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Rabbi Gil Steinlauf

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Asteroids, Randomness and the Absolute Truth About God

Posted: 02/13/2013 2:23 pm

When asteroid 2012 DA14 makes its perilously close encounter and near miss with Earth, there will be plenty of people who will thank God. We all know that one hit from a big asteroid, and life on earth as we know it could be wiped out. But, as some may reason, God is not letting that happen to us. Not now. For now, God is still merciful.
As a deeply religious Jew, I must admit that I cringe when I hear people express certitude that God chooses to avert asteroids or hurricanes or any random destructive force of nature -- especially if we pray hard enough. The God I pray to is a God of a 13.7-billion-year-old universe. My God is a God whose majesty and greatness only deepens for me as we collectively discover the ever-expanding mystery of the cosmos. My God is a God of a universe that includes randomness and accidents. And yes, my God is a God of a universe where, sometimes, tragically, bad things happen to good people despite our prayers, and asteroids might hit the earth and wipe almost all life out.
It's not that my religious traditions and texts don't affirm the classic omnipotent, infallible God who runs the show. I have come to see, however, that religious texts and rituals exist not so much to shape hardened, dogmatic beliefs about God or the universe.

The judgmental Heavenly Monarch-on-the-Throne imagery isn't there to be taken literally. It's there to capture the awe and mystery of our experience of life itself. When I contemplate a 45-meter-wide boulder hurtling to earth at 17,500 miles-per-hour, I am terrified and humbled. When I hear it will come right in line with the orbits of some GPS satellites -- and then miss us -- yes, I'm relieved. But I'm also further humbled and awe-struck that life as we know it is so precious and tenuous. And it's right in that moment, in that uncanny experience of fear and wonder, that I truly find God. My God arises not in arrogant assertions of Absolute Truth, but in those life-experiences that inspire the greatest of doubt and a multiplicity of more questions.
In Judaism, there is a tradition that when someone survives a near-miss brush with death, they are called up before the congregation to "bensch gomel," to say a blessing acknowledging their survival. They say, in effect, Although I am unworthy, I bless God who has been good to me. And the congregation responds together: May God continue to be good to you, Selah! On the surface, this ritual smacks of the conventional benevolent-despot God, a God who might not choose to be so nice to us next time, especially if we misbehave. But if you look deeper at that ritual, you begin to find that the imagery of a God meting out goodness to the unworthy is actually just a vessel, a technology. It's a technology that fashions a moment in time, a moment of an individual acknowledging their humility and wonder together with their people. It's a moment of no illusions, no answers, no certainties -- only the Truth that we are together in this uncertain, imperfect, miraculous moment of being alive. The moment becomes sacred not so much in the words recited, but in our mutually felt connection to each other. I am comfortable calling such a moment, "an experience of God." And I fully respect those who might choose not to name it at all.
So when Earth's gravitational field sends 2012 DA14 hurtling away from us faster than a speeding bullet, it will be a moment for all life on Earth to collectively "bensch gomel," no matter what our religion, even if we don't believe in God at all. It's a moment for us to acknowledge the power of prayers, rituals, blessings and yes, even age-old notions of God -- however we conceive of God -- in the service of what is really Divine: In this often frightening, chaotic, deeply imperfect and perilous universe, here we are! We're alive, and what's more--we are affirming that life can be Good even as it is so precious and fleeting. And most importantly, 2012 DA14 reminds us that despite the terrible uncertainty of it all, we are so blessed to have each other for the time that we're here.

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