Thinking and Speaking About God

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

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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.

Theological literal‑mindedness is idolatrous, not because it claims to describe the transcendent God in human and natural terms--what other terms can we use?--but rather, because it insists that these descriptions are literally accurate and true. Exodus 20:4‑5 forbids us from making and worshiping any "sculpted image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth," and the biblical community was justifiably punished for worshiping the golden calf. The problem is not sculpted images, however, but rather conceptual and linguistic images. We are haunted by Isaiah's warning (40:25), "To whom, then, can you liken Me, to whom can I be compared?", and later (55:8‑9), "For My plans are not your plans, nor are My ways your ways…But as the heavens are high above the earth, so are My ways high above your ways and My plans above your plans." The assumption that God's nature can be conveyed in a literal way by our natural language is as idolatrous as building a golden calf.

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Dr. Neil Gillman

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