The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion by Mordecai M. Kaplan and Mel Scult by Mordecai M. Kaplan and Mel Scult - Read Online



In this book, Kaplan enlarges on his notion of functional reinterpretation and then actually applies it to the entire ritual cycle of the Jewish year-a rarity in modern Jewish thought. This work continues to function as a central text for the Reconstructionist movement, whose influence continues to grow in American Jewry.
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How to maintain the continuity of the Jewish religion in a changing world

TRADITIONAL Jewish religion belongs to an altogether different universe of discourse from that of the modern man. The ancients took for granted that the cosmos was maintained and governed not by forces which inhere in its very substance, but by a personal will which differed from the human will in being all-mighty and all-perfect. The will of God was conceived as operating in the world through the medium of invisible beings—angels, demons, satans and other incorporeal spirits.¹ In this mental image of the cosmos, heaven was pictured as an actual part of space reserved for the Godhead and His ministering angels.² Man’s measurement of time by years, months and days was regarded as marking changes which were of significance to the whole of creation. Man’s conduct was deemed so important that it was regarded as influencing the behavior of the physical elements of the universe. The Torah was taken to be literally the word of God. To obey its ordinances meant to earn life eternal; to disobey them was to court suffering and extinction. The goal of life, that of basking in God’s presence, was assumed to be achievable only in the hereafter. The lack of visible evidences of God’s presence in this world was regarded as part of this world’s inherent imperfection and as proof of the ultimate transformation of this world into the world to come.

There are many who assume that religious truth differs from the truth about the material world in being absolute and immutable. Religious teaching, they maintain, must belong to the eternal verities, otherwise it is delusion. According to them, no change in circumstances or in our pattern of thinking should affect a religious tradition. It is futile to argue with those who subscribe to these assumptions; the very trend of all modern thinking is to repudiate them as false. With our tendency to oppose the division of truth into separate compartments and to insist that all our ideas be mutually consistent and integrated, we cannot help demanding of religion that it be organic with the rest of our life and inherently relevant to it. Since the rest of human life changes, religion must change with it. The religion of one age cannot be transferred whole into a subsequent age without being frozen into inertness. If we find that a religion manages to retain its vitality in a new age, we may be sure that it has undergone transformation. If its teachings and practices continue to have meaning long after the conditions of life and thought under which they arose have changed, it is because that meaning is not the same they had originally.

Even the technique for revitalizing the spiritual values of the past is not the same in one age as it is in another. We need a new technique for our day; neither the one employed by the Tannaim and Amoraim, nor the one employed by the Hellenist allegorists or the medieval theologians, will answer our purpose. In the past, the process by which the continuity of Jewish life and thought was maintained was an unconscious one. Before historic research or before any of the social sciences was born, men lacked the historic perspective which might have made them aware of the discrepancy between the original meaning of a sacred text or a ritual practice and their understanding of it, however unwarranted such understanding actually was. They were not troubled in the least by scruples about anachronism, and were therefore not inhibited from reading their own needs, beliefs and ideals into the religious traditions which had come down to them. We, on the other hand, must seek to maintain the continuity of the Jewish religion by a method which is in keeping with the modern historical sense, and which takes into account our repugnance to anachronisms. The method which the ancients employed may be termed "transvaluation; the method we must employ may be termed revaluation."

Transvaluation³ consists in ascribing meanings to the traditional content of a religion or social heritage, which could neither have been contemplated nor implied by the authors of that content. The Jewish religious tradition often underwent this kind of transvaluation. The teachers and sages of a later period did not hesitate to read their own beliefs and aspirations into the writings of the teachers and sages of an earlier period. Both the sense of national continuity and the faith in the divine origin of the religious tradition made transvaluation seem perfectly plausible. Practically any rabbinic rendering of a scriptural text reveals considerable disparity from the literal meaning of that text.⁴ To the Tannaim and Amoraim there was scarcely a verse in the Bible that retained merely its original significance. Whole mountains of teachings, to use a rabbinic figure, hang by a hair to the text of the Bible. In ancient times the continuity of the Jewish religion was attained by means of this process of transvaluation. This is how the Jewish religion developed from the henotheism, which it was during the First Commonwealth, into a religion based on a monotheistic and universal conception of God; this is also how later it transformed itself from the theocratic religion which it was during the Second Commonwealth into a religion based on otherworldliness.⁵

