In our culture, talking about our experience of God/the Divine or our relationship with God/the Divine is uncommon and even countercultural. Doing so often satisfies a deep need.
It’s early November, and I find myself at the front of a room at a synagogue in Washington, D.C., talking about a subject many of us having been avoiding: God. This event is part of a series of workshops I have been convening around the country. They are called “God Cafes.”
In these workshops, I hear over and over again: “I never have conversations like this.” It might seem ironic that there is this level of nervousness to broach the subject of God in a synagogue, but there is a palpable sense of hesitation.
The impetus to begin this project came from a personal experience. The months of spring/summer of 2017 were emotionally draining for me. I found myself in a situation where I needed emergency surgery within a week. I was uncertain about how my surgery was going to get paid for and therefore whether it was going to happen at all. Somehow throughout all of this, I remained calm. It was an unwarranted calm.
Two months later, I was in a car accident. My fellow passengers’ injuries were not life-threatening, but they required medical attention. In the hospital emergency room, I found myself running from one room to another, supporting my friends as much as I could. It felt that there was wisdom and reassurance placed within me that I had done nothing to actually obtain. As I reflected on that moment, I thought, “Whoa, I’m pretty sure this is God.” God felt like an unearned wisdom that somehow had been placed within me.
A few months later as part of a class project at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, I found myself reflecting on this experience of divinity. I decided to explore the various theological approaches by Reconstructionist leaders such as Mordecai Kaplan by comparing them to regular peoples’ experiences of divinity. I put out a call within my network: “Who wants to talk to me about their relationship with God?” This led to six in-depth conversations with various Jews over the phone. Some of these initial conversations included a discussion of major experiences of loss and illness. Some were just fascinated by this question and the opportunity to discuss it. What was apparent immediately was that people were not having these conversations elsewhere, but they deeply wanted them.
Soon this turned into a larger project funded by an Auerbach Launch Grant, and six phone conversations turned to 30. Each conversation began with the same question: “Tell me about an experience/time in your life where you found yourself particularly connecting to or grappling with God/divinity.”
I am a community organizer. It is one of my deepest and most core identities. I believe in the power of stories. In most of my organizing experience, I have operated with the understanding that the primary purpose of storytelling is to create platforms to connect and influence others in sympathetic ways. But not until I began this project did I truly internalize the power that storytelling can have in deepening one’s understanding of oneself. As they listened to other people’s stories, individuals came to understand themselves in ways with which they had been completely unfamiliar. They were asked to respond to a question that had never been asked of them.
Often when discussing “theology,” we turn to brilliant theologians who explain God in theoretical and often abstract manners. As liberal Jews, we often pride ourselves on being rational, on seeking “truth.” However, by asking people to ground their experiences with the Divine in stories, we chip away at this need to create a God that makes sense in a perfectly articulated essay. We chip away at the idea that the way to connect to God is either to define God or to acknowledge that God is beyond our ability to define.
As this God project has evolved, so have my methods. I began with individual phone conversations and then moved to small group conversations for story-sharing. Now I am facilitating larger workshop sessions; these have a curriculum more suited to larger group exploration. In these sessions, I use a variety of creative tools to encourage people to explore how they currently approach the topic of God/divinity and to provide them with the opportunity to hear how others are approaching this topic as well.
No matter which format I choose, I begin by stating that there is no need to attach ourselves to rationality or to perfect articulation. By elevating rationality as a requirement for conversing about God, we construct a wall. By keeping the experiences of individuals private and not allowing space for communal exploration, we risk isolation and spiritual insecurity.
Just as our own stories can bring us into deeper understanding of our own lives, we often need to hear those of others. A focal point of my God Cafe workshops is the opportunity to read some of the stories of those to whom I have spoken. Here are two examples of them:
Both of these stories arise out of extreme experiences. For many I have spoken to, God feels most obviously present or absent in extreme moments, whether joyous or painful.
I believe that people have moments/periods throughout their lives that open their bodies and eyes up to aspects of divinity. Although Jewish texts are full of wisdom and guidance on this topic, it is not the only place that Jews can look when exploring their connection with divinity. Sometimes when we jump straight to theology or text, we lose the opportunity to ask ourselves this question first: When have I experienced moments of deep meaning?
I believe that all people have the natural authority to create and identify meaning in their lives. That is at the core of this work for me. In community organizing, we identify the individual’s deepest motivations. Similarly, with regard to our relationship with God, we must ask ourselves to identify our moments of deep meaning. This is not a simple task.
In these conversations, many people express excitement about what the conversation revealed to them. Other people express envy towards those who can identify these moments of meaning. Many share that they themselves cannot identify those moments. They struggle to name these moments of Divine connection, although they yearn for them. Those comments of disappointment and envy make it even more apparent that we cannot avoid this conversation in the Jewish community. By allowing people to think that they are alone in their rocky and nonlinear search for meaning and Divine connection, we create a false narrative that God is simply a belief system.
Liberal Jewish communities do not require a belief in God to be a part of the community. That is undoubtedly a good thing. However, what is not a good thing is making God a “yes-or-no question.” When we assume that our relationship with God can be categorized in a binary matter, we devalue the importance of connection with others, with ourselves and with the mysteries of the world. When we avoid talking about moments when we have sensed an inexpressible mystery that is beyond us, we reinforce the predominant cultural assumption that either you believe in God or you don’t.
Reading the writing of a theologian — however brilliant and poetic — is often isolating for people who have never named or described their own sacred experiences. Even when they follow and appreciate the theologian’s reasoning, they may not know how it applies to their own life. They may conclude that they themselves are not part of the community of believers.
God Cafes reduce this isolation. When we share our stories and listen openheartedly to the stories of others, our personal experience intersects with the communal, and we are reminded that we are rarely alone in our experiences, whether they are spiritual, political or emotional. God Cafes are countercultural. Participants are encouraged to bring experiences to speech, even though they have had little or no practice talking about such things. In doing so, the silence of their spiritual isolation is shattered as they discover that it can be inspiring and transformative to share spiritual experiences that are difficult to express in words.
If you’re interested in attending or organizing a God Cafe in your community, contact Sarah. Upcoming cafes are scheduled for Minneapolis; Chicago; and Providence, R.I.