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.