Monday, 15 February 2016

A Three Part Guide to Jewish Life - Part One - Belief

I've never seen it put this before - that's the sort of thing that should make a Rabbi nervous - but I think it's possible to distil Jewish existence into three ideas; belief, love and otherness.
Today I want to talk about belief. What is it, what should we believe in, and how - if the idea of belief feels strange - can we find it.

This is what I don't mean by belief. You might have seen this in today's papers. There is now evidence that gravity waves exist. There was a piece in the  papers yesterday from a contemporary physicist talking how relieved he is no longer having to belief, he now knows. From a scientific perspective, beliefs are provisional theories, dangerous things which can blind a researcher from seeing a reality. Beliefs can distract and the goal of scientific research is to replace this kind of belief with proven rigour. That's all fine and good, but it has nothing to do with the kind of thing I mean when I talk about belief.

When I talk about belief I have in mind a line from the German philosopher of religion, Ludwig Feuerbach. 'What is finite to the understanding,' said Feuerbach, 'is nothing to the heart.' Belief is the realm of that infinite to the understanding, that which is purely an underpinning of a soul.
Belief exists in the realm of love.
I'm not interested in pitching religious beliefs against scientific discoveries. That's a kind of religion I have no interest in whatsoever.
But a person who says they believe they are loved, or that they feel an emotional or spiritual connection to a cause or an idea - you can't double-blind test these kinds of emotional states of existence. You can't objectively prove or disprove the stirrings of the heart.

Actually, there are scientists who think you can, there are scientists who think that our ever emotional reaction is nothing more than a rationally explicable matrix of neurons and hormones. I'll have more to say about that kind of science - and hugely interesting science it is too - later.

I'm talking about a sort of rational supernaturalism. I think we, to be a good New London kind of a Jew you need to be a rationalist, of course you do. The very creation of this community was a refusal to accept a religious dogma in the face of rational disproof. But I also think we need to open our hearts, our souls to something that is beyond the rational. Rather I fear that if we only work from the rational we will fail to understand who we truly are and what we are truly called to be.

On sabbatical, I reread on of my all time favourite books, Stages of Faith by the American 20th Century writer James W. Fowler. Fowler suggests that faith works in stages. As a child, we believe things literally. There really are monsters hiding under the bed, tooth fairies and the like. As we grow we enter into a stage of critique of these childish simplicities. We know that there is no such thing. The adolescent is a great iconoclast. Everything is rubbish and anyone persuading us otherwise is deceitful and to be distrusted. And then there comes another stage, in Fowler's work it's the Fifth, and not everyone gets there. The Fifth Stage of Faith - for those who leave behind the stage of the adolescent - is 'conjunctive.' One comes to acknowledge paradox, complexity, we come to relate to the symbolic nature of truth - the sense that something can be literally untrue, but in some deeper sense emotionally, or spiritually true.

My favourite example of all this is the colour of the sky. As I was writing this sermon the sky was blue. The small child version of this truth claim is that someone had got up on a ladder and painted the sky blue. The adolescent version of this truth claim is that the sky isn't blue, of course it's not. Rather it just appears that way when the sun is closer to us because of the way the molecules of the atmosphere refract sunlight into blue. Doh! claims the adolescent, don't be so daft. But then, for some people, we grow beyond that iconoclasm to appreciate the blueness of the sky as poetic and emotional reality, as a reality whose truth is in some ways more important than the scientific claim.

There is something wilful about this kind of belief - this fifth stage of faith. One has to open one's heart to the possibility of meaning in places beyond the scientifically proven. One has to believe, as it were in the possibility of belief; that there is something beyond the realm of the observable testable physical universe and that notion of a realm beyond has something to do with who I am and who I should be.

So what are we called upon to believe in?

This is Rambam on the subject, at the very opening of his groundbreaking Mishneh Torah;

The base of belief and the pillar of wisdom is to know that there is a First Cause which is the causation of all causation from heaven to earth and everything in between.[1]

When Rambam made the claim that the basic obligation in Judaism was the belief in God it wasn't at all obvious. For one thing nowhere in the Torah are we ever explicitly commanded to believe. But Rambam is surely right; without some reference to something, 'beyond,' Judaism doesn't make sense; rather it collapses into a grab-bag of Woody Allen movies, falafel and the like. But if there is something beyond humanity, beyond the reach of any calculation then there might be a purpose to this existence. There might be a purpose to our Jewish engagement - even the parts of Jewish engagement that are less tasty than falafel or less funny than Woody Allen.

