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Finding Language to Describe God

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Language to describe God remains elusive, even when our understandings of God (or understandings of why God does not exist, for atheist friends) are most real. Spiritual experiences, as well as language to describe the world in which we live, are difficult to find words for.

This has been an important realization for me as a future rabbi: My belief in God and ability to describe God are not necessarily correlated. During profound spiritual experiences, I am often least capable of describing what makes them feel spiritual. The awe of the moment can eclipse -- and even temporarily suppress -- my ability to give words to the very awe that I feel.

This lack of words for the Sacred is like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of my religious practices: I cannot both fully experience the Sacred and fully describe that experience at the same time.

At points this is cause for frustration, while at others it merely affirms the extent to which I was truly present for a sacred moment. No doubt, it is also related to a relative lack of practice in describing what I believe, even during my time as a rabbinical student. It likewise may relate to the feeling of being humbled by any encounter with an entity that I perceive to be so much greater, remarkable and enduring than myself.

I am often left searching for words or describing what it is that I do not believe, rather than speaking in positive terms about what I do. This is only amplified by the impersonal nature of the God in which I believe.

Though I pray regularly and benefit greatly from an active prayer life -- and experience what I would consider to be the Sacred through prayer -- I cannot say that I have ever been aware of sensory communication with the Divine. I do not ascribe to the idea that the God can communicate with human beings in such a direct way, nor that God has such anthropomorphic a trait as speech.

Likewise, when I hold open a Torah scroll and read aloud from it, I sense that I am gaining insight from it and connecting to the Divine. Yet I do not consider the Torah to be words that God literally dictated to Moses on Mount Sinai, so much as the profound, ancient and singularly insightful human reflection on experience with the Divine and what it means for human life.

When in moments that fit together nearly perfectly, I often feel wonder and optimism at some sacred order that exists throughout the universe. But I have only modest evidence of this order beyond my own experiences and quickly run into the "problem of evil" in supposing any force that approaches omnipotence.

My lack of certainty, however, is not the same as a lack of belief. In fact, I sense that to have strong belief, I must actually start from a place of doubt. I need to find words for my doubt -- much as I do for my belief -- and beginning with doubt can often be easier for me to articulate.

This process of finding language for doubt and belief answers both a profound yearning and practical need, as I prepare to assume a role of religious leadership.

I regularly find myself at a loss when friends ask me theological questions. Now that I am in my final year of rabbinical studies before ordination, many suppose that I have all of the normative answers (with the assumption that there are actually such norms -- rather than coherent and compelling theories). Instead, I have spent much of my time in school gathering questions. I have a lifetime to search for answers that best satisfy me and the blessing to search together with friends and prospective congregants for meaningful understandings.

I feel particularly lackluster in my responses to questions about the atheist-believer debates (even if in the far more constructive frameworks suggested by thought-leaders like Samir Selmanovic and Chris Stedman). Many of my interlocutors presuppose a particular conception of God and then argue that such a conception exists -- or doesn't. This can become my failure mode at times, as well. It is all too infrequently that we stop to examine what each of us means by the word God in the first place.

After talking past each other -- instead of looking for a common language through which to describe our conceptions of God -- we often end up frustrated, rather than enlightened by an argument rooted in genuine curiosity. Such frustration is caused by a lack of authentic dialogue about the premises that undergird our beliefs. In an effort to find compelling conclusions, we may forget to articulate our initial assumptions.

My pursuit, in the coming weeks and months is to describe some theories I have developed about the Divine with the still-fresh eyes of a student. To some coming from more traditional religious orientations, these ideas may seem to be those of a non-believer. Yet from my religious orientation, I would suggest that they come from a place of profound belief.

I cannot hope to come away with definitive answers. But I do hope that my writing begins lively discussions -- and that your comments illuminate my own search for meaning and words to more effectively describe God, much as my writings may in some small measure benefit yours.

This article represents only my own views -- for better and for worse -- and does not reflect the positions held by Hebrew College, the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, or any other organizations of which I am a part.