- A Plausible God: Secular Reflections on Liberal Jewish Theology
Mitchell Silver has explored in depth the works of Mordecai Kaplan, Arthur Green, and Michael Lerner, has classified them appropriately as liberal Jewish theologians, and has concluded that they offer contemporary searchers for religious belief "a plausible God." This plausible God Silver calls the "new God" as opposed to the "old God" of pre-Enlightenment Jewish thought. Silver isn't concerned with the "old God." His discussion is to be an "internal discussion among moderns." Therefore, the discussion is to be restricted to a dialogue between "new God" devotees and "no God" atheists. He admits that he belongs to the latter group. Nevertheless he has given us a brilliantly articulated discussion, a welcome relief from the plethora of recent challenging but more populist books attacking the traditional God of monotheistic religions.
Silver underscores his theologians' naturalism as their "ticket of admission to serious consideration in the modern world." Yet, Silver notes their reluctance to let go of a God who is transcendent. For them, God can be understood as the "organic totality of being"; as "sheer potency, as energy that animates our angelic urges"; as the source of an evolving better self-consciousness; or as expressing the possibility of all value, such as Kaplan's "the power that makes for salvation."
Each of these symptoms of transcendence may be neutralized. But, according to Silver, it is the theologians' commitment to naturalism that fatally compromises their insistence on transcendence. He argues: "The theologians want a God who is powerless to intervene in the world and they want an activist humanity that does not wait on God," but rather one that seeks on its own to spread good in the world. Silver argues that atheism similarly may aid in the multiplication of good in the world. In what way then is the "new God" any better than "no God"?
The theologians underline the usefulness of belief in the "new God." It's as useful as belief in the "old God" in that it contributes to social conformity by providing the believer with the comfort of "someone" who will offer security [End Page 91] and solace, by locating a "home" for morality, and by presenting an explanatory theory for "everything." To all this, the question for Silver is whether for modern-minded people "any conception of God that is powerful enough to do this work is credible enough to sustain belief."
Silver's answer is a polite "No!" If these "new God" theologians postulate that "God is whatever there is in nature that makes good things possible," Silver sees such a God as a tautology. Does it merit the high title "God" when it is nature that is the source of all good? God is not an explanation for any of nature's phenomena; for if it were, God should aid in predicting new data to be discovered within nature's processes. For when we moderns speak of nature and natural explanations we must speak in empirical terms. And empirical criteria require predictability.
Silver continues: If God is the source for morality, for moral instruction and creativity, and is the authority for demanding moral behavior, can the "new God" theologians make a convincing case for God—and the various monotheistic religions speaking in his/her name—as inspiring our better selves? Atheism has produced a Hitler; but historically, hasn't belief in God—old and new—also produced devils as well as saints? Regarding morality and the inspiration for moral betterment, Silver summarizes: "The new God does not do anything that atheism does not do as well."
In his critique Silver doesn't hesitate to juxtapose "old God" claims that dare not be underestimated, particularly when considering the problem of suffering. Can the "new God" compete with the "old God" in offering emotional succor? What of prayer? Reverential and contemplative prayer may be validated in "new God" terms. When we move to confessional prayer—and petitionary prayer—Silver intuits that "it is hard to shake the lurking suspicion that confession to...