Monday, August 19, 2013

Dealing With Theological Doubt

"Remember, young man, unceasingly," Father Paissy began, without preface, "that science, which has become a great power, especially in the last century, has analyzed everything divine handed down to us in the holy books. After this cruel analysis the learned of this world have nothing left of all that was sacred. But they have only analyzed the parts and overlooked the whole, and indeed their blindness is marvelous. Yet the whole still stands steadfast before their eyes, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Is it not still a living, a moving power in the individual soul and in the masses of people? It is still strong and living even in the souls of atheists, who have destroyed everything! For even those who have renounced Christianity and attack it, in their inmost being still follow the Christian ideal, for hitherto neither their subtlety nor the ardor of their hearts has been able to create a higher ideal of man and of virtue…”
                                             --Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

It is related that the Alter Rebbe once came into a synagogue in the city of Shklov, Russia where many Jews had assembled to hear him, including several young Torah scholars who were opposed to the Chassidic movement, and had prepared legal, Talmudic questions with which they planned to challenge and antagonize him and his movement.

The Alter Rebbe sang a soul-stirring niggun (melody), and all the questions in the listener’s minds were answered. They ran toward the Alter Rebbe in their eagerness to become his disciples....

Have you ever stood too close to a gorgeous painting, only seeing a tiny piece of it? Did the incoherence and banality of what you saw cause you to reach a conclusion that you're not seeing a masterpiece? Or were you wise enough, brave enough, and humble enough to take a step back, and lift your gaze up to see all that's being conveyed?

Letting go of details is intimidating sometimes. One can get lost in the whole, lose the tenuous grasp that allows the feeling of being in control.

But imagine,for example, making life decisions based on details instead of considering the whole picture. Imagine rejecting a job, a relationship, a home because a few details aren't in synch with one's expectations.

There are some people that insist on getting caught on the small issues. They don't seek happiness in life, but rather insist on complicating things because deep down they seek pain. 

 לְבַד רְאֵה זֶה מָצָאתִי אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת הָאָדָם יָשָׁר וְהֵמָּה בִקְשׁוּ חִשְּׁבֹנוֹת רַבִּים
This only have I found: God created mankind straight, but they have gone in search of many schemes.
Ecclesiastes 7:29

The path to the Divine is the same. Of course there are and always will be certain aspects of religion and theology that are bothersome. There is no body of wisdom void of frustrating questions. We are not granted sight of utter perfection in this physical world.

But we need to sing the song of the Divine. And the questions slip away.

It's hard sometimes to allow one's self to become vulnerable by being absorbed in the whole. But beauty, truth, love, and happiness are wholesome. 

And God most of all.

Wholesome, simple faith touches on the utterly simple Essence of God.
                                                                                 --The Baal Shem Tov

Take a step back. Look again.


  1. I do not know whether it is the details that lie to us, or our own subjectivity. The details of a masterpiece are also masterful. A common contemporary analogy is a cell of a hologram or a detail of a fractal that contains the whole.

    But we lose contact with that wholeness because we are only seeing that which immediately affects us. If we could leave ourselves out of the picture, we would see the whole even in the detail.

  2. You are, of course, correct that our subjectivity often clouds our view and prevents a proper assessment of a detail. But at times a detail of even a masterpiece when viewed by itself, does not lend itself immediately to convey its inherent greatness, not necessarily because of subjectivity, but because it is not meant to be viewed isolated from the whole.

    And though God and His Wisdom are indeed like your parable of the cell, most of us cannot immediately see that, and though we might believe it to be true, a detail by itself can seem, at times, less than perfect, and not merely because of subjectivity.