Last weekend’s plans did not include having a Twitter chat with Eric Weinstein about God. Nevertheless, that was a thing that happened last weekend. But first, I should explain who Eric Weinstein is.
The very short version: Eric Weinstein is a mathematician, a physicist, an economist, and the guy who manages Peter Thiel’s money. Some of his side projects have included becoming an immigration expert, working to develop a new unifying theory, and most recently, christening the Intellectual Dark Web. He considers himself a political liberal, but like his brother Bret, he is thoroughly disillusioned with the regressive left. If you want to see what an honest liberal looks like, follow Eric Weinstein on Twitter.
Eric also represents another vanishingly rare breed: the honest naturalist. To those naturalists who want to pat Eric Weinstein on the shoulder and assure him we can be naturalists and still have nice things like ethics and human dignity with no cognitive dissonance atoll, Eric Weinstein is not buying what you are selling. He knows better, and he is not stupid.
One more thing you should know about Eric Weinstein: He attends synagogue every Saturday, where he reads Torah in the original Hebrew. If you ask him why he does this, he will tell you “Because I need to.”
So that’s Eric Weinstein: The Very Short Version. Now, about God. On Veterans’ Day, Eric tweeted this:
A century ago, my great-uncle Sasha was killed serving at the very end of WWI. The simple pointless loss of a sibling, kicked my great grandma Mary from Orthodox Judaism into atheism, altering everything in my family’s arc.
Moral: it’s the wise & kind G-ds we make that fail us.
— Eric Weinstein (@EricRWeinstein) November 11, 2018
Right away, one’s attention is drawn to how he em-dashes the “o” in “God,” a Jewish custom when referring to God without wanting to spell out His name. I’m not sure why Eric would feel a need to keep up the custom when referring to “gods” in the abstract, but no matter. I decided to engage, and in response Eric further clarified his point:
When we make G-d in man’s image he generally becomes a character who is too simple, caring and comprehensible to survive repeated contact with random events. The G-d concepts that survive best tend to be less comprehensible and more dialectical.
— Eric Weinstein (@EricRWeinstein) November 11, 2018
As a naturalist, Eric seeks to understand God from within the naturalist paradigm: as an idea in the mind of man. A God who literally stands outside of Nature is not on the cards for him. At the moment.
So, he asks, which God concepts have survived? Which ones have stood the tests of time, tragedy and randomness? Certainly not the God who answers every prayer. Certainly not the God who keeps us safe from harm. Certainly not the God who assures us that He would never, ever let that happen to us. If we put our trust in that God, we have not put our trust in God at all. We have put our trust in Santa Claus.
But Eric used the words “wise” and “kind” in his original tweet. These words interested me. I wanted to go back to them, so I did. This was his reply:
That’s what‘s so interesting about such a turning away from Judaism. I don’t see any indication that the Jewish concept of an Old Testament G-d would be simply loving, attentive, protective & kind. It’s the recent softening of Deities that make G-ds seem so uncaring or impotent.
— Eric Weinstein (@EricRWeinstein) November 12, 2018
Here I’m reminded of Friedrich Nietzsche’s comment that it was something like a sin to “glue” the New Testament together with the Old. Had he lived in the late 20th century, he would have said it was like hanging a Rembrandt and a Thomas Kinkade next to each other in the same gallery. The Old Testament is dark, inscrutable, majestic, masculine. The New Testament is pious, impotent, womanish. The Old Testament fills the canvas. The New Testament focuses on a particular petty, trivial corner of the canvas located somewhere in ancient Palestine.
Weinstein doesn’t quite plumb Nietzsche’s depths of nihilism, but his analysis has a similar ring to it: If we leave the Old Testament God as-is, our expectations are managed from the start. We know what to expect, and we know it won’t be much. But the moment we begin imposing what one might call New Testament expectations on our God concept—that’s the moment we begin to feel we’ve been cheated.Now, I happen to know that Eric has coined his own variant on the phrase “Jesus-juking.” He calls it “Jesus-smuggling.” It’s something like this: An evangelical gets you in conversation and lays out his argument, maybe a scientific argument from design, let’s say. As long as he doesn’t mention Jesus, he has the naturalist reluctantly following along. But just when he gets to the bit he knows the naturalist is a little fuzzy on… there’s Jesus. Jesus of the gaps, if you will.
It’s a straw-man, of course, and it’s more than a bit irreverent, but I can somewhat understand Eric’s suspicion. I’ve never been one to smuggle Jesus into things myself. Carrying him in on a cross is more my style. Awkward, I know. But there’s no smooth, non-awkward way to say this: You can’t get around Jesus.
Eric implies that after Judaism, Christianity set people up for a fall. But I invite Eric or anyone to find the passage where Jesus promises that in this world we are sure not to have trouble of any kind. I invite them to find the passage where he reassured his followers that no persecution would be forthcoming. I invite them to find the passage where he said following him would be the ticket to our best life now.
I can remember exactly where I was when I was reading the Sermon on the Mount as a child, and I got to the verse where he says, “Blessed are ye when men shall revile and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.” I set the book down and said aloud “That’s not very comforting!”
Maybe Christianity, in some of its forms, has set people up for a fall. But Christ did not.
Jesus was not the Jesus we have made him. He was not the Jesus of our bucolic Sunday School paintings. He was not the sexually ambiguous TV Jesus with permed hair and pearly teeth. He was not tame. He was not safe. But he was good.
The tame Jesus we make will fail us. The safe Jesus we make will fail us. The Jesus who disappears all our senseless tragedies and chronic pains and broken dreams and unanswered prayers will fail us. The Jesus who assures us that he carried his cross so that we would never have to carry ours will fail us.
In her missionary memoir These Strange Ashes, Elisabeth Eliot tells the story of a missions trip where not a single hope came to fruition. She answered what she thought was the clear calling of God to bring the gospel to the Colorado Indians. She employed her extraordinary linguistic talents in the service of writing down their language, so the Bible could be translated for them. She spent nine months on the project. But her work was stillborn: packed into a single suitcase, stolen from the top of a bus, never found again. Meanwhile, her interpreter was murdered in a tribal quarrel.
What did it mean? What was God doing? Hadn’t this all been His idea to begin with? Hadn’t he wanted her and her colleagues to go and make disciples of all men?
I recently watched a short clip of Joni Eareckson Tada giving her testimony, recalling her earnest high school prayer that God would do something in her life to jerk it back on course, because she felt that she was drifting away from Him. After the accident that left her a quadriplegic, she asked, “God, is this your idea of an answer to prayer to be drawn closer to you? If so, you’re never going to be trusted with one of my prayers again.”
The wise God we make will fail us, as long as we demand that His wisdom never passes our own understanding. The kind God we make will fail us, as long as we see His kindness only in pleasure, and never in pain.
Eareckson Tada effectively describes suffering as “splash-overs of hell”: slaps to the face, cold shocks to the system that wake us up with a shudder. One day, on her way home from a round of chemo-therapy for breast cancer, she mused with her husband: What are splash-overs of heaven like? If splash-overs of hell are the times when we experience our deepest pain, are splash-overs of heaven the times when we experience our greatest pleasure?
No, she says. Splash-overs of heaven are finding Jesus in your splash-overs of hell.
The God who prevents suffering will fail us. But the God who prevents us in suffering, who goes before us in suffering—now that is a God we might follow. That is a God we might worship.