Suddenly, there were “vast depths of ideas and thoughts that I began to discover in Judaism and Christianity, depths that are still hidden from many people who are, as I was, unable to see beneath the surface of our culture’s religious symbols and doctrines. Even now … I see again and again, time after time, that what I have taken to be the deeper meaning of the Judaic and Christian idea of God is only another ‘surface’—however deep, relatively, it may lie—behind or beneath which, or within which, the real mystery of the meaning of God still remains hidden in all its unformed and unmanifested power.”
You may recognize Jacob Needleman from PBS’ Bill Moyers specials. If you’re a follower of religious movements, you may have Needleman’s landmark 1970 book, “The New Religions,” on your shelf already. That book, which introduced many Americans to the seemingly exotic Eastern religions arriving on our West Coast at that time, remains so significant that the book was republished last year in a Tarcher Cornerstone Edition.
Now, Tarcher/Penguin adds “What Is God?”—a brand new 250-page memoir-and-plea from Needleman for all of us to keep searching for God, even as that journey becomes more urgent and challenging.
When Needleman set out to write this new book about the nature of God, he quickly decided that the most fitting format for this subject matter would be—memoir. The best way to convey the human experience of the Divine, he found, is to write honestly about the often-surprising and sometimes-frustrating human pursuit of God. Finally, he wound up telling the story of his own life-long search. In this book, you will encounter many famous names, but the nature of God in each generation ultimately depends on individual encounters, he tells us.
That’s why it’s such a compelling book.
All you have to do is read the first chapter, “My Father’s God,” describing his boyhood experience of sitting on the front porch late one night in Philadelphia with his father, to discover that you simply can’t put down the book. In addition to the wonderment little Jacob finds in the starry night sky, he soon begins to sift through unresolved childhood memories from the death of an aunt—and we find ourselves completely wrapped up in his spiritual journey.
Because, of course, it is our journey, too.
How many of us were curious children? How many of us had puzzlingly distant relatives? How many of us looked at stars? How many of us wondered about Heaven? About God?
As a young man who migrates to California, Needleman takes us into the heart of his academic work as a fledgling college instructor. At first, he considers himself a religious skeptic but he must prepare to teach his first comparative-religion classes. At first, he has an actual revulsion toward some of the historic religious texts he is preparing to “teach” in his class.
However, like the night on the front porch, the cosmos seem to open in unexpected ways. The italic quote above, today, is from that portion of Needleman’s memoir when these sacred texts surprise him with their timeless power. These texts, some of which he once rejected, take him farther and deeper than he ever expects.
His book ends with a plea for the future of faith and humanity that will leave you nodding as you close the book.
Click Here to order a copy of “What is God?” by Jacob Needleman now from Amazon.
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR CONVERSATION
WITH JACOB NEEDLEMAN on “WHAT IS GOD?”
DAVID: You’re 75 and still teaching.
JACOB: Yes, that’s correct.
DAVID: Tell us a bit about where you live and what you’re teaching these days.
JACOB: I live in the San Francisco Bay area, but now I live in Oakland, across the bay from where I lived for about 40 years. I just became “emeritus” at San Francisco State University, but I am still teaching as Professor of Philosophy.
DAVID: It’s important to explain to readers, I think, that you’re not a researcher isolated from students. Your new book talks about how important preparing for these classes—and interacting with students—has been in your own spiritual awakening.
JACOB: Yes, for almost 50 years I’ve been in the classroom. I usually teach three courses. Now, I’ve cut back a little bit and I teach one course this term. I’ve taught History of Philosophy, looking at philosophers and philosophical issues. And I teach Comparative Religion, looking at questions in religions. So, those are my two areas: philosophy and religion. I don’t teach Philosophy of Religion, which usually implies an outside stance about religion that suggests you don’t take it that seriously on its own terms.
I try to teach about religion as religion understands itself.
DAVID: This is important background, because this new book is mainly a memoir. You answer the question “What Is God?” and a whole series of other questions, as well, by telling the moving story of how religion seemed to surface—to break through almost unexpectedly—at various points in your life.
This is a memoir of a life unexpectedly encountering the timeless power of religion to awaken new insights. Am I describing that correctly?
JACOB: I’m absolutely delighted that’s the way you see this book. That’s absolutely what I hoped—that the narrative would be the strongest way to convey what I’m writing about here. That’s the reason I chose this particular form for this book.
This is my narrative of how I encountered these ideas. I started teaching in the field of religious studies almost reluctantly, but the more I taught, the more I came to see how deeply I did not understand the religious traditions of my own culture and also of the East.
As I taught for many years in this area, I got more and more interested in religious thought. As my interest grew, I saw a dynamic convergence in the teachings of all the great traditions. There was a common, universal vision of the central questions, such as: What is humanity? And: What should we be doing with our lives?
When new religious movements began entering into the San Francisco area in the 1960s, I decided I wanted to write not so much for the academic specialists but for the general public. I wanted to see how this convergence of humanity in the light of the world might provide answers for the problems we all face.