The full force of the foregoing statement can be made evident only with the aid of a detailed examination of the original sources of Jewish tradition. A few random illustrations, however, are necessary to make that statement clear. In Exodus 20:21, we read the following: An altar of earth thou shalt make unto Me, and shalt sacrifice thereon thy burnt-offerings and thy peace-offerings, thy sheep and thine oxen; in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned, I will come unto thee and bless thee. It is apparent that this verse belongs to the legislation of the pre-prophetic era when local sanctuaries were still legitimate. Yet during the Second Commonwealth, this verse was undoubtedly interpreted in such a way as to negate the very permission of local sanctuaries, which it granted. This is transvaluation. Or, to take as an example an ancient narrative. The story of Jacob’s wrestling, as told in the book of Genesis, still has something of the primitive flavor; the mysterious being with whom Jacob wrestles is a god, an elohim, perhaps YHWH Himself. But already to Hosea an elohim is not a god, but an angel.⁶ This transvaluation was made necessary by the monotheistic and exalted conception that Hosea had of YHWH.

Coming to the rabbinic rendering of Scriptures, we are familiar with the interpretation of the law that demands eye for eye⁷ as referring to monetary compensation.⁸ This transvaluation was necessitated, on the one hand, by the change in moral standards, and, on the other hand, by the desire to retain the authoritative character of the traditional law. All those laws which have as their basis the principle of gezerah shavah, or inference from a similarity of phrases, are necessarily such as have no intrinsic connection with the literal meaning of the text, and therefore illustrate the process of transvaluation. The homiletic interpretations, or haggadic midrashim, are practically all of the same character. To take but one example, the fact that the story of creation begins with the letter bet is made the basis of a lesson. The bet is closed on three sides and open on the forward side. This, says a Palestinian Amora,⁹ is a warning to man not to pry into the mysteries of creation but to limit his interest in the knowledge of what God would have him do. Surely, no such warning could have been contemplated or implied by the author of the first verse in the Torah. Resorting to the principle of inference from a similarity of phrases, another Palestinian Amora¹⁰ reads into the verse, And the Lord commanded the man, saying: ‘Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat,’¹¹ the fact that God gave to Adam the six basic laws of human society.

The process of transvaluation is even more conspicuously illustrated by the work of the allegorists. The very term allegory, as its etymology indicates, suggests assigning to a statement a meaning other than that which its words convey. The lengths to which Philo goes seem absurd, as when, for example, he makes the four rivers in the story of the Garden of Eden symbolic of the four species of virtue which flow from the genus virtue, Pheison is prudence, Evilat is graciousness, Geon is courage, and Tigris is self-mastery.¹² But it may be said that Philo stands outside the Jewish tradition. Yet when we turn to the Akedat Yizhak by Isaac Arama (1420–1494), we encounter the very same kind of allegorical interpretation; and the Akedat Yizhak served as the classic of traditional Jewish preaching down to our own day. Thus did the method of transvaluation function in the past as a means of giving to Jewish religion the element of continuity.

But the method of transvaluation cannot do that for the modern Jew. The very use of it implies that those who resort to it are themselves unaware that they are adjusting or reconstructing tradition to meet the needs of their own day. This resource, however, is no longer possible. The transition from traditional Judaism to the Judaism of the future can be effected only in the glaring light of complete awareness of the change involved. The problem of maintaining the continuity of the Jewish religion can be solved only in one way, and that is by being convinced that the continuity is genuine. Such conviction is compatible only with the certainty that whatever ancient meanings or values we choose to conserve and develop are read out of, and not into, the traditional teachings or practices. For that reason we have to avoid transvaluation and resort to revaluation.

Revaluation consists in disengaging from the traditional content those elements in it which answer permanent postulates of human nature, and in integrating them into our own ideology. When we revaluate, we analyze or break up the traditional values into their implications, and single out for acceptance those implications which can help us meet our own moral and spiritual needs; the rest may be relegated to archeology. It is highly essential that we acquire the ability of getting at the really significant implications. They need not necessarily be such as the ancients themselves would have been able to articulate,¹³ but they should have psychological kinship with what the ancients did articulate. One advantage we surely have over those who lived in the remote past, when most of our religious teachings and practices took form; we are the heirs of all the experiences of the generations between them and ourselves. With the aid of these experiences, we should be able to unfold what is implied in the traditional teachings and practices.

