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"The Sickening Question": God, Cancer, and Us

Many scholars of the Bible and ancient Judaism prefer to focus exclusively on ancient texts and the world that produced them, refraining from engaging with the implications of their work for contemporary religious life. James L. Kugel has never been one of those scholars. Throughout his career, Kugel has sought to bring his learning to the general public and to address questions of the meaning and significance of Scripture and the nature and purpose of religious belief and practice.

Relevant Links
L'Chaim and Its Limits  Leon Kass, First Things. What does Judaism have to say about the moral challenges posed by biomedical technology, with its growing power to control life and its techniques to conquer aging?
Man Stands Powerless Before Elevator  James L. Kugel, Free Press. In an interview, the renowned Bible scholar discusses the “starkness” of religion, what modern Arabs owe to their Mesopotamian forebears, and living through a diagnosis of cancer.

Kugel's most recent and most personal book, In the Valley of the Shadow, does not profess to be a work of scholarship, although it does reflect his deep and wide-ranging knowledge. It is, rather, the fruit of Kugel's reflection on his state of mind when he learned that he had a serious form of cancer. He describes this state as a moment when the background music of life abruptly ceased, leaving him suddenly small and alone, surrounded by a great silence. Looking  back on this moment, Kugel finds in it something of (as his subtitle puts it) "the foundations of religious belief": a sense of stark confrontation with the divine.

The experience that Kugel describes is not the euphoric sense of oneness with the infinite after which so many spiritual seekers strive. He points out that the ancients (at least those from the Middle East and the Greco-Roman world) did not view God or the gods as omnipresent, but rather as uncannily close, lurking behind what Kugel describes as a semi-permeable curtain separating the human realm from the divine. The ancients did not "search" for their deities—not only because the gods were near at hand, but also because confrontation with a deity could be frightening and even deadly.

This perspective, often derided as primitive, is in Kugel's view closer to the reality of religious experience than the more "sophisticated" theologies that developed in later Western tradition.

Up until now, much of this will be familiar to readers of Kugel's previous books, especially The God of Old (2003), his study of how God was understood by the ancient Hebrews—and, perhaps not coincidentally, a work he began writing shortly before he received his diagnosis. What is different about the new book is not only that it is more personal, but also that it is, paradoxically, broader in scope. While Kugel's previous books focused on Jewish and Christian traditions, In the Valley of the Shadow deals with basic, universal questions and seeks answers wherever they may lie. There are ample quotations from the Bible, but also excerpts from ancient myths, passages from modern poetry, and lyrics of contemporary songs.

Kugel's quest for the foundations of religious belief also leads him to studies from the fields of neuroscience and evolutionary biology. He finds most suggestive the idea that the tendency toward religion is, like many common modes of thought, hard-wired into the human brain. The sense that one is small and surrounded by a great and powerful world, Kugel suggests, would have emerged naturally in early humans, whose lives were dominated by the need for food, the threat of predators, and the vicissitudes of nature. This sense of the world outside the self as a great, powerful, undifferentiated Being would have readily given rise to religious perception. Correlatively, the changes that have since taken place in the human condition and that have given the modern individual so much stronger a sense of power and agency may serve in part to explain why true religious experience is so rare today. To the modern mind, "man is very big, and God is very far away." 

Kugel makes clear that he finds the ancient way of thinking more compelling than the modern. Beyond this, however, he has little to say on the ontological questions of whether God exists and what God is like, except to point out that science is ultimately incapable of answering such questions. Many studies of religion, he observes, begin with the premise that once we understand the neuroscience and evolutionary biology behind religious ideas, we can move on free of delusion. But this is akin to suggesting that once we understand human courtship behavior, we can stop the nonsense of falling in love. If a sense of the Great Unknown really is a basic aspect of human nature, we can hardly expect it to go away simply because we have explained its origins.

Those who have experienced grave illness—or, indeed, any personal tragedy—will probably relate to what Kugel calls the "sickening question": how could this happen? Here again, Kugel sets aside the ontological question of why bad things happen to good people. Instead, he poses an equally persistent but less often articulated question: why, in spite of everything, do people persist in believing that life is ultimately fair? For Kugel, the answer has to do with the starkness of religious experience. In a world where man is very small and God (or the gods, or the universe) is very big, there is no room for moral ambiguity or indifference. There are only good and evil, and God must ultimately be good.

There is much speculation here, and not all readers will find it convincing. Yet few will be able to dismiss the serious thought and breadth of knowledge that went into this book, or its compelling prose. Ultimately, what is offered by In the Valley of the Shadow is a philosophy of religion: a meditation on personal experience that is also a great deal more.

Eve Levavi Feinstein holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from Harvard.

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Stephen on April 5, 2011 at 5:26 am (Reply)
Or, in his case, the 'oncological' question !

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