A (not-so-brief) reaction to a Skirball podcast with Neil Gillman

On my drive to work one recent morning, I started listening to a series of interviews with Professor Neil Gillman of Jewish Theological Seminary. The Skirball Center in New York had put out these lectures as podcasts around 2008. (I’m behind a bit on podcast consumption.) Part of the discussion centered on Professor Gillman’s reaction to the storm of “New Atheist” books that had appeared on the market in recent years–works by, e.g., Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, etc. Professor Gillman made a statement that struck an odd note for me–that the New Atheist thinkers were making straw-man arguments that were not really reacting to all theists, but primarily to the newer forms of fundamentalist religion. Part of the analysis Professor Gillman offered was that, to his thinking, the New Atheists were actually not all that in-tune with what liberal theology had to say. I suppose we could infer that the New Atheists would have nothing to say to the larger body of liberal believers.

I’m not convinced this is entirely fair to all humanists, thought it is often fair of the positions taken by Hitchens, Dawkins, et al. More troubling, I think, is Professor Gillman’s articulation earlier in that podcast of the “God is when” idea.

The idea is twofold. In modern lives, the divinity is only present when we invite it in, and we most often invite it in at those moments where the usual mental and psychic debris of our lives clears away so that we have something like a pure encounter with whatever it is we are observing/experiencing at the time. So the divinity is brought in when we invite/perceive it to be there–it seems the two would be the same process. Thus, for Gillman, god exists at those times. Or, more properly to his thought, god is present at those moments (Gillman adopts something of the Maimonidean tack that god is so radically other that descriptions of the divinity are somewhat beside the point).

This is an attractive idea for a humanist, as it seems to return to our control the concept of the divine. But Gillman’s approach doesn’t really do this. For as the series of talks goes on, Gillman continues to presume not only the existence of the divine separate and apart from the world, but also that the divinity cares about the world (though he does recognize that this is human language attempting to describe something very not-human). Later, when he discusses revelation, Gillman makes the argument that the Bible’s descriptions of god and the encounter with the divine are necessarily attempts to express that encounter language available to the Israelites at various stages of biblical history.

Gillman takes for granted the existence of a transcendent divine being, one outside of history that cares about what happens to us, and this assumption has normative implications. And that is problematic for a humanist–not necessarily for a naturalist (which is how Gillman describes himself), but certainly for a humanist. For while Gillman’s thought locates some amount of authority in the Jewish people, it stops short of locating all of the authority for Judaism with the Jewish people.

This, I think, is where even a quite liberal theologian like Gillman opens himself up to a humanist critique, for at least two reasons. First, Gillman’s approach is somewhat have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too: there is both divine authority and human authority, and the normative claims ultimately derive from an experience of the divine. Second, as a logical matter, it is difficult to see how Gillman overcomes the no-ought-from-is problem–and this is generally true of all theistic approaches.

To his credit, Gillman recognizes that there is a tremendous shift toward individualism among Jews and others, where individual members of the community take up the obligation of defining their own identities and relationships with Judaism. (A version of this of which I am fond is at punktorah.org, though I don’t quite fit there because I’m just way to square and establishment for that.) His willingness to say, “I need a minyan” is an example of this kind of crafting; but his unwillingness to say that he feels free to redefine very much of Judaism left me feeling that his approach falls just tantalizingly short of something that more secularly-oriented Jews could use as a guide.

Nevertheless, I still find myself looking to Gillman’s work as a valuable resource, if only because it reminds me of where I came from (Conservative Judaism) and where I’m going (someplace where the existence of god is just not that important a question).