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Einstein’s God: Krista Tippett and Theoretical Cosmologist Janna Levin on Free Will, Science, and the Human Spirit

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“How we ask our questions affects the answers we arrive at… Science and religion… ask different kinds of questions altogether, probing and illuminating in ways neither could alone.”

Seven decades after a little girl asked Einsteinwhether scientists pray, Peabody Award-winning journalist Krista Tippett began interviewing some of the world’s most remarkable scientists, philosophers, and theologians about the relationship between science and spirituality in her superb public radio program On Being — the same trove of wisdom that gave us Sherwin Nuland on what everybody needs and Joanna Macy on how Rilke can help us live more fully. Tippett, who was awarded the National Humanities Medal for her ennobling work, collected the best of these dialogues in Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit (public library) — an immeasurably rewarding compendium featuring such contemporary luminaries as Parker Palmer, Freeman Dyson, Andrew Solomon, and Sherwin Nuland.

Lamenting that we have “lost a robust vocabulary for spiritual ethics and theological thinking” in the “polite, erudite, public-radio-loving circles” of public life, Tippett writes in the introduction:

The science-religion “debate” is unwinnable, and it has led us astray. To insist that science and religion speak the same language, or draw the same conclusions, is to miss the point of both of these pursuits of cohesive knowledge and underlying truth. To create a competition between them, in terms of relevance or rightness, is self-defeating. Both science and religion are set to animate the twenty-first century with new vigor. This will happen whether their practitioners are in dialogue or not. But the dialogue that is possible — and that has developed organically, below the journalistic and political radar — is mutually illuminating and lush with promise.

Illustration from Thomas Wright’s visionary 1750 treatise ‘An Original Theory,’ found in Michael Benson’s book ‘Cosmigraphics’—a visual history of understanding the universe. Click image for more.

Tippett invokes her grandfather, a “preacher of hellfire and brimstone” with a “large, unexcavated mind that frightened him” and “sharp wit, a searching attentiveness, a mysterious ability to perform mathematical feats in his head”:

People like him became the object of erudite parody, straw men easily blown down by prophets of reason. His kind of religiosity was small-minded at best, delusional at worst, and, most damnably, the enemy of science.

The mundane truth is this: my grandfather did not know enough about science to be against it. I summon his memory by way of tracing, for myself, why I’ve found my conversations with scientists to be so profoundly sustaining. It is not just that they are intellectually and spiritually evocative beyond compare. Cumulatively they dispel the myth of the clash of civilizations between science and religion, indeed between spirit and reason, that we’ve accepted as the backdrop for so many tensions of the modern West.

[…]

How we ask our questions affects the answers we arrive at. Light appears as a wave if you ask it “a wavelike question” and it appears as a particle if you ask it “a particle-like question.” This is a template for understanding how contradictory explanations of reality can simultaneously be true.

And it’s not so much true, as our cultural debates presume, that science and religion reach contradictory answers to the same particular questions of human life. Far more often, they simply ask different kinds of questions altogether, probing and illuminating in ways neither could alone.

Hardly anything illustrates this notion more crisply than a line from the bewitching novel A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines“To see some truths you must stand outside and look in.” — by astrophysicist and theoretical cosmologist Janna Levin, one of Tippett’s interviewees, who studies the shape and finitude of the universe. In her conversation with Tippett, Levin reflects on the relationship between mathematics and truth, central to both her novel — which explores the parallels between the extraordinary minds of computing pioneer Alan Turing and mathematician Kurt Gödel — and her life:

I would absolutely say I am also besotted with mathematics. I don’t worry about what’s real and not real in the way that maybe Gödel did. I think what Turing did, which was so beautiful, was to have a very practical approach. He believed that life was, in a way, simple. You could relate to mathematics in a concrete and practical way. It wasn’t about surreal, abstract theories. And that’s why Turing is the one who invents the computer, because he thinks so practically. He can imagine a machine that adds and subtracts, a machine that performs the mathematical operations that the mind performs. The modern computers that we have now are these very practical machines that are built on those ideas. So I would say that like Turing, I am absolutely struck with the power of mathematics, and that’s why I’m a theoretical physicist… I love that we can all share the mathematical answers. It’s not about me trying to convince you of what I believe or of my perspective or of my assumptions. We can all agree that one plus one is two, and we can all make calculations that come out to be the same, whether you’re from India or Pakistan or Oklahoma, we all have that in common. There’s something about that that’s deeply moving to me and that makes mathematics pure and special. And yet I’m able to have a more practical attitude about it, which is that, well, we can build machines this way. There is a physical reality that we can relate to using mathematics.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo’s, from Michael Benson’s book ‘Cosmigraphics’—a visual history of understanding the universe. Click image for more.

