On this Erev Shabbat, I was thinking about the issues based on which I became a Jew. I was raised Protestant, and on my father’s side a fundamentalist. (My mother was a Methodist but not very devout. Her second husband, Jim, was agnostic.) Over the years I had to shuck a lot of what Dad believed by the wayside: Gloom and Doom beliefs about the End of Times; the Belief only Protestants of a certain stripe were going to Heaven; Biblical Literalism (i.e. the inerrancy of the Bible; Intelligent Design Theory; and more. I ended this process, more or less, by the time I graduated college. By then I had left Christianity behind me and become a Jew–in the Conservative, not the Orthodox, branch. In grad school I discovered some of the implications of Biblical Criticism, and while I found it troubling at first, ultimately I came to believe that to really understand Jewish theology today a person ought to understand the Source and Literary Criticism of the Bible. As I left behind the different ideas of my childhood behind, I kept in mind the Biblical lesson inherent in the story of Lot’s Wife and the story of Sodom: Never look back.
Yet I also had some thorny theological issues–besides my paternal family’s beliefs–that I wanted to work out. Some of them–the relationship between faith and reason–I am still working on. Others–like the meaning of the doctrines of the Christian religion–are largely irrelevant because I changed faiths. So I will admit to a central one which I believe meant so much to me when I finally untangled it in my head. This is the Protestant theological position of Justification by Faith. Now, granted I did not exactly have its most sensitive exponent teaching me. Grandma literally told me, “I hope Mother Teresa doesn’t believe it is her good works that will save her. She isn’t going to Heaven if that is so.” Grandma Alderson persevered in the belief that only faith alone could save a person, and that if a person swerved in that position, they were going straight to hell.
So it was that one of the questions that became what William James called a “live issue” was what it meant to be a good person, but also a good Christian. I wondered this because I came to the conclusion in High School that simply wanting to be good is not enough to make you good. The reason I would say a person who wants to be good may fail is what philosophers call “weakness of will.” I don’t really believe it is a sin to be fat, but here it goes: everyone either has dieted or known somebody who has, who cannot seem to take the pounds off. Usually the problem is that however well meaning they are, the cannot seem to exercise or give up fat or sugar or simply overeat. I, myself, have this problem and I will explain it in a nut shell: I would like to lose weight but lack the will. A similar problem is one I had in High School: perhaps I would like to Volunteer or do something great for other people or God, but somehow I never seem able to fit it into my schedule. Or perhaps I have no idea where I would start if I wanted to be a better person, despite my best intentions. The truth is that sense I became a Jew, and sense I worked at Breakthrough, I feel sorry for many of the people who philosophers say “simply lack the ability to do good.” I feel many of them want to do good things–as I did for years–but somehow were never fortunate enough to find the oppurtunity.
Now, that said, there are forms of evil which have nothing to do with weakness of will of this sort: a womanizer may be a slave to his desires but have no wish to be celibate; a counterfeiter or thief may in fact be skilled in doing evil deeds; a murderer may pre-plan his evil deeds so as not to be caught; and even lying on the average person’s part may be fully intentional. The law deals a great deal with this class of crimes especially, though there are of course cases when “weakness of will” crimes are within their parlance, too.
With all that said, I came to believe that my Grandma’s and father’s religion was a great burden. I felt it made me less good and not more, perhaps because of its essential nihilism in caring nothing about other people in its quest for a form of salvation based largely on fear of punishment or hatred of others.
After my Freshmen year of college I gave up on Christianity for good. That said, the idea crystalized in my head that it was works alone that led to a person being good or bad. You will see that later I would modify this belief, but when I first believed it I was reading Benedict Spinoza and edging my way towards Unitarianism. I came to truly believe that the way to be good was to do good. Now, I admit, my Sophomore Year of college I was severely depressed and except for reading books in the library I got little honest work done. Yet I came to wonder if my salvation could not be formulated in five assumptions:
1. God is the Creator. Though the opposite of Spinoza’s idea I got it studying Spinoza. I found myself believing that there was no reason to believe that God is a “totally infinite being” though in later years I would come back half way to the idea by believing in a form of panentheism which believes that God Exists in Creation. I think the reason that I failed to be convinced by Spinoza here was partly because I could not accept that God would be passive and not acting.
