Who Needs God? by Harold Kushner. Summit Books, New York City ?1989, pp. 208.

Who needs God? A cursory glance through Harold Kushner’s newest bestseller might give the impression that the sensitive and compassionate author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People thinks everyone does. If you look more closely, you’ll find that Kushner is saying something more to the effect that we need a belief in God to gain the benefits of feeling and behaving as though he exists.

His introduction seems to point to God:

The thesis of this book is that there is a kind of nourishment our souls crave, even as our bodies need the right foods, sunshine, and exercise. Without that spiritual nourishment, our souls remain stunted and underdeveloped” (p.11).

It might sound as though he is speaking of spiritual nourishment which comes through a relationship with God. But the terms and dynamics of such a relationship never materialize. Religion, not relationship, is the theme of the book. Religion, not relationship, is seen as the solution to the problem of spiritual starvation.

Kushner makes several good points, but consistently pulls the rug out from under himself and his own best statements. His concept of truth is too empty to give his own statements credibility:

If believing in the Resurrection makes my Christian neighbor a better person.…then that is a true belief, whether historically true or not. If believing that God commanded him not to eat pork or shellfish gives my Orthodox Jewish friend the gift of controlling his impulses, then his belief is a true belief, irrespective of whether God actually spoke those words. But if either of those beliefs makes these people parochial, narrow-minded or self-righteous, then their beliefs are religiously false, even if someone could somehow prove that the premise for their beliefs was true (p. 197).

Kushner says something is true when what he means is that it is acceptable on a pragmatic basis. He does not see the purpose of religion as being reconciled to God but rather:

The purpose of religion is not to explain God or to please God, but to help us meet some of our most basic human needs (p. 99).

Religions claims are statements of loyalty rather than historical fact…Religions can disagree and still each be true because people’s spiritual needs come in different forms (p 196).

Chapter after chapter tells the benefits of belief in God, but God is never described as the Being who deserves to be worshiped and obeyed simply because of who he is and not because of what believing in him does for us.

Kushner teaches that belief in God is a basis for accepting moral absolutes; yet he gives us no absolute way of knowing what those morals are. Regarding the Bible, he says:

I believe that the authors of the Bible capture God’s will on moral issues better than any other source. But it was God’s first word on the subject, not His last. The last word has not been heard yet. We can feel that we have gone beyond the promise of reward and the threat of punishment which we find in parts of the Bible…The Judaism I practice is not the religion of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament…we have added the fruits of centuries of experience and innovation to the Scriptural base (p. 85).

Who is to say what God deems right or wrong if the Bible is subject to reinterpretation in light of modern experience?

Kushner stresses that belief in God helps us know we are not alone, yet he would not have us presume that God is able to alter our situation, or that he plans for us to be with him after this life (p. 169).

Kushner tells about private prayer as though there is a real God who wants to be known by certain attributes and who demands certain behavior. He says some marvelous things:

Prayer is first and foremost the experience of being in the presence of God (p. 148).

God will not suffer Himself to be manipulated by our words or deeds (same page).

We need to be reminded that prayer involves listening perhaps even more than speaking. It involves opening ourselves to what God wants us to hear, in a setting purified of the noise and distractions of the everyday world (p 151).

On the other hands, that God does not seem to exist when we pray corporately, since we can’t all agree on who he is.

We all recite the same words in prayer, not because we all believe the same things (how could we?) [emphasis supplied] but because in the process of reading together, singing together, chanting together, something truly remarkable happens. We transcend our sense of being unconnected individuals. We are lifted out of our individual isolation and transformed into a single organism, singing and rejoicing in the presence of God (p. 113).

Kushner does not see that it is the common realization of who God is which joins people in corporate worship. Without that realization, people may be joined, but not in worship.

In speaking of our need for God’s forgiveness, Kushner takes the traditional modern Jewish view that our bad deeds are balanced by our good deeds. In fact, he completely twists the idea of the sacrificial system in order to illustrate that very idea:

In ancient Israel, a person who felt he had done something wrong would bring to the Temple a special kind of animal sacrifice known as the sin-offering. It was not meant to undo the past. It was not a bribe to persuade God to erase the record of his sin. It was intended to help the person see himself in a different, more favorable light. He could now say to himself, “Sometimes, I admit it, I am weak and selfish. But look, sometimes I can be strong and generous too. Sometimes I am embarrassed by what I do, but not always. Sometimes I have reasons to feel good about myself” (p. 132, 133).

If one takes Kushner’s explanation past the reassuring words, God ordained a bloody, self-centered act of slaughter to build up the Israelites’ egos!

The reader must finally see that Kushner is saying that God and the Bible are merely tools to serve humanity.

Religion is not first and foremost a series of teachings about God. Religion is first and foremost the community through which you learn to understand the world and grow to be human” (p. 194).

And finally, the coup de grace, “I believe strongly that one of the primary goals of religion is to teach people to like themselves and feel good about themselves” (p. 198).

In the last chapter, the question of Kushner’s personal theology is finally answered as he explains and advocates Rabbi Harold Schulweis’s “predicate theology.”

‘Predicate theology’ means that when we find statements about God that say, for example, ‘God is love, God is truth, God is the friend of the poor,’ we are to concentrate on the predicate rather than on the subject. Those are not statements about God; they are statements about love, truth and befriending the poor, telling us that those are divine activities, moments in which God is present.…. They are not things that God does; they are things that we do, and when we do them, God is present in our lives (p. 203-204).

Mishpochah, “predicate theology” may be a new label, but it is an age-old deception. People are still being defrauded by it in droves, and our people are among the chief victims. The idea that the human image of God replaces God himself is a pietistic kind of blasphemy which is terrifying palatable to many of our loved ones.

Who needs God? Harold Kushner. May God in his mercy reveal to the author of this book the deceptive nature of what he has settled for instead.

Who Needs God? is a book to read analytically if you want to understand the particular brand of blindness which is afflicting many of our people. Find the inconsistencies. Formulate intelligent questions to expose them. And pray for opportunities to forge ahead in using this book to discuss spiritual matters with your family and friends.