A battle rages in our culture between fundamentalists and atheists, who pit religion and the Bible against science and evolution. Contemporary theologian and scholar of Jewish mysticism, Rabbi Arthur Green, PhD, explores a third way: understanding evolution as divine revelation—a sacred story capable of grounding a vibrant, eco-friendly Judaism for the 21st century.
Rabbi Arthur Green, PhD, a nationally recognized historian of Jewish religion and a theologian, is the founding dean of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College and now serves as its rector. He has lectured widely and taught Jewish mysticism, Hasidism and theology to several generations of students at the University of Pennsylvania; the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, where he served as both dean and president; Brandeis University; and Hebrew College. Green is the founder of Havurat Shalom, an egalitarian Jewish community in Somerville, Mass., and remains a leading independent figure in the Jewish renewal movement. He is the author or editor of more than a dozen books; his most recent is Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings From Around the Maggid's Table (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2013). For a full treatment of the ideas expressed in this video, see his Radical Judaism: Rethinking God and Tradition (Yale University Press, 2010).
Radical Judaism: Rethinking God and Tradition
by Arthur Green
Yale University Press, pp. 16-27
Y-H-W-H: GOD AND BEING
In the Beginning
I open with a theological assertion. As a religious person I believe that the evolution of species is the greatest sacred drama of all time. It is a tale — perhaps even the tale — in which the divine waits to be discovered. It dwarfs all the other narratives, memories, and images that so preoccupy the mind of religious traditions, including our own. We Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all overinvolved with proclaiming — or questioning — the truth of our own particular stories. Did Moses really receive the Torah from God at Mount Sinai? Did Jesus truly rise from the tomb? Was Muhammad indeed God’s chosen messenger? We refine our debates about these forever, each group certain that its own narrative is at the center of universal history. In the modern world, where all these tales are challenged, we work out sophisticated and nonliteralist ways of proclaiming our faith in them. But there is a bigger story, infinitely bigger, and one that we all share. How did we get here, we humans, and where are we going? For more than a century and a half, educated Westerners have understood that this is the tale of evolution. But we religious folk, the great tale-tellers of our respective traditions, have been guarded and cool toward this story and have hesitated to make it our own. The time has come to embrace it and to uncover its sacred dimensions.
I believe that “Creation,” or perhaps more neutrally stated, “origins,” a topic almost entirely neglected in both Jewish and liberal Christian theology of the past century, must return as a central preoccupation in our own day. This indeed has much to do with the ecological agenda and the key role that religion needs to play in changing our attitudes toward the world within which we humans live.1 But it also emerges from our society’s growing acceptance of scientific explanations — those of the nuclear physicist, the geologist, the evolutionary biologist, and others — for the origins of the world we have inherited. The finality of this acceptance, which I share, seemingly means the end of a long struggle between so-called scientific and religious worldviews. This leaves those of us who speak the language of faith in a peculiar situation. Is there then no connection between the God we know and encounter daily within all existence and the emergence and history of our universe? Does the presence of eternity we feel (whether we call ourselves “believers” or not) when we stand atop great mountains or at the ocean water’s edge exist only within our minds? Is our faith nothing more than one of those big mollusk shells we used to put up against our ears, convinced we could hear in them the ocean’s roar? Is our certainty of divine presence, so palpable to the religious soul, merely a poetic affirmation, corresponding to nothing in the reality described by science? We accept the scientific account of how we got here, or at least understand that the conversation about that process and its stages lies within the domain of science. Yet we cannot absent God from it entirely. Even if we have left behind the God of childhood, the One who assures and guarantees “fairness” in life, the presence of divinity within nature remains essential to our perception of reality. A God who has no place in the process of “how we got here” is a God who begins in the human mind, a mere idea of God, a post-Kantian construct created to guarantee morality, to assure us of the potential for human goodness, or for some other noble purpose. But that is not God. The One of which I speak here indeed goes back to origins and stands prior to them, though perhaps not in a clearly temporal sense.2 A God who underlies all being, who is and dwells within (rather than “who controls” or “oversees”) the evolutionary process is the One about which — or about “Whom” — we tell the great sacred tale, the story of existence.
