Last week I heard Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, the writer and scholar of the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah, interviewed on the radio. He told a story that I haven’t forgotten.
Rabbi Kushner was invited to a dinner for a class of young people preparing for their bar or bat mitzvah. Classes completed, they had come together with their parents for a final dinner. Rabbi Kushner spoke to the group, and then he asked the young people, “How many of you believe in God?” Not a hand went up. Well, he thought, there was always one or two kids who wanted to be the rebel contrarian, but the whole class? “Three thousand years of Jewish piety and struggle,” he mused, “and it’s all come to this?—a bunch of snot-nosed suburban kids who don’t believe in God?”
As a good teacher, though, he just took it in without responding, dropped back and moved on with his talk. Then a little later he asked the kids, “How many of you have ever felt close to God?” Every hand went up. “When my mother lights the Shabbat candles,” one said. “When my little sister was born,” said another.
The world is becoming more and more like these young people. The “God” who has been presented to them is not really believable. He is too small, too tribal, too angry, too vindictive, too old and too distant. He doesn’t know about evolution, or if he does he is against it. He is obsessed with sex.
These young people have been born into a world where “God” has been used as a giant totem uniting us and “our people;” as a big stick enforcing morality; as a weapon against those who don’t believe what we believe. Instinctively, they know that this “God” is not what they need or what the world needs. He is not a God they believe in.
Nevertheless they feel close to God. They experience something transcendent, something completely beyond themselves and yet intimately close. They want a God who draws people together, who reveals our inner unity, our shared humanity. They want a God who is love and who draws from us the depths of compassion. They want a God who is not separate and distant beyond the sky, but who is peering at us from the mystery of quarks and quasars, appearing to us in light both wave and particle, bodied forth in the whole creation and energizing—from within!—the slow and mystic evolution of all things.
Many, many people share the “atheism” of these young people, they are just unable—perhaps afraid—to say so. As a church leader, I want to offer people the freedom to declare their unbelief in that old “God,” and the invitation to come into unity with the One who is their heart’s desire.
We have a long way to go, but, like Rabbi Kushner, I am less and less worried about the “atheists”, the “nones” that are showing up on more and more religious surveys: the true and living God hardly needs defending. People know this God, experience this God, continue to seek this God, even those who cannot exactly believe in “God.”