Etz Chayim: Hanukkah, Christmas, and Jewish Theology in a Christian Context, Part 2

In last week’s post, I wrote about some of my experiences growing up Jewish in New Mexico, living with fear of assimilation as well as attraction to certain aspects of Christian spirituality.

This week I want to reflect on some of the broader political and spiritual implications of what we might call “theological assimilation,” or the fact that many of us have a “Default G-d” idea that is derived from the mainstream Protestant theology that is ambient in the US. In the US, when someone says “G-d,” the words “faith,” “belief,” and “doctrine” aren’t too far from our minds (in my experience, at least). To me, this reflects the fact that this country is essentially mainstream Protestant, and as a result, Protestant theology pervades our “national” idea of “G-d,” no matter what faith background we come from. How does this “Default G-d” contribute to Jewish theological assimilation in the U.S.? (Now, I’m no theologian, and my knowledge of the history of religion is spotty at best, so keep in mind that I’ll be speaking as a layperson. I would love to hear the thoughts of other laypeople, and also of any experts out there who think I’ve got something here, or even that I’m totally off the wall!)

To state the obvious, Christianity and Judaism have been influencing each other for centuries, so the impact of Christianity on Jewish theology is neither new nor specifically United-Statesian. However, I think the fact that many young US Jews (not to mention Christians) have grown up with little exposure to Jewish theology and practice means that Christianity has the ability to influence with a broad brush (perhaps unlike earlier eras when Christianity was subtly, or forcibly, influencing Jews who were profoundly steeped in Jewish life). In my experience, many non-observant Jews from my generation and my parents’ generation unconsciously “fill in the blanks” of what we know about Judaism with concepts borrowed from US Protestantism.

I began thinking about this two weeks ago when I was trying to explain my relationship with G-d to an agnostic friend. I found myself explaining to her that I consider myself to have a relationship with G-d, but I don’t necessarily “believe in G-d” or have “faith in G-d” or subscribe to any doctrinal “creed” about the literal existence of or nature of G-d.

At first I thought that I was using these terms because I was speaking to an agnostic — someone who feels no conviction about the existence of G-d — and thus I was attempting to emphasize the non-literalness of my relationship with G-d so that she could better relate to my experience. However, upon further reflection, I recognized that the terms I was using (belief, faith, creed, doctrine) were all terms that I associate with Protestantism’s emphasis on redemption through faith in the literal existence of a supernatural, omnipotent, tripartite God. In other words, my sense of “what it generally means to believe in G-d,” and my (correct) assumption about the G-d my agnostic friend feels distant from, were fundamentally based in a Protestant theology.

Furthermore, while I usually think of myself as a “new Jew” theologically (i.e. someone who has departed from a traditional, literal theology in favor of a highly metaphorical, eclectic theology), it is possible that my theology is actually quite traditional in some respects, and that one of the main reasons it seems highly non-traditional (or, more precisely, non-literal) is because I’m comparing it to Protestantism, rather than to traditional Judaism. (In other words, when I was explaining my relationship to G-d to my friend, I felt at first that I was explaining how G-d fits in with “modernity,” but perhaps I was simply explaining how G-d fits into Judaism as opposed to Protestantism.)

Now, the friend to whom I was speaking is a non-Jew. However, I’ve had similar experiences with Jews. For example, when I told one of my sisters that I was considering rabbinical school, she said, “That’s nice, but I really don’t get it.” After talking with her further, I discovered that “it” means “G-d”: she feels utterly unrelated to the concept of G-d. This is one reason, I think, that throughout her adult life she has been essentially uninvolved with Jewish practice. Now, far be it from me to say that everyone should be involved with organized religion. However, I think it’s somewhat sad, or at least ironic, that there are Jews who feel removed from Judaism because they experience “an inability to believe” in G-d — since the “ability to believe” is, in my experience, primarily a Protestant concept. While G-d as a figure is certainly at the core of Judaism, the “ability to believe” in a specific theological manifestation of G-d seems to me to be peripheral at most. (Admittedly, in some cases, this confusion may spring from the fact that a particular local Jewish community isn’t providing any compelling spiritual alternative to doctrinal theology.)

