Liberal  Theology

 

Ludwik Kowalski (Ph.D. Nuclear Physics)

 

Dedication

 

         To victims of the Holocaust, including my grandparents, and other relatives.

 

Table of Contents

 

1) Introduction

2) Who were authors of God's Commandments?  

3) Kinds of Judaism

4) Reshaping Traditional Theology

5) More on Reconstructionist Judaism 

6) More on Evolving Reform Judaism   

7) Modern Islam and Christianity

 

1) Introduction   

 

As a university student in Poland from 1949 to 1957, I was an aggressive atheist and subsequently became a member of the communist party. I am now an 85-year-old retired nuclear scientist, interested in theology, a theist attending a synagogue. Missing an earlier introduction to God, I am very different from other theists. My ideological evolution is described in my autobiography [1]. Writing it was a moral obligation, to my parents, and to millions of other victims of Stalinism. The victims are dead but I was definitely with them when I was writing. What can be a better confirmation that many of us live in two different environments, material and spiritual?"

 

Montclair State University, where I am a Professor Emeritus, has a forum on which various topics are debated, mostly by faculty members. The following question was posted, at the end of  2015:  "How to define the words  'theist' and 'atheist' ? Usual definitions are based on the phrase 'believing in God.' But the term 'believing' is ambiguous. Some people take the phrase 'Our Father our King' literally, while others do not." In a recent New York Times article "Religion without God" [2],T.M. Luhrmann wrote "God-neutral faith is growing rapidly. ..."  More than 870 comments, posted on that day by readers, indicate that many people are interested in God-related topics. In this mini book I share what I know and think about theology. It is a set of fictitious lecture notes based on my current reading and on articles I have published online. How can a retired teacher miss an opportunity to be professionally active again. Writing, by the way, often helps me to organize thinking.

2) Who were authors of God's Commandments?

Who were the authors of God's commandments? Some answer God; others say that human beings wrote them. Are these two approaches mutually exclusive? The 17th century liberal theologian, Baruch Spinoza, who believed that "God is Nature," would probably say the two answers are not exclusive, because God and people are parts of nature. Does it mean that everything people do is actually done by God? This question is often discussed in the context of mass murders, such as those orchestrated by Hitler, Stalin and Mao. The topic of reality of evil has been addressed by many theologians, for example, in the article "How Could God Have Allowed the Holocaust?" written by Rabbi Alan Lurie [3]. Humans are responsible, say theologians (and social scientists), because "Mother Nature" provided them with free will.

 

Why was the authorship of commandments attributed to God, by humans who wrote them? Because authors of commandments, who can be called ancient social scientists, knew that morality based on the fear of the Biblical God would be more effective than morality imposed by human leaders. People do need an authority standing behind the "what-is-good-and-what-is-bad" rules. Are modern theists ready to replace the idea of traditional God, or gods, by the pantheistic idea that "God is Nature," as Spinoza believed?  Are they ready to accept human authorship of moral commandments? Some liberal theists are but the majority of theists are not, in my opinion.

 

3) Kinds of Judaism

 

I did not know, before coming to the US, that there are four major strains of Jewish affiliation in North America: (a) Orthodox, belief in an almighty God and strict adherence to revealed commandments, (b) Conservative, less strict in adherence, (c) Reform, and (d) Reconstructionism, less strict and less structured than Reform. Along with Christianity and Islam, Judaism is generally considered a Mosaic religion. But Reconstructionists define Judaism not as a religion,

but as an "evolving religious civilization." Their founder, Mordecai Kaplan [4],  believed that "in light of advances in philosophy, science and history, it would be impossible to adhere to traditional theological claims." That is a strong indication that he was influenced by Spinoza’s definition of God.

