Outer Faith & Inner Faith

Relating to a silent God.

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Many people would dispute Wolpe's assumption that God's presence in the world is different today than it has been in the past. But for those who do struggle with what may seem to be God's silence in today's world, Wolpe offers a poignant and thought-provoking rumination on faith in the modern world. Reprinted with permission from Beliefnet.com.

The traditional image of faith is that it descends upon us from mountaintops. In the Bible, Moses walks down from Sinai, tablets in hand. He is the standard bearer of a God who has liberated the Israelites from Egypt. The Israelites are busy at the moment with the Golden Calf. They have turned their back on God, doubted his providence and protection--but they do not doubt that God exists. 

God has been a powerful presence in the Israelites' lives. We read of a deity who is manifest in the plagues, the splitting of the sea, the cloud by day and pillar of fire by night. Faith is an acceptance of something that is so overpoweringly evident that only a fool could doubt. Israel may misbehave. They may flout God's law. They may even doubt that God cares for them. But to doubt God's existence, or seek God in subtleties, is not the biblical reality. God is present, undeniable, overwhelming.

Today the theological ground has shifted. The discoveries of science have limited God's arena of power; hospitals replace altars as foci of healing. Archeology probes into the truth of biblical accounts. The horrors of history put a strain on faith in God's fashioning a benevolent world. The recognition of the variety of cultures shakes confidence in the certainty of one's own truths.

When we speak of miracles today we speak of naturalistic miracles, not of splitting seas or suns standing still. The skies no longer speak to us. Faith is not the manifest certainty of the supernatural. It arises from within rather than being imposed from without.

Faith is something we are taught to locate inside ourselves. We will see the world a certain way if we have faith, we are told. We can even locate God inside ourselves. But how impoverished and inadequate such an idea would be to our ancestors. To see God inside oneself when God is the author of the universe, the Creator of all?

God has been, if you will forgive the term, downsized. God is now the size of our souls, not greater than creation. The spiritual wizards of the moment cling to the admonition to look inside oneself. See the beauty of a flower, or, as the poet Blake advises us, eternity in a grain of sand. Hearing that, one imagines the ancient Israelite exclaiming, "I need not look among all these grains of sand; after all, God just brought a darkness so thick one can touch it over the whole land of Egypt."

Again and again, we are driven back on the difference between a God of thunder and a God of stillness, a God evidenced by presence and a God sought in absence. I stand before the New Age bookshelf and think: Jacob saw angels and wrestled with them. We just read about them.

The question that children ask about why God no longer speaks has given rise, in itself, to a new kind of theology. Because we no longer find God evident in the world, because science has stripped away so many of God's functions, we no longer look to locate God in the outer world but in the inner world. God is found not in the sky but in the soul.

In one way, this is returning to the roots of faith. The most important declaration the Bible makes is that human beings are created in God's image. That affirms not only that there is a God but that we are, somehow, God's reflection. When the world no longer seems the arena of the Divine, however, all that is left is the reflection. Inside is the index of truth.

Even a text, because it is outside of us, is to many an invalid standard of truth. How can a book encompass the godliness within me? I am asked. Am I not unique, a sparkle thrown up by the cosmos that no general treatise can encompass?

These are serious concerns. They grow out of the recognition that religious traditions are so various because people are so various, that the old model of a monopoly on truth, which all the Western traditions claimed, is made ever more difficult to sustain in the face of burgeoning awareness of the forms of human experience. (Is there anyone at this late date still comfortable maintaining that a billion Chinese are simply deluded, a billion Hindus frankly mistaken? Is the pluralistic model of religious truth--that God is a destination with many paths--seriously doubted by most people with learning and experience?)

With the external measures gone, let us each be his own measure. When God no longer speaks out of the sky, let God whisper up through our souls.

Yet we have lost much when God becomes, as the French philosopher Cioran put it, "a nuance." Seekers all, how can we not miss storms and certainty? Who is not, in some corner of the soul, disappointed at the need to attune oneself to a still, small voice amid the clamor of modernity?

So we join together, in sacred space or cyberspace, hoping for the light. In the meantime, we may envy ages that were untroubled by such doubts. Yet each age has its own blessings and challenges. In the wonders of our age, there may be heard, amid the whir of gadgetry, a whisper of God. We can still seek God in the places where God is found: in the wonder of the natural world, in the eyes of another, in the miraculous history of our faith. Although our technology is different, our souls are the same as our ancestors'--and inside them, if we seek, we may find the seed that sprouts into hope.

Perhaps the task of our age is to listen through the silence, feel presence even in absence, and renew our search for the reality of God in an age of concealment.

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Rabbi David Wolpe

David Wolpe is the rabbi of Temple Sinai in Los Angeles and the author of several books on Jewish belief.