When Tippett stretches this into the difficult question of whether “the fact that one plus one equals two [has] anything to do with God,” Levin — a self-described atheist — echoes Tolstoy’s quest for meaning and answers with remarkable poetry and poise:

If I were to ever lean towards spiritual thinking or religious thinking, it would be in that way. It would be, why is it that there is this abstract mathematics that guides the universe? The universe is remarkable because we can understand it. That’s what’s remarkable. All the other things are remarkable, too. It’s really, really astounding that these little creatures on this little planet that seem totally insignificant in the middle of nowhere can look back over the fourteen-billion-year history of the universe and understand so much and in such a short time.

So that is where I would get a sense, again, of meaning and of purpose and of beauty and of being integrated with the universe so that it doesn’t feel hopeless and meaningless. Now, I don’t personally invoke a God to do that, but I can’t say that mathematics would disprove the existence of God either. It’s just one of those things where over and over again, you come to that point where some people will make that leap and say, “I believe that God initiated this and then stepped away, and the rest was this beautiful mathematical unfolding.” And others will say, “Well, as far back as it goes, there seem to be these mathematical structures. And I don’t feel the need to conjure up any other entity.” And I fall into that camp, and without feeling despair or dissatisfaction.

The emboldening poetics of Levin’s orientation to the universe and its meaning — at the heart of which is the same inquiry Alan Watts tussled with in probing what reality is— comes alive in this passage from her novel:

In the park, over the low wall, there are two girls playing in the grass. Giants looming over their toys, monstrously out of proportion. They’re holding hands and spinning, leaning farther and farther back until their fingers rope together, chubby flesh and bone enmeshed. What do I see? Angular momentum around their center. A principle of physics in their motion. A girlish memory of grass-stained knees.

I keep walking and recede from the girls’ easy confidence in the world’s mechanisms. I believe they exist, even if my knowledge of them can only be imperfect, a crude sketch of their billions of vibrating atoms. I believe this to be true… I am on an orbit through the universe that crosses the paths of some girls, a teenager, a dog, an old woman…

I could have written this book entirely differently, but then again, maybe this book is the only way it could be, and these are the only choices I could have made. This is me, an unreal composite, maybe part liar, maybe not free.

Another 16th-century painting by Francisco de Holanda from ‘Cosmigraphics.’Click image for more.

Therein lies the obvious question — a question raised memorably and somewhat controversially by C.S. Lewis — of free will in a universe of fixed laws. Levin tells Tippett:

I think it’s a difficult question to understand what it means to have free will if we are completely determined by the laws of physics, and even if we’re not. Because there are things—for instance, in quantum mechanics, which is the theory of physics on the highest energy scales—which imply that there is some kind of quantum randomness so that we’re not completely determined. But randomness doesn’t really help me either.

[…]

There is no clear way of making sense of an idea of free will in a pinball game of strict determinism or in a game with elements of random chance thrown in. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t a free will. I’ve often said maybe someday we’ll just discover something. I mean, quantum mechanics was a surprise. General relativity was a surprise. The idea of curved space-time. All of these great discoveries were great surprises, and we shouldn’t decide ahead of time what is or isn’t true. So it might be that this convincing feeling I have, that I am executing free will, is actually because I’m observing something that is there. I just can’t understand how it’s there. Or it’s a total illusion. It’s a very, very convincing illusion, but it’s an illusion all the same.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s revelatory work on intuition, exposing the lack of correlation between our confidence in our beliefs and the validity of the evidence behind them — something that often manifests as “the backfire effect” — Levin considers the nature of these convincing illusions to which human nature so easily succumbs:

Our convincing feeling is that time is absolute. Our convincing feeling is that there should be no limit to how fast you can travel. Our convincing feelings are based on our experiences because of the size that we are, literally, the speed at which we move, the fact that we evolved on a planet under a particular star. So our eyes, for instance, are at peak in their perception of yellow, which is the wave band the sun peaks at. It’s not an accident that our perceptions and our physical environment are connected. We’re limited, also, by that. That makes our intuitions excellent for ordinary things, for ordinary life. That’s how our brains evolved and our perceptions evolved, to respond to things like the Sun and the Earth and these scales. And if we were quantum particles, we would think quantum mechanics were totally intuitive. Things fluctuating in and out of existence, or not being certain of whether they’re particles or waves — these kinds of strange things that come out of quantum theory — would seem absolutely natural…

Our intuitions are based on our minds, our minds are based on our neural structures, our neural structures evolved on a planet, under a sun, with very specific conditions. We reflect the physical world that we evolved from. It’s not a miracle.

