"Is it OK to shift back and forth between
thinking of God as a force and
thinking of God as a person?"
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson
Dear Rabbi Artson,
When I was in college I was an adamant atheist. But I had a friend in college who was a believing Jew, and his kindness to me led me to reconsider matters. He walked me through some very difficult circumstances in my life. He listened and cared for me, and he helped me get the help I needed.
At one point he shared your book with me: The God of Becoming and Relationship. Your book, along with life circumstances, helped open me up. Something began to stir in my heart and mind which suggested to me that, after all, there might just be something good and even loving in or beyond the universe -- something healing and whole-making.
Sometimes I think of this something almost like a friend. I address it as You and say “Dear God” in prayer. I feel like someone is listening. But sometimes it seems more like a force, not a “You” but more like the energy of love or compassion, albeit cosmic and not just humanly created. I don’t pray to it; I just believe in it and, somewhere in my heart, feel it. I flip back and forth between these perspectives, one theistic and one more trans-personal, sometimes even in the course of a given day. Do you ever flip back and forth like this, too? Do you think people need to resolve the issue, or is it alright for some people (well, me) to be, as it were, flippers? I’m new to all of this and would like your advice.
Thank you for reaching out and for sharing your new explorations of different ways of relating to God.
The first statement I want to put out there is that if there is a unifying source of life and connection that links the whole universe and everything that is in the universe, then it is beyond precise human description, even beyond human comprehension. Like a glorious sunset, it can be experienced even without being understood. We are often able to experience a relationship with something/someone we cannot completely describe. If that is true, and I believe that it is, then our descriptions of what we call God is always more than our description, and always also beyond our description. Our words are arrows pointing in a general direction, not precise locations on a map.
When we encounter something that cannot be contained in our verbal descriptions or mental compartments, the best approach is to multiply incomplete metaphors, each illuminating one aspect of a totality beyond our grasp. In Jewish tradition, God is described as “monarch,” “shepherd,” “fountain of life,” “life of the universe,” “parent,” “artist,” and many other terms that combine to help us create an emotional silhouette of this cosmic mind, this oneness, this source of creativity and goodness.
And it should not be a surprise, in a universe that emerges as forces (gravity, the tides, etc), and as minds (octopi, bees, birds, people) that we would yearn to apply both descriptors to the source of all.
And I would imagine that this oneness, in its personal mode, is pleased by our reaching out and speaking up.
Rabbi Dr. Bradley Shavit Artson
Roslyn and Abner Goldstine Dean’s Chair
Professor of Philosophy