Jacob Needleman rewakening the story of the Earth

Once upon a time, we all discovered the Earth. Perhaps, for you, it was your first glimpse of the Apollo 8 Earthrise photos (like the one above) in 1968 or the Apollo 17 Blue Marble photo in 1972. Perhaps, like Jacob Needelman—a widely revered pioneer in interfaith scholarship—it was through the black-and-white photos and inviting text of a W. Maxwell Reed young reader like The Stars for Sam.

But, somewhere—sometime—at some moment, you stopped in your tracks, your eyes grew wide and you realized that the Earth is something far larger than you ever dreamed.

And quite simply: That’s the big message! Ponder that idea, if you take away nothing else from our coverage this week of Jacob Needleman’s marvelous, magical—and absolutely urgent new book, An Unknown World: Notes on the Meaning of the Earth.


WHAT CHILDREN’S BOOK FIRST AWAKENED YOUR WONDERMENT FOR THE EARTH? At top is The Stars for Sam in its 1960 revision for young readers. Jacob Needleman discovered the book in its original 1931 edition by popular children’s author W. Maxwell Reed. In 1960, Time-Life and Golden Books released the large-format full-color The Wonders of Life on Earth. In 1954, Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventure produced the Beaver Valley nature film that toured U.S. theaters and appeared as a picture-book for children. In 1957, Captain Kangaroo introduced millions of American children to giant pandas, a year before the London Zoo caused a sensation with the arrival of Chi-Chi and 15 years before Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing arrived in Washington D.C.At 77, Jacob Needleman’s life has spanned great events of the 20th century as a scholar of religion, a teacher of countless college students and the author of 16 books. His landmark book, as a pioneer in the serious study of world religions, was his 1970 best-seller The New Religions, now available in a recent Tarcher Cornerstone Edition.That book surprised readers with both an authoritative overview of global spiritual traditions and a report specifically on how these seemingly exotic faiths were unfolding on American shores. Later, millions of Americans got to know Needleman through his talks with Bill Moyers on public television.

In our 2010 interview with Needleman, he explained the vocational pull that has shaped his life—and the lives of all the Americans who have been influenced by his insights. He said:
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.

But, if you think of Jacob Needleman as “an author I once read back in the day,” then you’re missing the fresh and exhilarating books he is producing in his 70s. He’s still actively teaching students in the second decade of this new century. Our 2010 interview explored his recent book What Is God?In that book, he accomplished something that few other writers would even dare to attempt. He combined a memoir about his personal search for God with insights from a wide range of world religions.

And where did that book start? The same place he takes us in the opening scenes of his newest book An Unknown World: Notes on the Meaning of the Earth. He takes us back to childhood. But if you assume he is merely a wallowing in Norman Rockwell nostalgia, then you haven’t yet discovered Jacob Needleman’s writing.

In the opening pages, he and his young friend Elias, lit to sit and talk as children do on a convenient low stone wall in their neighborhood. Needleman writes: I tried to recollect the times the two of us had spent sitting on the stone wall—even when it was covered with ice, or while snow was falling. When it was raining heavily, however, we would go to the big house he lived in, where his beautiful Armenian mother would serve us delicious cakes and strangely fragrant teas.

Of course, this is our childhood, too—a friend, the changing seasons, a favorite place to sit, the sensations, the scents, the tastes. For you, perhaps it was girl who sat beside you on the playground each day at recess. Perhaps it was the boy who liked to roller blade with you after school. Maybe the scents and tastes that summon these memories weren’t fragrant tea and cakes. It might be the scent of a backyard barbecue or the taste of a root beer.

But, summon your memory with Jacob Needleman and the next place he’ll take you is—up into the stars.


CLICK THE COVER TO VISIT THE BOOK’S AMAZON PAGE.Come back later this week to meet Jacob Needleman in our new interview about the message he hopes to convey through his newest book, An Unknown World.

In addition to talking about memory and wonderment as touchstones in the pathway to reawakening the story of the Earth, we also talk about the compelling context of this new book.

In recent years, leading voices in the secular scientific world have turned to the realm of religion and asked: Is anyone aware of the major global crises we are facing? Does anyone from a faith perspective see a way to motivate people to help change the human trajectory toward ecological disaster?

Yale’s former dean of environmental sciences, James Gustave Speth, writing as a secular scientist made that exact appeal in his own passionate and prophetic book, The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. Writing from the standpoint of natural selection, Speth argues that the limits of our instincts for survival may not extend beyond ourselves, our families and possibly our communities or nations. There’s no sense of any species-wide instinct for survival that might cause humans to tackle global problems—unless, Speth argues, religious leaders and teachers awaken a compelling planetary narrative. “The potential of faith communities is enormous,” Speth writes. He adds that we need “a new narrative that helps make sense of it all and provides a positive vision.”

E.O.Wilson, the famous biologist and secularist, makes the same appeal in The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. He opens that personal, moving book with these words: “Dear Pastor: We have not met, yet I feel I know you well enough to call you friend. First of all, we grew up in the same faith. As a boy …”

In An Unknown World, Jacob Needleman answers them. He doesn’t address them by name, but he stretches across a wide range of religious traditions to offer that “new narration that helps make sense of it all,” that Speth was hoping to see. Like Wilson, he takes readers back to childhood wonderment and hope.

In our interview, Jacob Needleman says, in part: There 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. 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.

Continue on to the ReadTheSpirit Interview with Jacob Needleman.

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

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