Rick Salutin: Who wouldn't want to hear the voice of God?
Here’s a footnote to the small scandal about Gretta Vosper, United Church minister and proud atheist. A trial was scheduled to decide if she’d be stripped of her job. But a last-minute deal got done, which won’t be revealed, so she stays on. Fade to some inconclusive religious oblivion.
I happened to attend a talk Monday by Florida religion professor Martin Kavka, on the search for the voice of God today. I went because he focused on the late Emil Fackenheim, who was my mentor, friend and sometime antagonist from my teens till his death in 2003.
Fackenheim was renowned for coining what he called the 614th commandment for Jews after Auschwitz: “Thou shalt not hand Hitler posthumous victories” — by abandoning your Jewishness. Kavka called it the most significant Jewish philosophical idea of the 20th century.
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I’d always taken it as a metaphor urging Jews not to surrender to despair after the Holocaust. But Kavka said Fackenheim meant more: he actually “deduced” from Jewish determination to survive (in Israel and elsewhere) that they must be responding to a divine command, even if on a deep, unconscious level, because otherwise their determination to carry on appears irrational.
This sounds utterly human. People don’t want just to think that desirable things, like a better world or a benevolent deity, are possible. They yearn for such things to actually exist. Hearing the voice of God would be the ultimate proof that God exists and if that’s so, then someone well-intended is supervising the mess that is human life and history.
This needn’t be quite as naïve as it sounds — like a voice booming from the sky. There’s a long tradition of God speaking indirectly, through messengers, or images like a “bat-kol.” the “daughter of a voice”— a sort of echo or suggestion.
But overall, one appeal of the “Biblical” religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — is that God does “speak,” and lets you know what’s what. That’s unlike Eastern religions, which offer largely philosophical guidance, or the wisdom of spirits and ancestors in indigenous religions. Many people yearn for that kind of overriding certainty, with or without God, inside or outside religion.
When I began my career in “the left,” for instance, after leaving the realms of religion, I was stunned at how many godlike voices existed there, in forms such as Marxist dogma, or scripturish texts like Mao’s writings. Almost every left group had a charismatic prophet who told you what’s what.
After the Soviet empire’s collapse, I was delighted to see that kind of dogma migrate en masse to the right, in dogmatic voices like Francis (“End of History”) Fukuyama. I think with Trump we’re at the close of that kind of doctrinal pretension on all sides.
Yet people still yearn for some version of superhuman certainty, and what they apparently resent in Vosper is the abdication of even the effort. This is insoluble. The religious forces who claim access to God’s truth are always suspect: like Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor,” who tells Christ (returned to Earth) that he’s no longer relevant. “If Jesus were to preach what he preached in Galilee,” sang Woody Guthrie, “they’d lay Jesus Christ in His grave.”
So people look elsewhere, on the margins, to the powerless or rebellious for their certainty. If that’s the case, then why not try hearing the voice of God (or truth or right) not in those who claim to own it but in those who fiercely deny it, which brings us back to Vosper. There’s no way to definitively wriggle off the hook of human uncertainty.
Rick Salutin is a freelance columnist based in Toronto. Reach him on email: