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Wrestling with God

Jakob Freud was a devout Hassidic Jew, who participated in an education program led by Ludwig and Pheobus Phillipson. The Phillipsons had produced a Bible that was unusually illustrated in great detail with pictures from the Holy Lands and Egypt. Jakob read the Bible and pointed out its illustrations regularly to his son Sigmund, who in adult life ostensibly gave up his religion, considering it a neurotic preoccupation. Yet on his 35th birthday, Freud accepted the Bible as a gift from his father.

When his father Jakob died, Sigmund Freud began a collection of 2,000 artifacts from ancient Rome, the Near East, Egypt, and Asia, many of them gods and goddesses. The most prized of these he kept in his famous office. Students have found a surprising correspondence between the collection (which he called his “audience”) and the illustrations in the Phillipson Bible, which he also kept. In fact, the Bible was a mirror, a veritable catalog of the collection. When he was near death, Freud insisted that he be taken to his office, so he could be with his “audience.”

Many of us, like Freud, whether we are aware of it or not, spend our lives, like the Hebrew patriarch Jacob, wrestling with God. The Quaker Bernard Canter makes the same point in a different way:

Religion is living with God. There is no other kind of religion. Living with a book, living with or by a rule, and/ or being awfully high principled are not in themselves religion.… To find religion itself you must look inside people and inside yourself. And there, if you find even the tiniest grain of true love, you may be on the right scent. Millions of people have it, and don’t know what it is that they have. God is their guest, but they haven’t the faintest idea that God is in the house. So you mustn’t only look where God is confessed and acknowledged. You must look everywhere to find the true religion. Nor must you look, in others or in yourself, for great spooky visions and revelations.… In most people who know God … living with God is not an apparition, but a wordless and endless sureness, like the silence of two friends together. Like the silence of lovers.
God is waiting to live like that in every single person in the world.

If we spend much of our lives affirming God, rejecting God, resisting God, wrestling with God, this may tell us why Jesus, when asked what the greatest commandment of the law was, answered with the Shema— the utterance from the Torah now proclaimed every Sabbath in every synagogue in the world. Without these words there would be no Judaism, no Christianity, no Islam, no Quakerism:

Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.

Timothy Leonard is a member of Community Friends Meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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