And yet, crucially, the lack of evidence for free will is by no means a license to abdicate personal responsibility in how we move through the world:

If I conclude that there is no free will, it doesn’t mean that I should go run amok in the streets. I’m no more free to make that choice than I am to make any other choice. There’s a practical notion of responsibility or civic free will that we uphold when we prosecute somebody, when we hold juries or when we pursue justice that I completely think is a practical notion that we should continue to pursue. It’s not like I can choose to be irresponsible or responsible because I’m confused about free will.

Six decades earlier, and long before the dawn of modern astrophysics, Anaïs Nin madea humanistic case for the same.

Einstein’s God is a spectacular read in its entirety, as is Levin’s novel. For more perspectives on the relationship between science and spirituality, step into the cultural time machine with Carl Sagan on science and religion, Flannery O’Connor on dogma, belief, and the difference between religion and faith, Alan Lightman on science and spirituality, Ada Lovelace on the interconnectedness of everything, Jane Goodall onscience and spirit, and Sam Harris on spirituality without religion.

 

Krista Tippett is always the best.  Thank You!

Karen Armstrong on Sam Harris and Bill Maher: “It fills me with despair, because this is the sort of talk that led to the concentration camps”

Blaming religion for violence, says Karen Armstrong, allows us to dismiss the violence we’ve exported worldwide

TOPICS: BOOKS, RELIGION, KAREN ARMSTRONG, BILL MAHER, SAM HARRIS, ISLAMOPHOBIA, TERRORISM,RICHARD DAWKINS, EDITOR’S PICKS, FIELDS OF BLOOD, ISLAM, ,
Karen Armstrong on Sam Harris and Bill Maher: "It fills me with despair, because this is the sort of talk that led to the concentration camps"
Sam Harris, Karen Armstrong, Bill Maher (Credit: Knopf/Michael Lionstar/HBO)

Karen Armstrong has written histories of Buddhism and Islam. She has written a history of myth. She has written a history of God. Born in Britain, Armstrong studied English at Oxford, spent seven years as a Catholic nun, and then, after leaving the convent, took a brief detour toward hard-line atheism. During that period, she produced writing that, as she later described it, “tended to the Dawkinsesque.”

Since then, Armstrong has emerged as one of the most popular — and prolific — writers on religion. Her works are densely researched, broadly imagined and imbued with a sympathetic curiosity. They deal with cosmic topics, but they’re accessible enough that you might (just to give a personal example) spend 15 minutes discussing Armstrong books with a dental hygienist in the midst of a routine cleaning.

In her new book, “Fields of Blood,” Armstrong lays out a history of religious violence, beginning in ancient Sumer and stretching into the 21st century. Most writers would — wisely — avoid that kind of breadth. Armstrong harnesses it to a larger thesis. She suggests that when people in the West dismiss violence as a backward byproduct of religion, they’re being lazy and self-serving. Blaming religion, Armstrong argues, allows Westerners to ignore the essential role that violence has played in the formation of our own societies — and the essential role that our societies have played in seeding violence abroad.

Reached by phone in New York, Armstrong spoke with Salon about nationalism, Sept. 11 and the links between anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

Over the course of your career, you’ve developed something of a reputation as an apologist for religion. Is that a fair characterization? If so, why do you think faith needs defenders?

I don’t like the term “apologist.” The word “apologia” in Latin meant giving a rational explanation for something, not saying that you’re sorry for something. I’m not apologizing for religion in that derogatory sense.

After I left my convent I thought, “I’ve had it with religion, completely had it,” and I only fell into this by sheer accident after a series of career disasters. My encounters with other faith traditions showed me first how parochial my original understanding of religion had been, and secondly made me see my own faith in a different way. All the faith traditions have their own particular genius, but they also all have their own particular flaws or failings, because we are humans and we have a fabulous ability to foul things up.

The people who call me an apologist are often those who deride religion as I used to do, and I’ve found that former part of my life to have been rather a limited one.

Your new book is a history of religion and violence. You point out, though, that the concept of “religion” didn’t even exist before the early modern period. What exactly are we talking about, then, when we talk about religion and violence before modern times?

First of all, there is the whole business about religion before the modern period never having been considered a separate activity but infusing and cohering with all other activities, including state-building, politics and warfare. Religion was part of state-building, and a lot of the violence of our world is the violence of the state. Without this violence we wouldn’t have civilization. Agrarian civilization depended upon a massive structural violence. In every single culture or pre-modern state, a small aristocracy expropriated the serfs and peasants and kept them at subsistence level.

