Thinking and Speaking About God

Using language--a human construct--to describe the divine is a precarious matter.


Reprinted with permission from Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew, published by the Jewish Publication Society.

The two questions that we can ask about God are: how? and what?

How do we know or say anything about God? And what can we know or say about God? Jewish thinkers have answered the latter question in diverse ways. Jewish rationalists talk of God as pure thought and the efficient cause of the natural order. Experientialists, such as Abraham Joshua Heschel, tell us of a God who is all pathos–a caring, reaching out, emotion‑ridden God who is omnipresent in nature and history. For existentialists, such as Martin Buber, He is the supreme and eternal Thou, the preeminently personal God who enters into relationship with those who seek to encounter Him. We also know that because God creates and reveals, He is not at all self‑sufficient. The biblical God needs a world, needs people–specifically a people–to help accomplish His purposes on earth.

thinking about godMore important, we [have] the problem of knowing, thinking, or saying anything about God. This is the ultimate paradox that pervades all of theological inquiry. Precisely because God is the supremely transcendent reality, neither the human mind nor human language is equipped to characterize Him in any objectively accurate way. We know how to describe those di­mensions of the world that are accessible through sensation–colors, chemical reactions, the anatomy of the human body. But the more reality escapes direct sense experience–the internal make‑up of the atom or of galaxies beyond ours, for example–the more we must mistrust the literalness of our thinking and speaking. If God is intrinsically other than anything human or natural, then how can we say anything that is literally true about Him, unless of course, we believe, as the traditionalist believes, that God Himself spoke at Sinai and instructed us regarding what to believe about Him.

The dilemma is that we want to say a great deal about God. At the same time, we want to preserve that transcendent quality that makes Him inaccessible to ordinary language. The alternatives are to remain silent or to reduce God to merely human or natural terms, which is idolatry, the cardinal theological sin.

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Dr. Neil Gillman is Aaron Rabinowitz and Simon H. Rifkind Professor of Jewish Philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

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