The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple first appeared in print in the Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 22 December, 2009, under the title, “Guiding light beyond definition”. It was part of a series of articles on views of God from religious leaders and scientists.
What is God? I can only give a personal view. There are two reasons. One: we all have our own take on God. I cannot be certain that my father’s God is the same as mine. I can’t be a believer with my father’s heart, only with my own.
Two: no-one knows enough about God to speak of Him with authority. Hebrew theologians say, “If I knew Him, I would be Him”. A God whom we could define exactly would be too little, like a toy that a child puts in its pocket and takes out to play with.
When I was a child I thought my rabbi standing in his pulpit was God. Years later I found that Tennyson had a phrase for this: he said that the average Englishman’s idea of God was of an immeasurable clergyman. In time I became a clergyman myself, and though I had a degree of self-confidence I knew I was far from Divine – and my congregation could see that I had enough frailties to be rather lower than God.
I talked about God but was never able to arrive at a dictionary definition. When I toyed with calling Him the Great Idea, I had to acknowledge that He was more than an abstract theory. When I thought of describing Him as the Great Force, I had to recognise that he was more than an anonymous energy.
If I called Him the Great Presence, but this said nothing about His capacity to create or to reveal His will. I struggled with saying that He was the Cosmic Grandfather, but while this gave Him benignity and personality, it made Him too cosy, too antiquated.
I eventually gave up the attempt at definitions, largely because none gave me a God I could relate to or who could relate to me. Then I recalled that when Moses asked God who He was, the response was, “I am what I am”.
The Bible constantly uses the word and – “And the Lord spoke”, “And these are the laws”, “And Jacob dwelt”. Believing in God is not just a background feeling of certainty but a relationship, a set of ands: God and the world, God and human duty, God and our potential. It tells me that because of God, my life is different – and makes a difference.
I am not always certain which way to turn, but my belief helps me through the options. I am not always strong enough to do the right thing, but my belief enables me to rise above my own frailty and the moral weakness of others. I do not always like what I find in the world, but if I see evil, my belief gives me no rest until I cry out.
I am sometimes disappointed with God, but my belief teaches me to be honest, and I have to protest even at God. I demand an explanation, but deep down I know that it’s sometimes better not to have one. I have enough faith in God to know that He is bigger and wiser than me.