This massive, iniquitous system is responsible for our finest achievements, and historians tell us that without this iniquitous system we probably wouldn’t have progressed beyond subsistence level. Therefore, we are all implicated in this violence. No state, however peace-loving it claims to be, can afford to disband its army, so when people say religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history this is a massive oversimplification. Violence is at the heart of our lives, in some form or another.

How do ritual and religion become entangled with this violence?

Well, because state-building was imbued with religious ideology. Every state ideology before the modern period was essentially religious. Trying to extract religion from political life would have been like trying to take the gin out of a cocktail. Things like road-building were regarded as a sort of sacred activity.

Politics was imbued with religious feeling. The prophets of Israel, for example, were deeply political people. They castigated their rulers for not looking after the poor; they cried out against the system of agrarian injustice. Jesus did the same, Mohammed and the Quran do the same. Sometimes, religion permeates the violence of the state, but it also offers the consistent critique of that structural and martial violence.

Is it possible to disentangle that critiquing role from the role of supporting state structures?

I think in the West we have peeled them apart. We’ve separated religion and politics, and this was a great innovation. But so deeply embedded in our consciousness is the desire to give our lives some meaning and significance that no sooner did we do this than we infused the new nation-state with a sort of quasi-religious fervor. If you regard the sacred as something for which we are willing to give our lives, in some senses the nation has replaced God, because it’s now not acceptable to die for religion, but it is admirable to die for your country.

Certainly in the United States, your national feeling, whether people believe in God or not, has a great spiritual or transcendent relevance — “God bless America,” for example; the hand on the heart, the whole ethos. We do the same in the U.K. with our royal weddings. Even in our royal weddings, the aristocracy are all in military uniform.

Ah, that’s a great observation.

In your great parades, you know, when a president dies, there’s the army there.

The religiously articulated state would persecute heretics. They were usually protesting against the social order rather than arguing about theology, and they were seen as a danger to the social order that had to be eliminated. That’s been replaced. Now we persecute our ethnic minorities or fail to give them the same rights.

I’d like to go deeper into this comparison between nationalism and religion. Some people would say that the ultimate problem, here, is a strain of irrationality in our society. They would argue that we need to purge this irrationality wherever we see it, whether it appears in the form of religion or nationalism. How would you respond?

I’m glad you brought that up, because nationalism is hardly rational. But you know, we need mythology in our lives, because that’s what we are. I agree, we should be as rational as we possibly can, especially when we’re dealing with the fates of our own populations and the fates of other peoples. But we don’t, ever. There are always the stories, the myths we tell ourselves, that enable us to inject some kind of ultimate significance, however hard we try to be rational.

Communism was said to be a more rational way to organize a society, and yet it was based on a complete myth that became psychotic. Similarly, the French revolutionaries were imbued with the spirit of the Enlightenment and erected the goddess of reason on the altar of Notre Dame. But in that same year they started the Reign of Terror, where they publicly beheaded 17,000 men, women and children.

We’re haunted by terrible fears and paranoias. We’re frightened beings. When people are afraid, fear takes over and brings out all kind of irrationality. So, yes, we’re constantly striving to be rational, but we’re not wholly rational beings. Purging isn’t an answer, I think. When you say “purging,” I have visions of some of the catastrophes of the 20th century in which we tried to purge people, and I don’t like that kind of language.

Let’s try a different analogy: Perhaps our search for narrative and meaning is a bit like a fire. It can go out of control and burn people pretty badly. Seeing this destruction, some people say we should just put out the fire whenever we can. There are others who argue that the fire will always be there, that it has benefits, and that we need to work with it to the best of our abilities. And you’re sort of in the latter camp, yes?

I would say so … If we lack meaning, if we fail to find meaning in our lives, we could fall very easily into despair. One of the forensic psychiatrists who have interviewed about 500 people involved in the 9/11 atrocity, and those lone-wolves like the Boston Marathon people, has found that one of the principal causes for their turning to these actions was a sense of lack of meaning; a sense of meaningless and purposelessness and hopelessness in their lives. I think lack of meaning is a dangerous thing in society.

There’s been a very strong void in modern culture, despite our magnificent achievements. We’ve seen the nihilism of the suicide bomber, for example. A sense of going into a void.

In “Fields of Blood,” you explore how the material needs of people can give rise to more abstract ideas. So, speaking about nihilism as something particular to the modern era: Are there political or social conditions that underlie this sense of meaninglessness?

