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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2012
Number 76
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

An Idiosyncratic Journey to God

What is God? by Jacob Needleman, New York: Tarcher/Penguin
A review essay by Cliff Edwards

Many have read Needleman’s Lost Christianity, The New Religions, or his volumes on themes in philosophic and religious ethics dealing with money, medicine, and more. In this current work, late in his career, the former director of the Center for the Study of New Religions at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union tells us the story of his personal spiritual journey.

Of Russian-Jewish heritage, with degrees from Harvard and Princeton in philosophy, Needleman recounts his experiences in atheism, a Kantian epiphany, engagement with Jewish mysticism, Buber studies, Christian Barthian theology, Suzuki Zen, William James’ pluralism, gnosticism, and experiments in practical mysticism and conscious “attentiveness.”

Needleman’s narrative begins with an experience on his front porch with his father, viewing the stars. He remembers his father’s words, “That is God.” For Needleman, “To think about God is to the human soul what breathing is to the human body,’ and that experience with his father at age 9 was “my first conscious experience of this second breathing, the first breathing of the soul.’

The author’s experience as a student at Harvard and Yale continued his focus on the question “What is God?” Reading in D.T. Suzuki, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Kant, and Vedantic sources made clear to him that the question of “God” and the question of the “Self” were intimately related, and that locating an answer would be more a personal event, an awakening, than the learning of a series of ideas.

Needleman’s search continued while a professor in California as he prepared a course on “The History of Western Religious Thought.” In the God of Judaism he met again “the God of my father’s sky,” the universe as “the expression of God.” The Zohar, Maimonides, and Martin Buber spoke to Needleman, particularly through traditional “stories” and reading Bultmann and Karl Barth added an appreciation of Christianity’s radical focus on “inwardness” and human motivation. The classroom itself became important in his development as his struggle to help students understand the religious search opened new doors to his personal understanding. Beyond his own experiments with atheism and agnosticism, Needleman came to experience “the power of the human heart and mind to create and form symbols and meanings,” to view that hidden place where “God” dwells.

Eastern religions and spiritual traditions “rooted in the disciplined work of inner empiricism” further developed Needleman’s sense of “the inner world of the Self” as key to the question of God, a content he found to be “inaccessible to modern science.”

To this rich mix of influences and guides, one must add Needleman’s serious reading of Kant, Hume, Blake, Rousseau, and William James. They too became pointers toward his quest for a route to the “opening of the heart” and the “transformation of the will.”

For Needleman, the challenge of a “militant scientific rationalism” may be welcomed as a purgative force that provides the space and freedom we need for a serious search for Truth and justice in our world, and a cleansing of old illusions from our view of God, providing us with the possibility “for a new seeding.” Through a “nourishing of the search for Truth and will to the Good” in Western philosophy and religion and the “practical mysticism” of Eastern ways, Needleman believes we may well discover a path to conscious attention and the practice of justice and love that are in the hidden realm we may call “God.”

Had I been editing Needleman’s book, I would have advised him to omit the concluding “Coda,” devoted to a series of quotations from the works of G. I. Gurdjieff, the Greek- Armenian mystic and spiritual teacher of “esoteric Christianity” or a “Fourth Way” who appeared in Russia, led disciples to France, and established spiritual groups in many countries including the United States. Needleman’s journey is in itself a rich one in variety and depth of search. The Gurdjieff coda may too easily give readers the impression that they have been tricked into following a narrative intended from the beginning to “evangelize” them and create new Gurdjieffian converts. If that was Needleman?s intent, an honest statement of such at the outset would have been advisable.

But my own view is that Needleman’s journey in all its variety is the work’s chief contribution, and should not be diluted by what might be viewed as a final “pitch” for one rather esoteric system, no matter how interesting the author now finds that path. It is Needleman’s honesty and the seriousness of his search that is the work’s strength. His own description of the excitement of discovery, whether reading Kant on the steps of a library, or experiencing epiphanies while preparing lecture notes for a world religions course late at night in his favorite armchair, are, I believe, most likely to move and inspire readers. The wonder of discovering God in the deepest recesses of the self-examining itself in an existential solitude and attentiveness is the true heart of Needleman’s book.

Such discoveries may have as many idiosyncratic outcomes, guides, and methods, as there are readers. The book suggests such a serious breadth of possibilities and voices on the spiritual search. I hope the monotone of the coda does not spoil that richness.


Cliff Edwards is a professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and editorial consultant of Menorah Review.

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