To revaluate a religious idea or institution of a past age, one must, first of all, understand it in the light of the total situation of which it was a part. One must enter imaginatively into the thought-world of its authors, and try to grasp what it meant to them in the light of their experience and world-outlook. Then one should take into account the changes which have since taken place, and how they affect the validity of the idea or value of the institution under consideration. It may be that these changes have made the original idea or institution obsolete. But it is more likely that some modification of the original idea will suggest itself that might be related to the new situation and world-outlook in a way similar to that in which the original thought related itself to what was then the situation and world-outlook. As in mathematics any change in one term of an equation implies a corresponding change in the other, if the equation is to remain valid, so in interpreting any affirmation of relationship between two concepts any change in the one implies a change in the other.

When we say, for example, God is a righteous judge, any change in our conception of the function and character of a righteous judge must be reflected in a corresponding change in our conception of God, if the proposition is to remain valid. Thus in an age when a righteous judge is conceived as one who makes the punishment fit the crime, God will be conceived, in His attribute of justice, as punishing the wicked and rewarding the righteous. If life on earth gives no evidence of such reward and punishment, faith in God’s justice will create a heaven and a hell of the imagination. But in an age which has come to recognize that factors of heredity and environment so condition the behavior of the individual that no crime and no virtuous deed can be traced to his exclusive responsibility, the true judge ceases to be one who metes out measure for measure. He is conceived instead as one who, within the limits of the authority vested in him, so administers the law that all the conflicting claims of men that come before him are adjusted on the basis of the equal right of every one to self-realization. Such a view of the function of the judge makes faith in God as the true judge identical with faith in Him as the Power in the world that makes for self-realization. Reward and punishment become irrelevant, and heaven and hell drop out of the picture.

A law or institution which has become obsolete through a changed social situation may be given significance, if we realize that the fact of its having become obsolete does not necessarily mean that the needs which gave rise to it have ceased to exist. By substituting the modern psychological equivalent for that which has become obsolete, its implications may be made plain. If we take idolatry in its literal sense, the denunciation of it or the prayer for its eradication (‘al ken nekaveh) can have only historic interest. But may we not treat as idolatry any form of worship directed to a god who is conceived in terms that no longer satisfy the deepest spiritual insights of the age? So conceived, who will deny its existence today, or the obligation to extirpate it? Under such methods of interpretative analysis, religious traditions yield significant values which have hitherto been dormant. It is through these implied values that the Jewish religion can be revitalized, and its identity maintained.

The Jewish religious content which is in need of being subjected to the process of revaluation may be divided into three distinct layers. The first layer consists of the greater part of the material recorded in the Bible. It reflects the formative period, or the first stage, of the Jewish religion. To be recognized, it has to be retrieved through the scientific study of the Bible. The second layer which reflects the religious development of the Jews during the Second Commonwealth to about the beginning of the common era is, in part, also found in the Bible, but, on the whole, is contained in the Jewish literature later described as extraneous books. The third layer consists of the rabbinic and theological writings which cover the period of about two thousand years preceding the modern era. The last two layers would never have been produced out of the first, were it not for the process of transvaluation. Yet they are representative of the Jewish spirit in their own right. Though they are not, as the ancients believed, part of the pristine revelation to Israel, they are, nonetheless, the creation of the Jewish spirit, and must therefore function in any Jewish life in which that spirit is to be continued. The only way, however, in which the second and third layers of the Jewish religious tradition can be made to function in our day is by our revaluating, not by our transvaluating, their content.