Yes. The suicide bomber has been analyzed by Robert Pape of the University of Chicago, who has made a study of every single suicide bombing from 1980 to 2004. He has found that it’s always a response to the invasion of the homeland by a militarily superior power. People feel their space is invaded, and they resort to this kind of action because they can’t compete with the invaders. [Suicide bombing] was a ploy [first] used by the Tamil Tigers, who had no time for religion. Of the many Lebanese bombings [in the 1980s], only seven of them were committed by Muslims, three by Christians. The rest, some 17 or so, were committed by secularists and socialists coming in from Syria.

I think a sense of hopelessness is particularly evident in the suicide bombings of Hamas, where these young people live in refugee camps in Gaza, with really very little hope or very little to look forward to. People who talk to survivors of these actions found that the desire to die a heroic death, to go out in a blaze of glory and at least have some meaning in their lives and be venerated and remembered after their death, was the driving factor.

There’s a line in your book that struck me: “Terrorism is fundamentally and inherently political, even when other motives, religious, economic, and social, are involved. Terrorism is always about power.”

I think I’m quoting some terrorist specialist there.

Even when [terrorists] claim to be doing it for Allah, they’re also doing it for political motives. It’s very clear in bin Laden’s discourse. He talks about God and Allah and Islam and the infidels and all that, but he had very clear political aims and attitudes towards Saudi Arabia, towards Western involvement in Middle Eastern affairs. The way he talked always about Zionists and crusaders rather than Jews and Christians — these are political terms. Since the early 20th century the term “crusade” has come to stand for Western imperialism.

In the Hamas martyr videos, the young martyr will segue very easily from mentioning Allah the Lord of the world, and then within a couple of words he’s talking about the liberation of Palestine — it’s pure nationalism — and then he’s into a third-world ideology, saying his death will be a beacon of hope to all the oppressed people who are suffering at the hands of the Western world. These things are mixed up in that cocktail in his mind, but there’s always a strong political element, not just a going towards God.

In fact, all our motivation is always mixed. As a young nun, I spent years trying to do everything purely for God, and it’s just not possible. Our self-interest and other motivations constantly flood our most idealistic efforts. So, yes, terrorism is always about power — wanting to get power, or destroy the current power-holders, or pull down the edifices of power which they feel to be oppressive or corruptive in some way.

How direct is the link between colonial policies in the Middle East and a terrorist attack in New York or London?

I think — and I speak as a British person — when I saw the towers fall on September 11, one of the many, many thoughts that went through my head was, “We helped to do this.” The way we split up these states, created these nation-states that ISIS is pulling asunder, showed absolutely no regard for the people concerned. Nationalism was completely alien to the region; they had no understanding of it. The borders were cobbled together with astonishing insouciance and self-interest on the part of the British.

Plus, a major cause of unrest and alienation has always been humiliation. Islam was, before the colonial period, the great world power, rather like the United States today. It was reduced overnight to a dependent bloc and treated by the colonialists with frank disdain. That humiliation has rankled, and it would rankle, I think, here in the States. Supposing in a few decades you are demoted by China, it may not be so pretty here.

Every fundamentalist movement that I’ve studied, in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is rooted in a profound fear of annihilation.

So, when we in the West talk about religion as the cause of this violence, how much are we letting ourselves off the hook, and using religion as a way to ignore our role in the roots of this violence?

We’re in danger of making a scapegoat of things, and not looking at our own part in this. When we look at these states and say, “Why can’t they get their act together? Why can’t they see that secularism is the better way? Why are they so in thrall to this benighted religion of theirs? What savages they are,” and so on, we’ve forgotten to see our implication in their histories.

We came to modernity under our own steam. It was our creation. It had two characteristics. One of these was independence — your Declaration of Independence is a typical modernizing document. And you have thinkers and scientists demanding free thought and independent thinking. This was essential to our modernity. But in the Middle East, in the colonized countries, modernity was a colonial subjection, not independence.

Without a sense of independence and a driving force for innovation, however many skyscrapers and fighter jets you may possess, and computers and technological gadgets, without these qualities you don’t really have the modern spirit. That modern spirit is almost impossible to acquire in countries where modernity has been imposed from outside.

When you hear, for example, Sam Harris and Bill Maher recently arguing that there’s something inherently violent about Islam — Sam Harris said something like “Islam is the motherlode of bad ideas” — when you hear something like that, how do you respond?

It fills me with despair, because this is the sort of talk that led to the concentration camps in Europe. This is the kind of thing people were saying about Jews in the 1930s and ’40s in Europe.

