Does God Really Make A Difference?
"I Don't Believe In Organized Religion."
Paul was a child of the sixties, with his long hair and casual dress. It was one morning in the early 1970s that he sat opposite me in my study. He had called to ask to see me during his college vacation, more as a favor to his father, an active member of my synagogue, than out of any expectation that I would change his mind.
He told me, "I believe in God. I believe in being kind to people, treating them right, not hurting them. I believe in trying to make the world a better place. But I don't see why you need churches and synagogues, fancy buildings that are always looking for money. I don't see why you need professional clergy (nothing personal, Rabbi), prayer books, organized services, rules and rituals that nobody understands. I don't see why you need so many different religions, all arguing with each other. Why isn't it enough just to tell everybody to be nice to each other?"
He and I spoke for about an hour. I told him that some people can create lives of holiness all by themselves, the way Mozart could create immortal music without taking piano lessons, but that most of us need a structure and the company of other people to do it. I spoke to him of the need for community, that even if he didn't need organized religion, he should feel the obligation to maintain it for the people who did. (I restrained myself from telling him that if he didn't like organized religion, he had come to the right place; our synagogue was so disorganized it didn't deserve that description.) I spoke of the time-tested wisdom of a tradition thousands of years old, and urged him to accept what it had learned rather than dwell on its mistakes. Paul spoke of how boring his religious education had been when he was a child, how meaningless he found the services he attended with his parents whenever he was home, and how his science and psychology courses at school had helped him to understand why people living in less enlightened times might have needed religion, and why we no longer need it today.
After an hour, we parted cordially. Paul went back to school. Ultimately, he got married, got a haircut, moved to another state, and has become moderately active in a synagogue there, more, I suspect, as a return to his father's example than as a result of anything I told him that morning. I don't know if he ever thinks about the conversation we had that day. I think of it often.
This book is written for Paul, the bright, idealistic young man who asked why we need more than the commandment to be nice to each other. It is written for the young woman from a religiously committed home who went off to college and wrote a paper for her freshman English class on why religion harms more people than it helps. It is written for the man and woman from different religious backgrounds who fall in love and can't understand why religion is a source of conflict in their lives rather than a source of joy and inspiration. And it is written for all the intelligent, thoughtful people I have met in my travels -- journalists, radio talk-show hosts, strangers who struck up a conversation with me on a plane -- who had trouble believing that religion could be important to somebody in the twentieth century. This book is written for all the people who don't know that they are religious -- good, honest, caring people who dismiss their local church or synagogue as irrelevant to their lives or find their way to it only at times of emergency or family celebration. (A neighbor once told me, "I think of your synagogue the way I think of Massachusetts General Hospital. I'm glad my life is stable enough that I don't need it often, but when I need it, I'm glad there is a good one around.") Should these same good people feel vaguely lonely, disconnected, unfulfilled, confused by the hard choices they are called on to make in today's world, they will probably never understand the connection between that vague sense of unease and the absence of religion in their lives.
Recent years have not been kind to the cause of organized religion. Prominent religious personalities have been found to be just as vulnerable to sexual and financial temptations as the rest of us. We read about the very comfortable lifestyles of leading clergymen, or of the corrupt business practices of wealthy donors whom religious organizations have seen fit to honor, and we begin to worry that the dollars in the collection plate are tainted both by the source they come from and by the uses to which they will be put. Churches and synagogues have too often been breeding grounds for hypocrisy, self-righteousness, and small-mindedness instead of being fountains of charity and piety. No wonder that religion has lost its central place in the lives of so many Americans, becoming just one more leisure-time activity, competing for whatever time and energy we have left over after we have done the "important" things in our lives, attracting mostly people who need or enjoy "that sort of thing" and dismissed casually by the rest of us. Even those people who have rediscovered religion in recent years and have given themselves totally to it have not always done much to advance its cause. Their enthusiasm often expresses itself in a fundamentalism bordering on fanaticism, a dogmatism that makes others uncomfortable, an unseemly arrogance in presuming to speak in God's name and condemning anyone who disagrees with them.
