I know, I know. Neil deGrasse Tyson is agnostic. But that doesn’t mean that man isn’t a believer at the same time.
My final assignment for rabbinical school is a thesis where I have to discuss my personal theological understanding of Judaism in the context of the Jewish future, and to use text to defend it. I must also include in the paper any kind of texts that contradict my theology and find ways to deal with those “difficult passages”. While I have a while before I get to this (one must crawl before running), I have to admit that I am terrified by writing this. There are some incredibly thorny passages in the Torah. How does a progressive Jew defend slaying Amelekites, stoning gay men, divorcing the spouses of interfaith marriages, and all the other troubling texts? It’s easy if you believe in an unquestionable Torah mi’Sinai that gives you the ultimate “out” of, “the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it”. Problem is, if you’re the type to wrestle with text, no matter what you believe about the origin of our holy texts, you still have to figure out how to deal with all the fundamentalist sounding stuff that your modern sensibilities can’t stand.
Really good Jewish thinkers are willing to ask tough questions, to deviate from conventional thinking when things just don’t add up, and to willingly throw away any of their ideas that don’t hold up. I think the same must be true for scientists, which is why I often watch science programs on Netflix when I find myself unable to deal with religion. Surprisingly, Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson and others don’t compel me away from the Divine, but rather, help me to more fully connect with the nature of the Universe, which I understand to be one of several projects that God has undertaken.
The video below really spells it out for me.
While Mr. Tyson and I probably disagree on the conclusion, what we can agree on is the spectacular nature of life: that we are made of all the same things that the universe is made up of, and that this is pretty cool. I know that “pretty cool” is an amateur, flippant way of describing the existence of reality, but you get my drift.
For me, this unity of all things is the seat of God. I find in the Shema the blessing of God’s oneness as a true-ism of all reality: that God is one, that the universe and everything in it is one, and that we are one with all of these elements at the same time. God, heaven, the past, present and future are all within us and at the same time, outside of us.
As a self-professed “serial monogamist”, I can speak with a certain level of authority that no relationship is perfect and that while we hope that everything we do is to the benefit of our partner, or is at least keeping them in mind, often times we just act on our own self-interest. In an interview, Tyson said that “every account of a higher power that I’ve seen described, of all religions that I’ve seen, include many statements with regard to the benevolence of that power. When I look at the universe and all the ways the universe wants to kill us, I find it hard to reconcile that with statements of beneficence.”
When we look at the way a single change in the coming together of our universe could have completely prevented humanity from ever existing, it gives us an amazing pause to think: perhaps the world is made with love in mind. As Einstein said, “God doesn’t play dice with the world.” At the same time, I can see where Tyson is coming from. The world is amoral; children are born with genetic diseases that take their lives before they have the opportunity to live, earthquakes and other natural phenomena sweep people off to eternity regardless of how holy or evil they are, and by most trustworthy accounts, the Earth will be destroyed by the sun, no matter how much faith we put into God to prevent that from happening.
Perhaps though, we are trying to fit a square God into a round hole. Perhaps God is not benevolent or the destroyer: God just is. Just as our relationships with those we love are never simple, perhaps God, who I have always viewed as the ultimate in complicated, complex issues, cannot be made into a boiler plate one-liner.
Our faith tradition gives us two ways to take refuge under God’s shechinah in spite of the terrible amount of mental noise that the why-God-why type questions cause us. As I mentioned before, the Shema’s declaration of oneness of God is a no-brainer. God is one, and from Tyson we learn that everything in the universe is one. Oneness disguised as diversity and chaos seems to be God’s operating philosophy.
The second point comes from liturgy. When we pray the Amidah, we pray “blessed are you…God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob”. Martin Buber in The Ten Rungs, a collection of Chasidic philosophy, explained that the reason we say “God of” before each name, is that God was revealed to each of these individuals, and to all of the prophets, in different ways and at different times. God is not a singular experience, but rather, an experience that each generation is tasked with in its own way. Perhaps science is just another of God’s prophecies.
From that place, I am able to sit with my non-theistic friends and know that when we talk about the stars in the sky, the birth of a child, or any other life affirming moment, the “ooh, ahh” noises we make reflect a shared experience of the transcendental.