In working on this new book, it was very clear to me that the question, “What Is God?” is a burning question—and also a very necessary question—in our time. So, I rolled up my sleeves and tackled this impossible question: “What Is God?” I found myself from the very first line of the book almost jerked by the back of my neck telling me: This is going to be personal.
DAVID: Let’s step back for a moment to one of your most famous books—and it’s a book now available in a brand-new paperback edition: “The New Religions,” first published in 1970.
I remember that book when it was new. I was one of those readers who was amazed to flip through the pages and read about these “exotic” religions now blossoming on our own American soil. I wanted to know more. But you didn’t reveal much, in writing that book, about what was going on in your own life.
Now, in this new book, we learn that “The New Religions” was written in this very era when you were undergoing a personal transformation in your approach to the subject of religion. You didn’t disclose that in your 1970 book, I’m assuming because it was such a fresh part of your life.
But that 1970 book, on its own, I think really has stood the test of time. I just pulled it off the shelf and read most of it again. In that era, it was this startling new book about these “new” religions from Asia that were making a strong foothold on the West Coast.
JACOB: When you write a book, then many years later you decide to look back into what you wrote—you often want to sit down with a strong drink next to you because you expect to wince as you read it.
But, as I re-read that book recently, I actually didn’t wince when I read it. It turned out to be better, after all those years, than I expected.
The stance it took is exactly what you say: The main aim of that book was not so much to make a philosophically sophisticated report, but a means of opening up ideas and deepening questions for general readers.
DAVID: One of my favorite sections in that 1970 book is titled, “What Is California?” You play with the question of why California attracted so many seemingly strange innovations in that era.
Is California still so different in this regard? What would you say?
JACOB: (chuckles) Yes, it’s still different. It’s still Californialand. What started here, however, has spread all over, not only all over the coasts—but all across the country and around the world. It’s worldwide at least in the Western world, these new religious movements, this emphasis on spirituality, fragments of religious traditions reshaping themselves into whole new religions, the psychological use of religion. Things that were weird and odd that first came through California are now everywhere. These ideas show up now from perfumes to business logos.
DAVID: From herbal teas to yoga gear in Target stores.
JACOB: Right. In many of these forms, the ideas are cheapened and reduced—but you see this evidence everywhere.
And California still is probably the place where these things appear first, for better or worse. People still seem to arrive in California, throw off their overcoats and try to find themselves here. What we called the New Age is now a negative phrase—in many ways justifiably and some things are bad and weird about it—but all of this does reflect a real and deep yearning in the culture for something meaningful in life. This is especially true among young people.
DAVID: What I find so moving in this new book is that it starts with this childhood scene of you and your father on the porch—then you go through a top-notch education and you wind up with no use for religion at all. You’re essentially an atheist at that point.
Then you land this job teaching about religion in San Francisco. And, while encountering these ancient texts—some powerful doors open up.
JACOB: Just as you’ve said, I was well educated in some of the best universities in the country. But, when I had to teach in this area, I had to roll up my sleeves and start reading all of this material about religion. I didn’t think I’d find it very congenial.
I began reading about Jewish mysticism and reading the actual text of what most people call the Old Testament, which is something I had only encountered in bits and pieces in my background growing up.
I was stunned by the depths and the metaphysics and the questions within this tradition. It touched me in a way I had not expected.
Of course, I was always searching. I was interested very much in Zen Buddhism in my senior year in college. I regarded the idea that there was an inner life as a sophisticated science of inner awakening. I found this in the Zen writings I read in my own college studies.
When I saw that Judaism had very much a similar system of practices, I began to follow that further and began to understand the allegorical and symbolical meanings of scripture—and in works like Maimonides.
Next, I had to read Christianity, which I not only didn’t really understand but also feared. In my family, Christianity was like an enemy because of all the anti-Semitism we had experienced. Then, I found Augustine deeply fascinating. The early Christian theologians were so interesting!
Reading about the early Christian fathers in the deserts of Africa and their depth in what we might call Eastern traditions, I was blown away.
I discovered I’d had a false picture growing up of the depth and complexity of these religions.
DAVID: Today, you’re continuing to call on readers to engage in their own quests—and, in this new book, you argue that it may wind up being religion that helps humanity save the planet.
If we rediscover the unifying depths of religion, the deeper values that can bring people together, then we might possibly survive the monumental crises we’re facing.
JACOB: I’m optimistic without being gullible or foolish. I’m optimistic when I see that people are breaking through of the crust into yearning—and are thinking about the changes we need to make. I’m not entirely optimistic that we can make all the changes we really need, now.
DAVID: You write that you feel the world’s time is short. Here’s a brief passage near the end of your book. You plead with readers to enable “doors to be open to those who are touched by the great wish that leads to the personal search for God, whether that search takes place in the hidden heart of our own ancient teachings; or in the still living practical mysticism of Eastern teachings; or in the rediscovered path leading to the awakening of Conscious Atttention; or in ways still, for all we know, hidden and waiting to be ‘switched on’ in our civilization.
“Both in our Earth and in our personal lives—we are perhaps at an unimaginably critical juncture in the life of man on Earth.
“We cannot wait for very long. The time remaining is very short, is it not?”
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