I thus insist on the centrality of “Creation,” but I do so from the position of one who is not quite a theist, as understood in the classical Western sense. I do not affirm a Being or a Mind that exists separate from the universe and acts upon it intelligently and willfully. This puts me quite far from the contemporary “creationists” or from what is usually understood as “intelligent design” (but see more on this below). My theological position is that of a mystical panentheist, one who believes that God is present throughout all of existence, that Being or Y-H-W-H underlies and unifies all that is.3 At the same time (and this is panentheism as distinct from pantheism), this whole is mysteriously and infinitely greater than the sum of its parts, and cannot be fully known or reduced to its constituent beings.4 “Transcendence” in the context of such a faith does not refer to a God “out there” or “over there” somewhere beyond the universe, since I do not know the existence of such a “there.” Transcendence means rather that God — or Being — is so fully present in the here and now of each moment that we could not possibly grasp the depth of that presence. Transcendence thus dwells within immanence. There is no ultimate duality here, no “God and world,” no “God, world, and self,” only one Being and its many faces. Those who seek consciousness of it come to know that it is indeed eyn sof, without end. There is no end to its unimaginable depth, but so too there is no border, no limit, separating that unfathomable One from anything that is. Infinite Being in every instant flows through all finite beings. “Know this day and set it upon your heart that Y-H-W-H is elohim” (Deut. 4:39) —that God within you is the transcendent.5 And the verse concludes: “There is nothing else.”
By mystical panentheism I mean that this underlying oneness of being is accessible to human experience and reveals itself to humans — indeed, it reveals itself everywhere, always — as the deeper levels of the human mind become open to it. Access to it requires a lifting of veils, a shifting of attention to those inner realms of human consciousness where mystics, and not a few poets, have always chosen to abide. The “radical otherness” of God, so insisted upon by Western theology, is not an ontological otherness but an otherness of perspective. To open one’s eyes to God is to see Being — the only Being there is — in a radically different way. Such a unitive view of reality is entirely other (ganz andere, in theological German) from the way we usually see things, yet it is the same reality that is being viewed. I am also one who knows that religious truth belongs to the language of poetry, not discursive prose. I recognize fully and without regret that theology is an art, not a science. We people of faith have nothing we can prove; attempts to do so only diminish what we have to offer. We can only testify, never prove. Our strength lies in grandeur of vision, in an ability to transport the conversation about existence and origins to a deeper plane of thinking. My faith, but also my human experience, tells me that this shift profoundly enhances our understanding of our own lives and of the world in which we live. Opening our minds, and ultimately the mind of our society, to the truth accessible from that inner “place” constitutes our best hope for inspiring change in the way we live on this earth. There is nothing mere about poetic vision.
This point in the discussion calls for a greater clarification of the terms “One,” “Being,” and “God,” which I now appear to be using quite interchangeably. Am I speaking of a “what” or a “who,” the reader has a right to ask. Let me answer clearly. When I refer to “God,” I mean the inner force of existence itself, that of which one might say: “Being is.” I refer to it as the “One” because it is the single unifying substratum of all that is. To speak of Being as a religious person, however, is to speak of it not detachedly, in scientific “objectivity,” but rather with full engagement of the self, in love and awe.6 These two great emotions together characterize the religious mind and, when carried to their fullest, make for our sense of the holy. A religious person is one who perceives or experiences holiness in the encounter with existence; the forms of religious life are intended to evoke this sense of the holy. In a mental state that cannot be fully described in words, such a person hears Being say: “I am.” All of our personifications of the One are in response to that inner “hearing.”
In biblical language, the “I am” of Sinai is already there behind the first “Let there be” of Genesis.7 Creation is revelation, as the Kabbalists understood so well. To say it in more neutral terms, we religious types personify Being because we see ourselves as living in relationship to the underlying One. I seek to respond to the “I am” that I have been privileged to hear, to place myself at its service in carrying forth this great mission of the evolving life process. To do so, I choose to personify, to call Being by this ancient name “God.”8 In doing this, I am proclaiming my love and devotion to Being, my readiness to live a life of seeking and responding to its truth. But implied here is also a faith that in some mysterious way Being loves me, that it rejoices for a fleeting instant in dwelling within me, delighting in this unique form that constitutes my existence, as it delights in each of its endlessly diverse manifestations.
Creation: Reframing the Tale
With regard to “Creation,” I understand the task of the theologian to be one of reframing, accepting the accounts of origins and natural history offered by the scientific consensus, but helping us to view them in a different way, one that may guide us toward a more profound appreciation of that same reality. The tale of life’s origins and development, including its essential building block of natural selection, is well known to us as moderns. But what would it mean to recount that tale with our eyes truly open?
