What is God? An Interview with Jacob Needleman by Becky Garrison
In Jacob Needleman's newest book What Is God?, he examines some new ways of approaching one of the critical questions asked by humanity. I was intrigued by his insights and decided to explore some of the book's themes with him via an e-mail interview.
What prompted you to write the book What Is God at this particular time?
Many years of teaching and writing books about philosophy and comparative religion have shown me the great unsatisfied hunger that exists throughout our culture, especially in the younger generation, for serious ideas that point to something that transcends the materialism, relativism, and absolutism that define the main intellectual options of our society. More and more, I have been deeply troubled by the prevalence of what I have come to call "toxic ideas" that form the basis of most of the answers offered to the great questions of the meaning and purpose of life. By "toxic ideas" I mean ideas that on the one hand deny the possibility of a higher reality in the universe and in ourselves, or that on the other hand deny the need and the value of developing one's own independent, critical thought about the fundamental questions of human life. I saw the recent, so-called "debate" about God as epitomizing both sides of this toxicity. I felt the urgency to try to call for an entirely new way of thinking about God.
What awakens in us when we begin to question the nature of God?
It depends on how seriously we take this question -- that is, it depends on what part of our inner world is engaged. Deep in the psyche of every human being is a yearning to understand the ultimate nature of reality and to participate in that which is greater than ourselves. This yearning is, especially in modern times, hidden by our everyday mental activity and is obscured by some of our accepted views about truth and human nature. This hidden yearning can come to consciousness when we seriously confront questions about the meaning of our lives -- who we are, why we exist, why we live, and why we die. And all such questions are contained in the question of God. That is why the serious questioning of the nature and existence of God can, for a moment at least, profoundly affect us in a way that almost nothing else can. It involves the awakening of the hidden yearning that defines us as human beings. That's why I say in the very first sentence of my book that to think seriously about God is to the human soul what breathing is to the human body.
Why do you say that the question of God can only be approached with all three sources of learning (mind, heart, body) working together?
There are certain questions which the intellect alone can ask, but which the intellect alone can never answer. Our modern view of knowledge more or less limits itself to what we may call "mental knowing" and "mental information." But there are things that can be known only by specially developed qualities of feeling and there are also things that can be known only by the function of instinct and body sensation. The ultimate questions of life can be answered only when all three aspects or qualities of knowing help each other, contributing their own specific data. Because in the modern world we study things mainly through the "head," the isolated intellect, our knowledge races far ahead of our capacity to feel the real value or dangers in what we know; and it races far ahead of our ability ethically to apply what we know for the good of humanity. We have locked ourselves in the prison of one third of the whole human mind, and in that prison we can ask the most important questions without ever being able to answer them. All the traditional spiritual teachings of the world address their knowledge not only to the intellect, but to the heart and the body -- through such means as myth, symbol, ritual, music, and many other instrumentalities.
How do we create spaces where the heart reaches for the head and the head reaches for the heart?
This is a very important question -- how can we create conditions in our lives when we break out of the prison of the isolated intellect and touch a kind of knowing and caring that brings a deeper, more humanly resonant understanding? It is not easy, but one very effective way is to try, with all the sincerity you can muster, to listen to another person who disagrees with you. This requires an inner action of separating oneself from one's own thoughts and beliefs and making space for the other person's thought and beliefs. Such an inner action -- again it is difficult, but it is intensely human -- releases in oneself a power of pure attention to another human being, a very rare occurrence in our lives. Such pure attention or acceptance cannot help but open the heart toward the other person. This is the beginning of love and the beginning of ethics. Such experiences show us the greatness of what happens when the mind makes contact with the heart. This is only one example; there are many ways of trying this. But the most important thing is to have a taste of that kind of knowing, after which one can pursue it in all kinds of conditions.
How can we begin to bridge this divide that exists between science and religion?
The way to begin to bridge the science/religion conflict is for the human beings on each side to work at listening to each other in the way that I've just described. I say "listening" -- not agreeing or disagreeing. That is not of first importance. What is most important is to recognize that each side has at least some real, flesh-and-blood human beings with their own honest convictions. The important thing, and it outweighs everything else, is to come to the point where you can disagree with an opinion without anger or contempt or fear of the person with whom you are disagreeing. Many blessings will follow all by themselves if even a few of us can master this task, this work of listening. Of course, this divide between science and religion often reflects the divide within ourselves between the head and the heart.