The pandemic has challenged congregations and religious organizations to pivot, retool and adapt social-justice efforts, worship experiences and educational opportunities. Services without walls are attracting large numbers of people. There seems to be a Zooming interest in religious life.
Religion has long been shaped by external conditions that require new responses. The synagogue, for example, arose out of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in the first century. The Temple functioned as a hierarchical, hereditary, sacrifice-centered institution led by an entrenched priestly class. The synagogue, by contrast, emerged as a non-hierarchical, democratic place of gathering, worship and learning for all the community. This is the same period of the birthing of the early Christian church as a Jewish sect.
So, there is more to address than the practical, logistical adjustments that religious communities have had to make as a result of the pandemic’s constraints. The current situation raises theological questions about the very nature of religion and its relationship with innovation and creativity.
Most people think of religion as grounded in conservative purposes, the maintaining of rituals and traditions, the preservation of beliefs and doctrines. There is the notion of religion as a source of comfort, providing refuge from the vicissitudes of life under the shelter of God’s protective care. Many think of this God as a supernatural Being, providentially guarding us, a Cosmic Puppeteer or Heavenly Sugar Daddy doling out reward or punishment as merited by our behaviors.
But there is another version of religion — one that cherishes the aesthetics of tradition, the importance of community and the wisdom of the past, but which is more an agent of change than a preserver of the status quo. It is a religion founded not on supernatural notions of divinity, but on a naturalistic understanding of the Divine, who is not a super Being with magical agency, but a process at work in the universe, within and among us, that makes for the fulfillment of our human potential.
According to this understanding, God is not the Unmoved Mover of Aristotelian and Medieval philosophy, not a Commanding Entity, but rather a Presence calling us to move from where we are to where we can be; from who we are to what we can become; from what is to what ought to be.
CREATIVITY is the very essence of religion. The Bible’s opening words are “In the Beginning … ”; a story of origins. Genesis is not a scientific account, despite efforts of religious fundamentalists to treat it as such. It is a metaphor, imaginative and even playful. Much of religion is about the poetics of life.
There are two narratives of origins in Genesis. The first is the account (Genesis 1:1-2:4) of seven days, when God “speaks” the world into being. It is a reminder of the power of words to create and heal, or to destroy and hurt. The second account (Genesis 2:4-3:24) tells of the Garden of Eden, of Adam and Eve, of the Trees of Life and of Knowledge. This is a more mythological story, intent on teaching us not the facts of creation, but its purposes.
The two trees in the Garden of Eden are symbols of humanity’s role as creators. Had Adam and Eve obeyed and just eaten from the Tree of Life, they would have attained blissful immortality. But eating from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they lose immortality and will now perpetuate themselves through procreation. The first fallible humans will be builders not just of generations; they will be creators and producers of civilization.
They now have to toil and struggle by the sweat of their brow to earn a living and make the land yield its fruit. This “Knowledge of Good and Evil” is not about moral discernment. “Good and Evil” is a merism, a term that encompasses the totality of knowledge. Humans become discoverers and explorers.
Cain’s descendants (remember, it was Cain who killed his brother Abel) will include Jabal, ancestor of those who dwell in tents amid the herds (animal husbandry); Jubal, ancestor of all who play the harp and the pipe (musical arts); and Tubal-Cain, who forged instruments of copper and iron (the city on the horizon).
The Genesis stories teach profound truths and are misunderstood if taken verbatim. Like most good literature, the Bible is to be taken seriously, not literally. Just as science and the arts are constantly self-critical and self-correcting, so religion is, at its best, the ongoing, self-critical and self-corrective project of arriving at a worldly standard of godliness that represents humanity at its best.
It has been generally assumed that the Bible presumes a creatio ex nihilo, “creation out of nothing.” That is based on a mistranslation of the very first word in the Bible. BERESHIT does not mean, “In the beginning,” as though there were nothing previously. It means, “At the beginning of the creative process.” The Bible presumes a pre-existent reality, a chaotic mess out of which the Divine creative process brings about order (cosmos).
Creation is not the making of something out of nothing. Creativity is the capacity to conceive and execute something new, something other. We always work with pre-existent materials, with a set of givens, within a context of experience. Creativity, whether scientific, artistic or religious, involves the envisioning of new possibilities, to try to make things different, more interesting, better. Jewish liturgy acclaims God as “One that renews daily the tasks of creation.” Creation is a process, not a finished product.
The culmination of creation is the Sabbath. While all other “things” are declared “good,” it is “time” that is first declared “holy.” Rest becomes an essential ingredient of the creative process — the pause that restores, renews and offers perspective. Rest affords rhythm to time and the creative process. Otherwise, both time and labor would become a blur, iterative, boring.
According to Alfred North Whitehead, the 20th-century process philosopher and theologian, God is that reality that offers us at each moment in life the highest relevant possibility for our becoming. The Divine aim is beauty — not just aesthetic beauty, but moral beauty. My teacher, Professor Clark Williamson, a Whitehead disciple, explains: The creative process seeks to harmonize diversity. It is like the crescendo of a great symphony. What keeps difference from becoming just noise is the harmony, which renders it beautiful. God is the Poet of the universe. We are all players in the orchestra, partners with the Grand Maestro in the ongoing processes of creation.
My mentor, Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, explains that by God, we mean the “sum of everything … that renders life significant and worthwhile.” Faith in God is the affirmation of those “ideals of truth, goodness and beauty, interwoven in a pattern of holiness.”
Kaplan resonates with what Albert Einstein calls “cosmic religion,” an attitude of awe, wonder and humility in the presence of the harmony of nature. This does not mean the abdication of reason, but an acknowledgement that “what is impenetrable to us … manifest[s] itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty … this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiosity.” Einstein suggested that “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”
I am often asked about why religion has been the source of so much evil and suffering in the world. It has. But also, of much goodness.
Religion, like science and the arts, or anything else, is as good as the people who practice it. Science can be used for good or for evil purposes; art can be used to inspire beauty and evoke wonder or to propagandize on behalf of evil.
Religion, H. Richard Niebuhr reminds us, can make “good people better and bad people worse.” Science, the arts, religion, or for that matter, politics, money and power can be used for good purposes or for evil designs, for blessing or for curse. It is up to us.
SCIENCE deals with the reality of the world. Its tools are facts and data, experiment and verification. The ARTS deal with the ideality of the world, beauty and esthetics, wonder and contemplation. RELIGION embraces reality and ideality, but introduces the values of morality, ethics and the experience of holiness. Religion seeks to wrest meaning out of being; purpose, out of existence.
Science is the how? The arts are the wow! And religion is the “what now”?! They are instrumentalities to bring about the good, the true and the beautiful and make them operative in our lives. Creativity, at best, is unending work; an unfinished task. Jewish wisdom enjoins us not to be afraid of work that has no end.
C.S. Lewis reminded us, “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”
We are always “In the beginning” … of something new. It is up to us to labor (and rest) to make it good, true and beautiful.
Rabbi Dennis C. Sasso, who holds a Doctor of Ministry degree, has been senior rabbi of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck since 1977. A member of the 1974 RRC graduating class, Rabbi Sasso is active in numerous interfaith and civic causes. A past president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, he serves on the board of the Lake Institute for Faith and Giving, IUPUI Center on Philanthropy. He is the recipient of several Doctorate of Divinity degrees, Honoris Causa, and serves as an affiliate professor of Jewish studies at Christian Theological Seminary. A native of Panama, he writes and lectures on Sephardic and Caribbean Jewry. Rabbi Sasso and his wife, Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, were designated Hoosier Jewish Legends by the Indiana Jewish Historical Society (2016).