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Jewish Journal

Seeking a moral, meaningful life

by Jonathan Kirsch

October 20, 2010 | 10:46 am

A lively and literate voice has joined the ongoing debate over the existence of God, a timeless conversation that has been conducted in public in recent years by intellectuals ranging from Christopher Hitchens to Rabbi David Wolpe. “Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest” by Michael Krasny (New World Library: $22.95) is remarkable for its clarity and candor in describing the author’s journey as a “self-identifying Jew” from the unquestioning religious belief of childhood to the challenging stance of an agnostic.

Krasny, an English professor at San Francisco State University and the author of “Off Mike: A Memoir of Talk Radio and Literary Life,” brings a unique body of knowledge and experience to the undertaking. He is the long-time host of “Forum,” a public radio program that originates at KQED-FM in San Francisco and features the kind of thoughtful and probing interviews that are a rarity in American media nowadays. Indeed, “Forum” is something of a pilgrimage site for those touring authors who are willing to put themselves and their books to the acid test of Krasny’s intelligence.

“I could not call myself a man of faith,” he confesses in “Spiritual Envy,” “but if ideology-smitten atheists could write of faith, why not a skeptic who envied those who, without being coercive or intolerant, were fortunate enough to have it?”

The title of Krasny’s book suggests the curiosity and yearning that have driven him on what can only be described as a lifelong quest.  He admires the comforting certainties of the true believer, and yet his intellectual honesty demands something more: “Agnosticism welcomes proof, craves it, demands it,” he explains.

“Spiritual Envy” is an intimate confessional memoir. “With a skullcap on my head and cantorial training from the cantor’s youth club,” Krasny recalls, “I led services and chanted Hebrew prayers like a kid smitten, which I was, with Elvis — in the pulpit I tried to sound like a rock-and-roll cantor.” By the time he reached college, however, he was thinking more deeply about matters of faith: “Could I depend more on what my intellect told me or what my heart longed for?” he mused. “Was it possible to have it both ways — to doubt God and simultaneously believe he existed?”

Krasny is one agnostic who fully appreciates the beauties of religion. “I longed for mystery, for ritual with meaning, for grace, for a soul I could believe in and for a God I could love and feel loved by,” he writes.  He studied kabbalah, contemplated the spiritual ecstasies that are promised by various faiths, experienced “evanescent moments of peace” at Big Sur and, above all, “read and read and read,”  everything from the Bible to William Blake to Bertrand Russell to Isaac Bashevis Singer. Because he was unable to “substantiate God’s existence,” however, Krasny turned instead and by necessity to agnosticism, which “became my creed.”

“I feel from time to time as if I have a soul, or something resembling what I conceptualize as a soul, and it feels as if it requires some form of spiritual nourishment,” he writes. “Then my intellect intercedes and dismisses such notions as fantasy or as what imagination or emotion or myth brings forth without even a scintilla of proof.”

What makes “Spiritual Envy” so compelling is Krasny’s ability to extract theological meaning from the raw material of politics and pop culture.  That’s why, for example, he is troubled by the fact that “The Silence of the Lambs” — a movie about serial killers — won five Academy Awards. “If God’s concern about murder necessitated the sixth commandment,” he asks, “What are we to make of the remorseless and psychopathic killings in the world or, for that matter, the spate of fictional killings that Americans seem to feast on that have made murder a kind of meme?”

Indeed, the overarching theme of “Spiritual Envy” is the obligation to define and achieve a moral life without reference to the prescriptions of organized religion. “Can agnostics engage in the nobler service of others, without a spiritual platform and without the drive to do good deeds that is often part of a spiritual philosophy or predicated on a spiritual doctrine or on a commandment to love?” asks Krasny. His answer: “Of course.”

At the core of Krasny’s spirituality is a certain kind of courage — the courage to accept the fact that we must make our way through the world without the certitude that religion asks its adherents to embrace. “We are ultimately unknowable to ourselves and others,” he concludes. “Our past and future are mostly unknowable. God is unknowable.” Krasny earns our admiration and respect precisely because he holds himself to the highest aspirations of doing good, even though, as he puts it, he finds “no visual evidence of a soul in ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’ ”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

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