Before I just declared myself an out and out atheist (having no god) and agnostic (seeing no proof of gods), I used to enjoy playing the Make Up Your Own God Game.
This is the name that I give to non-fundamentalist, “liberal” attempts to rescue God from the rubbish heap of unclear thinking. Here’s how it works. First, you acknowledge that the supernatural God character of the Torah and other books is not the same God that modern people should believe in. This is always the first move in the game because it’s pretty much the entire reason to play it.
The next move is trickier. Having discredited the main character of the texts, you still have to go back and claim their current moral relevance. This is achieved by quote-mining scriptures (including many of the later, more humane commentaries). This demonstrates that our ancestors were much more sophistimacated about their God beliefs than we give them credit for. Which is historically dishonest.
The difficulty level now rises because you next must use the Torah and its commentaries to establish modern moral precepts. It’s a careful balancing act. For every event such as that described in Numbers 31:17-18 (kill the Midianite kids, except the virgin girls with whom you may “par-tay”), you must come up with really elastic texts that have no relationship to that awful God but speak of wonderful moral precepts. (Even a humanistic rabbi is not above a little quote mining. But note that we do not claim that these texts demonstrate how moral God really is or was. We use them as examples of what HUMANS believed, for better and for worse. Torah and its commentaries are not for us a source of morality; they are a record of humanity’s struggles with morality.)
The inspiration for this post came from the Huffington Post. Now I know I’m supposed to stay away from the HuffPo religion page, but like a moth I am drawn. This time I was sucked in by Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman’s discussion of Judaism and science. Here’s a snippet that shows him playing the Make Up Your Own God Game most skillfully:
…[W]hile I can only speak personally here, to me, “God” isn’t really a noun at all — it’s a verb.
Really? A verb? Why not an adjective or conjunction? What the hell does this even mean? Let’s try it in a sentence: “I am going to God myself.” Eww. Rabbi Mitelman elaborates:
Here’s why [God is a verb]. The most common name that God gives Godself [sic!] in the Torah is “YHVH,” a name that is sometimes thought to be so holy that no one was allowed to pronounce it. But that’s not exactly right — it’s not that “YHVH” was not allowed to be pronounced, it’s that it is literally unpronounceable, since it consists of four Hebrew vowels (yod, hay, vav and hay). By the way, that’s also why some people incorrectly call this name “Yahweh,” since (as Rabbi Lawrence Kushner once said), if you tried to pronounce a name that was all vowels, you’d risk serious respiratory injury.
Every word in Hebrew is written (more or less) without vowels. We don’t know exactly how YHVH was pronounced but it was certainly not “unpronounceable” in order that it might yield all kinds of groovy meanings. This is a popular move in the Make Up Your Own God Game, but it fails the test of historical accuracy (I’ll let you research the origins of YHVH on your own).
But even more importantly, the name YHVH is actually a conflation of all the tenses of the Hebrew verb “to be.” God’s name could be seen as “was-is-will be,” so God isn’t something you can’t capture or name — God is only something you can experience.
Science, too, is very much about process. Science at its best is about testing hypotheses, setting up experiments and exploring ideas. And if new data or new evidence arises, scientific knowledge changes. Science can’t be tied down to old theories — it is dynamic and ever-changing.
Just like our experience of God.
No, no, NO! Science does not work like the experience of God. With science there are data. What are the data for the experience of God? Our feelings? If I believe with all my heart that my destiny is informed by a stellar constellation, how is that any different than an “experience” of God? And by the way, the only “new data or new evidence” that arise to make the God experience “dynamic and ever-changing” are those data and evidence that come from science! That’s why you’re playing the Make Up Your Own God Game in the first place! Science and observations of the real world made the old God irrelevant to you.
The Make Up Your Own God Game always ends with a sermonic take-away that has absolutely nothing to do with any God, much less the God you just made up:
Science is about creating hypotheses and testing data against these theories. Judaism is about how we act to improve this world, here and now. And these processes can easily go hand in hand.
What on earth does any of this have to do with God? Is acting to improve this world an example of the verb “to God”? If so, it’s a needless verb because plenty of people work to improve the world without any reference to gods, Jewish or otherwise. And many, many, many others work to screw up the world in the name of their version of God.
So yes, if science and religion are seen to be competing sources of truth and authority, they will always be in conflict — especially if religion is “blind acceptance and complete certainty about silly, superstitious fantasies.” But if instead religion is about helping people create a deeper sense of meaning and a stronger sense of their values, then I truly believe that science and religion can be brought together to improve ourselves, our society and our world.
How does Rabbi Mitelman’s God do all of this? If he’s going to tell me that it’s by inspiring our better selves or something like that, well what modern ethical person needs a god to do that? Especially if we’re also supposed to worship it and mine its ancient stories for pseudo-modern moral lessons that we could more easily derive from our own reason. (So, no, the Torah doesn’t teach that all people are equal because we are all “created in the image of God.” Liberal rabbis pretend that the Torah teaches it because they believe in equality. The Torah uses up gobs of ink to teach that people are very much unequal. Evolutionary theory demonstrates our equality without regard to ancient narratives.)
Of course, Rabbi Mitelman is not talking to non-theists like me. He’s talking to people who associate those “silly, superstitious fantasies” with him and his beliefs. He’s trying to salvage an ancient concept and make it relevant in the 21st century. He doesn’t want them mistaking his fancy re-invention of God with anything that the vast majority of religious (“silly” and “superstitious”) people still believe in. That’s how you play the Make Up Your Own God Game.
Here are a few questions for Rabbi Mitelman: Does he believe God (the one he made up) wants us to circumcise our infant boys? Does he believe that this God has an opinion on whom a Jew should marry? Does this God forgive us for our transgressions and if so, how? Does he believe that this God has any independent power to bring salvation? Does this God do anything besides functioning as a new grammatical part of speech? If not, why bother?
If you think the betterment of the world is up to humans, then just call yourself a humanist already and stop worrying about how to God it all up.
Hey look at that! I used it as a verb!