We would understand the entire course of evolution, from the simplest life forms millions of years ago, to the great complexity of the human brain (still now only barely understood), and proceeding onward into the unknown future, to be a meaningful process. There is a One that is ever revealing itself to us within and behind the great diversity of life. That One is Being itself, the constant in the endlessly changing evolutionary parade. Viewed from our end of the process, the search that leads to discovery of that One is our human quest for meaning. But turned around, seen from the perspective of the constantly evolving life energy, evolution can be seen as an ongoing process of revelation or self-manifestation. We discover; it reveals. It reveals; we discover. As the human mind advances (from our point of view), understanding more of the structure, process, and history of the ever-evolving One, we are being given (from its point of view) ever-greater insight into who we are and how we got here.
This ongoing self-disclosure is the result of a deep and mysterious inner drive, the force of Being directed from within, however imperfectly and stumblingly, to manifest itself ever more fully, in ever more diverse, complex, and interesting ways. That has caused it to bring about, in the long and slow course of its evolution, the emergence of a mind that can reflect upon the process, articulate it, and strive toward the life of complete awareness that will fulfill its purpose. Here on this smallish planet in the middle of an otherwise undistinguished galaxy, something so astonishing has taken place that it indeed demands to be called by the biblical term “miracle,” rather than by the Greco-Latin “nature,” even though the two are pointing to the exact same set of facts. The descendants of one-celled creatures grew and developed, emerged onto dry land, learned survival skills, developed language and thought, until a subset of them could reflect on the nature of this entire process and seek to derive meaning from it.
The coming to be of “higher” or more complex forms of life, and eventually of humanity, is not brought about by the specific and conscious planning of what is sometimes called “intelligent design.” But neither is it random and therefore inherently without meaning. It is rather the result of an inbuilt movement within the whole of being, the underlying dynamis of existence striving to be manifest ever more fully in minds that it brings forth and inhabits, through the emergence of increasingly complex and reflective selves. I think of that underlying One in immanent terms, a Being or life force that dwells within the universe and all its forms, rather than a Creator from beyond who forms a world that is “other” and separate from its own Self. This One — the only One that truly is — lies within and behind all the diverse forms of being that have existed since the beginning of time; it is the single Being (as the Hebrew name Y-H-W-H indicates)9 clothed in each individual being and encompassing them all.10
If we could learn to view our biohistory this way, the incredible grandeur of the evolutionary journey would immediately unfold before us. We Jews revere the memory of one Nahshon ben Aminadav, the first person to step into the Sea of Reeds after Israel left Egypt. The sea did not split, the story goes, until he was up to his neck in water. What courage! But what about the courage of the first creature ever to emerge from sea onto dry land? Do we appreciate the magnificence of that moment? Or the first to fly, to take wing into the air? Or the moment (of course each of these is a long, slow process rather than a “moment,” but the drama is no less great) when animals were divided from plants, when one sort of being was able take nourishment directly from the soil while another was able to exist without this form of nourishment, developing the mechanism to “feed” on plant, and then animal, life. How is it possible, with all of them descending from the same single-celled creatures?
The incredibly complex interplay of forces and the thick web of mutual dependency among beings are no less amazing than the distance traversed in this long evolutionary journey. The interrelationships between soil, plants, and insects, or those between climate, foliage, and animal life, all leave us breathless as we begin to contemplate them. It is these very intricacies and complexities that have led the religious fundamentalists to hold fast to the claim that there must be a greater intelligence behind it all, that such complexity can only reflect the planning of a supernatural Mind. But they miss the point of the religious moment here. Our task as religious persons is not to offer counterscientific explanations for the origin of life. Our task is to notice, to pay attention to, the incredible wonder of it all, and to find God in that moment of paying attention.
There is indeed something “supernatural” about existence, something entirely out of the ordinary, beyond any easy expectation. But I understand the “supernatural” to reside wholly within the “natural.”11 The difference between them is one of perception, the degree to which our “inner eye” is open. The whole journey is a supernatural one, not because some outside Being made it happen but because Being itself, residing in those simplest and most ancient of life-forms, pushing ever forward, step after simple step, to reach where we are today, continues to elude our complete understanding. The emergence of both bees and blossoms, and the relationship between them, took place over millions of years, step by evolutionary step. How could that have happened? There is an endless ingenuity to this self-manifesting Being, an endless stream of creativity of which we are only the tiniest part. If we do not destroy or do too much irreversible damage to our planet, it will continue to bring forth ever more diverse and creative manifestations long after we are gone.