Refusal to recognize the chasm between the traditional and the modern world-view responsible for ambiguous theology of Conservative Judaism

To carry through the process of revaluation effectively, it is necessary to reckon frankly and whole-heartedly with the modern man’s orientation to life. The chasm that separates the religious outlook of Jewish tradition from the one which is in keeping with modern thought is not at all unbridgeable. But to construct a firm and wide-gauged bridge between the past and the present, nothing should be done to underestimate the distance that separates them. There is a tendency in certain circles to blur the sharp outlines of the traditional ideology by surrounding it with a fog of words. This is probably motivated by the desire to prove that there is no need for emphasizing the fact that the Jewish religion is undergoing a radical change. This has given rise to a kind of hybrid theology which would not be recognized by the ancient authorities as true, nor by cultivated men and women of the present as answering their needs. Its sterility is responsible for its failure to elicit stimulating thought and intelligent guidance from the teacher, inspiring ritual from the poet, and enthusiasm in living a Jewish life from the men and women of our people.

The following passage from Morris Joseph’s Judaism as Creed and Life may serve to illustrate the way vague language is used by this type of theology in the hope that it may, at the same time, mean modernism to the modernist and traditionalism to the traditionalist:

The Bible is the great source of our knowledge of Religion, as Israel has conceived it. To its pages we must chiefly turn in order to know what we ought to believe and how we ought to live as Israelites.¹⁴

It is easy to recognize the phrases in this brief passage, which are meant to serve as sops to the modernist conscience. To speak of the Bible as the source of our knowledge of Religion rather than as the authentic revelation of God to Israel is meant to satisfy the historical spirit of the age. It tries, by innuendo, to shift the basis of the Bible’s authority from a supernatural sanction to a natural, institutional one by basing it on the part that the Bible has historically played in Jewish life and thought as undeniably the source of Jewish law and doctrine. Again, the qualifying expression as Israel conceived it is intended to hint, what the author lacks the courage positively to affirm, that other alternative conceptions of religion are possible which may be just as valid. Then the author, in timid retreat, immediately undoes all the effect that these indefinite phrases may have produced in suggesting the compatibility of tradition with modernism, by saying that we turn chiefly to the Bible in order to know what we ought to believe and how we ought to live as Israelites. The very notion that any text written hundreds of years ago, at a time when the social situation was radically different from what it is today, can give us clear and valuable guidance in deciding, ethically, issues that did not arise until recent times is utterly antagonistic to the modern evolutionary outlook. No matter how we may reverence the authors of the biblical books as teachers of justice and righteousness, we cannot today determine what is right in the ethical problems that come before us by reference to a biblical text.

But if the author’s method of using the biblical text is unsatisfactory to modern-minded people, it is no more satisfactory to the genuine traditionalist. To speak of the Bible as the source of Religion, as Israel has conceived it rather than as the word of God, is from the viewpoint of Orthodoxy an offensive understatement. It implies that the authority of the Bible is validated by its being a source of religion, i.e., of our ideas about God and our responsibility to Him, to use the author’s own definition, ideas which can also be derived by reasoning from general experience. But to the genuine traditionalist it is precisely his feeling of the inadequacy of human reason to achieve salvation that makes him seek authority in the Bible. For him the Bible is valid not because it coincides with reason, but because of its supernatural origin. The law prohibiting the wearing of a garment of mixed wool and linen rests for him on the same authority as the law forbidding murder. He does not regard it as a mere symbol or ceremony. Until the time of Maimonides, no comprehensive attempt had been made to interpret the reasons for all the ritual laws of the Torah, and even he did not regard awareness of the reason as essential to Jewish religious living, but did regard obedience as essential. The Mishnah voices definite objection to interpreting the reason for the prohibition of taking the mother-bird with the young.¹⁵ If one says: ‘Thy mercies extend over the bird’s nest’ . . . he is to be silenced.¹⁶

Such reasoning as is represented in the quotation from Judaism as Creed and Life is not limited to the particular book from which it is taken, nor to the writings of its author. It is quite characteristic of the apologists for tradition in our day. We cite two more quotations from other works of more recent date to illustrate our point. The first of these is taken from the introduction to Isidore Epstein’s Judaism of Tradition.

