If there isn’t a God calling us to behave in a particular way, what else is there?
In an article published by Fair Observer, rabbi-in-training Jeremy Sher argues: “Faith itself is more important than the God that the faith professes to be in.” For Sher, God doesn’t exist – at least not in any of the ways we normally use the word. God is not like the sun or Mount Rainier or Justin Bieber’s pants, nor any other physical object that we could enumerate or imagine. Instead, God names a way of being.
On one level, Sher’s approach is refreshing. Rather than trying to defend God on nonsensical metaphysical terms, he’s taking a subtler approach – arguing for an understanding of God that is much less about some thing up in the sky, and much more about how we move through the world and understand our own experience.
On another level, though, Sher hasn’t left traditional metaphysics as far behind as he thinks. In what follows, I’ll argue that Sher’s theology depends on the very beliefs he claims not to hold. Sher may not be a believer in the traditional sense, but he’s still trading in the emotional currency of a long-discredited theology.
Kind of Feeling
Sher writes: “I am a person of faith, a believer. My faith transcends boundaries and resists definition.” He then approvingly quotes a letter from Vaçlav Havel to his wife, in which the future Czech president writes: “Faith … is usually “faith in something,” but that “something” is not the decisive factor … a challenge to which would either shake the faith or require a rapid change of fetish. Genuine faith is original, primal and discrete; it precedes its object (if it has one).”
Faith, then, isn’t first and foremost about an object – it’s a kind of feeling, an orientation toward the world. And this faith, Sher repeats, “is more important than the ‘God’ that the faith professes to be in.” In fact, worrying too much about whether God exists involves a sacrifice of the “genuine faith” that Sher wants to talk about.
But before saying what genuine faith is, Sher describes what faith isn’t.
The first category is “faith that” – the belief that a particular statement “obtains as fact” (God exists, everything turns out for the best, etc.). If these statements turn out to be incorrect, Sher writes, the believer’s faith is “shaken,” proving that such faith isn’t“strong” to begin with.
Surprisingly, Sher argues that these varieties of faith “require little participation on the part of the believer; they are just a pile of propositions that the believer believes are true.”
I disagree. Questions of fact may sometimes be black or white, but beliefs about those questions rarely are. Instead, beliefs shift and fluctuate; sometimes, they behave like particles, taking shape only after we’ve gone looking for them. They’re the sort of things that depend on our moods, that we prefix with “kinda” and “more-or-less.” It’s the rare believer who believes cleanly, without doubt or uncertainty; many believers put enormous amounts of emotional energy into buttressing their faith.
Sher’s second category is “faith in” (faith in the scientific method, faith in humanity). Unlike faith that, faith in isn’t propositional, and therefore can’t be proven wrong. Instead, we can continue to invest or place value in people, institutions, and ideas, even after they’ve fallen short of our hopes or expectations.
Sher actually goes further, arguing that faith in “makes no statement about the world, but it does influence a believer’s ideas about how individuals and societies should respond to the world.” This also seems wrong to me: At least some of the time, we use the phrase “faith in” as shorthand for probability – to describe our degree of confidence that the world is a particular way (hospitable to democracy, likely to improve, etc.). In other words, the distinction between faith in and faith that may not be quite as clear as Sher suggests.
In any event, this is where God comes in. Although we talk about “faith in God,” Sher thinks this is misleading; God doesn’t exist in the same way that humanity, or the scientific method, or anything else does.
Accordingly, Sher introduces a third type of faith. This final category doesn’t obey the grammatical pattern we’ve seen so far (faith + preposition). Instead, Sher writes in more abstract terms: “This God idea we have is a way for us to access what is most holy and matters most.”
Here, “God” isn’t an entity; instead, it names an approach to ethics, and perhaps to life itself. In a Facebook exchange, Sher echoes Rabbi David Cooper: “[T]he question is not what God does, but what it means ‘to God.’” Sher elaborates: “It means a little more than to do the morally right thing, because there is, for me, a sense of cosmic participation in putting the world in order.”
In other words, Sher’s concept of God not only captures the experience of behaving morally – it also explains why people behave this way. In fact, it “is the reason it is possible for people to engage in selfless risk-taking and self-sacrifice in the service of the greater good.”
I share these values, but why call any of it “God”? Doing so runs the risk of suggesting that all heroic moral behavior has a metaphysical motivation, as if people who lack a notion of God can’t take great risks or sacrifice themselves for others.
I know this isn’t what Sher means, of course. But for someone like me – raised outside the Jewish tradition that he calls home – I can’t help but find the language distracting.
Now, maybe “our difference is only stylistic,” as Sher recently suggested to me. But I think there might be a bit more going on: I think Sher is leaning on God to backstop his own values. Not directly, of course – again, Sher doesn’t believe in God as a metaphysical entity. (“No indeed, not whatsoever, not a chance.”) But consider how he ends his article: “[T]he happiness or suffering of humanity and our living Earth matters: I have faith in that. Morality matters despite the rampant alienation of cruelty and the absurdity of mass indifference: I believe that. Responsibility matters because we are responsible beings, and we are called to take responsibility one for the other: to which I say yes, hallelujah, amen.”
It’s gorgeous rhetoric, and I agree – all of this matters very much. But what does it mean to say that we’re “called” to responsibility? Called by whom? It can’t be some being called “God,” since Sher has already rejected that possibility. And even if there were a God up there, how would we know he’s worth listening to? As many religious ethicists have pointed out, only by checking God’s demands against our own consciences.
But if there isn’t a God calling us to behave in a particular way, what else is there?
Nothing – it’s just us down here. We are the source of Sher’s calls. We are both the called and the callers. We are the source of our own values.
This isn’t a novel point: Nietzsche made these arguments 130 years ago, and philosophers since have expanded on them in a hundred directions. What’s so interesting about Sher is that it seems like he’s on the verge of accepting them, too – but just at the last minute, he blinks.
Instead, he tries to have his cake and eat it too – disowning bad metaphysics while smuggling metaphysically-valenced language into a very human set of values.
That’s not to reject poetry, of course. But it is to suggest that Jeremy Sher’s argument isn’t ultimately about faith or God – it’s about Jeremy Sher. His article is a brief glimpse into the workings of his own mind: brilliant, creative, but perhaps a bit fearful, too.
Perhaps I’m reading him wrong. It’s always dangerous to psychologize, especially with someone you’ve never met. But when I try to make sense of the dissonance in Sher’s account of faith, I can’t escape the feeling that his emotions are driving his argument – in particular, his discomfort with the idea that human beings are alone in this world.
That’s a tough pill to swallow, and I’m certainly not finished trembling at its implications. But it’s also just how things are. Sher seems to resist this conclusion; he seems to feel that human beings require validation from elsewhere – as if we’re somehow insufficient on our own.
And so I would ask, why? Why this need for back-door sanctification? Why this concern with recovering the grandeur of a dead metaphysics? Why so little faith in your fellow human beings?
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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