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    What is God?

    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.

    The Daily Telegraph masthead logo SydneyWhat 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.

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