Three weeks ago, I found myself sitting on a junk in the middle of Ha Long Bay in Vietnam. My wife, Mirah, and I were fortunate enough to be spending some time in Southeast Asia and were settling into a two-day tour of the Bay with some fellow backpackers.
As an avid (if not always fluent) Spanish-speaker, I was readily drawn to a Spanish automotive engineer who happened to be taking the tour with us. As an avowed atheist, he was drawn to me as a future rabbi -- if for no other reason, to examine what and I how I truly believed.
Our conversation quickly turned to the theological, and my new-found friend posed an important question (which I will do by best to translate here): "If the universe is expanding, and perhaps infinitely large, then mathematically it would follow that there are also infinite planets like ours, with infinite numbers of people just like us having this conversation. So why would God care about us in particular?"
I found his question compelling. It actually evoked for me a similar observation made not by an avowed atheist, but a colleague and rabbi, Jeremy Kalmanofsky (See Jewish Theology in Our Time, page 24):
Theologically, I must conclude that all this [the whole universe] cannot be about us. Our narcissistic little species is inclined to view ourselves as protagonists in cosmic dramas of exile and redemption, rebellion and surrender, sin and salvation. We usually fail to absorb what Copernicus proved half a millennium ago: that we do not live at the center of the universe. We still theologize geocentrically. Contemporary Judaism needs a faith befitting a cosmos; a faith that does not narrow the infinite God to the infinitesimal conditions of our times and place.
While Kalmanofsky and my Spanish interlocutor identify religiously in entirely different ways, each brings about a strong argument against the conception of a personal God that I held at other points in my life.
How and why would God speak to me personally when there might be infinite other creatures on infinite numbers of other planets likewise seeking connection to the Divine? Why would God care about my life, when there are so many others to care about? Is it possible that even an omnipotent God would simultaneously care about and connect with everyone on earth and all creatures throughout the universe?
Like most ideas, the notion of an omnipotent personal God is possible -- but I did not necessarily find it probable, particularly in light of questions that extended far beyond the bounds of our planet.
Instead, such cosmic questions and orientations pointed me toward a different conception of God, for which I had been struggling to find language and only gradually gaining the confidence to articulate: God as an ordering force in the universe.
Amid such an intense theological discussion on the boat in Ha Long Bay, I found my nerves eased by the view of stunning rock formations jutting out of the jade waters. Feeling relaxed, I decided to experiment with language to describe the God in which I believed.
Knowing the professional background of my fellow traveler, I actually began by invoking the concept of entropy -- the absence of order or increase in disorder. (He kindly pointed out that I was alluding to the Second Law of Thermodynamics and applying it reasonably accurately.)
Even in light of my own shortcomings as a scientist (my career ended in high school with Advanced Placement Chemistry, Physics, and Environmental Science), it seemed stark that there was so much order in the universe. It did not seem to be succumbing to entropy, theoretically devolving into greater chaos with each passing moment.
If disorder was increasing in our universe, and had been since its beginning, how was it that there was any planet with so much order as our own? How was it that our planet had emerged from a state of relative barrenness to host such sophisticated plant and animal life?
More personally compelling at the time of the conversation, how could I be so fortunate to have a mind with thoughts and the chance to travel on a boat between beautiful islands and rock formations in a natural wonder such as Ha Long Bay?
My existence was not marked by disorder, but rather incredible, miraculous, unspeakably intricate order. So was that of every other person and creature I had seen -- even if in our day to day lives we might not make note of the order on which the quotidian itself is predicated.
Though possible that such marvels as our world were just random variations in a universe of infinite possibility, it did not seem plausible to think so. In my estimation, there had to be a force within the universe -- and extant everywhere -- working against the otherwise impending march of entropy. That ordering force in the universe is what I might call God.
God's miracles do not defy the natural world, so much as make the natural world, as humans comprehend it, possible. In my understanding, God is not nature per se, but is a prerequisite for nature on earth and an intrinsic part of the universal order. In fact, I sense that God is what makes any order possible in the universe. God is an omnipresent (but not omnipotent) force that works against entropy. God is anti-entropy.
The Spanish engineer and I talked late into the night. It was one of those unforgettable conversations, which pushed us each to articulate the inexplicable and search for a common language through which to share our disparate views.
As our conversation wound down, he gave me the great compliment of saying, "You have left me with a lot to think about." As this article suggests, so did he.
Upon returning to the United States, I relayed my experiences and newly expressed language for God to my mentor and beloved friend, Rabbi Or Rose. With a big grin on his face, he said, "Have you read Mordecai Kaplan?" and handed me a helpful book, with excerpts from Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan's 1956 compilation, Questions Jews Ask.
I had read some of Kaplan's other works, but had not read this essay on his belief in the Divine. In it, I found words far more articulate and insightful than my own to describe the rationale for believing in an impersonal God of the sort in which I did. He evoked the idea of a cosmic Force, an order in the universe -- one that was also evident in human life. Though he remained far more focused on human behavior than theories about the universe than I had been in Ha Long bay, I was captivated:
A magnetic needle, hung on a thread or placed on a pivot, assumes of its own accord a position in which one end of the needle points north and the other south. So long as it is free to move about, all attempts to deflect it will not get away from its normal direction. Likewise, man normally veers in the direction of that which makes for the fulfillment of his destiny as a human being. That fact indicates the functioning of a cosmic Power which influences his behavior. What magnetism is to the magnetic needle, Godhood or God is to man.
While I may have oriented more towards nature in my articulation of belief, Kaplan's insights, from more than a half century ago, in many ways cohere with my own beliefs. Whether within our own actions or within the cosmos, I sense an uncanny order. Chaos undoubtedly exists, but the strength of trends evident in human behavior, much as patterns in nature and the cosmos, sustains my belief in the existence of a God that creates order.
I would invite you to leave in your comments more for me to think about, as I begin responding to your comments in articles to come.
It seems evident to me that my conception of God is a combination and articulation of others that I have come across. From Heschel to Akiva, Kaplan to Philo, Mirah to my mentor, to the Spanish engineer, I have been blessed with many books and conversations that have influenced my views. I can only imagine that subconsciously some (or many) of them have also impacted my articulation here and would be grateful for your help in identifying additional citations (mental or actual), much as Or Rose already did.
Similarly, with just a casual Google search, I came upon a number of other articles relating the conception of God and entropy. Although I did not consult other articles on the subject when working to articulate a conception of God that I found compelling, I am but one of many to interrelate God and entropy (or the surprising lack thereof).
Nonetheless, I hope that I am able to expand upon the understanding of God that I present in this article in a way that will be meaningful and work to explain not merely my own personal beliefs but also my rationale for ascribing to religious practices that might otherwise seem counter-intuitive for an individual who believes in an impersonal God. I also felt that it would be helpful for me to articulate my understanding of God in my own language rather than relying on that of others to the greatest extent possible.
As with all of my pieces, 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 organization of which I am a part.