In fact, the past few centuries have not been kind to the cause of organized religion. It may have begun with Copernicus and Galileo discovering that the earth was not the center of the universe -- that the sun did not revolve around it -- and that the Biblical description of the cosmos was inaccurate. Then Darwin taught that human beings evolved from more primitive animals by a blind, morally neutral process of evolution over a period of millions of years. Finally Freud came along and took away our cherished belief that our rational minds made us different from other creatures.
The nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been marked by the enthronement of Science, the objective search for truth that could be tested and verified, in place of Faith, which came more and more to be seen as fairy tales and wishful thinking. Religion, we were told, was an effort to understand and control the unknown, and as more and more became known about how the world worked, the domain of religion grew smaller and smaller.
At the end of the Book of Job, God confronts those who would challenge Him by saying, "Do you know who fixed [the earth's dimensions], or measured it with a line?...Do you know the seasons when the mountain goats give birth? Can you mark the time when the hinds calve?" (Job 38:5, 39:1) But modern man has found ways to measure the earth. He has studied the mating habits of the wild goat, and even intervened to keep it from becoming an endangered species. Are those grounds for being less impressed with God than our ancestors were?
To make matters worse, spokesmen for organized religion tried to challenge the scientific discoveries of Galileo, Darwin, Freud, and others, asking the faithful, "Which side are you on?" I have heard otherwise intelligent people tell me that, when God created the world six thousand years ago, along with the mountains and rivers He created dinosaur fossils (not dinosaurs). Why? For no reason except to test the faith of people who would one day live in a scientific age. Would they believe in revealed Scripture or in the misleading results of carbon-14 dating? To the embarrassment of those religious spokesmen (and, they would assure us, to the dismay of God as well), modern men and women have overwhelmingly chosen truth over orthodoxy, and have learned to see religion as the enemy of honesty, progress, and science.
With a bit more wisdom, might not these religious leaders have seen that same trend as a victory for the cause of religion rather than a defeat? That men and women chose to use their God-given intelligence to explore and understand God's world was a religious act. To seek to understand why earthquakes happen and what causes disease is not an arrogant encroachment on God's domain; it is an example of human beings, in God's image, extending God's process of creation by bringing order in place of chaos. To search for truth instead of relying on ancient guesswork is a religious affirmation, not a repudiation. What religion worthy of its name would base itself on the hope that people would be too intimidated to find out how the world really works? One of my favorite passages in the entire Bible is in chapter 13 of the Book of Job. Job's friends have tried to explain the disasters which have befallen him by assuring him that God knows what is right for the world better than he does, and warn that it is blasphemous for him to complain about God. Job answers them:
Will you speak unjustly on God's behalf?
Will you speak deceitfully for Him?...
What will happen when He examines you?
Will you fool Him as one fools men? [Job 13:7-9]
The friends have cautioned Job, "You're saying terrible things about God, and He's going to be very angry at you." Job replies, "If God is a God worth worshiping, I have to believe that He respects my honesty more than your flattery. I may be theologically wrong in what I say about God, but I am saying what I think and feel to be true, not what I think God wants to hear, and I have to believe that God respects that."
Some readers will remember that in October 1973 the Egyptian and Syrian armies attacked Israel on the morning of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when all Jews spend the day in synagogue, praying and fasting. Many lives were lost in those first hours of fighting. I heard of a man who went to his rabbi a few days later and told him: "When I heard the news about the fighting in Israel, I slammed my prayer book shut and walked out of synagogue. I said to myself, If God is going to let young Jewish boys be killed for defending their country on Yom Kippur, I'm not going to sit here reciting psalms of praise to Him. I walked out of temple and spent the rest of the day sitting at home, angry at God. Now, three days later, I feel embarrassed by what I did. I feel guilty for walking out on the Yom Kippur service, and I want to know what I can do to make up for it."
