What God is NOT

Blake_Book_of_Job_Linell_set_13Paying attention to dreams is an ancient Jewish spiritual practice. Our biblical ancestors Isaac and Jacob dreamed of God. Jacob’s son Joseph was a skilled interpreter. He would analyze dream symbols with reference to current events, and articulate truths the dreamer was afraid to face directly.

Last week, I had a dream, highlighting some questions about God that I’ve been afraid to ask directly:

I am helping a friend with a project. She is editing a biology textbook for her professor and mentor. But I am having a hard time reading, retaining, and processing information. I tell my friend and her professor, “I can’t keep all these functions straight. You have to provide more explanations of basic concepts in the text. Either this is an introductory text and you provide them, or it’s an advanced text and I can’t help with the editing.” The professor seems not to care. Yet my friend wants to be his lover and desperately desires his approval; she is disappointed and filled with longing. I am a participant-observer wondering at it all.

In this dream, an all-knowing teacher has created a text to explain how life works. However, I cannot understand it. And its creator does not care. Yet my friend wants the creator to care, to love her, and to approve of her. Both his apathy and her yearning amaze me.

Once upon a time, I was like my dream-friend. I believed in a personal God, a spiritual being with a giant mind and heart, who oversees the world. Recognizing my hard work on God’s behalf, God would look upon me favorably. But with anti-semitism on the rise in North America, this optimistic view no longer makes sense to me.

Sure, I still believe in a Higher Being. But this being has nothing like a human mind or heart, nothing like a human body or soul. It doesn’t plan or worry or love. We might say it does, but we are only describing our own experiences of reaching towards it. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you what it is; I can only tell you what it is not.

My emerging theology is not new. A version of it was articulated by the great medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides. Maimonides presents it as a result of his careful, abstract philosophical reasoning. But given my dream and my social context, I see it differently. Behind this theology, I see Maimonides asking deep questions about God’s governance of the world — and despairing of any satisfactory answers.

Maimonides spent his youth fleeing religious persecution. Surely he wondered, “I was taught that God loves the Jews, holds them to a high standard, and has a blessed plan for them. All around me, people yearn for God to implement the loving plan. Why does God not do it?” And surely his wonderings helped point to his famous published conclusions: “Because the language of the Bible reflects truths of the human mind, as well as truths about the Divine. It is possible God doesn’t do, think or feel as we imagine God does.” Philosophers call this a negative theology: we do know what God is NOT; we do not know what God is.

For sure, negative theology points us to activism: If we don’t know how God points  history towards justice, we may become impatient. We may take matters into our own hands. Negative theology may yet have more to say, about humility, empathy for other faith traditions, or finding meaning in a void. But I’m not ready to draw final conclusions. From Jacob and Joseph I’ve learned: it takes time to fully understand the message of a dream.

Image: William Blake, Job. Post originally published at Rabbis Without Borders.


  1. Blake’s “Job” sits on my bookshelf.

    “Because some of what the Bible teaches about God are truths of the human mind, not truths about the Divine. It is possible God doesn’t do, think or feel anything that we attribute to God.”

    It’s worse than that. _All_ of what the Bible teaches are truths of the human mind, else we wouldn’t understand them. Maybe dreams (or visions) work better. God doesn’t teach Job through Job’s mind — He says “Look!” and Job says:

    . . . “I see! I can’t understand.”

    You can’t _think_ outside the box of theodicy. Something more (something different?) must come into play.

    It’s not a new problem, and yes, it gets more insistent as the world gets (locally) worse. The problem goes away if there isn’t a God, or if She doesn’t care about us. Which poison do you want to drink?

    . Charles

    1. Great derash, Charles! Your first paragraph is a lot more like what I said in class. I agree with you that for many of us theists and agnostics, faith comes from a felt sense of presence. Perhaps it can coexist with a felt sense of absence. Makes sense on the feeling level, less so on the intellectual one.

      1. ” I agree with you that for many of us theists and agnostics, faith comes from a felt sense of presence. Perhaps it can coexist with a felt sense of absence.”

        Yes — the two are often together, sometimes alternating, sometimes simultaneous. Not just “absence”, but a sense of uncertainty. The people who say:

        . . . “I can always feel God’s presence, _and I know what He wants of me_.”

        — they frighten me. But I can live with doubt. I’m not about to start a new religion, or even convince people of the truth of an old one. I can afford to say:

        . . . “No, I don’t feel God’s presence today. Maybe He’s gone, forever.”

        but hopefully, only occasionally. And I don’t have to worry about heresy charges, so I can say it out loud.

