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Is there a God?

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March 31, 2022 | by David Gelernter

Which thing more obviously exists, God or gravity? The question might not be as simple as it seems.

The title is already a concession. One could answer, “Yes; in fact there are many.” Or, “Yes, and his name is Zeus and he is a dangerous jerk,” or, “Yes, and his name is John Lennon.” Each could be a serious response, so far as the responders go. But I take the question to mean, “Does God as understood by Jews exist?” (Christians understand God in basically the same way.) Or: “Was there a Creator of the Universe who also created, and transcends, man?”

“Is there a God?” is a question something like “Is there gravity?” You could argue against God or gravity. You could explain that you don’t need gravity in your world; things fall to earth because that is the nature of things. And this is true as far as it goes; things have mass and are therefore attracted by gravity—and attract other things in turn.

A heavy-enough thing will fall; lightweight things (like dandelion seeds) won’t, just because they’re too light. And how could airplanes or birds fly, or rockets blast off, or trees grow upward if “gravity” were holding them down? And how can you expect anyone to believe that the movement of the planets reflects gravity? Gravity affecting the planets is merely one more Just-So Story, like a moon made of green cheese. And have you ever felt gravity tugging on you? Of course not, and I haven’t either. And yet you can feel the slightest breeze or an ant strolling down your arm. So forget “gravity” and talk about something real.

These statements and questions all turn out to be specious, but they are all natural. Discovering God (or gravity) is hard. Primitive mankind had no trouble (as far as we can tell) developing the idea of gods, but not of God. One God is such a hard idea that no world-moving religion but Judaism was ever inspired or created by it. One God is so hard an idea that, although Christianity began as a dialect of Judaism, with Jesus in the perfectly human role of messiah, it lapsed soon into trinitarianism—or in other words, polytheism. Christians tell me that these two ideas are fundamentally different, but watching them struggle to explain how is painful.

One God is such a hard idea that no world-moving religion but Judaism was ever inspired or created by it.

Jews, though, have always found polytheism as unnatural as the whole rest of the world (almost) finds monotheism. How would the divine tasks, however you define them, be divided among the group? Who created the universe?--or did they each create part? (Which part?) Who defined a permanent moral code? Who is (as Jews say of God) “the shield of Israel”? Who picked out Abraham and Moses and David, the prime movers of everything in the Hebrew Bible?

Still, we’re left with the same basic question. Why should there be one God in the first place?

There are two connected reasons why we must (as I see it) believe in one God. And there’s another informal reason—as simple as reasons come, but more influential by far than the other two.

My guess is that most Jews who believe in one God do so because someone they love or admire believes the same thing. They accept this person’s (usually a mother’s or father’s) spiritual seriousness and his spiritual insight and intelligence, and they take him as a safe guide through difficult metaphysical terrain.

Some people take this as a weak reason at best or no reason at all. But after all, we build nearly our whole mental universe not on reason but on admiration or love. Returning to gravity: how do we happen to know what it is, and how it behaves? We’re not likely to have researched the question ourselves, and most of us are incapable even of picturing what such research might be like.

But after all, we build nearly our whole mental universe not on reason but on admiration or love.

The number of human beings who are capable of a fresh, original view of gravity probably amounts to half a dozen per generation. And most of them wouldn’t even know where to start without Newton and Einstein. But when we are asked whether gravity exists, we don’t say, “How on earth would I know?” Somehow we trust Newton and Einstein, or (more likely) we trust people who trust them, and have studied the actual science. (Einstein’s hair probably helps.)

So if someone tells you, “I believe in one God because my parents did (or do),” or—for that matter—“because Lincoln did,” or someone else who is known for his spiritual and moral depth—there couldn’t be a better answer. And God bless you. There is never enough admiration and love in this world to go around.

Photo credit: Unsplash.com, Victor Malyushev

Still, we can find a more direct argument. One childhood morning, I arrived early outside in our sunny, chilly backyard—it was early spring, silent but for the birds. I looked at the gently-curving dark-green needles of a yew and the caterpillars near my feet—and suddenly, for a moment, my chest couldn’t hold the immensity of the experience. Endless possibility stretched before me, endless beauty all around me—as if the whole scene were caught for a moment in impossibly brilliant light. But why does this purely personal experience matter? Because, for one, Wordsworth had nearly the same experience long before I did. That’s why he calls his infant self “Mighty prophet! Seer blest! / On whom those truths do rest,/ Which we are toiling all our lives to find....” His own life, he figures, had just begun. He had come fresh from God. “Trailing clouds of glory do we come/ From God, who is our home....”

It is an ordinary part of childhood, I think, to experience God this way at least once. Otherwise, Wordsworth’s Ode wouldn’t be as celebrated and deeply loved as it is. No one would understand it. Of course, many of us forget this delicate, intangible, quick-vanishing event in the rush of later experience. Except for Wordsworth, I would have classified my childhood experience as a mere personal idiosyncrasy, basically meaningless. We need witnesses like Wordsworth to guide us. We are no more likely to understand such events just by ourselves than we are to discover gravity in our spare time.

Another experience is related. Life is full of pain and tragedy, and endless points of sadness. Yet nearly all of us make it to the finish line without falling on our faces or collapsing in confusion and grief. How do we manage? By holding tight to the end of a long chain that stretches backwards much farther than we can see. The chain supports us, no matter how hard we lean and tug against it.

But there is nothing mysterious about it; it is a chain of our own parents and their parents, or of other relatives or distant friends or even teachers, neighbors, casual acquaintances, mere fellow human beings. They all hold hands (in this metaphor) and reach out to us. And we reach out in turn to our own children. From this rescue chain, we get the support to stay alive, and the knowledge too—knowledge races forward along this chain from distant antiquity.

After all, no human child can survive by himself. But where and how is the chain anchored? What holds it fast, no matter how many thousands of generations have tugged on it hard? And where does the knowledge come from? Different people have different answers. As far as I can tell, it starts with God. The chain supports so many, and the knowledge--the moral principles—sustain so many; the far end could only be that one God.

We do sometimes feel as if we are about to fall flat. We sometimes want to. But not far into adulthood, most of us pair up and have children—and we must sustain them in turn. Even if we don’t marry, or have no children, we can feel small children looking up to us, depending on us for an answer.

These are no proofs, but there are no proofs. “Prove that the sky looks ominous.” “Prove that she really is beautiful.” But these are matters of experience, not reason. So why waste our time, as so many thinkers have for three millennia (or maybe more), when our only real choice is to lean back and smell the roses?



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