Thoughts to Ponder Number 103

A new series on the foundations of Judaism

The struggle for faith


The question to what extent one can actually trust God and rely on His protection is closely related to the question why He created the world. It should be claimed that one can only rely on His protection and help as long as this does not contradict the very purpose of existence. Once somebody relies on God in a way which would oppose the purpose of the world he would be guilty of a religious transgression. It would be halachically forbidden to rely on Him. It would be heretical and wholly irreligious.

While it is impossible for man to know the objective reason why God created the universe, it is still possible to recognize its subjective purpose. Philosophers make the point that man is the only creature who is consciously aware of the fact that he is a moral being. No other creature seems to have any part in this. Only man is able to make a moral decision and as such exercising freedom of will must somehow be his and the world's purpose, otherwise what would the aim of such a faculty be? True, it does not respond to the question why God is in need of creating a world in which one creature must be able to exercise freedom of will, but once we ask the question of purpose after the facts, i.e. after man appears as a free being, we will have to conclude that the above inference is correct.

Once we accept this premise, we will be able to understand many questions related to "believe in" (as opposed to "believe that"). But before we are able to fully appreciate the implication of this, we must realize that a radical "believe in" God would not just be heretical and irreligious but in fact immoral. This could be illustrated by the example of a man who decides to jump from a ten storey building while declaring that he has full trust in God and that he therefore will land safely on the ground. By actually convincing himself that God will protect him, he simultaneously removes any personal responsibility. This becomes even more obvious when we think about the man who drives recklessly through the streets declaring that there is nothing to worry about since God will protect him and all bypassers. This in fact is a "cover up" in which great evil is projected as a high level of religious faith.

These examples clearly show some of the borderlines of religious faith. Since the world must give man the opportunity to exercise freedom of will, there is a need for the consistent application of the natural order. For man to be able to choose he must be able to know prior to his deed what the outcome of his actions will be. If he would not have that option, he would never be able to exercise his free choice. In a world where there would only be chaos and no natural regularity, no man could ever take responsibility for his actions. After all, how would he know what result his actions would entail?

From this fact alone we are already able to deduce that one can only have trust in God's protection as long as the natural order is not violated* since this order is a fundamental precondition for the purpose of the world. It is however most appropriate to realize that this does not only limit man in what he can expect from God but it also limits God in what He can do for man. The all too often made claim that God can do the "impossible" does not properly reflect the reality of this world. Not only can God not call Himself out of existence, since He is an infinite Being, but neither can He oppose the purpose of His creation. Would He do so, it would call for the destruction of all existence.

It was the Christian philosopher John Hick who commented on this fact with his "counterfactual hypothesis". Calling this world a "soul making place", but for our purposes and more in line with Jewish thought we will call it a "tzaddik making place", Hick writes as follows:

" Suppose that contrary to fact, this world were a paradise from which all possibility of pain and suffering were excluded. The consequences would be far-reaching. For example, no one could ever injure anyone else, the murderer's knife would turn to paper or the bullets to thin air, the bank safe, robbed of a million dollars, would miraculously become filled with another million dollars; fraud, deceit, conspiracy, and treason would somehow leave the fabric of society undamaged. No one would ever be injured by accident: the mountain climber, steeplejack, or a playing child falling from a height would float unharmed to the ground, the reckless driver would never meet with disaster. In a hedonistic** paradise there would be no wrong actions nor therefore any right actions in distinction from wrong. Courage and fortitude would have no point in an environment in which there is, by definition, no danger or difficulty. Generosity, kindness, the agape aspect of love, prudence, unselfishness, and other ethical notions that presuppose life in an objective environment could not have been formed. Consequently, such a world, however well it might promote pleasure, would be very ill adapted for the moral qualities of human personality. In relation to this purpose it might well be the worst of all possible worlds!" ***

To be continued

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

* We will discuss the issue of miracles on a later occasion.
** pleasure focused
*** John Hick: Philosophy of Religion, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice
Hall-1983, p.47.

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