This is a guest post by Francis Erdman. Francis is a member of SHJ and a software/blockchain professional based on Cape Cod, MA. He is a cat person and, as a life-long Red Sox fan, still holds that the greatest relief pitcher of all time was Sam ‘Mayday’ Malone.
At the outset here, I would like to asseverate that the following discussion on religious naturalism and its overlaps with the humanistic Judaism pathway, is not an attempt to “redefine” religious language or “god talk” in naturalistic terms, which I understand is a matter of some controversy and is something consequently I wish to here avoid.
I would like rather to perhaps try to define a sort of post-metaphysics or more naturalistic, non-dogmatic sense of spirituality and relate this to the Jewish tradition.
An interesting element of Jewish tradition that makes it able to adapt to change better perhaps than some other traditions, is that there is a self-referential aspect to the understanding of Torah, that is to say, while Torah is human-created literature which serves as a jumping off point for discussion it is not (at least not in better moments) seen as unchangeable nor as authoritative, but rather as part of broader tradition that can change over time. In Torah itself, there is a situation where Moses changed inheritance laws to allow daughters to inherit, not just sons, so we see an ability to adapt and change even from the very beginning of tradition. Tradition being able to update itself by referencing, well, tradition, is a nice self-referential piece of our history that first and foremost avoids the tendency towards dogmatism by allowing for adaption to changing understandings.
I made note of the self-referential aspect of our tradition in order to tie in a wider point. The study of the universe is also self-referential because, after all, we live in the universe, and thus being inside the object of study changes observations and predictions made about it. This is not a technical essay, so I won’t get into details here, other than to say it was this simple observation that human observers are inside the universe that lead Stephen Hawking ultimately to his no-boundary proposal for how to model the Big Bang with collaborators Jim Hartle and Thomas Hertog in 1983 (basically treating the Big Bang event as a closed region of space, out of which time arises). The ability to as it were “recognize the forest from the vantage point of the trees” is a surprisingly difficult thing to do because it involves self-reference, something with which the Jewish tradition again is acquainted, and leads perhaps to a broad outline of how to approach a naturalistic spirituality or, if you will, a sense of wonder.
There is I think an ancient philosophical conflict between basically the Parmenides side of things (an ancient Greek philosopher who denied the reality of change) and Heraclitus (a person who lived roughly around the same time who on the other side of the coin said that everything was always in flux, that one can never step in the same river twice since the water is always flowing, etc.). I would strongly argue that to deny the reality of change is both to deny the human lived experience, and has dangerous consequences.
One of the sad things for example about the Middle Ages was people were taught that the status quo (where the kings and knights and so on had all the power) was part of some “divine plan” that could not be questioned or changed. To deny the reality or the possibility for change is to enshrine all manner of injustice and oppression. I would also argue that happily Jewish tradition has always been on the side of the reality and importance of the possibility for change. Even the ancient Hebrew word for god, spelled with the Hebrew letters יהוה (from right to left, yud, hey, vav, hey, “YHVH”) related closely to the verb to be, and scholars have written that it may have meant something akin to “that which was and that which will be”, at least implying a sense of becoming, a sense of growth or change. So to the ancients, their sense of the divine was something that brought about change, hopefully change for the better.
For me, having a human-based (non-supernatural) sense of spirituality means having a sense of “being at home in the universe”, a participant in it, not just “along for the ride” but rather having an active role to play in the ongoing creative unfolding of the cosmos. In dualist / supernatural models, too often human beings are seen as “pawns on the chessboard” tossed about by the winds of a god or of fate, but I think a humanist and perhaps we can use the term, religious naturalist, philosophy, makes humans not “pawns on the chessboard” but important actors in determining their own fate, and the fate especially of planet Earth whereon we reside. I think furthermore that the fact that all knowledge is provisional, subject to change with new evidence, is empowering, because it challenges humanity to not rests on its laurels of knowledge and capabilities gained thus far, but to always strive forward to better our understanding of the world in which we live to make it more humane and less brutish.
