During a talk on Judaism delivered at a synagogue last week, I nonchalantly mentioned that I thought of myself as a humanist. I went on to define this as someone who assumed that all systems of belief were of human origin reflecting human biases, concerns and limitations, and that religion told us more about worshippers than about the object of their worship. I said that this is why I am so comfortable in interfaith settings — not because I believe all religion is true, but that I believe no religion is true.
The congregation froze at this remark, and the host rabbi leaped up to say how wonderful it was that I felt free enough to share my thoughts, and by doing so proving just how welcoming Judaism is to a wide range of opinions. As the rabbi put as much distance between my ideas and his as possible, I was once again surprised at the seeming rarity of what is to me common sense.
During the question-and-answer period people sought to reject (as opposed to rebut) my humanism and reaffirm their theism, and I did my best to honor their beliefs. I am always happy to clarify what I believe and inquire with real curiosity into what you believe, but I never argue. And because I don’t argue many people complimented me on my open-mindedness.
I didn’t say anything at the time, but the truth is I am not open-minded. While I rarely get upset when someone disagrees with me, the reason I don’t has nothing to do with being open-minded. Put it this way: I am convinced that the moon is a rock. If you insist it is made of green cheese, I won’t argue with you, but the reason for not arguing has nothing to do with my willingness to entertain the possibility that you are correct in your assessment of the moon. I won’t argue because arguing with someone who believes something so outlandish is simply a waste of time.
Applying this to religion, I do not for a moment imagine that any book is divinely revealed; that any religion is anything other than a human creation serving the socio-economic and political desires of those who created it and gain power and authority from it; or that any idea about god is God.
Do I believe in God? God for me is Reality, the IS-ing of things: that intrinsically creative process that manifests as everything and nothing. God is neither to be feared nor worshipped, but wondered at and marveled over and lived with deep humility, courage and chutzpah. God is an ever-surprising, irreducible, uncontrollable, celebration of creativity worthy of the deepest respect, awe, reverence, humility and even love.
God isn’t anywhere or anything; God is everywhere and everything. God doesn’t choose, reward or punish. God isn’t conscious of me. On the contrary: I am a way God becomes conscious of God. Is any of this Jewish? Not exclusively so, but the language of Judaism works as a way of articulating my beliefs.
For example, I am convinced that Reality is an intrinsically creative process (In the beginning God created, Genesis 1:1); that Reality is a multi-pronged evolutionary experiment in life creation (I will be what I will be, Exodus 3:14), with a penchant for sentience (Let us make humanity, Genesis 1:26); that consciousness pervades all reality (the whole world is filled with God’s glory, Psalm 72:19); that some sentient beings are capable of discovering and consciously participating in the moral nature of Reality as humans perceive it (Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly, Micah 6:8); that the religious geniuses of all time have discovered and articulated the same ethic: Love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18); and that over time such people continue to expand our understanding of neighbor to ultimately include all reality (Love the Lord your God, Deuteronomy 6:5).
I also believe that just as birds build nests, and beavers build dams, humans make music, art, literature, science, ethics, philosophy, religion and contemplative tools that sharpen our awareness of the grand play of life. This is why I love what I do, and am blessed to be able to do it.
Just don’t imagine my joy at learning the myriad ways we humans make sense of reality has anything to do with being open-minded.
Rabbi Rami Shapiro is director of the One River Foundation in Murfreesboro, Tenn. He blogs at Toto.