Jacob Needleman on rediscovering our world

Our first image of the Earth from outer space, taken by a camera-equipped rocket fired in 1946.From his home in the San Francisco Bay area, Jacob Needleman still teaches, writes and, when he sits back on a quiet night to contemplate our world—he still enjoys looking up at the stars and waaaay back into his own origins. Looking to the stars? Recalling our origins? Does it sound like something out of a superhero comic book? In his newest book, Jacob Needleman says these forms of reflection are distinctively human. In a healthy way, they can reconnect us with the vast story of the Earth, so that we can recognize our role in our planet’s unfolding drama. Read Part 1 of our coverage for a more complete overview of Needleman’s new book, An Unknown World.
Today, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talks with the author in …


CLICK THE COVER TO VISIT THE BOOK’S AMAZON PAGE.DAVID: As I read your latest work along with the other urgent voices we are hearing around the world today, I think of your book as an answer to writers like Yale’s James Gustave Speth who is calling for “a new narrative” that reawakens a global appreciation of the Earth.

JACOB: Yes, I’m glad if readers find that kind of vision and promise in my book. I agree that we do need a new narrative about our world, our species, ourselves—if we are to survive. I’m very glad to think of this book in that way.

DAVID: As we will point out in the first part of our coverage, Speth certainly isn’t alone. There are a surprising number of secular writers who want to form collegial relationships with religious communities. Writers like Speth and E.O. Wilson are not talking about making a sudden conversion. But, they are talking in a refreshing way about sharing a vision of the Earth between science and religion.

JACOB: I see this, too. You’re describing what really is a widespread hunger among scientists, young people and so many others. People may not want to call it “religion” or “spirituality,” but there certainly is a hunger for meaning in life.

DAVID: I’m surprised, too, at how many of these recent writers who we might call scientific skeptics also direct their readers back to childhood—to remember what first got them excited about the Earth.

WIDENING OUR AWARENESS OF OURSELVES: In 1948, our snapshot of our world expanded! From single grainy images, scientists assembled this panorama of a broader section of our globe.


JACOB: To go back to childhood is the same thing as reaching back for something we are born with and something we grow up containing. Plato would describe it as an element in ourselves that we are born with. It’s an inner need to open to something higher and greater than ourselves.

Plato referred to this as Eros, but he wasn’t using the term with a sexual meaning. It’s an inner need to open to something higher and greater than ourselves. Yes, one element of what Plato was describing is our love of knowledge and wisdom—but he also was describing our inner need to open ourselves to something higher and greater than ourselves. It’s that part of Plato’s Eros that has been repressed by secularism and scientism, and notice that I’m using that second term with “ism” attached to it. Since the time of Plato, we have known that humans have a need to be aware of something greater than ourselves. It’s an absolutely essential element of who we are—and it cannot be repressed without further damaging our future. To go back to childhood goes back to a time in life when that aspect of Platonic Eros was alive and influencing us, our thoughts, our hopes, our dreams. That’s where we can join with great scientists, with searching philosophers, with religious seekers and with so many young people today. When we reach toward that point of sharing this larger need, then hope opens up for us.

DAVID: You see this as especially compelling for college-age students, right?

JACOB: Oh, yes. For example, I taught a course on Ralph Waldo Emerson and, in this digital age, I wondered: Would any students be interested? I was surprised that the students were absolutely enthralled with Emerson! So, I asked them: “Why do you like this so much?” One student said: “It brought me hope.” And other students agreed with that first student.

These are questions we all want to answer: What is our hope? How do we find it? Emerson recognized that these questions touch on something that we have largely hidden from ourselves. Many people now have forgotten these questions. Emerson knew that we needed to ask them, again.

A BOOK-SIZE GLIMPSE OF THE WORLD FOR KIDS: In his new book, Jacob Needleman writes about The Stars for Sam, a popular science book for young readers that forever shaped his own life.DAVID: When readers open your book, you take them right back to your childhood. So, give us a little explanation. Where did you grow up? Who was this young friend you describe in the book?

JACOB: The setting is Philadelphia, where I lived from about age 7 to 12 or 13. I open the book in the lower-middle-class neighborhood where we lived. We had difficulties making ends meet. I was already deeply interested in astronomy; I had such a sense of wonder about the world, the planets, the stars, the universe. I met my friend when I was about 10 or 11 and he was a little older than me. I give him the name Elias in the book, which wasn’t his real name. But we really would sit together on a low stone wall along a neighbor’s yard, just as I describe it. We would talk about the life, living things and the whole universe. He was a close friend and we met all the time to talk about these things. Then, he died of leukemia when he was about 14 or so. I was about 13 at the time. This was a great blow to me.

