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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Faith Requires Imagination

Dr. Avivah Zornberg says, "Faith requires imagination."

Faith requires imagining an entity that you cannot see with your eye. 

In my mind, faith in a God who spoke words and created a world requires as much imagination as faith in bacteria that are too tiny to see but are able to kill you (להבדיל).  Developing a personal, complex theology that incorporates ideas from the past requires far more imagination, just as developing new scientific theories is imaginative work that builds on the imagination of others.

Now hold your horses!  I understand the difference between science and religion, I promise.  But don't try to tell me that successful scientists don't require imagination.  Creating new hypotheses to explain our data, and new experiments to test those hypotheses, is among the most imaginative work I know.

Successful scientists are also skeptical of their imagination.  I've seen the opposite, and its results -- scientist who fall so in love with their own theories they ignore the contradicting data.  The outcome is never good. 

My model of good faith shares both these aspects of science: imagination and skepticism.  We need imagination to dream of the Creator of worlds.  We need imagination to dream of improving this world.  But we need skepticism to see when our ideas about the Creator contradict our ideals for Her world.  And we need skepticism to see when our ideals contradict the reality of the world God created.  Just as a good scientist is not afraid to modify her hypotheses, a person of good faith should not be afraid to modify her faith when she finds her imagination has misled her.


  1. Ilana: my imagination of G-d changes with how I feel in this world that day, that hour, that minute. I pray one day and reject G-d the next. I know I am not a bad person. And I know asking "But is that normal?" is naive... Do you ever have doubts? Do the majority of people? How does one get through these doubts when what one really wants is to totally, unequivocally, unreservedly, believe in Hashem?

  2. Dear Inna - Is totally, unequivocally, unreservedly believing in Hashem really the ideal? We need to grapple in order to grow (in addition to needing space for a healthy skepticism, lest we we allow religion to become a force for evil, G-d forbid!) Ilana

  3. P.S. Here's an irony -- blogspot seems unwilling to let me post comments to my own blogs. So from now on I will post as "Anonymous" but sign my name to the comment. (Now I can try to reply to the comments from my first post, A Kippah in Jerusalem.)

  4. It's an interesting analogy -- and very creative! -- but I can't help thinking about the ways it falls short. The paragprahs after the shema are not the words of an imaginative but skeptical scientist.

    Believing in the Jewish god -- at least in any variant of traditional Jewish belief sourced from traditional texts -- means living with irreconcilable contradictions that would never get past peer review. This is not necessarily a bad thing, it might be a better model for healthy living than the ideal of scientific detachment with more or less objective standards. And it doesn't mean one can't combine skepticism with belief. Still, the flavor of the skepticism feels very different than what you might apply to, say, evaluating the claims of homeopathy.

  5. Ted, what a lovely point! The inner life is full of contradictions, and our liturgy plays on them well.
    But when we translate that inner life into actions that impact others, I think you'd agree that we need to be ready with the skepticism of a scientist. Just one example: I believe that God is kind and just. Call that a hypothesis. I also believe in the Torah as an expression of God's will. Call that a hypothesis. But I have seen good data that say that some of God's children were created to be attracted to members of their own sex, and not of the opposite sex. So I must modify my hypothesis about the role of Torah, or perhaps about what the Torah says.
    Ilana G-G

  6. Yesterday, I heard an interview with David Biale, the historian of Jewish thought who just published a book on Jewish Secularism. A caller said she had been raised atheist and now is a conservative (Jew?) but still an atheist, and suggested that is simply a a chemical condition of the brain, and belief is another.(She actually suggested it is similar to being born gay or straight!) That sounds odd, and I doubt it's that simple, but I will say that though I once had some belief in god, after my mid-twenties, that just feels totally alien to me, as if it were a chemical condition! Yet I'd say I have a pretty good imagination, and I can imagine myself i all sorts of situations, but one thing I can't imagine is believing in god.

  7. I'm amused the way these comments are preceded by so-and-so said.

  8. Hi Michael --

    I found myself initially reacting against what you said, because I read in it an implication (which you may not have intended) that God exists only within the brain chemistry of a person.

    But on further thought, I realized what you said is a reasonable hypothesis. Especially in modern times, faith in God emerges foremost from feelings, eros, rather than from thoughts, logos (though faith may be bolstered, explored and challenged through logos.) Some feelings (depression, joy, fear) are known to be dependent on chemicals, so why not feelings of devotion to God as well?

    BUT that does not mean that God exists only within me. If I had a deficit in the pathways that produce adrenaline, I might not feel fear. Other deficits might render me incapable of experiencing love. And yet love and fear are both reactions to realities outside of ourselves, and the concepts of Love and Fear, like the concept of God, are real things that exist in the world and are much greater than any one person.

    Ilana G-G