In one of the great Midrashim of our faith, the Rabbis imagine Abraham, rejecting the nonsense idolatrous world of his childhood, in search of what becomes the birth of monotheistic faith.
They explain his journey with a Mashal, a parable.

Abraham is wandering from place to place when he saw a bira doleket - a castle in flames. He wondered: "Is it possible that the palace has no owner?" The owner of the palace looked out and said, "I am the owner of the palace." So Abraham our father said, "Is it possible that the world lacks a ruler?" G‑d looked out and said to him, "I am the ruler, the Sovereign of the Universe."[2]

It is out of this moment of wondering about the purpose of existence that an encounter with that purpose becomes possible. Belief arises from that nagging quest for an understanding of why we are here, who shall we be. And astral physics, as glorious as its achievements is, isn't capable of stretching beyond the realm of the physical. Belief is that which provides the framework understanding more about our lives than the notion we are simply a decaying collection of atomic particles.

Of course to the atheist we are just this collection of meaningless dust, for the atheist there is no external meaning - it's all just random happenstance that we are here. But my call on us all is that we will ourselves to open our heart to the possibility of meaning, the possibility of belief. I know it's a little circular - in order to find meaning we need to will ourselves to believe that there is meaning. But that doesn't worry me. Because acting as if there is meaning and message to my life seems such a more profound way to live than living as if nothing matters and there is no point. There is something of Pascal's famous wager in all this. If I live my life as if there is a purpose I might stumble on that purpose. If I live my life as if there is no purpose, then surely I won't. I'll take that gamble.

I'm also a fan of people who live their lives with this sense of the rational supernatural. I suspect the rational-supernaturalists live better lives than those who don't. The religious fundamentalists scare me and the nihilists, frankly, strike me as too often too selfish, boring even.

Belief has gone out of fashion these past years.
We are increasingly uncomfortable using the language, the atheists are winning the PR battle.
So I want to share two ways to help us feel easier with this notion of belief that is both familiar and unfamiliar. They are deeply connected, one to the other.

The first is borrowed from the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel, probably my most significant Jewish teacher. We should, wrote Heschel,

live life in radical amazement. ....get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.

Radical amazement, the single key to unlock a life infused by belief. To live life amazed is a beautiful thing. It's not a retreat into an ignorance about the way science works, in fact quite the reverse. The more I understand about evolution or embryology or quantum physics or neurology the more I am amazed at the beauty of the world. But when I get up in the morning and the sky is illuminated by floods of pink and purple I find it amazing - and the fact that I understand that when the sun is further away from I will see more reds and purples doesn't make my sense of being amazed any less likely.

Develop within ourselves a sense of being radically amazed. Find things glorious, remarkable, miraculous; breath, smiles, the ability to put one foot in front of the other - for those of us so blessed as to be able to walk - how miraculous is that? As we do that we inculcate in ourselves a willingness to find belief, to believe in belief and the possibility of meaning. Inculcating a sense of radical amazement into our lives also, I believe, makes it easier for us to complete this next spiritual exercise.

Develop the practice of gratitude

In so many ways this is integral to a Jewish existence. The very Hebrew term for Jew - Yehudah - comes from the same root as the word for gratitude. Being thankful is who we are. We should say thank you more often, place ourselves in a position of grace - how much we receive. Heschel again, 'The cure for the soul begins with a sense of embarrassment.' How can we possibly be worthy of our lives. We should be moved to grace, gracefulness at all times. The more we pause to show our gratitude the more we place ourselves open to the possibilities of feeling in our souls that which is beyond scientific measurement, that which is beyond the rational.

Try developing these practices of radical amazement and gratitude and see if it does help with this belief thing. Try and see if it becomes easier, or more impossible to believe that there is purpose behind this creation. See if you can feel your way into an understand of that which is beyond the observable Universe. If you can, great, I'll see you there. If you can't I suspect we, as a religion, are indeed in trouble.

So this is how we should believe, we should will ourselves to open our hearts to that which is beyond, we should will ourselves to accept a notion of a First Cause who has created a Universe and everything in it

We find this belief, I believe, in understanding the true nature of a rational-supernatural belief system and we develop this ability through the practice of radical amazement and gratitude.

Shabbat shalom

[1] Mishneh Torah Yesodei HaTorah 1:1
[2] Bereishit Rabbi 39:1

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