My wife asks the best questions. Recently, on our way to Costco, she looked at me and asked: "What do you believe? Did God create man or did man create God?"
My reply, after a few moments was "Yes."
This, as you may suspect was followed by, "Yes, what?" And I shared my belief that thousands of years ago people in different locations and cultures asked the initial and perhaps, existential question: "How did I get here, and what am I supposed to do while I'm here?"
From this essential question a countless array of answers were developed. The Mesopotamians, Hindus and selected Chinese sects preceded the Egyptians and Hebrews, and each developed creation stories and codes of conduct. They deliberately chose, I believe, to attribute the call for the highest morals, values and ethics to an often distant and unknowable god. The god would be invested with creative and destructive powers and would rule life and nature, birth and death.
Each religious group developed symbols and ceremonies to please or appease the god; and each group dictated how its followers should live life amid boundaries of right and wrong.
Initially, all of these ideas and ways were transmitted through oral communication. Only with the emergence of written language, probably beginning with Sanskrit, was any tradition written down and codified. The Upanishads are believed to have been written between 400 and 800 B.C.E., and the Egyptian Papyrus of Ani (also referred to as the Book of the Dead), was written well over 3,500 years ago. The Bhagavad Gita, a central text for much of later Buddhism and Hinduism, relates stories that were collected more than 4,000 years ago, but must have existed long before they were written down.
Creation stories, expectations of the god or divine one(s), appropriate practices for civil and personal conduct, are among the contents in each of these seminal works. And in each there is a god or gods with all manner of powers.
The books that would eventually become known as the Torah, New Testament and Quran evolved in these ways, too. While all or many of the central religious texts of our world may allude to or speak passionately about a god who speaks, demands, creates and even intervenes, these are human inventions developed to seek understanding of that initial question: "How did I get here, and what am I supposed to do while I'm here?"
All of this does not mean humankind actually created God, or that God as commonly understood in western culture (and others) created humankind. It does mean that in our quest to answer the "initial question," we collectively chose to construct an "ultimate" or "greater than our individual and collective selves" and to call that God. It does mean we are limited by our experiences, vocabulary and very nature to understand or comprehend the essence of life's causal beginning. It does mean that all faith communities are struggling to connect and collaborate with the Heart of the Universe; and that there are multiple paths.
I do believe there is a reality greater than that which I can experience; and I believe there is unity in the universe(s). I believe every human being has a spark or portion of the greater reality (soul) and that while we "experience" life as beginning and ending, it is infinite and ever-altering.
With millions of others I have chosen to call that greater reality God; but, with Maimonides, I believe God is indefinable and can best be understood through the expression "God is not only love (justice, caring, etc.)."
When I pray with a community I expect my prayer to affect that spark within me and within those with whom I pray. When I pray my own prayers I express gratitude to what I know as God (often in Hebrew, my chosen intimate language with God) and I expect my prayer to be heard in the deepest recesses of my most responsible, universal and caring being. Within us and beyond us there is greatness and oneness that invites (you see, again, human language limitations) us to become fully human; and we are most alive when we accept that invitation; because it is from God.
My wife asks really good questions! May you have a New Year filled with life giving journeys, enriching questions and answers that lead you further into your understanding of the oneness and holiness of life.
Rabbi Albert M. Lewis is rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Traverse City. He is a public speaker and author of "Soul Sounds: Reflections on Life," available at www.soulsoundsbook.com. Contact him through the Record-Eagle, 120 W. Front St., Traverse City MI 49684. For past Perspective columns, written by area religious leaders, log on to record-eagle.com/perspectives.