God Is a Verb

The Jewish mystics suggest that God is a verb. Instead of thinking of God as a being, we might think of it as Be-ing. Instead of using the word God, we might use the verb, God-ing. This process in the universe, this God-ing energy, is evolving, creating, transforming the universe, always changing, always leaning toward greater perfection. Or perhaps we should say it is leaning toward greater beauty, since perfection implies that there is something out there we are trying to copy. But God-ing, the activity of God the verb, includes the birth of newness and unpredictability within the wholeness. And all of us are a part of this God-ing.

Sun in Trees DSC01708Jewish mysticism sees a particular dignity and purpose in the lives of human beings. It describes it in the form of a story—the Kabbalah speaks of sparks of divine light that were trapped in the husks of all things in the universe when this material world was created. The purpose of life is to raise the sparks, and bring together the separated light into one whole. Part of how we do this is through becoming aware of the larger whole. But what makes humans significant is that we exist with free will. So not only are we a part of the harmonious symphony of the all, but we can actively shape the music. Whatever we choose has an effect on the larger whole.

Rabbi David Cooper tells a story about Rabbi Schlomo Carlebach, one of the great mystical rabbis of the twentieth century. He was always late everywhere he went, because every time someone asked him for help, he stopped and responded. He would not simply give money, but also have a short conversation. “Each person was treated as if he or she were a saint. …Reb Shlomo believed that the world was balanced on our ability to help one another. Should someone fail to assist another person, the world could be destroyed.”

As human beings, then, our actions have ultimate value. We are not here to follow a bunch of rules, or to pass a test, or to clear a kind of judgement, to get into a personal heavenly afterlife. Rather, by the choices we make, we are shifting the essence of the universe. When we choose selfishly and with egotism or cruelty, we keep the world broken and dissonant. We cover up the light within ourselves and others. When we expand our hearts and choose acts of loving-kindness and compassion, we are releasing the divine sparks of light in ourselves and others. We transform the universe as we transform ourselves.

Quotes from Rabbi David Cooper, God is a Verb: Kabbalah and the practice of mystical judaism.

Choosing the Honorable and the Just

…To those of our bodies given
without pity to be burned, I know
there is no answer
but loving one another,
even our enemies, and this is hard.
Wendell Berry

Rev. Bill Schulz, former executive director of Amnesty International, wrote eloquently about the power of human resistance to evil. I want to share his words:

In every situation of incomprehensible terror there are always a few people who have cast their lot with the Honorable and the Just… Such people need not be well-educated or sophisticated or even successful in their witness; they simply need to be those who, in the face of sorrow, choose honor and blessing and life. And when they do, they redeem if not humanity, then at least their generation. …For if even only one person in a generation or a country or a culture chooses honor and blessing and life—even only one—then it means that anyone could have made that choice; it means that the Radiant had not completely died in those days; it means that Glory has not been silenced.

We are challenged to respond to the horrible situations of our time with a courageous endeavor—to remember that we are connected. There might be occasions when remembering this connection demands great heroism. The sufferings of the world are so big, and we feel so small. It is frightening to contemplate. But most of the time we are responding to smaller divisions; we must practice finding relationship in the everyday world of conflict and difference—the neighbor whose dog barks too much, the family member whose religious beliefs are contrary to our own, the person whose culture we do not understand, the child who is asserting her own independence.

The promise is that whenever we stand up for human dignity and connection, we bring the power of Grace into the world, we bring the power of God into the world. Whenever we choose mutual respect instead of violence, we strengthen the possibility of Goodness. Whenever we reach out to one who is suffering, we keep alive the Radiant for one more day.

Sunset Winslow DSC02433

Bill Schulz quote from his sermon, “Too Swift to Stop, Too Sweet to Lose”
Wendell Berry quote from “To My Granddaughters,” in A Timbered Choir

An Old Question, An Old Story

Apples DSC06312How do we make sense of evil in the world? Where does it come from, and what can we do about it? And what does it say to us about spirituality, about God?

These questions are not new ones. All of the world’s philosophies and religions, from time immemorial, have tried to account for the problem of evil. The Jewish bible begins with a beautiful story of creation, and concludes that, “God saw that it was very good.” But the very next chapter is about the fall from paradise. Yahweh God gave the humans an admonition: “You may freely eat of every tree in the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for on the day you eat of it you shall die.”

But then the serpent came to Eve saying, “No, you will not die! God knows that when you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil.” And so Eve and Adam took fruit from this tree and ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they realized that they were naked, and they covered themselves. When Yahweh God came to them, he said, “See, the human has become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to eat from the tree of life also, and live forever.” And so they were banished from the garden, and suffering entered their lives.

It is a powerful story. One way of interpreting it has been as a literal history of our first ancestors. According to some, Adam and Eve—and especially Eve—made a really colossal mistake by disobeying God, and now the rest of us are paying for it big-time. Original sin. But I don’t think it was ever meant as a story about a stolen apple. The Jewish writers were not so much speculating on origins, as describing the perennial human predicament. They saw the brokenness and suffering in their world and tried to tell a story that might express its painful contradictions.

The story itself is full of contradictions. Why did the tree of the knowledge of good and evil sit in the middle of the garden if it was forbidden? Why wouldn’t it make sense to trust the serpent, who is described as the most subtle of all the wild beasts that God made? Why did God make the serpent, if it would become a tempter? Adam and Eve lose their innocence, but why are they then described by God as “like one of us, knowing good and evil.”

The Jewish writers seem to be saying—reality is a trade-off. We try to imagine a perfect world, where nothing bad ever happens. But then there is no story. Only one chapter. We wouldn’t be who we are. Our eyes are open: we have knowledge, and the power to choose between good and evil. That’s reality. We can no longer be naked and unaware of it. Rebecca Solnit writes:

…imaginative Christian heretics worshipped Eve for having liberated us from paradise… The heretics recognized that before the fall we were not fully human—Adam and Eve need not wrestle with morality, with creation, with society, with mortality in paradise; they only realize their own potential and their own humanity in the struggle an imperfect world invites.

So we become choice-making agents, with power to act upon the world for good or evil. We can choose to conceal or to reveal ourselves, and thus the concept of truth and falsehood comes into being. Every choice we and others make has consequences which limit or expand the scope of our freedom. We are influenced and deceived and acted upon by those around us. Good and evil even masquerade as each other. This freedom and power in us means that anything can happen. The story is suddenly a real story. Unfinished, and unpredictable. Outcome uncertain.