DAVID: In your new book, you also tell us about a children’s picture book that forever shaped your life: The Stars for Sam. I’ve got a copy of a 1960s edition of the book, which originally was published back in the 1930s. It’s a straight-up scientific picture book for kids. It’s not fiction, not fanciful at all. What’s so important about witnessing scientific wonders?


AN EYE-POPPING GLIMPSE OF THE EARTH. Finally, in 1972, Apollo 17 was in position to capture an image of our planet that stretched from North to South Pole. “The Blue Marble,” the popular title for this historic photo, revolutionized our awareness of the planet.JACOB: We have lost the cosmic dimension to our lives. We need to reach out and explore. It’s absolutely essential. You know that in most cities, we can no longer see the stars at night. The light humans make today has eclipsed the light of our stars and—right there—we’ve described the problem we face. Even the light of human reason, which is a wonderful light in itself, has eclipsed the greater questions we need to explore.

I remember going to a big NASA night launch at a time when about a thousand reporters were covering the event. I could hear reporters sounding skeptical as they talked about all the dollars we were spending on this big project, when there were so many other needs in the world.

Right there, across the big lagoon from us, was this rocket about 30 stories high. The lights were shining on it like a massive spiritual symbol. The countdown was going on and I could hear Walter Cronkite’s voice talking about the launch. Everyone was talking around me; people were laughing; the countdown continued. Then we got to 10, 9, 8—and in the final seconds we suddenly saw these huge, brilliant orange flames all around the base of the rocket. So gorgeous! And, I realized that there was not a single sound. You know, at first, the light comes across the lagoon and reaches our eyes before the sound arrives. When the sound came across the lagoon, we felt a rumbling that was the deepest and most beautiful sound any of us had ever heard. It went right through the body. It affected the heart. One would have followed that sound anywhere. This huge skyscraper of a rocket started rising. Our jaws were dropping!

This was a deeply spiritual event. We watched this rocket go up and up. It separated and it turned into what looked like a star. At the same moment, we all were aware that there were human beings, just like us, in the middle of that. Then, the rocket all but disappeared—yet the silence persisted where we stood. People were so touched with wonder at what we had just experienced together that there was little anyone could say. I do recall one of the most cynical reporters simply saying, “I had no idea it was like this.”

That night, people were so touched that they became normal again. Their better natures resurfaced. As they were preparing to leave, people stood quietly, talked softly, helped each other. There was no more wise cracking. People were gentle and civil. If there is a key to world peace, it starts with rediscovering our wonderment.


DAVID: One experience that everyone in their 40s or older can recall is our first glimpse of “The Blue Marble,” the famous first photo of Earth from outer space that showed the whole planet—pole to pole. That’s one potential asset we share, now, around the world. We are the first generations in world history to have seen our planet from a perspective outside the Earth.

JACOB: The appearance of the Blue Marble photo was such a huge event for most of us. I was younger than I am now, of course, and I can remember my response to it. At that point, we knew the scientific facts. Of course, we knew the world was round. We knew the shape of the continents. But a lot of the facts we know are not processed by the part of ourselves that connects with true meaning. Our standard of knowing is so literal that it precludes us from experiencing that deeper meaning, purpose and value. That’s why I write in this new book that scientism—and again I’m using that “ism” form of the word—can only tell us what is real. It can’t tell us the underlying meaning. That Blue Marble photograph broke through that barrier. I remember seeing it for the first time and it was like an ancient scripture suddenly revealed to the light of day again. People perceived that photo with both heart and mind.

JACOB NEEDELMAN: ‘The Earth is a sacred book.’

DAVID: So now we’re getting at the ultimate message of your new book: The Earth is more than a huge rock circling the sun. The Earth is sacred book in itself. What you you’re describing is not some kind of crazy DaVinci Code or National Treasure kind of conspiracy theory about global secrets. What you’re trying to explain is that science is an important way to “read” the Earth—but it’s a literal reading. We also need a spiritual reading of the Earth.

JACOB: You’re talking about the whole theme of the book. Everything I’ve been trying to understand about myself, to research as a scholar and to share with others is contained in that line: The Earth is a sacred book. When you really feel the deeper meanings of scriptures, you are stunned. You are in awe. You become quiet as this experience rolls through you. That’s what I just described on that night of the NASA launch. The answer to the many challenges we face in the world today is not to pour more agitated religious fervor or political ideology over our problems. Even strict scientism can’t uncover solutions. The answer lies in our search for meaning and the possibility that we just might come together in a community that is more civil and more benevolent because we share a sense of awe. And, in fact, this is an appeal that falls on the ears of so many people, especially young people, who feel this deep hunger for meaning rising within them. They’ve had enough horizontal distractions in our culture. They want vertical ideas—ideas that look toward higher purposes in life. If we could leave readers with one line, it would be: The Earth is a sacred book.

Care to read Part 1 of our coverage of An Unknown World? That first story also contains links to several other related books and ReadTheSpirit stories.

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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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