I’m kind of an unreflective theist; I grew up hearing the word “God.” On Shabbat, my family sang, “On the seventh day God rested.” At Chanukah, the preschool teacher said, “God made one day’s supply of oil last for eight days.” In first grade we recited, “Thank you God for restoring my soul each day.” Because this discourse was part of my natural habitat, I absorbed the information and I learned how to speak about God in a socially correct way.
I’m also a self-conscious theist, because I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to jiggle this kaleidoscope of statements into some kind of pattern. My goal has been to find a general “pattern,” rather than a precise concept. After all, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein pointed out that many useful words, like “love” and “game,” do not have a precise definition. Instead, they refer to a web of related meanings that bear a “family resemblance” to one another. The meanings are like siblings: variations on a theme, with no single one deserving of all the glory.
This web of meaning has led me to a very full experience of God. When I am sad or sick, and take comfort in my late mother’s love, I say, “God is here!” When snow-capped mountains peek through fog, and surprise me with delight, I say, “God is here!” When an ethical dilemma suddenly resolves into clarity, I say “God is here!” When I am feeling lost, and my late Maine Coon cat Yogi gives me directions in a dream, I say, “God is here!” When I have a telepathic conversation with a fly, and realize that all species are receptors for a greater consciousness, I say, “God is here!”
Technically, I embody what some might call a “modal theology.” God appears to us through multiple modes. Through multiple interfaces, attitudes, experiences, images, and rituals. We cannot say with certainly which mode represents the true God. It would not be right to reduce God to a single familiar entity.
Medieval philosophers expressed this divine irreducibility in their ontological arguments. An ontological argument proves God’s existence by examining the idea of God. God, said St. Anselm, is “a being greater than which no being can be conceived.” Try working with Anselm’s idea. Imagine the greatest being. Then imagine a greater one. You don’t ever reach God, but you are drawn towards God. Each representation is a fragment, a part, a view — but none adequately holds the essence.
No, this is not the theology of five visually impaired people feeling five different parts of an exceptionally tolerant elephant’s body. Because – as Anselm’s Jewish contemporary Moses Maimonides said — God doesn’t have a defined “whole body” with parts like an elephant does.
Many contemporary North American Jews share my modal theology. Perhaps it’s a good brand of monotheism for a cosmopolitan generation. With it, we can integrate a range of experiences and philosophies under the idea of one God. Of course, modal monotheism is not unique to our generation. We learned from our medieval poetic and mystical traditions that God is infinite energy. Everything that exists is a garment for divine energy, revealing it and concealing it.
Modal theology can be tremendously helpful for inter-religious study and dialogue. It can spark curiosity, receptivity, and integration. But it can also be a barrier. While it seems universal, it is actually a particular cultural expression.
Still, to me it seems real and self-evidently right! So self-evident, I can lose patience with believers in a very specific God. So right, I can imagine them as less evolved than me. Of course, this is a small confession; many theists feel their God is superior to others. Perhaps I’ve disclosed much more by confessing that I find God in sadness, dreams, and the minds of flies.
Images: Job’s Evil Dreams by William Blake; Insect by Thomas Bresson; Cosmos by the Hubble Telescope; Kabbalistic art by blatner.com. Post originally prepared for the faculty panel “What Kind of Theist Are You?” at the Vancouver School of Theology, November 2016.