Before we can determine whether it makes sense to have belief in God — and whether belief in God is something that we do or do not want — we must first ask two fundamental questions: “What is belief?” and “What is God?” This may not seem apparent to someone who has grown up with a conception of God, or a conception of what belief is supposed to mean, but in order to have such a conversation, all parties must be on the same page.
Before we begin analyzing these two interdependent topics, I feel it necessary to state that it is not my intended goal to convince you, the reader, to believe or to not believe in God. My goal here is to provide a framework and perspective for how to best go about answering the question for yourself.
What Is God?
We shall begin with the question of “What is God?” and why it is so important to be consistent in our definitions. Let's start with one example in which the definition of “God” is different to two people: According to a simple Google search, God is defined as “the creator and ruler of the universe and source of all moral authority; the supreme being.” Merriam Webster, on the other hand, defines God as "the perfect and all-powerful spirit or being that is worshipped especially by Christians, Jews, and Muslims as the one who created and rules the universe.”
Google’s definition focuses on God as
- Source of all morals
Merriam Webster focuses on God as
As we look at more dictionaries, and more religions, the nuanced discrepancies will become greater in number. We can barely seek to understand a non-physical being Who, by definition, is beyond our understanding. For our purposes, then, we shall discuss one characteristic which precedes all other characteristics in both chronology and import; namely, God as Creator.
While many like to look at God as a personality — He gets happy when Man serves Him, angry when Man does not — in reality, we do not know what the essence of God truly is. Thus, to go about understanding God as Creator, we should focus our examination as follows: Where can God fit into our reality? In other words, given God being best defined as Creator, how are we to know that this is true?
God As Creator
Where did the Earth come from? Where did matter come from? In answering this question we will realize that there is a limit to how much humans can possibly know. The Earth formed as a result of a cataclysmic splitting of atoms dubbed “The Big Bang.” The Big Bang was caused, as some theorize, by quantum fluctuations. But what caused quantum physics to fluctuate? To the point where there is a void in our knowledge, this unknown or unknowable thing/entity/cause which created all that we can see and sense is where our question lies. What came before quantum fluctuations? What lies beyond our reach of understanding?
Facing this awesomeness, this gaping hole in our reality has led some to feelings of wonderment — “there is only so much that we can know” — yet has caused others a deep sense of dread and trembling — “what lies beyond?”
The assertion that something must have created the “somethings” that exist — going back to what we will term the First Cause — is one attempt to place a cap on what we cannot know. This is Monotheism’s attempt to answer the question. Aristotle, however, claimed that there simply was nothing beyond this limit; time and space exist as a looping circle without any beginning or end. Agnostics choose not to think about this problem, while Atheists, not satisfied with any currently available theories, await a better answer.
In my opinion, this is the best starting point for any rational (or irrational) conversation about God’s existence1. The argument for Intelligent Design, for instance, only has a function within this conversation, and, similarly, the Ontological Argument can only be proposed within this framework as well. In short, while we cannot know for certain that God exists and is the Creator, positing the aforementioned is certainly one possibility for how to explain what came before known existence.
What Is Belief?
As a slight addendum here, although we are here discussing belief, it is interesting and important to note why we do not discuss knowledge, as per the Torah itself: “Know Hashem thy God”, or “In all your ways, you shall know him” (Proverbs 3:6), or the common Rabbinic refrain of “Know before Whom you stand.” Knowledge in the epistemological sense, however, will not help us here. We cannot “know” what happened prior to The Big Bang, just as much as physical beings, while able to discuss non-physical entities, cannot actually ascertain their essence. Our conversation begins specifically within the context of that which we do not know. How, then, can we be asked to “know” God?
Rambam’s explanation (according to a number of interpretations) that one fulfills the first commandment to “know HaShem thy Lord” by becoming intimate with the idea of God as Creator is most apt. The word “know,” in the Biblical sense, is used to describe the intimate coming together of first Man and first Woman. To “know,” then, is to know through intimacy. Belief, therefore, is what we do in the space of the gap in our knowledge. Do we act with the question answered in the affirmative, or in the negative.
There are many approaches as to how one comes about having faith. Each person has the opportunity to discover his or her own. My goal here was merely to outline what faith is, and in so doing, suggest what faith is not2. One person's approach might mimic some form of Pascal’s wager while others may choose to withhold the state of disbelief to see one side as true. To others, faith means “to be faithful.” It is not so much a question of theology, but of best practice.
In closing, I would like to make a distinction between belief in God’s existence, and belief in God’s continued interaction with Mankind. Without getting mired in the linguistic discrepancies between “faith” and “belief,” it seems that knowing, or believing, that God exists is a separate question entirely than as to whether God interacts with, or has a moral imperative for, our world. Having said that, this essay seeks to approach the first question — “Does God exist?” — by examining a characteristic of his existence, God as Creator. By witnessing an action of His, or the outcome of that action (i.e. the Creation of the universe), we can then move to the conversation of what else more might God do.
This is not my attempt to convince you of the God of the gaps, or any other conception of God. It is my sole purpose to open the conversation. In my opinion, this is a most productive way to begin. I want you to keep in mind that in going about this process you will discover different points of view. Viewpoints that may or may not be easily understood on your own. The most productive form of research I have found beyond much reading is discussion with others, and talking to others for ideas where to look or to sharpen a certain point. As R. Chanina remarked, “I have learned much from my teachers, [and] more from my colleagues…” (Ta’anis 7a).
1. An alternative place to start would be to examine phenomena that occur within the physical world which appear inexplicable according to known science. The implication of an unnatural event within our world could indicate the involvement of a non-natural force. As stated above, this thing/entity/cause may be what we are generically referring to as God, for lack of a specific term. I choose not to take this route since the criteria of what constitutes a miraculous occurrence will vary among nearly every scholar, making the conversation difficult to agree upon. Additionally, even concluding that there is indeed a non-physical force acting upon our world would not tell us anything about this entity itself. ↩
2. Namely, a “blind leap of faith.”↩