This is how I got into this, not because I’m dying to apologize, as you say, for religion, or because I’m filled with love and sympathy and kindness for all beings including Muslims — no. I’m filled with a sense of dread. We pride ourselves so much on our fairness and our toleration, and yet we’ve been guilty of great wrongs. Germany was one of the most cultivated countries in Europe; it was one of the leading players in the Enlightenment, and yet we discovered that a concentration camp can exist within the same vicinity as a university.

There has always been this hard edge in modernity. John Locke, apostle of toleration, said the liberal state could under no circumstances tolerate the presence of either Catholics or Muslims. Locke also said that a master had absolute and despotical power over a slave, which included the right to kill him at any time.

That was the attitude that we British and French colonists took to the colonies, that these people didn’t have the same rights as us. I hear that same disdain in Sam Harris, and it fills me with a sense of dread and despair.

Is Islamophobia today comparable to anti-Semitism?

Let’s hope not. It’s deeply enshrined in Western culture. It goes right back to the Crusades, and the two victims of the crusaders were the Jews in Europe and the Muslims in the Middle East.

Right, because Jews along the crusaders’ routes would be massacred —

They became associated in the European mind. We’ve recoiled, quite rightly, from our anti-Semitism, but we still have not recoiled from our Islamophobia. That has remained. It’s also very easy to hate people we’ve wronged. If you wrong somebody there’s a huge sense of resentment and distress. That is there, and that is part of it, too.

I remember speaking at NATO once, and a German high officer of NATO got up and spoke of the Turks resident in Germany, the migrant workers who do the work, basically, that Germans don’t want to do. He said, “Look, I don’t want to see these people. They must eat in their own restaurants. I don’t want to see them, they must disappear. I don’t want to see them in the streets in their distinctive dress, I don’t want to seem their special restaurants, I don’t want to see them.” I said, “Look, after what happened in Germany in the 1930s, we cannot talk like that, as Europeans, about people disappearing.”

Similarly, a Dutch person got up and said, “This is my culture, and these migrants are destroying and undermining our cultural achievements.” I said, “Now you, as the Netherlands, a former imperial power, are beginning to get a pinprick of the pain that happened when we went into these countries and changed them forever. They’re with us now because we went to them first; this is just the next stage of colonization. We made those countries impossible to live in, so here they are now with us.”

How should one respond to something like the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia, or the threat of terrorism that originates in Muslim countries?

Saudi Arabia is a real problem, there’s no doubt about it. It has been really responsible, by using its massive petrol dollars, for exporting its extraordinarily maverick and narrow form of Islam all over the world. Saudis are not themselves extremists, but the narrowness of their religious views are antithetical to the traditional pluralism of Islam.

We’ve turned a blind eye to what the Saudis do because of oil, and because we see them as a loyal ally, and because, during the Cold War, we approved of their stance against Soviet influence in the Middle East.

Fundamentalism represents a rebellion against modernity, and one of the hallmarks of modernity has been the liberation of women. There’s nothing in the Quran to justify either the veiling or the seclusion of women. The Quran gave women rights of inheritance and divorce, legal rights we didn’t have in the West until the 19th century.

That’s what I feel about the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia. It’s iniquitous, and it’s certainly not Quranic.

Where do you, as someone outside of a tradition, get the authority to say what is or isn’t Quranic?

I talk to imams and Muslims who are in the traditions.

I think it’s easy to say, “Well the text isn’t binding” when you see something in there that you don’t like. But when you see something in the text that you do want to uphold, it’s tempting to go, “Oh, look, it’s in the text.”

Oh, it is. We do it with all our foundation texts — you’re always arguing about the Constitution, for example. It’s what we do. Previously, before the modern period, the Quran was never read in isolation. It was always read from the viewpoint of a long tradition of complicated, medieval exegesis which actually reined in simplistic interpretation. That doesn’t apply to these freelancers who read “Islam for Dummies” …

– and then do with it what they will.

Yes.

Rabbi Will Berkovitz is the senior vice president of Repair the World, a national organization that seeks to make service a defining element of American Jewish life. (RNS) On the eve of the Day of Atonement, the story goes, when the house was quiet, the tailor went to the closet and took out a ledger.

“Master of the Universe,” he said, “the time has come for You and me to reckon up our sins for this past year.” He began by listing the sins he had committed. Then he went back to the closet, took out a thicker, heavier notebook and said, “Lord, first I listed my sins, and now I will list Yours.”