The poetic reframing of our contemporary tale of origins that I am proposing here might be better understood by reference to a prior example, one with which we happen to have an intimate bond. I refer to the opening chapter of the Hebrew Bible. The authors of Genesis 1 effected a remarkable transformation of the creation myth that existed in their day. The common theology of the ancient Near East, reflected in both Canaanite and Mesopotamian sources, featured the rising up of the primal forces of chaos, represented by Yam and Tiamat, gods of the sea, against the order being imposed by the younger but more powerful sky gods. The defeat of that primordial rebellion was the background of Creation; earth was established upon the carcasses of the vanquished. That tale of uprising and its bloody end, now largely forgotten, was well known to the biblical writers and their audiences.12 It is reflected in various passages in the prophets, Psalms, and Job, and is subtly hinted at even within the Genesis narrative. But those who wrote Genesis 1 reframed the story completely. Everything was created in harmony, willfully, by a single God who kept saying: “Good! Good!” in response to His creations, giving His blessing to each.
That reshaped tale helped to form and sustain Western civilization for several thousand years. The faith that God loves and affirms Creation provides the moral undergirding for all of Western religion, manifest differently in each of the three dominant faiths. Some believed it naively and literally; others interpreted it and tried to reconcile it with various other ways of thinking. I am suggesting that we need to undertake a similar effort of transformation for our current “Creation” story. Our civilization has been transformed in the past century and a half in no small part by our acceptance of a new series of tales of origin, an account that begins with the Big Bang (which itself may turn out to be myth) and proceeds through the long saga of the origins of our solar system, the geohistory of our planet, the emergence of life, and biological evolution. Nuclear physicists and cosmologists have become the new Kabbalists of our age, speculating in ever more refined ways on the first few seconds of existence much as our mystical sages meditated on the highest triad of the ten divine emanations. The picture that science offers is one of unimaginably violent explosion, of particles hurtling through indescribably vast reaches of space, and only then of the emergence of an order —solar systems, gravity, orbits, air, and water — that makes for the possibility of life’s existence.13 As living things emerge and develop we are again presented with a tale of violent and bloody struggle, that of each species and creature to eat and not be eaten, to strive for its moment at the top of the evolutionary mound of corpses. This story too, I am suggesting, is in need of reformulation by a new and powerful harmonistic vision, one that will allow even the weakest and most threatened of creatures a legitimate place in this world and will call upon us not to wipe it out by careless whim. This is the role of today’s religion.
How would such a reframed tale read? It would be a narrative of the great reaching out by the inner One that inhabits each of us and binds us all together, a constant stretching forth of Y-H-W-H (“Being”) in the endless adventure of becoming HWYH (Hebrew for “being” or “existence”), or of the One garbing itself in the multicolored garment of diversity and multiplicity. Every creature and each cell within it would be viewed as part of this tale, a mini-adventure within the infinitely complex narrative web that embraces us all. The meaning of this great journey would remain quite mysterious, but with a glimmer of hope that somewhere in the distant future “we” might figure it all out. The evolutionary movement forward would be seen as a striving toward complexity, toward ever-thicker and ever-richer patterns of self-manifestation.
Does this One know where it is going? Here I come trickily close to, yet remain distinct from, the advocates of intelligent design as they are usually understood. On the one hand, I do not attribute humanlike consciousness to the One. There is no “plan” of Creation, no sense that humans are the apex or final goal of the process. I do not believe that the complexity or intricacy of the natural order is evidence of such design. As I said, we religious folk have no evidence, only testimony. Any attempt to claim otherwise only confuses the picture. On the other hand, however, it is fair to say that all mind and all consciousness ever to exist are part of the One. Mystics have always understood that this One transcends time, as the name Y-H-W-H itself indicates. All minds are thus one with Mind, as all beings are contained within Being. In this sense we can say that the fullness of Being’s self-manifestation, including our understanding of it, is there from the start, not in the sense of active or intentional foreknowledge, but as potential that is ever unfolding. The One “knows” all because the One is all, all that ever was, is, and will be, in an undivided Self.
