God is Bigger than Religion

God is Bigger than Religion November 19, 2020

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks died on November 7, after a brief bout with cancer. Sacks was the Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth of Nations from 1991-2013, the author of many insightful and well-received books, and gave some of the most interesting interviews I have ever heard. I wrote about Sacks, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and our feeble human attempts to harness God a couple of years ago . . .

A Jewish friend of mine told me a number of years ago that Judaism is the only monotheistic religion in which one can be both a faithful member and an atheist. It struck me as an obvious overstatement, but over the years I have returned to her observation, because it says something very interesting both about Judaism and faith in general. As I’ve learned more and more about Judaism over the years, my friend’s comment has made more sense. Judaism is an “orthopraxic” faith, one based on right practice rather than on right belief, where orthodox religions tend to focus. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, said in an interrview,

[Jews] believe in salvation every day. We believe that salvation comes through good deeds. Not through faith. That’s not to say that God isn’t the fundamental motivation why you do things. But we believe that we have a personal responsibility for our actions and accountability to God . . . Jews believe that God expects you to do good in the world. That you are His partner.

Partnership with God is a significantly different perspective than obedience to the divine. Reflecting on this over time has incrementally changed how I conceive of my Christian faith.

I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago as we spent several classes in my “Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era” colloquium on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazis in 1945 for his role in a failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The execution took place less than a month before the end of World War II. Bonhoeffer spent close to two years in prison before his execution; his letters from prison sketch a very different understanding of Christianity than the Protestantism that he was taught and that he preached in his younger years. In a letter to his friend Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer writes

God would have us know that we must live as people who manage our lives without God. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually.

Bonhoeffer also writes that

Our being Christians today will be limited to two things: prayer and action for justice on behalf of people. All Christian thinking, speaking, and organizing must be born anew out of this prayer and action.

It is passages such as these that cause people to say that Bonhoeffer was imagining a “religionless Christianity” as he awaited his death in prison. Sort of like my friend’s “atheistic Judaism”—out of the traditional box, but food for thought.

For someone raised in a very different religious atmosphere, such ideas can be disorienting. One of the most difficult aspects of my fundamentalist, evangelical Protestant upbringing was its focus on what will happen in the future (after I die, after Jesus returns) rather than on our daily lives. We used to joke about Christians who “are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good,” but it regularly struck me that we were exactly the people we were joking about. Our theology was so cluttered with various apocalyptic and eschatological speculation about the “end times” that, apart from some iron clad rules about what we should not be doing in our daily lives (smoking, drinking, going to movies, dancing), I recall little guidance about how to be a person of Christian faith in the middle of a world that, as we were regularly reminded, we were to be “in” but not “of.”

I was taught that “works” were useless when seeking to establish a relationship with God, but was surprised to learn as an adult that some Christians agree more with Rabbi Sacks and perhaps even with Dietrich Bonhoeffer than with the evangelicals with whom I was raised. What one supposedly believes is demonstrated not by what one says or “professes,” but by what one does—as a former famous Jew once said, “By their fruits you shall know them.” And the idea of being partners with the divine? Very attractive (and challenging).

Which brings me back to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. I first became aware of him several years ago when I listened to Krista Tippett interview him on her NPR show “On Being.” Since then I have read several of his books and have been attracted by his ability to remain faithful to his own religion while advocating that “no one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth,” a perspective that I have long wished to find more of among Christians. When asked whether his faith has given him a sense of certitude and truth, Sacks responded “No, not at all.” On the contrary, his faith has made his life more nuanced and confusing; “I live with ambivalence continuously.”

The Bible is saying to us the whole time, don’t think that God is as simple as you are. He’s in places you would never expect him to be. And, you know, we lose a bit of that in English translation. Because, when Moses, at the burning bush, says to God, “Who are you?” God says to him three words: “Hayah asher hayah.” And those words are mistranslated in English as “I am that which I am.” But in Hebrew, it means “I will be who or how or where I will be,” meaning, don’t think you can predict me. I am a God who is going to surprise you.

These are ideas and intuitions that are compatible with a “religionless Christianity,” an “atheistic Judaism,” or any other faith perspective that begins with bringing oneself into the world as a partner of the divine on a daily basis, even if one is thoroughly confused and uncertain about the exact nature of what or who one is partnering with. Sacks often speaks of “a margin of mystery,” something beyond what our categories can comprehend. It is in that margin where much of faith resides. Among other things, recognizing the margin of mystery opens the door to continual surprise, frequently from sources one does not expect.

One of the ways God surprises us is by letting a Jew or a Christian discover the trace of God’s presence in a Buddhist monk or a Sikh tradition of hospitality or the graciousness of Hindu life. You know, don’t think we can confine God into our categories. God is bigger than religion.

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