Friday, July 31, 2015

What does our God do for a living?

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Biblical writers such as Ezekiel and the Psalmist conceived of God as a shepherd. Its not hard to work out why. In those days, shepherding was a common profession, and from the perspective of the sheep a shepherd is something of a God. He guides and directs the flock, and is responsible for leading it to food and water, and for protecting it from wild animals. Working as a shepherd gave men a template for imagining how God works with men. They were shepherds themselves so they came to think of God as one, too.

We aren't shepherds anymore, and the template has changed. Now most of us work at office jobs, and the God most of us worship would fit right in.

In the current popular imagination, God is no longer a shepherd guiding and protecting His flock, from a comfortable e distance.  Now we think of Him as a micro-manager who gets His hands dirty. Instead of guarding and guiding us like a shepherd, this God causes and, more importantly, cares about every small thing that happens. Instead of protecting us, He spends a lot of time worrying about our job performance. How many mitzvos did you do today? Are you doing more or less than last week? And like the worst boss you ever had, this God is capricious and petty, demanding flattery and praise in exchange for favors. Instead of God as a shepherd, we have God as a small businessman

There is more to this shift in thinking then the fact that our jobs have changed. I've noticed that the people most committed to the idea of God as micro-manager tend not to be lawyers or employees of large corporations. Aside from the rabbis and teachers, the men who use this template are almost all salesmen or petty business owners. I surmise that the men who do this sort of work are more likely to think of God this way because the men who do this sort of work are more susceptible to magical thinking, which is just an unkind way of saying that they need God more.

Think about it this way: A guy who work for ACME International gets a regular paycheck. It comes every two weeks, whether he earns it or not. If that's your set-up, you start taking the money for granted. You stop worrying about how the Big Guy in the sky might be persuaded to keep the checks coming. Even if you watch porn and eat treif the checks won't be interrupted. Not at first anyway.

A guy who sells or runs his own business, on the other hand, is always cognizant of how fragile his finances are. Unlike Mr. Corporate, the salesman or small businessman only eats when he has customers, and who can say why customers come calling on one day, and not on another? Those of you who have worked in sales know how this can go. One day you hit the bushes and nothing happens. The next day you take it easy, and the phone rings off the hook. On Monday, the client yawns at your presentation. On Wednesday the exact same presentation scores a big contract. What's going on? Why are you making money one day, and nothing the next day? It becomes easy to chalk up your successes and failures to luck. Or to God.

So what happens next? Because God can control the clients, Mr Small Businessman starts to look for ways to control God. He dabbles in superstition. He looks for segulot. He becomes a prisoner to ritual. And, significant to the change described up in paragraph three, our Jewish small businessman also becomes deeply invested in the idea that God controls every little thing, and its corollary, viz, that God can be controlled through the performance of mitzvoth. This has to be true. It absolutely must be true. Otherwise, what chance does our guy, the small salesman or businessman, have at making a buck in the world? If God is indifferent there's nothing a magical thinker can actually do to make his business grow.

Our sheep-tending ancestors didn't have such worries and didn't think such thoughts. As a result they didn't conceive of God the same way that we do. Their God was a God who merely watched over a flock. He has been supplanted by a modern God, the God who "runs" things.

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