On the Notion of ‘Belief’ in Religion

446px-Martin_Buber_portraitGary Gutting talks to Howard Wettstein, a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside, and the author of “The Significance of Religious Experience”, over at the NYT's The Stone (image, portrait of Martin Buber, from Wikimedia Commons):

H.W.: I had a close friend in Jerusalem, the late Rabbi Mickey Rosen, whose relation to God was similarly intimate. To watch him pray was to have a glimpse of such intimacy. To pray with him was to taste it; God was almost tangible. As with Feynman, Mickey had no patience with the philosophers’ questions. God’s reality went without saying. God’s existence as a supernatural being was quite another thing. “Belief,” he once said to me, “is not a Jewish notion.” That was perhaps a touch of hyperbole. The point, I think, was to emphasize that the propositions we assent to are hardly definitive of where we stand. He asked of his congregants only that they sing with him, song being somewhat closer to the soul than assent.

This brings to mind Buber’s emphasis on the distinction between speaking to God, something that is readily available to all of us, and significant speech/thought about God, something that Buber took to be impossible.

G.G.: But you can’t in fact speak to someone who doesn’t exist — I can’t speak to Emma Bovary, although I can pretend to or think I can. Further, why would you even want to pray to someone you didn’t believe exists? On your account praying to God seems like playacting, not genuine religious commitment.

H.W.: Were I to suggest that God does not exist, that God fails to exist, then what you suggest would have real purchase. My thought is otherwise; it’s rather that “existence” is, pro or con, the wrong idea for God.

My relation to God has come to be a pillar of my life, in prayer, in experience of the wonders and the awfulness of our world. And concepts like the supernatural and transcendence have application here. But (speaking in a theoretical mode) I understand such terms as directing attention to the sublime rather than referring to some nonphysical domain. To see God as existing in such a domain is to speak as if he had substance, just not a natural or physical substance. As if he were composed of the stuff of spirit, as are, perhaps, human souls. Such talk is unintelligible to me. I don’t get it.

The theism-atheism-agnosticism trio presumes that the real question is whether God exists. I’m suggesting that the real question is otherwise and that I don’t see my outlook in terms of that trio.

More here.