"And what is revelation? It is the conception of God revealing Himself in no uncertain manner to prophet and people in order to help man along in his quest of the Divine. . . . I have advisedly said ‘God revealing Himself in no uncertain manner.’ For it is this sense of sureness, this sense of overmastering certainty which grips the spirit that distinguishes the knowledge that comes by means of Revelation from all other branches of knowledge, like art, literature, to which the term revelation or inspiration is loosely applied."¹⁷

The modernist must take exception in the above passage to the illogicality of using the word revealing to define the noun revelation, and to the folly of making sureness a criterion of truth, since stupidity is almost invariably sure of its own wisdom. On the other hand, the traditionalist will take exception to making the only distinction between what we loosely call inspiration in literature and art and what tradition means by revelation lie in the certainty with which the prophet or lawgiver apprehended the truth which he claimed to have been revealed to him.

Another illustration may be taken from Maurice H. Farbridge’s Judaism and the Modern Mind. The author undertakes to resolve the difficulties encountered by the modern mind, in that the ethical standards of the Law are not always on as high a plane as the best ethical standards of modern times. This is his apologia:

Historical revelation cannot at a stroke annihilate existing traditions and create a world of new ones. Revelation can only work in accordance with the laws of historical development . . . it has to content itself with bearing patiently with considerable evil, and replace the old whilst the good which it implants has time to grow and develop.¹⁸

The modernist on reading this passage wants to know why, if revelation can work only in accordance with the laws of historical development, it is at all needed, why the laws of historical development themselves cannot suffice as evidence of God’s work in human history. The traditionalist, on the other hand, would probably feel it to be damning with faint praise to pronounce the Torah only as true as the limited understanding of those to whom it was communicated permitted it to be.

Are any more quotations necessary? Can we not recognize in the above statements the sort of traditional apologetics that we hear repeatedly from the pulpits by preachers who try to be modern, but whose thinking is fettered by traditional attitudes? Sentimentally attached to the old and distrustful of the new, they try to persuade themselves and others that no radical change has taken place in human thinking, and that none is necessary in the Jewish religion. But if we are to do justice to the problem which confronts the Jewish religion, we must not minimize the revolutionary character of the changes in the very assumptions on which men have come to base their world-outlook.


Reformist theology irrelevant because of its failure to realize that religion must express itself in the context of a civilization

Those familiar with the Reformist theology, especially as developed by the late Kaufmann Kohler in his Jewish Theology, will find that to a large extent it answers the two requirements of Jewish religion for our day. First, it realizes the wide gap that divides the world-outlook of traditional religion from the one with which modern religion must reckon, and secondly, it has formulated some highly valuable spiritual and ethical truths, though many of these truths are themselves in need of being reformulated to fit into the framework of latter-day thought. But there is something radically wrong with the Reformist theology. It starts with a false premise as to what it is that makes one a Jew. It assumes that what unites Jews to one another, and differentiates them from the rest of mankind, is their religion. Thus conceived, the Jewish religion comes to be a series of general or universal teachings about God and man, apart from the specific social realities of the Jewish people. Conceiving the Jewish religion as the soul of the Jewish people, Kohler makes the mistake of hypostatizing the soul and treating it as an entity independently of the body. This error he, in common with all Reformist theorists, falls into, because like them he insists upon denying the fact that what unites Jews to one another is their nationhood, and what differentiates them is a civilization of which religion is only an element, though undoubtedly the most significant. This error leads him to regard Judaism and Jewish religion merely as different names for the same thing, with the consequence that every aspect of Jewish life must justify itself by its relation to the God idea, and God comes to be a hypostatized abstraction moving in a vacuum.

Kohler realizes that the philosophical emphasis upon the unknowability of God leaves one cold. A divinity void of all essential qualities, he rightly says, fails to satisfy the religious soul. Man demands to know what God is—at least, what God is to him. We wonder how much satisfaction the religious soul can derive from the answer which Kohler gives when he says: "God is not merely the supreme Being but also the supreme Self-consciousness. As man, in spite of all his limitations and helplessness, still towers high above his fellow creatures by virtue of his free will and self-conscious action, so God, who knows no bounds to His wisdom and power, surpasses all beings and forces of the universe, for He rules over all as the One completely self-conscious Mind and Will. In both the visible and invisible realms, He manifests Himself as the absolutely free Personality, moral and spiritual who allots to everything its existence, form and purpose. For this reason Scripture calls Him ‘the living God and everlasting King.’

