Jewish Journal

Religion’s power in the face of death

by Jonathan Kirsch

Posted on Feb. 23, 2011 at 6:25 pm

Contemporary Bible scholars tend to look at religion as the object of study rather than the source of inspiration, or so we might conclude from their writings.  But something quite different can happen when they are confronted with the kind of life experiences for which religion has always served as a balm.

A fascinating example can be found in the latest book by Harvard professor James L. Kugel, “In the Valley of the Shadow: On the Foundations of Religious Belief” (Free Press: $26.00).  Kugel is best known for his books about the origins and uses of religious texts, including “The God of Old” and “How to Read the Bible.” When he was diagnosed with cancer in 2000, Kugel was reminded of the lines of Psalm 102 — “O my God, do not take me halfway through life” — and he imagined that the Psalmist must have been similarly stricken.

“You would think that a Bible professor would, in the circumstances I have described, seek comfort in these and other words from Scripture,” he writes. “But to be absolutely truthful, although I know much of the book of Psalms by heart, these were not the words that I kept thinking of after the doctors’ diagnosis. Instead, what ran through my mind was mostly poetry in English, poems I had learned a long time ago – some of them fairly corny.”

Happily, Kugel regained his health, and now he offers a meditation on how our perceptions and of religion can change when we confront the imminence of death.  He describes how the “background music” of daily life — “the music of infinite time and possibilities” — seemed to suddenly stop when he heard his diagnosis, and he muses on the smallness of life as symbolized by the sight of a freshly-dug grave: “Can a whole human being fit in there, a whole human life? Yes. No problem.”

Kugel frankly asks why human beings are (and always have been) so fascinated by religion — a question that is at the core of his life’s work — but he argues that some of the modern scientific theories about the origins and workings of the religious imagination fail to see the forest for the trees. “They all seem to be saying: once we understand the neuroscience and evolutionary biology that explain how this delusion got going in the first place, then we can start to come to our senses and reorder our lives,” he writes of books like “The God Delusion.”  “But that really is to miss the point…. After all is said and done, it may come down to a choice between seeing something through a wavy lens…and not seeing at all. Faced with such a choice, I’ll take seeing anytime.”

To explain the elusive concepts that he is struggling to express, Kugel resorts to a whole library of sources, texts, and points of reference, ranging from the Dead Sea Scrolls to the architecture of medieval cathedrals to pop music and gospel music, from the Homer to Augustine to Rilke.  Kugel argues that religion can be a way of seeking “a different reality, more powerful and truer than the one we live in every day…a vision of things that is altogether different from our usual one” — an idea that is hardly revolutionary but one that takes on both complexity and resonance in Kugel’s work.

And yet, even though Kugel refuses to simplify what he has to say and always drills deeply into the texts that he ponders, he is also willing and able to share moments of startling clarity.  “Why do we expect the world to be a fair place?” he asks. “In fact, your own little tragedy is inscribed next to so many big ones on the front page of every newspaper (teenage soldier cut down for trying to keep the peace; pilgrims blown to smithereens by a suicide bomber) that in no time at all it is just one more instance in an endless litany of unfairnesses — why should anyone ever expect life to be any different?”

Then, too, he is willing to humanize and personalize the human beings who wrote and read the ancient texts that continue to serve as the touchstones of religion in the modern world. “It is easy now for religion’s deniers to dismiss the way of seeing associated with ancient religions as a benighted patchwork of superstitions and wishful thinking, one that is now happily being disproved and scientifically explained,” he writes. “But my own belief – and the continued theme of this book – is that people two thousand or five thousand years ago were not any stupider than we are today, and that they certainly knew when their own innocent children were dying, whether from disease or famine or apparently nothing at all.”

“In the Valley of the Shadow” is a curious blend of scholarship and confession.  Kugel’s mastery of the texts and traditions is richly displayed yet again, but somehow it all seems much more consequential when framed by an account of his own passage through that often-invoked “valley of the shadow of death.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs on books at www.jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve and can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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