” And the sun simply radiated light. And as the sun’s beams beckoned, the people loosened up their jackets. Eventually the sun’s light was so beautiful and so intoxicating that they chose to take their jackets off, because they wanted to savor the warmth.

A God of invitational power is actually the God we believe in, and one that Process Thought allows us to see in the unvarnished beauty of Torah and masorah. We now have the science and the philosophy to be able to embrace what we know, and to live what we love.

I do not believe in the up there/out there bully in the sky. I would much rather celebrate the Cosmic Companion who is creating a universe in which I, and the rest of creation, are invited towards cosmos, connection, justice and love. You already know in your heart what your best choice is at this moment. Yet even now, you remain free to demur, free to indulge your anger, your pettiness, your hunger, your exhaustion—whatever it is that makes you deviate from the mitzvah that awaits, and your truest, best self, the tzelem Elohim within. But God loves you with an ahavat olam, an abiding love. God bids you to make the best choice and gives you the capacity to make it.

“See,” says God, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your children may live.”

Rabbi Dr. Bradley Shavit Artson holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, and is the author of God of Becoming & Relationship: The Dynamic Nature of Process Theology.

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The God Issue

In Jewish tradition, God alone is the Creator of all and the ultimate embodiment of unity, Oneness. In the 21st century Jewish community, however, God can often be a source of contention and divisiveness. Our community is far from united around questions of God's existence, nature and way of acting, the ways that we can understand God and relate to God. The authors in this issue approach the Big Questions from a wide variety of perspectives and thinkers, but they are united in their concern to bring the God Issue within the classrooms and halls of Jewish day schools.

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