Judaism, accordingly, teaches us to recognize God, above all, as revealing Himself in self-conscious activity, as determining all that happens by His absolutely free will, and thus as showing man how to walk as a free moral agent. In relation to the world, His work or workshop, He is the self-conscious Master, saying ‘I am that which I am’; in relation to man, who is akin to Him as a self-conscious rational and moral being, He is the living Fountain of all that knowledge and spirituality for which men long, and in which alone they may find contentment and bliss.¹⁹

All this, translated into the poetic language of liturgy, might awaken an emotional response. But one fails to see why the God thus described need necessarily be the God of Judaism. If those words convey any meaning, they do so irrespective of what Judaism has to say. But actually they are merely a rehash, not even warmed over, of medieval verbalism; of a verbalism divorced from facts and realities as known and experienced in everyday life.

What more important function can religion have than to serve as antidote to the harm that the evil in the world might do to our personalities? The least we should expect of any acceptable statement we make about God is that it should bolster up our morale. In the light of this criterion how much value can we attach to the following?

None of the precious truths of Judaism has become more indispensable than the belief in divine Providence, which we see about us in ever new and striking forms. Man would succumb from fear alone, beholding the dangers about him on every side, were he not sustained by a conviction that there is an all-wise Power who rules the world for a sublime purpose. We know that even in direst distress we are guided by a divine hand that directs everything finally toward the good. Wherever we are, we are protected by God, who watches over the destinies of man as ‘does the eagle who hovers over her young and bears them aloft on her pinions.’ Each of us is assigned his place in the all-encompassing plan. Such knowledge and such faith as this comprise the greatest comfort and joy which the Jewish religion offers. Both the narratives and the doctrines of Scripture are filled with this idea of Providence working in the history of individuals and nations.²⁰

The foregoing reads like an ancient text which is itself in need of interpretation, and poses a series of questions instead of answering them. But the most serious fault with it is that, as stated, one sees no reason why it should be interpreted at all. It is unattached to any institution or situation which is in need of being explained and therefore entirely irrelevant.

The very attempt to abstract Jewish religion from all the other aspects of Jewish life shows a woeful misunderstanding of the vital and organic relationship between religion and the other elements of a civilization. The civilization of the Jewish people, with its long history and idealized future, has hitherto been the matrix of the ideas and practices by means of which the Jew expressed his relationship to God. All the components of that civilization, namely language, literature, social norms, folkways and the arts, have always entered into every texture of the Jewish religion. We can no more think of that religion apart from them than we can think of the soul or personality of any human being without reference to his appearance, voice, acts and words.

Reformist theology, by divorcing the element of religion from the secular aspects of the Jewish civilization, has furnished the Jewish secularists a most convincing argument in support of complete secularization of Jewish life. Religion abstracted from the other human interests that express themselves in a civilization becomes irrelevant and pointless, a way of speaking rather than a way of living. From being a medley of anemic platitudes, which no one would ever take the trouble of disputing, to becoming superfluous altogether, is but one step. The secularists, to be sure, commit the same error as the religionists who deprecate all Jewish secular interests, for, like them, they fail to see the organic relationship between the secular and religious aspects of life. The only difference between them is which aspect they choose to identify themselves with. The secularist may take an affirmative attitude toward the survival of the Jewish group, but he fails to realize that group life, which is rooted in the past and which is held together by common purposes and ideals, must have an outlet in specific beliefs, emotions and actions.

If we try to envisage the way religion actually functions when it is not a mummified affair but part of human experience, we realize that in the life of a group there naturally arise conflicts between the desires, purposes and interests of the individuals composing it. These conflicts have to be resolved, and the effort at resolving them gives rise to laws, customs and social habits of the people and to standards of value which these express. These standards, norms and mores require some sanction to validate them. Personal advantage is not enough of a sanction to justify the duty of conforming to them under all circumstances. Resort is had to the God idea, for that idea inherently endorses the rightness of that which we regard as right. This is its chief pragmatic significance.

Likewise every nation develops in its own language a literature that reflects the mind of the group. Certain works of this literature assume a special importance as expressing supremely what the group has felt to be the meaning of its history and the purposes that should inspire its actions. Such books become holy or sacred scriptures, that is, they are ascribed to God, or, let us say, by ascribing them to God their holiness is stressed; for, the pragmatic significance of the God idea, is the recognition of certain elements in life as supremely important.