The reader who is aware of Jewish mystical language will understand that I am rereading contemporary evolutionary theory in the light of Kabbalistic thought. Kabbalah understands all of existence as eternally pouring forth from hokhmah, primordial Wisdom or Mind. Hokhmah is the primal point of existence, symbolized by the Hebrew letter yod, which is itself hardly more than a dot. This point, infinitesimally small, is the proverbial “little that contains a lot.” Within it lies the entire unfolding of existence, every stage in the evolutionary journey, every plant and animal as it will live, reproduce (or not), and die, all of humanity and all that lies beyond us in the distant future. All this exists in a literal sense of potential (meaning that its potency, its power, is all fully present) in that primal point. In our contemporary language, that point is the instant of the Big Bang, the moment that contains the energy of existence in all its intensity. From there it flows forward into existence, garbing or “actualizing” itself at each stage in endless forms of existence.
To say this in another way, also derived from Kabbalistic language, I am depicting the entire course of evolution as the infinitely varied self-garbing of an endless energy flow All being exists in an eternal dialectic of hitpashtut, the emanatory flowing forth of that single energy, and hitlabbeshut, the garbing of that energy in distinctive forms. But now we add an important post-Darwinian caveat to that mystical view of existence. The only means this One has in this process of self-manifestation are those of natural selection and its resulting patterns of change and growth. It is nature (yes, “nature” could be another name for that which I have called “God,” “the One,” and “Being”). Hence the length and slowness of the journey. But precisely in this lies the utterly marvelous nature of what has come forth, step after single step. To see that process with the eye of wonder is the starting point of religious awareness.
As more highly developed forms of animal life emerge, the forward movement of natural selection takes place partly in the form of aggression and competition, each creature and species grasping at its chance to survive and prosper. The competition for food and other resources, the devices created by males and females of various species to attract mates and reproduce, the struggle to find and eat one’s prey rather than be consumed by one’s predators, are all essential parts of the story — indeed, our story. This is an aspect of our biological legacy that we need to own and confront. We cannot understand our own human nature without taking into account the fierce struggle we underwent to arrive, and to achieve the dominance we have over this planet, for better and worse. But that same mysterious inner process also brings about more cooperative forms of societal organization, in which such creatures as ants, bees, and humans learn to work together toward fulfilling their species’ goals. All of this is part of our biological legacy. Indeed, it is in grasping how these two trends, the competitive and the collaborative, combine and interact that we come to understand how our species survives. This should be a source of significant insight into the human condition. Once we achieve this understanding, we can make the value decisions as to which aspects of that biological heritage we want to take the lead as we proceed with our lives, both as individuals and as a species.
But it would also be disingenuous of me as a human to say that the emergence of human consciousness, even the ability to be thinking and writing about these very matters, is nothing more than a small series of steps in the unfolding linear process wrought by natural selection. That is indeed how we came about. But there is a different meaning to human existence that cannot be denied. The self-reflective consciousness of humans, combined with our ability to take a long biohistorical view of the whole unfolding that lies behind (and ahead of) us, makes a difference. All creatures are doing the “work of God” by existing, feeding, reproducing, and moving the evolutionary process forward. But we humans, especially today, are called upon to do that work in a different way. We have emerged as partners of the One in the survival and maintenance of this planet and all the precious attainments that have evolved here. Without our help, it will not continue to thrive. Being has thus turned a corner, or come back in a self-reflexive circle, as it manifests itself in the human mind.
1. In the background here are such works as Thomas Berry’s The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1988); Berry and Brian Swimme’s The Universe Story (San Francisco: Harper, 1992); and E. O. Wilson’s The Creation (New York: Norton, 2006).
2. I have discussed this nontemporal sense of priority briefly in Seek My Face: A Jewish Mystical Theology (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2003), pp. 55f. The point is that the One underlies the many then, now, and forever. This underlying is the true nature of its priority in the mystical context, one which is converted into temporality as mystical insight comes to be expressed in mythic narrative (since stories require a “before” and “after”). The contemporary Midrashist might see this hinted at in the syntactical awkwardness of bereshit bara’.
3. The relationship of “being” and “Being” in English is roughly comparable to that of HaWaYaH (“existence”) and Y-H-W-H (its consonantal equivalent, rearranged) in Hebrew.
