The big question


Many years ago in the midst of the results of some very poor choices, a friend exposed me to the Tao Te Ching. I read it in an evening, pondered over parts of it, and purchased my own copy the next afternoon. I purchased the Gia-fu Feng/Jane English translation at a store on Polk Street in San Francisco called Rooks and Becords, which sadly does not exist any longer. I recommend the coffeetable edition of this particular translation for its gorgeous photography, but the one I picked up that afternoon was a much smaller paperback.

That paperback is missing the photographs and the typography is somewhat lacking by comparison. However, it does contain one feature missing from the coffeetable edition: an introduction by Jacob Needleman. I’m sorry to say that too often introductions to religious texts are superfluous and better skipped over. There are exceptions, and Needleman’s introduction to the Tao Te Ching one of them. It is lucid, insightful, and offers information about the Tao Te Ching that genuinely improved my appreciation and understanding of the text.

So when I saw his name on a bookshelf in my local Books Inc, it caught my attention. Having read only a small piece of Mr Needleman’s, I was a little wary of purchasing a book with such a wide scope. The opening lines sold me:

To think about God is to the human soul what breathing is to the human body.

I say to think about God, not necessarily to believe in God—that may or may not come later.

Yes, I thought, this book must come home with me. I have long held that one ought not have to profess belief in any particular notion of God in order to contemplate God, and that contemplation need not require belief. In fact, I’d argue that even when believing in God, that belief is a human idea formed in our minds. But as the book that Mr Needleman wrote the aforementioned introduction to says,

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao

It’s impossible that our human minds could contain and comprehend any kind of God that exists in relation to this world, so the best of ideas about God must fall infinitely short of the reality. Therefore, believers and disbelievers alike create their God—perhaps with the influence of teachers and religious books, but even then the information must be synthesized to an individual’s understanding.

In the end, no two people have the same idea of God. A believer and a disbeliever may have radically different ideas about God while holding nearly identical ideas about the universe and spirituality. Theists often claim a monopoly on God, but their authority to do so is dubious at best.

Needleman’s memoir of his journey with and through philosophy and religion did not disappoint. His experience seems genuine, heartfelt, and deeply considered. One hopes that it would be—Needleman is a professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University. Part of his story involves his relationship to the ideas evolving through the process of teaching the material.

Needleman’s book What Is God is much more than a memoir. Though it does in a roundabout manner chronicle Needleman’s own path through beliefs, he does not just relate the changes in his own perspective. He writes of many of the approaches to God possible, and the values and validity of those approaches to the individuals (including himself) at the time. He rarely describes someone else’s limitations without showing the way that that person’s perspective also enriched his own. In this, Needleman sets himself up as an excellent example of the kind of inquiry one ought to do on any topic.

If this inquiry is open and welcoming of a variety of perspectives, let it not be said that Needleman simply seizes upon any set of ideas that comes his way. His investigation and explanations are thoughtful, insightful, and intellectually rigorous. His belief does not eschew intellect but embraces it. Even when rationality must be set aside it is never discarded.

This is perhaps why it is so important that belief not be a requisite to contemplation. Just as disbelief may get in the way of contemplation, so too might belief get in the way of honest and searching contemplation. Prior ideas have a tendency to crowd a belief system, making it difficult to let new ideas have the elbow room they need for exploration.

Needleman’s own experience is illuminating; certainly not everyone who seeks answers has the time and resources to devote to those kinds of questions. Nor do most people have the opportunity to discuss philosophy with classes full of students every year. I don’t mean to suggest that these things are luxuries, merely that this topic, while relevant to many, is not in most people’s job description. Needleman’s recounting of his personal experience and thoughts provides a warmth and vitality to what otherwise might be a set of dry philosophical questions.

However, Needleman doesn’t stick solely to his own path or his own thoughts and theories. He refers back to a wealth of knowledge from the history of philosophy and religion, but also to his contemporaries, among them his own students. These second-hand accounts bring a broader perspective to the personal nature of the question of contemplation of God, and of belief and disbelief. Needleman doesn’t stop at mixing the personal with a variety of academic sources; he presents a variety of personal sources as well.

In this regard, What Is God? somewhat resembles William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience but is much more practical for individuals wrestling with their own angels. William James’s psychological profiles of the religious experience is detached and academic. Needleman’s book is accessible and engaging. James wanted to educate his readers about the phenomenon of religious experiences; Needleman shares with us something more dynamic and pertinent.

Needleman’s writing is lucid and unaffected. His style avoids the traps of pedantry and self-indulgence. It is not a difficult read; to the contrary, his writing voice is pleasant to read and easy to follow. Yet at the same time, he speaks with intelligence that honors the intelligence of the reader. I suspect that it speaks to different people on their own level; a rare and treasured skill among writers.

What Is God is recommended to anyone with even a passing interest in religious and philosophical matters, and even to those who claim no such interest. It has the potential to open doors without pushing anyone through. It is both an enjoyable and enriching read, and contains no visible philosophical agenda to alienate the reader.

Reading interval: 
Saturday, 16 March 2013 to Sunday, 26 January 2014