 

4) Reshaping Traditional Theology

 

In the past other major thinkers have also tried to modify theology. Here is an interesting comment, found in the online magazine Tablet: 

 

"Moses ben Maimon, who lived in the Islamic world in 12th century C.E., is widely regarded as the most important thinker in Jewish history. Not only was he a master of Jewish law, writing a definitive Jewish legal code; he was also a master of the most up-to-date Aristotelian philosophy and theology. Guide for the Perplexed, written in Arabic, was his attempt to reconcile those two very different ways of thinking—Jewish and Greek, sacred and secular. In particular, Maimonides argued that much of the Bible had to be read metaphorically, not literally. The Guide was so radical that it was banned and burned by some Jewish communities, yet it remains to this day one of the greatest monuments of Jewish thought, and of the medieval mind."

 

I do have the pdf version of this book. But reading it is not easy. I would prefer to read a simplified version of it. Does such a version--written for high school and college students--exist? If not then a knowledgeable educator should write one. Mishneh Torah, also written by Maimonides, is not a substitute for a popular version of his Guide for the Perplexed. The two books are too different.

 

Attempts to modify traditional Jewish theology are described by Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz [5]. Most of them are still being debated. Spinoza,  excommunicated as a heretic by his contemporaries, wrote: "By God's direction I mean the fixed and unchanging order of Nature ... so it is the same thing whether we say that all things happen according to Nature's laws or that they are regulated by God's decree and direction." This point of view was also expressed by Albert Einstein. This famous scientist was not a theologian. But he wrote, "my views are near those of Spinoza: admiration for the beauty of and belief in the logical simplicity of the order which we can grasp humbly and only imperfectly."  [6]

 

Modern Reform Judaism is rooted in the nineteenth-century question -- "Is the Torah history or legend?" The German Rabbi Abraham Geiger asked: "How much longer can we continue this deceit ... presenting stories from the Bible as if they were actual historical happenings?" He was probably referring to the story of creation of the world in six days, the story of Jewish slaves in Egypt, etc. We respect such stories because they reflect beliefs, and moral values, of our ancestors. Addressing Geiger, another German rabbi, Samson Raphael Hirsch, asked, "Would you deny the Torah?" The answer was simple--"I do not deny the Torah. But ... all laws and all prayers that are unworthy or irrelevant should be eliminated [from our books]." Why do some people think that only a small fraction of contemporary theologians would be willing to follow such advice? Because biblical stories are intertwined with recommended rules of morality. A personal God, according to most clergy, records all our transgressions, and punishes those who disobey; many Christians believe in hell and heaven, and many Jews believe in exclusion and inclusion in the "world to come."

 

How do Jews answer the "do you believe in God" question? Their honest answers would not be different from answers given by other people; some would say "yes," others would say "no," and the rest would say "I am an agnostic," or something equivalent. But what is God? Different theists answer this question differently. Those who belong to Reform and Conservative denominations often say "figuratively speaking" and "metaphorically speaking." But what do these phrases mean, in the context of theological debates?

 

Browsing the Internet, I found a good answer, given recently by a Christian physicist, Aron Wall [7]. He wrote: "when people say that they believe God is metaphor ... that means that they don't really believe in God; they're actually atheists cloaking themselves in religious language. On the other hand, if there really is a Creator of infinite power and wisdom who designed the Universe, it makes sense that he would be beyond our capability to grasp. We can say what God is not, but we cannot understand him in any positive way except by making metaphors. Precisely because we Christians believe that God exists, we have to resort to metaphors in order to describe him."

 

This is not different from what Maimonides wrote in the 12th century, and from what I have read in numerous books written by contemporary theologians. According to one online reference, the words "metaphorical" and "figurative," are synonyms, while "figurative" is the opposite of "literal," which means ”actual," or "real." No wonder that some atheists say that "metaphorical" translates into "not real." According to Reform Judaism, many stories found in Torah do not describe actual historical events, as mentioned above. Can one say that these stories are only "metaphorically correct"? The common advice is "do not take them literally." The Torah was composed by people, thousands of years ago. It contains many legends, not only the story of the world's creation.