4. This puts me in the camp, as Hillel Zeitlin would have said, of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s pantheism, as distinguished from Spinoza’s. The distinction between these was key to Zeitlin’s return to Judaism and the starting point of his neo-Hasidic philosophy. See his remarks in Barukh Spinoza (Warsaw: Tushiya, 1914), pp. i35ff, as well as in Di Benkshaft nokh Sheynheyt (Warsaw: Velt-Bibliotek, 1910), pp. 34f.
5. I intentionally quote the verse around which Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi wove his essential mystical treatise Sha’ar ha-Tihud veha-Emunah (the second part of Tanya), to indicate the strong Hasidic roots of the theology I am articulating here.
6. Love and awe (ahavah ve-yir’ah, dehilo u-rehimo) are taken by the Jewish ethical literature to be the twin pillars of religious emotion, ever to be kept in balance with one another. For the Kabbalist they represent the proper human embodiments of hesed and din, the right and left hands of the cosmic Self. Classic treatments include Meir Ibn Gabbai’s ‘Avodat ha-Qodesh (Venice, 1567), 1:25-28, and (much expanded) Elijah Da Vidas, Reshit Hokhmah (Venice, 1579). In this matter I find myself wholly within the classical tradition.
7. In the idiom of Midrash, the hidden aleph of ‘anokhi lies behind the dualizing bet of bereshit. See my discussion in “The Aleph-Bet of Creation: Jewish Mysticism for Beginners,” Tikkun 7:4 (1992).
8. The reader may properly hear an echo of Martin Buber’s words in Eclipse of God (New York: Harper and Row, 1952), pp. 7ff. I too recognize the difficulty in continuing to use this word, alongside the impossibility of doing without it.
9. My discussion of this theological viewpoint, including its roots in an understanding of the divine name, begins in my book Seek My Face.
10. Among the rabbinic phrases that leap to mind here are ke-haden qumtsa’ di-levushey minney u-veyh (“like the locust, whose garbing comes forth from his own self” [Midrash Bereshit Rabbah 21:5]) and hu meqomo shel ‘olam ve-eyn ha-’olam meqomo (“He is the ‘place’ of the world; the world is not His place” [Bereshit Rabbah 68:10]).
11. The presence of the miraculous within the natural has a long history in Jewish theological conversation. Some key prior participants in this conversation are Nahmanides, the MaHaRaL of Prague, and Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev.
12. Jonathan Day, God’s Conflict with the Dragon and the Sea: Echoes of a Canaanite Myth in the Old Testament (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985). For the presence and survival of this theme in later Judaism, see Michael Fishbane’s “The Great Dragon Battle and Talmudic Redaction,” in his The Exegetical Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), pp. 41-55.
13. Parallel structures of thought in Kabbalah and astrophysics have been noted by several writers, including Daniel Matt, God and the Big Bang (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 1996); David Nelson, Judaism, Physics, and God (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2005); and Howard Smith, Let There Be Light: Modern Cosmology and Kabbalah (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2006).
Excerpts from Radical Judaism, Rethinking God and Tradition by Arthur Green, Yale University Press
Radical Judaism is available at
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God in Nature
I thus insist on the centrality of “Creation,” but I do so from the position of one who is not quite a theist, as understood in the classical Western sense…My theological position is that of a mystical panentheist, one who believes that God is present throughout all of existence, that Being or Y-H-W-H underlies and unifies all that is. At the same time (and this is panentheism as distinct from pantheism), this whole is mysteriously and infinitely greater than the sum of its parts, and cannot be fully known or reduced to its constituent beings. “Transcendence” in the context of such a faith does not refer to a God “out there” or “over there” somewhere beyond the universe, since I do not know the existence of such a “there.” Transcendence means rather that God — or Being — is so fully present in the here and now of each moment that we could not possibly grasp the depth of that presence. Transcendence thus dwells within immanence. There is no ultimate duality here, no “God and world,” no “God, world, and self,” only one Being and its many faces. (page 17-18)
To my mind, Arthur Green is the most innovative American Jewish theological thinker in the last two decades, and Bradley Artson is the most compelling American Jewish theological thinker in the last few years. Both Artson, through Process Theology, and Green, through Jewish mysticism, insist on ending the divorce between theology and science that has characterized modern times. It is no coincidence that both champion this point. For if God is in nature, science is not a threat to theology. Rather, it is (indeed, science must be) a rich source of religious insight and wisdom.
