What is God? What is Love?

The other day, Ari turned to me and said, “Do you ever think we should just retire the word God and substitute something else, something a little less tired? Let’s all pray to Thaff instead!”

It’s not a bad suggestion. Most of us carry a lot of baggage around the word God, particularly as we live in a Christian context. I know that as soon as I start to contemplate God, for instance, I first have to do some mental gymnastics to push aside the old man with a white beard. Only then can I engage in any sort of more sophisticated theological discussion; as Heschel taught, conventional notions and mental clichés hinder our experience of the divine (God in Search of Man, p. 46). Swapping in the unconventional word Thaff as the primary label would at least bypass my automatic association between that particular word and image.

But it wouldn’t solve the fundamental problem of talking about God: language only gets us so far.

Cat’s Cradle, the Kurt Vonnegut novel I recently read at Ari’s recommendation, hits on the same problem. In it, the narrator, John, seeks out the history of the late Dr. Felix Hoenikker, one of the “fathers” of the atomic bomb. When he ventures into the lab where Dr. Hoenikker once conducted his research, he hears from the director’s assistant, Miss Naomi Faust, that one of the main things of interest to Dr. Hoenikker was truth. But Miss Faust is not convinced that could be enough. Chapter 26 (pp. 54-55) of the book tells the conversation that ensues between John and Miss Faust:

26. What God Is

“Did you ever talk to Dr. Hoenikker?” I asked Miss Faust.
“Oh, certainly. I talked to him a lot.”
“Do any conversations stick in your mind?”
“There was one where he bet I couldn’t tell him anything that was absolutely true. So I said to him, ‘God is love.’ ”
“And what did he say?”
“He said, ‘What is God? What is love?’ ”
“But God really is love, you know,” said Miss Faust, “no matter what Dr. Hoenikker said.”

This short, brilliant chapter illustrates the problem with insisting on definitions for God––or Thaff or any other word used to denote the divine (including divine itself). We then have to define those words, too, and we end up with an infinite regress. That’s because words have meaning in relation to one another, not because of some correspondence with the way the world “really” is (thank you, Richard Rorty). To say God is love is to beg the question: what, then, is love?

My passable attempt at Cat’s Cradle. As Dr. Hoenikker’s son Newt Hoenikker says, “See the cat? See the cradle?”

But that doesn’t mean Miss Faust is foolish. I think what people mean when they insist that God is love is that they have a strong desire to live in a world that is fundamentally good. That’s not an unreasonable wish.

Still, it has its limits. There are times when the “usual” descriptions of God fail, and we need new ones. That’s the lesson Ari and my friend Eliana Light teaches in her ELI talk. When Eliana’s father died when she was 18, she could no longer abide the theology many of us are taught at some point in our lives: that God is a force of goodness who knows all and whose hand guides things in the world toward the good. She realized there was a gulf between the God she had learned about and the God she was experiencing. Recognizing that it’s a gulf many of us face, she coined the idea of the God Gap. Naming it allows us to address it.

To bridge the God Gap, Eliana suggests we turn to the plethora of names Jewish tradition offers for God. Shekhinah, the Most High (Elyon), the Omnipresent (Hamakom), Healer of shattered hearts, the patient One, the Maker of peace, the One whose face is hidden…to name a few. It’s not to say that any of these “is” God, certainly not to the exclusion of any other––mistaking one aspect of divinity for the whole is the kind of idolatry Kabbalists call kitzutz ba-neti’ot (cutting the shoots). Rather, it’s to say that we experience or seek to experience different aspects of God in different situations.

“God was in this place and I did not know” (or) Jacob’s Ladder. Ari is much better at this than me.

I like Eliana’s teaching. The problem with the word God is not merely that it is tired; it’s that it’s also vague. I’m in favor of retiring it, but not of replacing it with another catch-all label––even one as novel as Thaff. I’d rather be more precise, finding the name that fits the moment while remembering that name’s contextuality. It’s a little more effort, but it also frees us of the burden of shoving the bearded old guy out of the way before we really get down to work.

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