Great personalities arise in crises of a nation’s history and render services that seem to make them the embodiment of the nation’s will and aspiration. They are then held up as examples for the people to follow in molding their own characters to a pattern in harmony with purposes and aspirations of the group. Such men become the heroes of the nation. To emphasize their heroism, they are described as indebted for their superiority to God, Whose spirit alone enabled them to accomplish great deeds. Thus the God idea plays its part as accounting for human leadership and heroism.

Epoch-making events in the national history which are felt to have meaning for the nation’s future are celebrated, and methods are devised to insure that they be not forgotten. As they are recalled year by year and their significance is reinterpreted in accordance with the cumulative experience of the group, there is evolved a ritual which associates their observance with ideals which express the highest aspirations of that group. They thus become holy days, when the people seek communion with God for renewing their faith in those ideals which are associated with the day. Thus the God idea functions to emphasize and validate a people’s sense of its historic destiny, and its collective responsibility for achieving the salvation of the individual and of society.

The frustration of many of the desires and purposes of the collective consciousness of the group leads to an imaginative reconstruction of the social order more in harmony with these purposes. Such utopias, as the term implies, exist nowhere and would remain mere idle fancies were it not for the fact that the people recognize in them a manifestation of divine creativity, an insight into life’s boundless possibilities. The God idea thus functions to convert what might otherwise have remained an idle fancy into a prophetic vision that assigns objectives to collective effort. The association of prophecy with divination of the future is based on the fact that prophetic insight into future possibilities, combined with the faith that whatever ought to be can be, is a potent force in shaping the future. That faith is definitely implied in the God idea, and can have no other validation.

The sum of all these ways in which the God idea functions pragmatically in the civilization of a people is what we mean by its religion. Apart from all the other aspects of a civilization, religion is nothing. Its very life depends upon them. It cannot be preserved as a glass-encased exhibit in a museum. But all the secular aspects of a civilization need the sanction of religion. None of them can function vigorously in a civilization that is world-weary, cynical and depressed. Only the tonic faith which is expressed in the intuitive acceptance of the God idea can stimulate them to achieve the utmost of their potentialities.


The synthesis of incompatible notions about God a heritage from the past

We cannot expect to understand the nature of God. Who of us even knows the nature of man, or for that matter his own nature? We cannot even predict what we will be doing and thinking ten minutes from now. But we must be able to state definitely what experiences or phenomena we are prepared to identify as manifestations of God, and why we identify them as such.

The fact that the nature of God is beyond our understanding does not mean that we can afford to conceive of Him in terms that are clearly not true in accordance with the highest standards of truth. Our conception of God must be self-consistent and consistent with whatever else we hold to be true. That this conception will not describe Him we know, just as our conception of life does not begin to give us the faintest idea of what life means to the infinite variety of living creatures that inhabit our earth. But we do not plead our inability to understand all that life means as an excuse for making assertions about life which are inconsistent with experience. Just so we must insist that whatever we say or think about God shall be in harmony with all else that we hold to be true. We cannot, for example, believe that God performs miracles, and at the same time believe in the uniformities of natural law demanded by scientific theory.

In our thinking about God we must avoid all those mental habits which issue in logical fallacies. The most common of these is the habit of hypostasis, or assuming the separate identifiable existence of anything for which language has a name. There is a considerable difference, for example, between the way a scientist thinks of gravity and the way most laymen think of it. A scientist regards it as a property or quality of matter, a descriptive term for the way masses of matter behave in relation to one another. The average layman, however, thinks of it as a force, an invisible something that acts upon masses of matter pulling them together. According to both conceptions, gravity is real and must undeniably be reckoned with, but the layman finds it difficult to regard gravity as real without at the same time thinking of it as a thing, an object, a self-existent being or entity.

When we study the historical development of the God idea, we realize to what extent the mental habit of hypostasis (the tendency to treat qualities, attributes, relationships as though they had a separate existence) has been responsible for the contradictions and ambiguities that have discredited the conception of God and driven many to atheism. Before the origin of monotheistic religion, people spoke not of God but of gods. What was then the meaning of the word god? A god was