        A story (sorry if I’ve told it before):

        People who get seriously sick, often question God’s purpose and wisdom:

        . . . “Why me? Why should _anyone_ go through this?”

        When I got cancer, I went through a very short phase of that, and settled on:

        . . . “Cancer is caused by spontaneous mutations. If He made the world without cancer, it would also be without evolution. Maybe it’s God’s chosen trade-off, in what’s possible within the “natural law” that governs the world.”

        I think Maimonides takes that approach (among others) — God doesn’t intervene, He just lets the world run. It worked for me — I could go on to do useful things about my situation. It would be cold comfort for a mother, grieving for her sick child. The answer for her might have to be:

        . . . “I don’t know why. Neither do our teachers, even if they pretend that they do.”

        Sorry — that was “thread drift” . . .

        . Charles

        1. Charles, it’s a great thread drift. For a thinker like you, every experience raises questions and invites you to look from a new perspective – how could you ever stay static in faith or doubt?

          I’ve had similar thoughts about cancer perhaps being part of a cellular evolutionary process. That doesn’t help much in the particular, but if thinking draws you to a big picture, it seems a possible direction. When I am sick with a virus or infection, I remember that this stress for me is a flourishing for another species. But I still do what I can to get well.

          And yes, admitting to not-knowing is a key teaching for the philosopher of philosophers, Socrates.

          Shabbat Shalom.

  2. Torah gives us two blessings: One for good news or good times, another for what seems to us “bad” news or “bad” times (although these don’t always seem that way later on). Masechet Pesachim says that in the Olam ha-Ba, we’ll only use the brachah for “good” news, because we’ll understand that everything was always for the good — even what seemed “bad” at the time. Rebbe Nachman of Breslav goes further, and says that one who sees the “good” in “bad” news or times has glimpsed the Olam ha-Ba while still in this world! If any event in your life causes you to question your faith, learn more of what Torah (the entire body of Jewish teaching) tells us about God.

    1. Thanks, Rabbi Eli! I’ll connect that comprehensive teaching with this one and suggest that Rambam found in Torah a philosophical conception of God to hold even when the personal God seems hidden.

      1. For Rambam, God and God’s Existence is the basis of all else that exists. In its own way, Kabbalah teaches the same. If so, how could there be anything in which God is not involved in every conceivable way — and more?

        1. Beautifully said. Though as I teach philosophy this term, I’m sensitive to different ways of understanding God as the basis of all existence. Hoping I’ll be stimulated to read and write more about this. Shabbat Shalom!

  3. Re: Is there a personal God?

    Several weeks ago, in our Christian Jewish dialog class at UBC, I gave a presentation on a piece by John Klawiter titled, “Does God read our Tweets?”

    He tells the story of Stevie Johnson, a wide receiver for the Buffalo Bills.

    He describes a game against Pittsburgh where Johnson caught the ball and dropped it. Pittsburgh grabbed the ball and kicked a field goal to win the game.

    Johnson wasted no time in blaming God for dropping the ball. He tweeted the following:


    Klawiter said that as he thought about it, it reminded him of psalm 5 by King David.

    “Listen to my words, LORD, consider my lament. Hear my cry for help, my King and my God, for to you I pray.”

    One of Klawiter’s comments was that one thing the bible teaches is that not everything goes right.[to put it mildly] and it is our fault for developing language that gives God too much credit or too much blame. Klawiter cringes when he sees people like Johnson put God in the position of bestowing good or bad, like a “puppet master”. He concludes that if God was really reading his tweets he could have tweeted back “I created your hands, use them next time and stop blaming me!”

    My take on this and as it relates to your blog:

    Is there a personal God? I certainly want there to be. After all He is the one I pray to on Yom Kippur, Whether it is out of hope, despair, fear or just plain habit, I’m not sure. But the more I think about it, the more I conclude that like you, I have to come to terms with what God is not. He is not our “puppet master.”

    We need a God who will reward the good and punish the wicked. When we don’t see that happening in the world we know, we create an Olam ha-Ba or in the Christian theology, heaven and hell.

    My conclusion is that God’s challenge to us is that if we want the Olam ha – Ba badly enough it is up to us to create it, not in the next world but in this one.

    1. Sandra, thanks for sharing both Klawiter’s thoughts and your own. I think your own thoughts here are especially profound. My takeaway is that part of spiritual development is coming to know ourselves, including our yearnings and ideals, as a first step towards tikkun olam and social justice practices. Thank you!

  4. William Blake — “There Is No Natural Religion” :

    . . . He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only sees himself only.

    . . . Therefore God becomes as we are, that we may be as he is.

    Cited in A. Wright, “Blake’s Job: A Commentary” (1972), p. 35.

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