It is a fundamental of most religions that there is a God who has created and runs our universe. But, in the Jewish bible, which really is all about God and His, Her or Its intervention in human affairs, there is no actual command that is worded, ‘You must believe in God.’
And in a way this makes wonderful sense. You can encourage people to believe certain things. You can suggest. But you cannot in any meaningful way command thought, can you? And if people say ‘I believe’, how can you ever know if they mean it or not? Besides, exactly what is it that you have to believe to pass the test? Can we define God in any meaningful way?
The question that interests me as a Jew is ‘What if you are uncertain?’ Does this mean you cannot be a religious Jew? I think you can. All authorities in Judaism agree that even if you discard or disregard certain laws or traditions you should not therefore abandon the lot. What is more, a heretic according to the Talmud, is either someone who totally rejects the Jewish people or someone who denies its fundamentals as a matter of principle, rather than convenience, weakness or uncertainty. The Talmud was clearly less concerned with theological correctness than we are today.
What changed was, of course, the Christian preoccupation with a Credo, and then more recently the Enlightenment when for the first time God came under really serious assault. In the old days, you believed in or accepted the idea of God because you were afraid you would be struck by lightening or burn in Hell or face a Heavenly Tribunal. As we began to lose such fears Blaise Pascal suggested that logically we should believe in God because if He didn’t exist what difference would it make, but if He did we’d look pretty silly in the next world (if there is one, but again why not cover your bets?). But this is hardly what I would call a religious position.
Apparently 90% of Americans believe in God. But, in my experience, if you try to find out what people actually do believe you get some very strange answers. Some people are easily persuadable of the most peculiar of beliefs. Some people seem more naturally spiritual. Not everyone is a philosopher. God can be encountered or understood on many different levels. So does belief in God mean ‘to everyone according to his or her level of understanding’? If so, then clearly when lots of people say they believe in God they cannot all be meaning the same thing!
Nevertheless, declaring a belief in God does keep ones mind and senses open to more possibilities than if it is shut out completely. It leaves the door open. And this is where mysticism comes in useful.
A huge measure of human activity is not based on logic at all, but love and emotions to start with. We often base our activities on senses and I believe we have a sense that can detect the Divine. Some call it the soul. Mysticism takes the view that God is to be experienced, not through logic. It is true that senses can mislead. We often ‘see’ things that aren’t there or think we hear things when we don’t. But they also provide us with a great deal that really matters. We do need logic to examine and evaluate our experiences, but that is once we actually have something to analyse. The beauty of religious practice is that it exposes one to possibilities and opportunities for intangible, mystical experiences. And then if you are fortunate enough to feel something, God becomes not a theory or an abstraction but a reality.
Now what if you have no such reality? I would argue that even without a belief in God , being exposed to different strands of religious ritual and practise can add something new and richer to ones palette of experience or at the very least will allow for possibilities. Exposing oneself to other dimensions in life, so long as it doesn’t harm anyone, surely is of some benefit!