Here is Green’s argument:
Is there then no connection between the God we know and encounter daily within all existence and the emergence and history of our universe? Does the presence of eternity we feel (whether we call ourselves “believers” or not) when we stand atop great mountains or at the ocean water’s edge exist only within our minds? Is our faith nothing more than one of those big mollusk shells we used to put up against our ears, convinced we could hear in them the ocean’s roar? Is our certainty of divine presence, so palpable to the religious soul, merely a poetic affirmation, corresponding to nothing in the reality described by science? We accept the scientific account of how we got here, or at least understand that the conversation about that process and its stages lies within the domain of science. Yet we cannot absent God from it entirely. Even if we have left behind the God of childhood, the One who assures and guarantees “fairness” in life, the presence of divinity within nature remains essential to our perception of reality. A God who has no place in the process of “how we got here” is a God who begins in the human mind, a mere idea of God, a post-Kantian construct created to guarantee morality, to assure us of the potential for human goodness, or for some other noble purpose. But that is not God…A God who underlies all being, who is and dwells within (rather than “who controls” or “oversees”) the evolutionary process is the One about which — or about “Whom” — we tell the great sacred tale, the story of existence. (page 17)
I open with a theological assertion. As a religious person I believe that the evolution of species is the greatest sacred drama of all time. It is a tale — perhaps even the tale — in which the divine waits to be discovered. It dwarfs all the other narratives, memories, and images that so preoccupy the mind of religious traditions, including our own… (page 16)
For those of us who experience the sacred in the natural world, understanding God to be in nature is critical. I feel most spiritual in wilderness, in what should be according to dualistic thinking, the most material and ungodly of places. As particle physics, neuroscience and medicine show, the spirit-mind/matter-body divide is bogus, and theological thinking must catch up or forfeit its fidelity to truth. If God manifests in all of creation, religion that ignores science—the most successful and in many areas our most compelling source of knowledge and truth about the universe—is religion that is at best, watered down, and at worst, irrelevant.
Another reason to follow Green’s lead is the ethical implications of his thought. One can certainly be a spirit/matter dualist and care deeply about the earth. Witness many Christian fundamentalists, New Age spiritualists and followers of dualistic Eastern philosophies who advocate for a sustainable society. But one can just as easily invoke dualism to “desacralize” the natural world and justify the kind of thinking behind our current environmental crisis. Historically, that has been the dominant view and, in many places, continues unabated.
Would it not be better to embrace a theological/ethical world-view where trashing the earth is not an option? In our time, writes Green, the urgent, ethical task of authentic religion is to present the stories, the poetry, the ethics and the ideals—the building blocks of a world-view—that see human enterprise in sustainable harmony with the planet that enables and nurtures it. Not everyone agrees. That must change if religion is to be relevant as part of the solution rather than the problem and we humans are to thrive for generations to come.
I know of no spiritual path where greed and power for greed and power’s sake are promoted. I know of no religion where the prohibition on murder is optional. For a religion to be considered true and wise, certain things are universally recognized.
We live in an unsustainable civilization. Our grandchildren’s world, perhaps our children’s, hangs in the balance. One day, I pray, spiritual/faithful/religious people will take it for granted that we honor the earth and respect its inhabitants in the same way we honor our mothers and our fathers and respect other people.
Arthur Green’s prophetic vision shows how Judaism can and should contribute to this holy task. And when you see the world as he sees it, like any of God’s moral commandments, it’s not optional.
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Rabbi Mike Comins is Founding Director of the TorahTrek Center for Jewish Wilderness Spirituality (www.TorahTrek.org) and author of Making Prayer Real: Leading Jewish Spiritual Voices on Why Prayer is Difficult and What to Do about It (Jewish Lights Publishing; www.MakingPrayerReal.com) and A Wild Faith: Jewish Ways into Wilderness, Wilderness Ways into Judaism (Jewish Lights Publishing; www.AWildFaith.com).
Welcome to the TorahTrek eJournal! Here you will find videos, interviews, articles, photos, and educational materials on the interconnections between Judaism, wilderness, spiritual practice and sustainability. Our goal is to support the spiritual/ethical lives of individuals, enliven and strengthen the Jewish community, and promote a sustainable society living in balance with the earth. Explore the eJournal by clicking on the topics below. Please share these resources with your friends!
1 Torah And Ecology
2 Spiritual Practice In Wilderness
3 Wild Judaism
4 Educator's Corner
6 The Spiritual Wilderness