Segal: Ask the rabbit
A tale of two emails.
Recently, I heard from a friend about a dilemma she faced. She is a deeply spiritual Jew whose passion is interfaith dialogue. She was telling a friend of hers about a conference she attended with Christians and Jews committed to increasing interfaith understanding and countering hate and prejudice. Her friend balked, wondering aloud what religious people have ever done for this world, other than mess it up. My friend’s plaintive email to me asked, “Why do many atheists feel the need to berate us people of faith?”
I got an email around the same time from a reader of my columns. He asked for advice in the face of “Bible-thumping” friends who suggest he is “horrible” and “doomed” for not being a believer in God and the Bible. He tries to “see all of the glory in the majestic mountains” and “treat my fellow man with honor and dignity and give to the poor.”
I shared these stories with a clergy friend of mine, who wasn’t surprised. People who strive to be spiritual seekers will likely find critics on both ends of the spectrum. To some, you’re a fanatic; to others, a heretic.
The temptation to focus on belief in God as a litmus test is strong but misguided. “Do you believe in God?” is a conversation stopper; a useless question. No, it’s worse than useless — it’s counterproductive. Whether someone responds “yes” or “no,” I’ve gained no insight. And in most cases, I’ve created a one-way interaction either by causing the respondent to erect a wall of defensiveness or by inviting them to convert me to their belief. This question is a glorified way of asking, “Are you in or out?”
A more interesting and generative question is, “What kind of God do you believe in or reject?” Then you might get a meaty response. “The old-man-in-the-sky doesn’t do it for me.” “I feel something, a connection to some presence beyond myself.” “I had such strong faith as a child, but I’m more skeptical now that I’m older, and I question how the God I was taught to believe in could let terrible things happen.” “I never thought about God until I had a near-death experience, and now I feel God’s nearness everywhere I turn.” Being human means confronting the question of life’s meaning. Learning how others approach it can help us find our own purpose. Curiosity is an underrated virtue. It may have killed the cat, but we need it to survive.
For an atheist or believer to reject a genuine seeker is an act of hubris. Atheists and believers ought to have the intellectual and spiritual humility to know how little we know. My friend’s atheist correspondent missed a chance to learn about the passion that drives her to build bridges between Christians and Jews and thereby make the world a better place. My reader’s “Bible-thumping” friends overlook the spark of their own teachings in his sense of awe and care for the poor.
When it comes to the big questions of existence, we are united in wide-eyed ignorance. We are like rabbits whisked out of a top hat, hoping for a glimpse of the magician’s face. Some claim with callous certainty to have all the answers. But keep in mind — they’re still rabbits, like the rest of us.
We can’t know for sure why we came into this world. We do know that someday we’ll leave it. Until then, we can at least enjoy the show together.
Speaking of enjoying the show, the Aspen Jewish Congregation invites you to its 5th annual summer concert, “The Man Upstairs? Questioning God Through Music,” at 5 p.m. Tuesday at the District Theatre. Tickets at the Wheeler Opera House or at aspenshowtix.com. Rabbi David Segal can be reached at email@example.com or 970-925-8245. He blogs at http://www.aspenjewish.blogspot.com, and his column runs the first Saturday of each month.