By: Jeff Cunningham
I am just a simple Jew, no yeshiva boy, so I thought I might quote a not-so-simple Jew, although also not a yeshiva boy, in an attempt to discuss the relationship between religion, faith, and rationality. Albert Einstein said, “as a circle of light increases so does the circumference of darkness around it,” and I think this idea helps explain my personal experience with my Jewish faith and perhaps its foundation as a both rational and faithful lifestyle.
The only thing I am really certain of in life is that we don’t have much a clue about what is going on, how we got here, or where we are going. I think most of existence is unknown to us and is perhaps even unknowable. That being said, I have always been quite skeptical of both religious and scientific certainty. It seems unsporting to me, though, to attack religion as completely faith based and accept that science is entirely rational. There seems to be a balance to both, elements of faith and rationality in both science and religion.
I am certainly no scientist, but I know that we still don’t understand much of our world. I also don’t think that scientific, rational atheism is as recent a development in human history as we like to think. Our modern day Towers of Babel of evolution, medicine, and technology are certainly impressive to me, but I can’t help but think that in a few more thousand years our futuristic offspring will look back at our various advancements and think that we could have better spent our efforts focused on trying to build a really big tower to reach heaven.
Rationally based science seems to have an element, and a substantial one at that, of faith. There is so much left unexplored and unexplained in life that I simply can not accept that we have it all, or even most of it, figured out. The fear that certainly motivated our cave ancestors to bow down to statues they made seems to motivate us to invest our faith into rationality and the scientific and technological idols that personify rationality.
So assuming for my sake that science is indeed a “leap of faith,” I like to think that my Jewish religion, and really all of our various religions, are actually more “leaps of rationality.” My problem with religion is like my problem with science: the certainty. Judaism, for me anyway, provides a convenient alternative to this problem in that it accepts that we can not understand the Almighty in any meaningful way and that Judaism does not have all the answers, just a few of them. I think this idea is consistent with most other religions as well, although I am quite unfamiliar with the other options out there.
No one, I think, wants to admit that their religious belief is based entirely on faith and is essentially completely irrational. At the same time I don’t think that a rational atheist can possibly claim that they have all the answers or that any rational person has to see the world the same way that they do. I like to think, and my particular flavor of Judaism embraces this idea, that we all individually, Jews and Gentiles, understand the tiniest sliver of the Almighty’s light and that all of us together have come up with an ever increasing circle of light that keeps increasing the darkness around it. So, in conclusion, I’d like to quote another not-so-simple Jew, although certainly a yeshiva boy. King Solomon wrote, “I set my mind to appraise wisdom and to appraise madness and folly. And I learned – that this too was pursuit of wind: For as wisdom grows, vexation grows; to increase learning is to increase heartache.”
Thank you for reading, I’d like to add a sort of related, sort of ancient, Jewish idea to keep in mind during our future class discussions that I think can be extended to any conversation religious or not: two Jews, three opinions.