 

 

5) More on Reconstructionist Judaism

 

What follows is a interesting description of Reconstructionist Judaism [8]:

"Reconstructionist Judaism has its roots in the perceptions and writings of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan.The foundations of Reconstructionism lie in the Conservative movement, but the driving concern of Reconstructionism is the creation and articulation of a Judaism that could be sustained, that could survive the 20th century, and would continue to grow ... Not merely capturing the spirit of the times, Kaplan recognized the need to reconcile Judaism to modern science, the need to emphasize Jewish peoplehood, and the various ways in which Jewish tradition might be utilized or redirected in order to assure Jewish continuity. 

 

As Reconstructionists, we ... seek to study our tradition and incorporate the best of the past while not slavishly clinging to concepts and practices which make no sense to who we are and what we need to create a meaningful existence. 'The Jewish religion exists to serve the Jewish people, and not the Jewish people to serve the Jewish religion.' ... We also acknowledge that Judaism has always changed with the people as they lived. ... What are some Reconstructionist ideas? Most radical, to some, is the Reconstructionist concept of God. Unlike many religions, Judaism has never demanded a rigid or proscribed faith in the Deity as a condition for belonging.

 

Like most liberal Jews, Reconstructionists differ from the traditionalists who maintain that the Torah is the literal word of God, given to Moses on Sinai, rather believing it to be a document written by human beings. Beyond that, Reconstructionism acknowledges that as individuals we all differ somewhat in our concepts of God and our feelings about the relationship of God and the world. Neither agnostics nor atheists are excluded from our community. ... Reconstructionists acknowledge diversity of thought, belief, and action. Some may struggle with different ethical dilemmas and others with the minutiae of the details of keeping kosher. But while we may differ in our individual practice of Judaism, we are always respectful of the paths of others. We do not condemn people for being more or less observant, and we discuss our ideas in an open forum."

 

6) More on Evolving Reform Judaism

 

What is the essential difference between Reconstructivist and Reform theologies? My impression is that the first clearly accepts the "God is nature" definition while the second accepts it figuratively. A brief Internet description of the history of Reform Judaism [9] does not mention Spinoza. But the following observation is relevant to what I wrote about this philosopher. "We hold that Judaism presents the highest concept of the God-idea as taught in our Holy Scriptures." It was reaffirmed in 1937 in the Columbus Platform: "The heart of Judaism and its chief contribution to religion is the doctrine of the One, living God, who rules the world through law and love." Spinoza's idea that Nature is "One God" is preserved when Law and Love are seen as two aspects of reality, material and spiritual.

 

And here is another important quote, from the same reference: " The 'Oral Law' is not seen as divinely given at Sinai, but rather as a reflection of Judaism's historic development and encounter with God in each succeeding generation. In this, Reform ... [views] God working through human agents. Reform believes that each generation has produced capable and religiously inspired teachers (this means that Reform rejects the often expressed view that assigns greater holiness to those who lived in the past). Some individuals of our generation may equal or exceed those of the past. ..."

 

Progessive Halakhah is one current attempt to modify Reform's original theological doctrine [10].  "The classical approach of Reform Judaism was based on the views of Rabbi Samuel Holdheim (1806-1860), leader of Reform Judaism in Germany. He believed that Reform Judaism should be based solely upon monotheism. Almost everything connected with Jewish ritual law and custom was of the ancient past, and thus no longer appropriate for Jews to follow in the modern era. This approach was the dominant form of Reform Judaism from its creation until the 1940s. Since the 1940s the American Reform movement has slowly begun distancing itself from its previous stances. ... This is a disintegration of the original reform position in favor of more traditional Judaism. ...

 

Currently ... some Reform rabbis promote following elements of halakha, and belief in many parts of classical Jewish theology, while others actively discourage adopting Orthodox practices or beliefs, because they feel that this is not in the tradition of the Reform movement. Both encouraging or discouraging practices stipulated by halakha are considered acceptable positions within Reform."

 

 

The Progressive Halakhah has recently been criticized [11]. According to this article, it  "has an impact on how we behave in religious communities.  The sociologist Rodney Stark has popularized the thesis that religious groups need a strict theology in order to make serious demands on their adherents and that these demands, in turn, make a religion more compelling. Since a liberal theology leads to an emphasis on the autonomy of the individual, personal choice is inevitably promoted at the expense of the authority of God. In the absence of a strong theological basis for making religious demands, the members lose interest and wander off. This is what has happened in American Reform Judaism and in other non-Orthodox movements as well. ... Many Reform synagogues have large numbers on the books but few active participants."