Now, I know that Protestantism is more than just the Creeds, and not all Protestants emphasize doctrine (and not all Jews don’t!). But I think that there is a prevalent stereotype, among both Christians and Jews, that having a relationship with G-d means “believing in G-d.” And this is unfortunate, because there are lots of other ways to relate to G-d besides “believing,” and these other ways don’t get enough press — with the result that people who will never “believe in G-d” are unnecessarily exiled from spiritual life, which is a loss for everyone. I’ve had several friends say to me that they “just can’t get into the G-d thing,” but wish they had access to the community life and the deep meaning on which their religious friends seem to thrive. When I peel off what I imagine to be the “Protestant overlay,” it seems to me that traditional Jewish theology may provide a storehouse of useful tools for relating to G-d in ways other than through “faith,” and as a nascent spiritual leader, I’m interested in exploring how to offer those tools to those who are intrigued but as yet uninvolved.

–Ri J. Turner

3 comments on “Etz Chayim: Hanukkah, Christmas, and Jewish Theology in a Christian Context, Part 2

  1. Ger on

    Awesome posts. Is it possible for someone who has not lived in a vacuum to develop a distinctly Jewish idea of G-d? Was there ever such a thing? For that matter, is it possible for anyone, of any religion, to develop an idea about any G-d that is not shaped by preexisting ideas about G-d? Even monotheism, radical as it may have been some 4,000 years ago, is only radical in light of the polytheism which predated the burning bush.

  2. rkt on

    i’ve been traumatized by organized religion, or, stealing from my little younger brother’s arsenal of terminology, the corporate church.
    my feelings on spirituality end up oscillating. because it’s not just that, but the fru-fru-ness of new ageyness, madonna and her kaballah (not that i’m saying this is what you’re referencing) included seem to be the same story, different packaging.
    i don’t know what to tell you how to “reach me”. i will say that octavia butler’s parable stories do, though. [:)] maybe it’s the packaging, there, that gets the hook.

  3. Ri on

    Thanks for the comments!

    Ger, yes. I agree with what you’re saying. As I was writing the post I felt like I was defining stark categories that oversimplify the reality of complex mutual influence. And I don’t think there’s “one” Jewish theology, or “one” Protestant theology. But I do think it is possible to talk usefully about there being a mainstream, and one that by sheer inundation overwhelms other streams of thought. (Needless to say, I think this is especially true in our world today where media are so uniform across the country, and so heavily controlled by a few corporations!)

    Also, I’m not so interested in having an entirely “new” theology as in tracing streams of theology that may have been lost, stamped out, or simply overwhelmed. Especially because I think that a society with only one theology, only one path to divinity, is both boring, and kind of sad — because in such a society, the people who don’t feel connected with the single path that’s been defined ultimately are refused access to spirituality — even if they might have really enjoyed and benefited from spirituality had they been presented with some other access point.

    Rkt — cool and interesting to hear that you felt reached by the Parable stories. In a way, this underscores what I’m saying here, I think — because the whole point of Earthseed is that it’s practical, ethical, and philosophical, rather than requiring any kind of doctrinal orthodoxy. I know a lot of people, including myself, who are more attracted to that side of a shared belief system than to the doctrine — or even to theology at all (in the classical sense of how we think of theology).

    I actually think Earthseed is an excellent example of an alternative pathway into theology — because what Olamina dares to do is to create a philosophical system, and then label it a theology. I mean, you can’t deny that Earthseed is fundamentally theological — if theology is essentially about defining the divine, or making a statement about what God is, then saying “God is change” is about as theological as it gets. And yet, almost nothing else about Earthseed is theological (in the sense of “esoteric definitions of the supernatural nature of God as a divine being”). This, I think, is exactly the point — the God of Earthseed, without being doctrinal (in the sense of forcing people to take leaps of faith about supernatural matters), is yet a very useful philosophical construct (that it is useful is obvious from the fact that it manages to organize and motivate people to work together to create the infrastructure for interstellar travel). This type of alternative conception of divinity is exactly what interests me.

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