The rabbi told him, "You have nothing to feel guilty about and nothing to apologize for. Your slamming the book down and storming out was probably the most sincere prayer anybody offered in synagogue all day long. The God I believe in is not so fragile that you hurt Him by being angry at Him, or so petty that He will hold it against you for being upset with Him. I believe He is just as upset about people being killed in the war as you and I are, and He respects good, clean, honest anger as much as you and I do, and a lot more than He respects mumbled prayers by people going through the motions."
I have to admit that some of my best friends are atheists. They never darken the doorway of either church or synagogue. They don't believe in a Supreme Being. They never pray; in some cases, I'm not sure they even understand what it means to pray. And yet they are good, caring, honest people, sensitive to the needs of others, generous with their time, their love, their property. And then there are people -- as a clergyman, I run into them all too often -- who are always at services, always invoking the name of God in their conversations. And so often they turn out to be small-souled people, insecure and judgmental, quick to find fault with others.
To be fair, I should also say that I know many regular church- and synagogue-goers who are wonderful, warm, almost saintly people, and many nonbelievers who take their rejection of religion as a license to practice selfishness and deceit. But in a sense, that only sharpens the question: What difference does the commitment to religion make in a person's life? If religious belief and church attendance don't necessarily make you a good person, and nonattendance and rejection of religion don't necessarily make you a bad one, what is the point of being religious? What does the religious person get out of his or her faith that the nonreligious person has to do without? Is it something we would all be better off for having, or something that only some people -- the weak and insecure, the spiritually inclined -- need, and the rest of us can do without?
My answer to that question will be largely a personal one. I can't speak of what religion offers people in general, but I can speak of what it has come to mean to me, how it has shaped my life, and of the impact it has had on the lives of people I have known, people who turned to me as their rabbi, bringing me their problems, their pain, the shattered fragments of their broken dreams.
Paul, whose conversation with me years ago ultimately flowered into this book, assured me that while he did not believe in religion, he believed in God. I asked him what he meant by that, and he told me that when he contemplates the beauty and intricacy of the world, he has to believe that God exists. That's very nice, I told him, and I'm sure that God appreciates your vote of confidence. But for the religious mind and soul, the issue has never been the existence of God but the importance of God, the difference that God makes in the way we live. To believe that God exists the way you believe that the South Pole exists, though you have never seen either one, to believe in the reality of God the way you believe in the Pythagorean theorem, as an accurate abstract statement that does not really affect your daily life, is not a religious stance. A God who exists but does not matter, who does not make a difference in the way you live, might as well not exist. He would be like a modern European king, a benevolent figurehead trotted out for ceremonial occasions and beloved by everyone because he never does anything. The issue is not what God is like. The issue is what kind of people we become when we attach ourselves to God.
This, then, is our question: In a world where atheists are often wonderful people and ostensibly religious people disappoint us, in a world where God is a remote presence even for people who claim to believe in Him, what promise does religion hold for us? What can it offer? What difference does it really make in our lives?
Copyright © 1989 by Harold S. Kushner
First Fireside Edition 2002
I WROTE THIS BOOK BECAUSE I HAD TO. I love the religious tradition out of which I come and I love the several hundred members of the congregation I serve. The enduring frustration of my rabbinic career has been my inability to get my two loves to find and love each other.
I deal with bright, successful people, people I genuinely like and admire, and I sense that something is missing in their lives. There is a lack of rootedness, a sense of having to figure things out by themselves because the past cannot be trusted as their guide. Their celebrations, from their children?s birthday parties to a daughter?s wedding to a business milestone, can be lots of fun but rarely soar to the level of joy. And as they grow older, I suspect they either confront or actively hide from confronting the thought that "there must be more to life than this."
There is a spiritual vacuum at the center of their lives, and their lives betray this lack of an organizing vision, a sense of "this is who I am and what my life is fundamentally about." Some look for that center in their work, and are disappointed when corporations choose not to repay the loyalty they demanded or when retirement leaves them feeling useless. Some try to find it in their families, and don?t understand why they are so hurt when adolescent children insist, "Let me lead my own life!" and adult children move to another state and call every other Sunday. And for some reason, it never occurs to them to ask, "How did previous generations find meaning in their lives?"