 

This is not a unique Jewish phenomenon, as far as I know. One way to increase participation in collective activities in places of worship is to make these activities intellectually challenging, for example, by organizing theological debates, based on the content of slowly-and-clearly-read prayers. Our Reform prayer book (12) contains a large number of intellectually-inspiring prayers and readings, such as:

 

"Pray as if everything depended on God.

Act as if everything depended on you."

 

PRAYER INVITES

God's presence to suffuse our spirits,

God's will to prevail in our lives.

Prayer may not bring water to parched fields,

nor mend a broken bridge,

nor rebuild a ruined city.

But prayer can water an arid soul,

mend a broken heart,

rebuild a weakened will.

 

7) Modern Islam and Christianity

 

Attenpts to modernize theology are not limited to Judaism; they also existed, and sill exist, in at least two other kinds of theology, Islam (13) and Christianity (14). What follows is one explanation of modern Islam (15):

 

"To begin with, and certainly for most Progressive Muslims I know, Progressive Islam is not about reforming or altering the Quran itself, but rather reforming our interpretations of it, and getting rid of the extra baggage of organized religion. Progressive Muslims believe that the current Muslim community, by and large, has adopted bad theology due to a lack of self-study and introspection, replacing it with blindly following the opinions of scholars and the cultural norms prevalent in “Islamic societies” by automatically equating them with Islam. We find much substantiation for this from the Quran, which constantly urges Muslims to think independently, and reminds them that the truth is only sought by, and possessed by a minority (Quran ... .)  Thus, the argument that the views of mainstream Muslims must all be correct since they represent the majority holds no water for us. Hence, Progressive Muslims advocate the use of Ijtihad (Independent reasoning) and oppose Taqlid (Blind following/imitation), especially in matters of faith..."

 

It is interesting that some Islamic denominations, according to Wikipedia [13]. are also referred to as liberal, progressive, and reform. Unfortunately, I do not know how these denominations differ from each other, in practice. To what extent are they theological, political or ritual?

 

Liberal Christianity, according to [14], is "an undogmatic method of understanding God through the use of scripture ... Liberal Christianity did not originate as a belief structure, and as such was not dependent upon any Church dogma or creedal statements. Unlike conservative varieties of Christianity, liberalism has no unified set of propositional beliefs. Instead, 'liberalism' from the start embraced the methodologies of Enlightenment science as the basis for interpreting the Bible, life, faith and theology."

 

References

 

[1] Ludwik Kowalski, http://www.amazon.ca/Tyranny-Freedom-Diary-Former-Stalinist-ebook/dp/B0065TVGEO/

 

[2] T. M. Luhrmann,  The New York Times, December 25, 2014

 

[3] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-alan-lurie/

4] Mordecai Kaplan, See Wikipedia <  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mordecai_Kaplan  >

 

 [5] Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz, "Judaism's Great Debates,",University of Nebraska Press, 2012, page 69,

 

 See also         http://www.amazon.com/Judaisms-Great-Debates-Rabbi-Schwartz/dp/0874418526

 

[6] Helen Dukas, "Albert Einstein, The Human Side." Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981, p. 66.

 

[7] http://www.wall.org/~aron/blog/metaphors-in-theology/

 

[8] http://www.keddem.org/foot/99-04.html

[9] www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/reform_practices.html

 

[10] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Jewish_prayer

 

[11] http://forward.com/articles/135476/the-theological-roots-of-reform-judaism-s-woes/

 

[12] "Mishkan T'Filah: A Reform Siddur," CCAR Press, NY, 2007, page 47. 
Simon & Schuster, NewYork, 1999.

 

[13] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberal_Muslim_movements

 

[14] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberal_Christianity

 

[15] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/quranalyzeit/2014/11/15/who-are-progressive-muslims-and-what-do-they-believe/