When he was finished, he said, “To tell the truth, You owe me more than I owe You, but I’d just as soon not keep strict accounts. We are commanded to forgive the wrongs that have been done to us. Why don’t I just forgive You and You forgive me?”

So much of what we do during Yom Kippur is a recount of our sins — great and small. The tradition teaches: For transgressions between individuals and God, Yom Kippur atones. We ask God for forgiveness.

But increasingly, I am feeling like the tailor, that we are not the only ones who need forgiveness.

I have lost friends and family to cancer this year, and I feel outraged at God. I have been sickened by the images from mudslides, hurricanes and earthquakes, not to mention the suffering we humans bring upon each other in the name of religion, politics or just vengeance.

There are times when I feel like washing my hands of this abusive relationship. I want to scream into the whirlwind, into the void I was once sure God filled. I want to scream: “I don’t believe in you! We are alone in the universe. There is no master plan. There is no Power or Creator.”

God may not ask for my forgiveness, but yet I feel a need in my soul to struggle, like a drowning man, to forgive God for all God’s sins against humanity. If I do not forgive God, how can I believe in God? How can I stand and tell others to ask for God’s forgiveness?

When Ebola orphans thousands of children in Africa, I find it very difficult to stand, bow and recite the Barachu — a praise of God. What brings a mother to stand and recite the Kaddish — a declaration of God’s greatness — over her deceased daughter? Yes, I believe in the great and small miracles that surround us every day. And I believe God is present everywhere if we only look.

But that does not absolve God. I am demanding God take responsibility. I demand an accounting.

After I have listed the places where I was not my highest self, the places where I fell, after I continue that hard uncompromising look into my soul, after I ask for forgiveness, I will leave a silence. And then, like the tailor, I will list God’s sins against humanity. The places where God has tested the limits of my faith, those crevasses filled with doubt, anger and disappointment. The vast wasteland of uncertainty and frustration.

My religious life feels like one epic struggle to believe there is some Higher Order in the universe. When I am standing in a place of prayer, I bring my confusion and my doubts. But I ultimately strive to believe God is El Elyon, God on High. I may at times feel like I am talking to myself, but I struggle to believe I am standing before Ha’ribono shel ha’olam – the Master of the Universe. I want to believe there is a God to serve. And I believe that God needs forgiveness. If not for God’s sake, then for my own.

By forgiving God, I make God relevant in my life. By forgiving God, I can allow room for my doubts, my struggles, my confusion. By forgiving God, I maintain my relationship and a connection with God — no matter how tenuous it may be at times.

It is not easy to forgive, but I will.

Because I do not want to write off the relationship.

Because there is too much to be lost by simply walking away.

Because I want my young children to develop their own relationships and come to their own conclusions.

Because despite the pain, sorrow and suffering, I want my universe full of miracles, not devoid of them.

Because I do not want to be one more angry, old cynic in the world.

I want to believe a voice still calls out from Sinai, from heaven.

I want to engage in the eternal conversations with the ancestors and sages. Despite it all, I want to live my life in praise — and awe — in wonder and hope. Even if I am wrong, even if at the end there is nothing but darkness. Despite my overwhelming desire to walk the other way, I will strive to forgive. Despite it all, I want to surround myself with the people of Jacob, of Israel, with those who struggle with God.

That is why I will forgive God.

And as the final shofar blasts and the gates of heaven close, I want to feel I am forgiven by God. I have faith in the power of that two-way forgiveness. When I forgive God, God becomes a force in the world, not some dusty ancient relic. When I forgive God, God reigns. And God regains some exalted place in the universe and in my life.

So, I will take the lead and forgive God. I will shout forgiveness into the whirlwind. And please God, forgive us. Please God, forgive me.

(Rabbi Will Berkovitz is chief executive officer of Jewish Family Service of Seattle, a 122-year-old agency that delivers essential human services.) 

KRE/MG END BERKOVITZ

James Weldon Johnson  (With thanks to Speaking to the Soul).

Related Readings

Psalm 46:1-8
Sirach 39:1-11
Ephesians 6:10-18
Luke 1:53-75

Commemoration of James Weldon Johnson

And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I’m lonely—
I’ll make me a world.

And far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.

Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said: That’s good!

— from The Creation*

Every culture has a legend of how things came to be. It is a foundational story of their origins, their roots, and it helps them feel integrated into the community who shares the legend. We hear the creation story from the Hebrew Bible in our Christian church at least twice a year and it reminds us that we had a common story of how things came to be and where our history began.

