Peter Bebergal graduated from Brandeis University and the Harvard Divinity School. His essays, stories, and interviews have appeared in Salon, Nextbook, Beliefnet, The Believer and the Boston Globe. He is also an editor at Zeek. Peter lives with his wife and son in Cambridge, Mass.
But What About God?
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"But what about God?"
This was the question an elderly gentleman in the second row asked me and Scott Korb during a reading of our book The Faith Between Us. We worked hard to avoid the question of God, of having to define what God is or isn't. We argued that the lived experience of religious belief is a better measure of faith than any theological pronouncement. And yet, wherever we go and whatever we say, people still want to know: But what about God?
Part of what has made this question so troubling is that when Scott and I began writing together we both believed in transcendence, which is the idea that there is some ultimate reality that goes beyond our own mortal, phenomenal experience. The numinous is what we called it, borrowing from the religious writer Rudolf Otto and his seminal work, The Idea of the Holy. But by the time our book was finished, six years later, both of our conceptions of God had changed. Scott no longer believes in God that is separate from humanity. And although my faith is heavily qualified, I do believe in a personal God.
For a time, there was no apparent tension between the two of us along this line. We both believed, and continue to do so, that the authentic religious life should be less concerned with what God is or isn't and more concerned with how we can take care of each other and the world. But as we have had to speak publicly about what we really believe, the differences have become more apparent. How we believe in God, and ultimately what we believe God to be, has more impact on our lived faith than we both had ever wanted to admit.
For the most part, what I believe only becomes apparent during the process of writing. When I found myself in the position of having to describe my Jewish life and faith, at first I was paralyzed. What could I say that wouldn't be misconstrued? How could I write the word "God" independent of thousands of years of cultural, religious, and political baggage? What could I say about both "my God and the God of my forefathers" that was not its own misreading of tradition?
One way to avoid this was to insist, at the top, that anything I said about God was merely metaphor. God exists for me simply as will, as the attempt to live as I believe God would have me live. So I went about the task of writing about a religious life, a Jewish one to be sure, but one that understands the language I used to speak about God was accidental to my own historical and familial position. I am a Jew, so I speak of God with the language of Judaism. But this does not make these words universal.
Religious thought, specifically Jewish theology, has often taken both sides in the issue of immanence versus transcendence. It's a question of geography, really. Does God dwell in the heavens or does God dwell in the world? Do we rise up to meet God, or bend low to see God in God's works here on Earth? Part of the problem is the way metaphorical language gets forced in literal associations, as if up and down, heaven and sheol, exist as mappable quantities. The question remains, how does one understand God using metaphor without these images taking on literal meanings?
In my relationship with Scott this division between the God we can know and the God we can't know at all manifests itself in our writing. Like my religious life, my writing is undisciplined, done in fits and starts, reaching out towards some ineffable idea that I can't quite grasp. But I keep reaching until I capture bits of the heavenly spheres. Then I shape them on an anvil with a clang, sparks flying. Scott goes to Catholic Mass every Sunday, and prays the same prayers he has for almost 30 years. In his writing, Scott begins with the words themselves, and builds meaning outward, from the particular to the universal. He is careful, precise, but he often can't let go of an idea or phrase. His discipline can equal stubbornness. I have learned from him, though, how to be patient, how to slow down. In much the same way this is how I need to approach God.
How then to answer the question, "But what about God?" For me, I believe in a God that we can't say anything about. My writing and my religious life are simply two expressions of the same longing: to know God in some supra-conscious way even as I realize the often futile nature of this quest. But I still believe that there is a music in the heavens to be heard, something that drives the heart towards meaning, which Scott and I have recently begun calling "the ache." Like Jacob, we can watch with fear and trembling as the angels ascend and descend the heavenly ladder. And like Jacob, we can bless the place we have been and pour oil on a stone. In the face of the ineffable is there really anything to say?
And yet, isn't this the purpose of literature, to give a name as best we can to the particulars of our experience? Religion shares the same purpose: to narrate with symbol and metaphor the particulars of our experience. But more than that, religion provides an ethical framework rooted in myths. And so this is how we can really go about talking about God, not with language, but with action. Through ethical living we can do as God would have us do. The saying comes in the relating of these stories of our struggles to do the best we can.