2. Self-interest is a part of virtue. Spinoza would say that enlightened self-interest was entirely what virtue is. According to him self-control came from the realization of God within, and the value of other people came from the belief that “Man is a God to Man.” In other words, “no man is an island unto himself” save that to Spinoza it is selfish motivations rather than unselfish motivations that drive this. Nonetheless, in my head I believed that while such virtues as hard work, honesty, and chastity might be simple self-interest, the social virtues came from the love of other people first and not the other way around.
3. Spinoza’s ideas about God were too limited for me. Though I knew that the real Spinoza was both known for his saintliness and inspired both Goethe and Einstein, I could not feel it in me that I could love a God whom did not love me back. (Spinoza believed that those who truly loved God “did not need God to love them in return.”) Despite admiring the man Goethe called “that intoxicated man,” I could not be him.
4. Spinoza’s ideas about human behavior were too limited for me as well. I wanted to believe that there were transcendent acts of kindness and courage–among other virtues–that could not be explained by self-interest or vice as Spinoza understood it. There were even people whose lives were so saintly–like Mother Teresa or Mahatma Gandhi–that self-interest could not explain their behavior, but only the desire to do good.
5. Despite the limitations of Spinoza was concerned, studying his psychology helped me return to health. Though I wanted to believe there was “more” to being good than Spinoza allowed, I knew that believing in a kind of consequentialism about the virtues he discussed in the section of his psychology was a much better basis for ethics than I had been taught by my father or Grandma, who taught simply: “Be good or you will go to hell.” From Spinoza I learned that virtue could be learned in practical terms. Today I see teaching practical virtue to children as “teaching them to be good the way one teaches a person to bicycle. First they learn to ride with the training wheels of punishments and rewards, then the those “wheels” are removed and they become–hopefully–really good people.
Later on, I would study Whitehead (I am still trying to figure him out), having gotten a 3.8 for the first time in my educational career–with five classes. This may not sound that great–places like Harvard and Princeton and Yale want their students to be 4.0 students–but it was the best I ever got. For much of my career in school I was a “B” student. Anyway, I was talking with one of my professors and he said, “Studying is a Process.”
Then I had a Eureka! moment. I thought, “Yes, and just as studying is a Process, involving incremental steps, so Goodness Itself is a process, involving incremental steps. Whatever one’s task is, a person should break it down to its minor building blocks and then work on the task block by block and not all at once. And the end of that Process leads to God.”
So it is that I recognized in the basic teachings of Judaism–I never sought to believe in every last passage of the Bible again after leaving Christianity–what I believed. I believed that as one writer put it, “Acts of Faith” are what Works are. A person does good, not simply is good. More, I appreciated that Judaism taught that its God was the Creator of the Universe and of humankind. I believed God loved humankind and would come to believe that God loves all of Creation. At that point I did not have it worked out if there was an afterlife or not (I have since decided there is one).
Since I did this thinking, I have come to the conclusion that works alone are not sufficient to truly love God. God deserves your whole head and heart. It is not that a person who gives less is going to hell. No, God loves many people who do not fulfill their best intentions in this life. I cannot accept the belief that God does not love the average person as greatly as God loves “the saints,” the Mother Teresa’s and Mahatma Gandhi’s. Such a belief would underestimate both the goodness of God and assume that being good is something that every human being can be, when actually that path is quite difficult. Without knowing what balance God uses, I know that God dwells among us, and urges each of us to “do our best.” As I read in Telushkin’s Jewish Wisdom (he went a little conservative on me after this book, but I found it useful anyway), “Some do more, some do less.” A rabbi discussed a friend who collected garbage for a living, and had no time to study the Talmud, “I know we will get the same reward in the afterlife.” I believe that. I believe that God, who is compassionate, longs to forgive every soul, and that if a person is trying, than probably they are on the right path, or getting there.