How Many Gods Are There? Does it Matter?
Rabbi Katy Z. Allen
(originally posted June 30, 2010)
In this week’s Torah portion, God tells Moses that he should take a look at the land God has promised to the Israelites – land that he, Moses, (because he will soon die) will never walk upon. In this passage, Moses addresses God as “the Source of the Breath of all flesh.” God then chooses a new leader to bring the people into that land.
“The Source of the Breath of all flesh.” All flesh – every living breathing being.
As a hospital chaplain, I cover a general medical floor, where I visit all the patients on the floor, no matter what their religion, dropping in to see how they are doing. Recently, I met a Christian woman*, her two brothers, and her husband. The woman was upbeat and cheerful. She told me briefly about her battle with illness and her concern for the future. I then asked, as I always do, if she would like me to say a prayer for her. She voiced what I often hear when I visit with Christian patients, but she spoke much more vehemently and animatedly than most people do. “There’s only one God,” she said. “Just one. I don’t care if people say no, to me, there is just one God.” When I completed the prayer, the patient and her brothers were effusive in their thanks. “Thank you, thank you. You are doing God’s work – it is so important. God bless you. God bless you.” The woman had a strong accent, and I didn’t understand everything she said, but I understood the most important part of it.
Before I had entered that room, I had been upset about an incident in which I was NOT being either appreciated or understood. As this woman thanked me so profusely, the pain of that encounter washed away. These people got it. They understood what my work was all about. They understood in a profound way the essence, the importance, and the meaning of why I was there and what I was doing.
Recently, I finished reading Stephen Prothero’s book, Not One God. Prothero, a prolific writer and a professor of religion at Boston University makes a claim that the woman in bed 122 would not have accepted at all; he believes that the statement she made, that there is only one God, is a panacea, wishful thinking, naïve, and on the surface. He also claims that it can be dangerous to think this way when we look at today’s shrinking world. He gives an overview of eight major religions – the ones he considers most important – and he explains why they are important and what good they have brought into the world and what bad they have brought into the world — something he describes all our religions as sharing, and Prothero admonishes that we are dishonest with ourselves if we deny it.
Prothero’s premise is that the fundamental differences among religions result from the fact that each religion is answering a different question and thus it approaches G!d and the world differently. He explains, for example, that Islam is dealing with the issue of pride, and the answer is submission, that Christianity is concerned with the question of sin, for which the solution is salvation, and that Judaism is dealing with exile, the answer to which is return to God. It is an interesting approach, and helpful, I believe, in recognizing the roots of our differences.
I would like to suggest, however, a slightly different approach, one that is articulated in a midrash – interpretation – about the Amidah prayer, a central prayer of the daily services. The prayer, begins, Blessed are you Lord our God and God of our ancestors, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob. In this ancient text, the rabbis ask the question, Why doesn’t the prayer simply say God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Wouldn’t it be much simpler this way? The rabbis’ answer is that the God of Abraham is not the same as the God of Isaac or the God of Jacob; every person finds his or her own path to God and experiences God in a different way; for every person, the pathway to God is different – and in essence, God is different.
Here we see that within a single religion, Judaism, tradition teaches that each of us experiences God differently, because we are different people, because, I believe, we experience life differently. And if this is true within one religion – which, like every other major religion, contains subgroups with different views of God and life, and therefore different experiences of God and life – how much MORE true this must be between our religions, where even larger differences exist.
At the core level, every single person on Earth experiences the sacred, and life, differently, for we are all different. Some of those differences show up in our religions and in how we express ourselves through our religions. And yet, the woman in bed 122 and I touched souls, we prayed together, experienced God together, and healed together. We CAN share our experiences of the sacred and we can do it across the boundaries of faith.
It is my belief that one of the most powerful ways we can experience the sacred together is in relation to the Earth. Like God, this planet is bigger than any of us, it is multifaceted, and we experience it in different ways. We may not be sure of whether there is one God or more, but we do know that there is only one Earth, and we know that we need it; we depend on it; we can’t get along without it.
