7/6/2007--In the novel, City of God, by E.L. Doctorow, which, regular readers of this blog know, forms the foundation and guides the development of Hallowed Secularism, the rabbi Sarah Blumenthal gives a sermon, a d’var Torah, based on Exodus 19-24. This portion of the Torah is the setting for the revelation on Sinai, including the Ten Commandments. After describing the new and unique “ethical configuration for human existence” that Sinai expresses, Sarah refers to the “human scriptural genius” that formulated the Commandments. Then she continues, “We could make the case then for God’s presence after all in the humanly written Bible. The Lord, blessed be His name, as my Orthodox colleagues say [she smiles]…being what impels us to struggle for historical and theological comprehension.” Sarah also refers to God as “the Creator”.
The “smile”, the self-conscious smile, perfectly sums up the spiritual crisis of liberal religion in America, especially Judaism. As I heard a rabbi in synagogue say earlier this year, “God, whatever we mean by that… .” This crisis will be fatal unless solved.
The problem is God. But it is necessary to formulate the question that would solve the problem. The question for someone like Sarah is not the one we think it is. The question is not whether God exists. Sarah is not a nihilist. She is not a materialist. She believes that the Old Testament--the Torah--tells the truth of reality. So, we may say Sarah is a believer in God. God exists.
The question is, what is the nature of God? Specifically in the context in the novel, the question is, whether God is the sort of [X] about which one may legitimately say, “May his name be blessed”. The crisis that the smile expresses is Sarah’s unwillingness or inability to formulate the question cleanly and begin to struggle with it. This makes her reference to “the Creator,” suddenly with no ambivalence at all, ridiculous and unconsciously self-serving.
What Sarah probably believes about the nature of God is that God is not a being. And she probably believes that God does not act in ways that set aside normal, physical, that is, scientific, laws. In fact, God probably doesn’t “act” at all. That is the wrong word to use about God. But all this is a beginning, not an end. We must push beyond what we think we know. We must keep the question of God open and in front of us, never imagining that because we are secular, we are atheists.
None of this is new. Thomas Aquinas has already pushed ahead of us and waits to be of help. In The Names of God, Aquinas asks, “Whether this name God is a name of a nature, or of the operation?”—the very question Sarah is trying to ask.