It’s interesting to read creation stories from other cultures. The Yoruba legend from southwestern Nigeria and southern Benin featured a god climbing down from the sky on a golden chain with a number of things such as a snail shell, sand, a rooster and a black cat. The Navajo began in a small underground world with four seas and an island in the middle and progressed up through two more worlds until they reached the fourth world they inhabit now. The Chinese have a number of creation stories, one of which features Phan Ku who was contained in a cosmic egg along with yin and yang, all things that were opposite each other. He grew and finally split the egg open, taking the yin and the yang, the dark and the light, the earth and the sky, the male and the female, and separated them (human beings came from the fleas in his hair). The Babylonian legend, called the Enuma Elish, begins with Apsu (representing sweet water) and Tiamat (representing salt water) mix at the origins of the Tigris and Euphrates, producing two other entities (male and female) representing mud or silt, who produced two more representing earth and sky who produced to more… and so it goes.

One version of the creation story that captured my imagination as a young adult was actually a poem and a sermon and a lesson in seeing things in a new way all at once. The poem, The Creation, was one of seven sermons in verse written by a man named James Weldon Johnson. The poem, written in the style of a Southern African American preacher, showed God doing things as well as speaking them. His imagery is of a God physically rolling a ball around in his hand and then flinging the moon into the darkness with tiny droplets flying off like tiny droplets of paint. These became the stars. The poem builds until we see God, getting down in the dust and molding a figure and then breathing life into it. With that, man came into being, created from the most common of materials but in the image of the Almighty God and bearing the breath of that same God within it. The imagery for me is poignant and spine-tingling.

I don’t think we ever really conceive of God having fun. Sometimes we joke about it when we see funny-looking animals like aardvarks and platypuses, even familiar and beloved ones like elephants and giraffes, but we do so almost with glances over our shoulders to see if God isn’t sending a fireball after us for giving God a very human enjoyment of creating something amusing. Perhaps it is heresy or blasphemy or something, but I do think God had fun during creation. “I think I’ll add a few more inches to this nose,” “Hmmm, big flippers at the front and small ones at the back,” “I think I’ll add a purr to this vocabulary.” When it came to humankind, though, God changed from having fun to something else. Johnson portrays God as like a “…mammy bending over her baby,” a very intimate and gentle action like the woman with her newborn, utterly, completely, totally in love with it. That’s a very different portrayal of God from the usual ones of the punishing, judging, angry God or even the one we hear about who loves us but that we don’t really accept because we know we are so flawed so how could a perfect God love us?

Jamesweldonjohnson.jpg
Johnson’s poem is a story told by a master storyteller, born of a tradition of preaching that regarded stories as integral parts of the lesson. It isn’t a story to be read in a monotone or even with well-modulated restraint. It begs us to read it with passion and to hear the passion in it. The phrases rise and fall like waves on an ocean, building to a peak and dropping away so that often the most important phrases are almost whispered. The intensity builds within each aspect of creation but then, softly, “That’s good” appears. It is God’s affirmation, a word of completeness, an appreciation of what has taken place. Like the sun breaking through the clouds after a violent storm, it reassures us and makes us think, no matter how briefly, of how good things really are, and how quietly they can be appreciated before we go back to business as usual.

We know the creation story, most of us from childhood. We grow up with it and it never really changes much for us. Then we read a new translation of it or hear something like Johnson’s poem that puts it all in a different light and we grow a bit in the process. We open our eyes to something new and we are changed, ever so slightly, perhaps, but changed nonetheless.

I’ve loved this poem for years. I’ve never been able to memorize it but I’ve never forgotten it. Now and again I pull out that book and re-read it, taking the images into my mind and somehow feeling better about things as I read about a rainbow curling around God’s shoulders.

James Weldon Johnson was more than a poet; he was also an educator, a successful diplomat with the gift of bringing divergent voices to the table for discussion about difficult subjects, a collaborator with his brother on lyrics and music for Broadway and a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a cause to which most of his life was dedicated. But it is as a poet, a preacher, and an exemplary human being that I celebrate him today.

In my mind’s ear, I hear James Earl Jones’ sonorous and glorious voice, “And God said: That’s good!” Somehow I think God gets a kick out of it too.

* Johnson, James Weldon, God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, (1955, paperback ed.) New York: Penguin Books (17).

For more about James Weldon Johnson, see James Kiefer’s biographical sketch.
Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter . She lives in the Diocese of Arizona and is proud to be part of the Church of the Nativity in North Scottsdale.

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I know this now. Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing yet they give their lives to that little or nothing. One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. And then it is gone. But to sacrifice what you are and live without belief, that's more terrible than dying.--

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Beannacht

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O'Donohue, Echoes of Memory