Creation stories exist in every culture; the Earth is a connection between the Unknowable and us – the sacred becomes concrete through creation and is embodied in the physical; we need the ground upon which we walk, we need the air we breathe, and the water we drink; we relate to the physical world; we use it. And every time we do, we connect in some way to the Divine/the sacred, whether or not we allow ourselves to feel the connection. One of the ways that many of our traditions articulate the connection is through saying a blessing before we eat the physical food that has been brought forth from this physical planet.
The Earth – the Universe – in my view provides evidence that there really is only one God, for we all live on only one world. The diversity of landforms and of ecosystems dramatizes the many ways to live on this Earth. As organisms living in these varied ecosystems adapt to different environments, they make different adaptations – in essence, as our religions do, they must answer different questions. Yet all organisms are also fundamentally the same, for since there was just One creation on just One planet, all these organisms contain the same basic code of life in their DNA and RNA; they are all part of the One Sacredness, the One God, the One Whatever It Is that we all share. By corollary, they exhibit an almost seemingly infinite number of ways to be in relationship to God. And we don’t even need to call it God; atheists are spiritual, too; atheists need the Earth, too.
I have long struggled with the word God – what does it mean? What is it about? the God I hear some people speak of feels foreign to me. Before I learned that midrash, I knew the essence of what it teaches was true even if I couldn’t articulate it. I have learned to use the word God as a way to speak of something I cannot fully understand, about connections and distinction, about strength and compassion, about love and forgiveness, about getting through hard times, moving on, living life to its fullest. I have learned to use this word in order to communicate something impossible to understand, because this is the word our world and our culture use. But I know that what I mean when I say God is not exactly what you think of when you hear the word, because it is about my own personal experience.
We are all different. Our pathways to God and our experiences of God are different. And yet, they are also the same. And so, I invite you to take a moment to look out the window and meditate on the sky or the trees or the grass. I invite you to step outside and breathe the air and to remember that every other single human being in the world is breathing the same air, no matter how clean or polluted it is; I invite you to consider that every other human being is in some way worshipping the same Unknowable, no matter how different their expression of that experience may seem compared to yours, no matter if they are sacrificing animals or burning incense before images of their ancestors or covering their bodies in dark clothing from head to toe or worshipping a multiplicity of gods.
I agree with Prothero that we ignore our differences at our peril, (so do dogs – it is not a good idea for a Chihuahua to mate with a St. Bernard); not only on a global level, but also on a personal level, both in terms of our religion and also our individual personal differences, for our unwillingness to honor and celebrate our differences leads inevitably to fights and disagreements in our own homes and in our own communities. It is not easy to stand in the tension of holding differences in our two hands. The deeper and the closer we become to another person or group of people, the more we find the differences, but it is also true that if we are blessed, we also find the similarities, the commonalities, the sacred connections.
We are all trying to figure out how to live in this world.
In order to do all of this, which I believe we can, we need to expand our understanding of God, of the Divine, of the sacred (which for some religions is NOT something transcendent) to concepts that are outside our traditions’ teachings; we need to think of God as something far bigger and far greater than how we normally view God. If, after all, God is infinite, then it makes sense to me that God can hold all of these ways of living in the world within the Divine Self.
I am not a scholar – I have not read extensively on other religions. I speak out of my own experience of bridging the gap between the religions. I speak of my own understanding of my experience of the natural world and my knowledge that each and every one of us walks upon the same Earth.
I learned recently from a Tibetan Buddhist that Buddhists generally “pray” silently. Not long afterward, I visited a Buddhist patient. I put my recent learning to use in my visit, praying without words, which is not what I normally do, and I felt the power of the Unknown in the silence of the room that day, and so did the patient.
I visited a Catholic woman who wanted communion. I couldn’t offer communion in the traditional sense, but when I learned from her stories how much it meant to her to lie in an open field and gaze at the sky, I took from by bag a stone I’d picked up at the beach and gave it to her. She seized it and bonded with it. I had given her a different kind of communion.
No, there is NOT one God, but Yes, there is one humanness, and there is prayer, and there is silence, and there are stones, and it is through these that we know that YES, there is just one God – One Source of the breath of all flesh.
Ken yehi ratzon.
May it be so.
*Information about patients has been altered to protect their privacy.