Jacques Lacan, the famed 20th century French psychoanalyst, who built on the work of Sigmund Freud, categorized human experience into what he called the “Symbolic,” the “Imaginary,” and the “Real.” Roughly stated: the symbolic here means abstract thought and language, the imaginary means subjective conceptualization of ideas generated from language and experience, and the real means those experiences that cannot fit neatly into language, such as for instance, seeing an unusual object in the sky that may or may not be a weather balloon. Later in his career, he developed a further concept called “sinthome” (a pun in the French which could mean either “symptom” or “spiritual person”) which he never lived to completely elucidate but it has to do with what we might call a sense of awe and wonder, what some people think of as mystical experiences, but it is really those types of experiences which gives one a sense of belonging, so to speak, to the larger order of things. For Lacan, the “sinthome” was crucial for human creativity, that basically the human capacity for wonder was integral to being able to create art in its various forms. Without the sense of awe and wonder and connectedness, that which has been called the spiritual or the numinous (but I am here referring to strictly naturalistic phenomena), we don’t have the same creative capacity, was Lacan’s basic point in his sometimes-obtuse discussions of the concept of the “sinthome”. (Infamously, Lacan never met a big word he did not like. 🙂 )
In Hasidic tradition, there is the idea that the world was created not fully formed, or unfinished, and that humanity must help complete the creation of the world through the doing of good deeds. Leaving aside the supernatural baggage, I think this is a useful concept. The world is forever imperfect, forever unfinished, but this is an opportunity for positive action, for “tikkun olam,” the healing of the world. The world will never be perfect, nor can one person solve all the problems of a given era, but all of us doing what we can where we can to help one another and to help conserve the natural ecosystem can, taken together, create over time monumental change which can open up new eras and new modalities of human life on Earth.
Judaism has at least since Baruch Spinoza had a tradition of seeing the divine in the physical universe, what has been termed pantheism, though personally I use the term religious naturalism more often because it seems the latter has less “baggage” than the former term. Mary Jane Rubenstein, a professor of religion at Wesleyan University, has brought a return to thinking about Spinoza and related ideas to the academic world and to a wider audience as well, within the context of modern physics, which I mention in passing for those interested in current conversations surrounding religious naturalism. She makes a good point that the scientific concept of a “multiverse” (in its various capacities) is useful because it makes us more open to the idea of diversity – if the universe we observe may in fact be part of a wider multiverse, then the world is always more interesting and more diverse than whatever categories we may want to come up with, and so being comfortable with the notion of a multiverse may help to militate against the modern scourges of racism and heteronormativity.
The late professor of religion at Harvard, Gordon D. Kaufman, of a liberal Mennonite background, who did much to open Harvard Divinity School up to women students and people of color, wrote his magnum opus, “In the Beginning, Creativity” in which he took the creation myth found in Genesis as a jumping off point for a discussion on cosmic creative mystery, and further breaks this down into the mystery of creativity at the start of the universe (in the Big Bang), in the continued development and evolution of the universe (in stellar development and biological development), and also in human cultural creativity (which on a separate note as mentioned above is connected to the subjective capacity for awe and wonder).
While Kaufman sought to redefine or re-orient traditional religious terms and symbols around these concepts of cosmic creativity, as mentioned at the outset, that is not my aim here since that is a separate issue about which there is no little amount of controversy in terms of the wisdom or utility of re-purposing certain types of language. I do feel his concept of an “ultimate reference point” is of use, that is to say, in traditional religious conceptions, the notion of a supreme being is an “ultimate reference point,” around which human thought centers, and perhaps for those of a more naturalistic orientation, something like a concept of “the universe as a whole” serves in a similar capacity of providing a “context” for understanding the human experience.
I think that instead of traditional religious symbols or at least traditional understandings thereof, or instead of vague or amorphous conceits such as “the universe”, Professor Kaufman was putting forward the notion of cosmic creativity itself as such an “ultimate reference point” as useful for orientating the human experience, both at an individual level, and as a whole. I here am suggesting that I find this approach helpful for my own thinking, and, as I’ve attempted to argue herein, also is consistent with strains of thought in Judaism, even going back to the Torah with the notion of the divine as being connected, as discussed above, to change or a sense of “becoming.”
In summary I might say that what it means to live in an eternally creative, eternally mysterious universe, from a humanistic Jewish and religious naturalist type of orientation, is that it is not enough to be a spectator or even a thinker, but rather if one finds one’s “ultimate reference point” to be the various modalities of cosmic creativity, then one is impelled to both engage creatively oneself, be that via the arts, the sciences, or other aspects of human innovative endeavor, even if these efforts be only at the level of a personal avocation or hobby like a home art project. And, furthermore, one is impelled, most of all, and if nothing else, to participate in the never-ending work of “tikkun olam,” which, as the Hasidic tradition reminds us, is in and of itself, a form of creativity. Another way to put it, is to have a sense of being a “co-creator” with the universe, not being a passenger on the ship, but a member of the crew, so to speak.
As the prophet Micah said, “They shall sit, each person under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.” In this old world, so far, we never quite seem to realize Micah’s vision. But in this creative uni-(multi)-verse, that ought not to stop us from trying.