Oh God – Part 1

Oh God. I need to write a God post. 

I want to set down, soon, while I am still at the very beginning of the Bat Mitzvah process, what I think about the idea of God. 

Maybe my ideas will change during this process. Maybe some of you will respond in ways that challenge my thinking. (Yes, that’s an open invitation. Especially to the Episcopal priests among you, ahem, Jim!) In any event, I’ll have a record of what I thought at the beginning and it will be interesting later to look back and see what, if anything, has changed. 

But how do you write about something like God in a blog? When every convention of the medium calls for you to be short, sharp and snarky?

I’m going to try and do this in multiple posts. So I may not be sharp and snarky, but at least I can be short. Or short-ish.

In a nutshell: I don’t believe in God.

Let me list the concepts of God that I don’t believe in, which will probably deeply offend half of you along the way:

  •  I don’t believe there is an old white man with a long white beard sitting on a throne up in the clouds, chatting with angels and running the universe. 
  • I don’t believe there is a super-powerful being who decides whether it rains on the night of the Julia Morgan School auction or whether someone’s child gets cancer.
  • I don’t believe there is a being that listens to and answers people’s prayers.
  • I don’t believe there is a being that judges us and sends us to heaven or hell when we die.
  • I don’t believe there is a being that had one-to-one conversations with Abraham, Moses or any other Biblical figure. (Nor a being who set desert bushes on fire or parted the Red Sea.)
  • I don’t even believe there was a being that created the universe, then stepped back and left us on our own to muddle along and sort out good from evil.

(Maybe I should create my own radio show: Instead of NPR’s “This I Believe,” it could be Ilana’s “This I Don’t Believe.”)    

Now, I accept that there might be some kind of cosmic life-force or spirit that sparked the universe and resides in all living matter. It’s plausible to me that people may have “souls” or some kind of intangible essence inside them that is part of this cosmic thingamajig. I know there’s more to the universe than we were taught in 1970s Newtonian high school physics, and the little bit I know about quantum physics (which is so little as to be virtually non-existent) leaves a lot of room for mysteries.

So I’m totally open to the idea that out there, amidst the dark matter and theoretical strings and hypothetical multiple universes, there might be souls. Or a force. (May it be with you!) Or something along those lines.

Does that make me an agnostic rather than an atheist?

Maybe. But  “agnostic” seems to me like a wimpy cop-out. Frankly, the kind of life-force I’m imagining is so broad and impersonal as to be a “what” rather than a “who.” It’s not something with a mind or a will or a purpose. It’s not something you can talk to or petition. It’s not something that cares about us, one way or the other. It would be kind of like gravity, or the wind. So even if it exists, it doesn’t fit the common conception of “God.”

So I’m an atheist.

Next post: Why?

P.S. I started discussing this on the way to synagogue tonight with Sam and totally missed our freeway exit. “More driving, less quantum physics,” he said.

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6 Responses to “Oh God – Part 1”

  1. Jim Richardson Says:

    Thanks for the invitation. Oh my goodness, most of what you said would make you a fine Episcopalian. Most of us don’t believe in a gray bearded God who makes it rain on command from true believers.

    By the way, the idea of a soul dwelling inside of a body is not a Hebrew idea, and it was not an idea held by early Christians either. It is a Greek philosophical idea. The earlier theology was that the soul and body are one, that there is a continuum between earth and spirit without a neat dividing line. Some things we see, others we don’t see (but might feel or experience).

    To put this in Christian terms, the concept of Jesus as The Christ (an idea that took about 400 years to fully develop) was that God was enfleshed in a human being. You may take that or leave it, but the part perhaps to take is the dwelling of God/Spirit in the flesh of humanity as a seamless continuum. Or perhaps a luminous (or numinous) thread that connects everyone, and everything together.

    Thomas Aquinas had something interesting to say on this. He said that the soul does NOT dwell inside a body. Rather, the body dwells inside a soul. By that he meant the body is small, and the soul is huge and not only in us but outside us connecting us to each other.

    All of this is abstract and always seems to become mostly about metaphors. And that brings me to the practical. I have a short book to suggest, adding to your pile: “An Altar in the World” by Barbara Brown Taylor (another Episcopal priest). The book is not about theory, but how to practice noticing the holy in the world. Simply noticing, seeing it, blessing it and being blessed.

  2. Nancy King Bernstein Says:

    It’s too early on a Saturday for me to manage anything other than a couple of quotes by the person who was responsible for my becoming a Unitarian Universalist: 1) I don’t believe in the God you don’t believe in, either; and 2) God is not God’s name: God is my name (okay, Forrest Church’s name, since the line is his) for that which is greater than all and yet present in each. The God I believe in is much closer to what your friend Jim is talking about. Okay, so it’s more than a what than a who? It’s the most compelling what in my life. (I still keep thinking about going to seminary, although I think I’d make a lousy minister.)

    The prayer thing is more complicated, because at this point in my life I definitely believe in the power of prayer–but definitely not the kind you don’t believe in either. I’ll have to send you something I wrote after Matthew was born (I was editing a periodical for religious liberals at the time I gave birth to a 24-week preemie, so it seemed a good opportunity to explore the subject).

    In the meantime, you might (or might not) enjoy Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, if you haven’t read it already. I’m reading and loving it now, and her ideas about God and prayer and mine match pretty well–more Yoga, less traditional Western theology…. (Plus she’s screamingly funny.)

  3. Melissa Nappan Says:

    Okay, so I’m totally with you on the this-I-don’t believe. But here is where we part ways. Since I don’t believe in God, I don’t go to synagogue because I am alienated by a service full of prayers to a God in whom I don’t believe. And I don’t envision a Bat Mitzvah, because it surely would involve worship of same. I wait with great anticipation to see how you reconcile these seemingly conflicting beliefs (non-beliefs?) Carry on!

  4. Craig-o Says:

    I don’t think that you have to believe in the things that you’ve listed in order to believe in God. That is a list of stories about God, and there’s no requirement that you believe all of the stories. Indeed, there are so many competing and conflicting stories about God that picking one set makes you a heretic or non-believer to those who believe another set. What you’re really saying is that you don’t believe most of the stories about God, and I’m with you on that. Truth is, I don’t believe most of what I hear on any subject, let alone God.

    There are mysteries that I can’t explain, not the least of which is that our intrepid little band of warriors has managed to survive against all odds. (I’m referring to the Jews, of course, although I’m also amazed that the Knicks are still around.)

  5. Susie Miller Says:

    I am soooo with you on this, Ilana. And I’m having Ben read your blog, too. The timing is oh-so-perfect for him. I love the comments from your friends as well. Thank you, Jim for the idea of Thomas Aquinas (“the soul does NOT dwell inside a body. Rather, the body dwells inside a soul”) and the recommendation of “An Altar in the World.” Now on my “to read” list.

    “To the Best of Our Knowledge” on NPR recently had a couple interesting hours on the subject of God. You might want to download their podcasts…

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      I am honored that you gave Ben my blog! Ben, if you are reading this comment — you are warmly invited to post any of your own thoughts as comments. I’d love to read them.

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