A man recently came into my office for a job interview. As we were talking, I noticed that he was distracted by one of the framed items hanging near my desk, so I turned to see what he was looking at.
"Is that a Rabbinic Certificate?" he asked. "Are you a Rabbi?"
"Yup, but only after hours," I answered.
"Can I ask you a question?" he said. "I hope that you won't be offended, but...do you actually believe in God? I mean really believe?"
Now, that's an unexpected turn, I thought.
"Actually, yes, I do," I answered. "But we need to define what we mean by the word 'God,' though."
"Really?" he replied. "Well, I suppose, as a Rabbi, you have to. But frankly, for me, belief in God is irrational. I can't believe that there is some kind of being that watches us and cares about us. It doesn't make sense. Not in this world, the way it is, with the terrible things that happen. Besides, science has proven that most of the stories in the Bible are myths. And look at all the damage that religion has caused. Faith and reason are opposites, and I am not about to abandon my reason."
I've come to learn that many people, like this man, have difficulty encountering God in a way that is consistent with the realities of their lives, the workings of their minds, and the revelations of science. Most of us have wrestled with such impediments, which can seem to be insurmountable walls, separating those who "believe" from those who question, with no apparent reconciliation possible.
Surprisingly, a story in the Bible presents impediments to understanding God, and also responds with answers that the man who came in to my office would probably find unexpected. This story is well known -- even to those who have never read the Bible. One day, the shepherd Moses wanders on to a mountain, where his life suddenly changes. The text tells us:
An angel of God appeared to him [Moses] in a blaze of fire from amid the bush. He saw, and behold, the bush was burning in the fire but the bush was not consumed. Moses thought, "I will turn now and look at this great sight -- why will the bush not be burned?" God saw that he turned aside to see, and called out to him from amid the bush and said "Moses, Moses," and he replied, "Here I am."
Embedded in these four sentences, which describe Moses' epiphany -- his awakening to the Divine presence -- are several typical impediments to experiencing God, along with associated avenues for resolutions. Below, I present these impediments as first-person statements, similar to those voiced by the man who came in to my office:
Impediment 1: I see no proof of God's existence. I'll believe when I see an obvious demonstration:
The Bible is filled with spectacular miracles, which may lead us to look for God in such spectacles. The revelation to Moses, though, comes through a little, unassuming bush that has caught fire. This little bush teaches us that God can be found when we pay attention to the everyday miracle that surround us -- the things we all too routinely take for granted: a beautiful tree, the workings of our bodies, the wonder of our minds, the gift of our children, friends and our jobs, and the life force -- "burning" but unconsumed -- coursing through the veins of a little bush. When we consciously place our awareness on these everyday miracles, the presence of the Divine is revealed.
Impediment 2: I can't prove God's existence rationally, which is the only way to knowledge:
If we can't logically prove God's existence, then isn't God just a wishful delusion, a manipulative construct of control-based religion, or a pre-rational fantasy? Moses, however, had a direct experience of the Divine presence, calling him to his life's purpose. Intellect can provide a valuable categorical framework, but, as Moses discovered, God, like love, is experienced, not conceptualized.
Impediment 3: A relationship with God will make me arrogant and/or sheepish:
To some, it may seem that those who believe in God are giving up their individuality and intellect by buying in to a packaged, unquestionable, unprovable doctrine, leading to the paradoxical combination of arrogant certainty that one has exclusive ownership of Truth, along with the abdication of personal questioning. Not a very appealing picture. Moses' response, "I am here," though, is not a surrender of individuality, nor acceptance of a religious creed, but rather a declaration of full readiness to listen, a commitment to serve, and a desire to receive guidance and wisdom. This is the true posture of a relationship with the Divine.
Impediment 4: "Spiritual experiences" are just feel-good self-indulgence:
One of the unfortunate aspects of much modern spirituality is that it can often turn toward self-involvement, based on the belief that the primary goal of such spiritual practices is to receive Divine personal reward; to be given special "powers," to be protected by life's suffering, and to have a level of clarity that raises one above others. Moses's encounter teaches us that a deep spiritual path makes us more sensitive to the needs and feelings of others, less enthralled by the tug of our egos, and propels us to socially beneficial action. Moses is called because he needs to perform a task that will eventually lead to the transformation of the world.
I wonder if these explanations would have made any impact on the man who came in to my office. Maybe not...God is not found in explanations. Maybe, though, these points would have given some direction to his search, or at least have helped him to see that the "battle" between faith and reason is built on a false foundation, and that there are ways of understanding God and religion that can dissolve his impediments, open him to new possibilities, enrich his life, and help him to find purpose as he searches for work in these difficult times.
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