For almost thirty years, I have tried to show my congregants how much more fulfilled they would be if they made room for their religious tradition in their lives. I have urged them to do it, not to make God happy but to make themselves happy. I have told them the Hassidic story of the man who got a telegram telling him that a relative had died and left him some valuable property. He was to contact the rabbi for details. Excited, he went to the rabbi, only to be told that the relative was Moses and the valuable property was the Jewish religious tradition. And much of the time, they reacted as I suspect the man in the story did, disappointed that their legacy was religious wisdom and not downtown real estate.
This book is the product of those years of thinking and teaching on the issue of what we lose when we become too intellectual or too modern to make room for religion in our lives. It is about what has happened to the souls of modern men and women under the impact of modern life, what we have lost in the process of gaining personal freedom and material comfort. But more than that, it is a summary of what my own life has been about, what has gotten me through bad times and taught me how to celebrate the good times, how I have learned to recognize the extraordinary things that even the most ordinary lives contain. In the course of the book, I will be using illustrations from the Book of Psalms, as I have used the Books of Job and Ecclesiastes in my previous writings, to ground my comments in Scriptural tradition and to show how wise and sensitive people of another time dealt with the timeless questions we face today.
The thesis of this book is that there is a kind of nourishment our souls crave, even as our bodies need the right foods, sunshine, and exercise. Without that spiritual nourishment, our souls remain stunted and undeveloped. In the physical realm, we understand that our ancestors? hard physical work built muscles and burned off calories, but we today are the victims of a modern lifestyle, so we need to diet, to jog, to work out at the gym. So, too, the kind of spiritual communion our forebears knew is less accessible to us?because the world is so noisy and full of distractions, because we are so dazzled by our power and success, because religion in the late twentieth century is often badly packaged or presented by people we cannot trust or admire.
The members of a certain West African tribe tell the legend of the Sky Maiden. It happened once that the people of the tribe noticed their cows were giving less milk than they used to. They could not understand why. One young man volunteered to stay up all night to see what might be happening. After several hours of waiting in the darkness, hiding in a bush, he saw something extraordinary. A young woman of astonishing beauty rode a moonbeam down from heaven to earth, carrying a large pail. She milked the cows, filled her pail, and climbed back up the moonbeam to the sky. The man could not believe what he had seen. The next night, he set a trap near where the cows were kept, and when the maiden came down to milk the cows, he sprang the trap and caught her. "Who are you?" he demanded.
She explained that she was a Sky Maiden, a member of a tribe that lived in the sky and had no food of their own. It was her job to come to earth at night and find food. She pleaded with him to let her out of the net and she would do anything he asked. The man said he would release her only if she agreed to marry him. "I will marry you," she said, "but first you must let me go home for three days to prepare myself. Then I will return and be your wife." He agreed.
Three days later she returned, carrying a large box. "I will be your wife and make you very happy," she told him, "but you must promise me never to look inside this box."
For several weeks they were very happy together. Then one day, while his wife was out, the man was overcome with curiosity and opened the box. There was nothing in it. When the woman came back, she saw her husband looking strangely at her and said, "You looked in the box, didn?t you? I can?t live with you anymore."
"Why?" the man asked. "What's so terrible about my peeking into an empty box?"
"I'm not leaving you because you opened the box. I thought you probably would. I'm leaving you because you said it was empty. It wasn't empty; it was full of sky. It contained the light and the air and the smells of my home in the sky. When I went home for the last time, I filled that box with everything that was most precious to me to remind me of where I came from. How can I be your wife if what is most precious to me is emptiness to you?"
This book contains what is most precious to me, the ideas and the affirmations on which I have based my life, the thoughts and guidelines with which I have tried to help others bring depth and order into their lives. I hope you will not find it empty.
Copyright © 1989 by Harold S. Kushner
First Fireside Edition 2002