Shema, Yisrael, Adonai eloheinu, Adonai ehad. Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One, is a twice-daily recitation as a mitzvah (religious commandment) for observant Jews. It is traditional for them to say the Shema as their last words and for parents to teach their children to say it before they go to sleep at night.
Who or what is this ‘one’, whom we anthropomorphise so readily? An external being – separate, discernible as we discern neutron stars or the behaviour of butterflies? Perhaps not.
The notion of panentheism lies at the heart of much rabbinical thinking. It is the belief that the “divine”, whatever we conceive that to be, pervades and interpenetrates every part of the Universe, extending beyond time and space, thus obviously not detectable by telemetry, spectacularly sensitive though it is.
The Nobel Prize for Physics this year was awarded to three men who built a detector so sensitive it could detect the ripples in the fabric of spacetime as two black holes collided over a billion light years away – Einstein’s century-old prediction finally vindicated. But not enough to find God. A God beyond and greater than the Universe, perhaps? Is God its ‘soul’ as we imagine ourselves to have souls. Two people I knew well have departed this life in recent times and as their earthly tent is rolled up as a scroll so I imagine them to have begun a journey outside of space and time, slipping silently through a shimmering barrier to another country where things are so different that imagination provides us with nothing more than blind speculation.
Just after ten o’clock on the Sunday morning of October 3, fifty-nine people died and over five hundred were injured in the deadliest mass shooting in US history. It was as if Passchendaele had torn a hole in spacetime and had visited itself afresh on a sunny American street. A man waited, having stockpiled automatic weaponry, for three days, then calmly and systematically opened fire from a room on the thirty-second floor of a hotel on to a crowd of people enjoying a country and western concert in the open arena below. As of this moment, the crime seems motiveless, cruel, evil beyond description. It seems almost irrelevant that he took his own life as a final act of rebellion.
Where was God, and, more importantly, what kind of theodicy are we supposed to use to attempt an explanation?
Perhaps the easier route would be to reasonably argue that there is none. Yuval Hariri in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind writes “As far as we can tell from a purely scientific viewpoint, human life has absolutely no meaning, humans are the outcome of blind evolutionary (and sociological) processes that operate without goal or purpose.” Presumably therefore, death by random shooting is simply an event, like a melanoma, merely unfortunate, something that happens without rhyme, reason or purpose. The atheists and even the agnostics can breathe a sigh of relief – here is an explanation, our intellectual honour has been satisfied and we need look no further.
We hate a loose end, when it doesn’t make sense. But, what if we were to speculate that God is present throughout all existence, that Being or YHWH -related to the word for existence or being, underlies and unifies by processes outside of reason all that is. At the same time (and this is panentheism as distinct from pantheism), this whole is mysteriously and infinitely greater than the sum of its parts, and cannot be fully known or reduced to its constituent componentry which may of course not exist, cramped as it is by dimension and structure.
So, given that God is part of the great evolutionary panoply which we dismiss as ‘nature’, or ‘astrophysics’, we can perhaps discern or at least imagine that the entire process of the evolution of the universe and ourselves rolling out along with it is “meaningful“. There is a One that is constantly revealing itself to us within and behind the great diversity of life, the shadow of death and the tragedies of our failures. That One is Being itself, the only constant in the endlessly changing parade. Viewed from our end of the process, the search that leads to the discovery of that One is our human quest for meaning. We have not found the One. If we had, we would know why men do as they do, dealing death and destruction from hotel windows or slashing throats on a street in Marseille and why children have cataracts and why people die from disease and on fields of battle.
And yet, we are creatures of hope since we ourselves have created it, it belongs to us, Pandora’s evils were all released when the jar was opened, leaving hope alone inside after she had closed it. We hope to understand, one day, why bad things happen to good people, why bad people are as they are and what moral laws govern the Universe so we can tell the difference. Until that time, we can only weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn in the hope than one day, there will come again a time to dance.