Q & A with James L. Kugel, In The Valley Of The Shadow

James L. Kugel just published a new book containing his general thoughts about religion-IN THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW (Free Press; February 1, 2011). He posted an online interview and here are some excerpts.

Our community alternates between having a variety of images of God all based on the modern Western self, a personal kitchen god to turn to with prayer for everyday problems, a Oprah god in the heart that wants you to actualize yourself, or a Neo-Hasidic feeling of closeness. Kugel distinguishes between this modern self and the traditional self that was embedded in a cosmos and surrounded by God/ gods. Kugel offers us a great big God to contrast with the smallness of man. According to Kugel, most people’s relgion is about feeling the need to feel useful and in control of the situation, what the great anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski considered magic. Modern religious people have forgotten the greatness of God before man’s smallness.

Kugel believes that much of religion is innate in our brains.Life is complex but relgion consistently makes things black or white. Or with more theological terminology- saved or damned, vision or blind, found or lost. His conclusion is that we need to open our eyes to the human condition of smallness, frailness, and contingency. There is not a word in the interview about his Judaism. The book seems to have Schleiermacher’s sense of dependence meets the Ancient Near East and neuroscience. There is no mention of revelation or reward and justice, but I will wait to read the book before commenting.

The backdrop to this book is Kugel’s own battle with cancer. Here are some quotes about the nature of relgion from the Q and A.

To put it simply: believing in God or the gods or the supernatural seems to begin with how you conceive of yourself, how you fit into the world.

My book isn’t about turning to God in your hour of need. It’s more about the essence of religious faith and what it’s based on. You know, anthropologists and psychologists have studied what they call the “sense of self” that people have in different parts of the world, and it’s surprising how different our own “sense of self” is from that of most of the people on this earth. They are quite the opposite of the Western individualist. They typically see themselves as part of some larger entity – a family or clan – and that entity is, in a way that’s hard for us to understand, who they really are. But that’s only one part of their “sense of self.” The space around them is filled up in a way that ours is not. God, the gods, evil spirits, or beneficent ancestors are everywhere, and so they are constantly being taken into account. They fill up the space. I’m not talking just about so-called primitive cultures or peoples.

One of the things I discuss in the book is religion in traditional, Arab society. Anyone who spends any time in an Arab country comes back with the same impression: these people are always talking about God. That doesn’t mean they’re more moral or better than other people – my impression is that people all over the world are pretty much the same. But it is true that Arabic speech has built into all sorts of obligatory references to God. You can’t mention your own plans – “I’m flying to Paris next week” – or reasonable expectations, “After the baby’s born,” without appending the phrase Insh’allah, “If God wishes.” I admit it becomes automatic after a while. But the underlying idea is that it would be presumptuous and arrogant to talk about the future as if God did not have the final say.

People might chalk this up to the influence of Islam, but I think that’s really getting it backwards. Anyone who has studied the writings of ancient Mesopotamians can’t miss the continuity between their mentality and that of later, Islamic culture. They all have this common starting point: God or the gods are very big, and you are very small. .

Q: One of your chapters is called “Man Stands Powerless Before Elevator.” What does that have to do with your subject?

A: It’s an example of what I called “the need to do something,” which is also connected to religion. It all goes back to something I noticed at my first job after graduate school. I had an office in a building that was very tall – maybe 20 stories. So of course it had an elevator – state-of-the-art for the 1970s. There was a button you pressed, and the button would immediately turn orange after you pressed it. But the elevator rarely came right away, so a small crowd of people would usually form on the ground floor, waiting for the elevator to come. That’s when I noticed something funny. A new person arriving and seeing the button already illuminated would nevertheless sometimes go up to it and press it again. Nothing would happen, of course: it was already orange. Now these people were for the most part graduate students or professors, and so probably not idiots. But they kept on pressing that button, sometimes more than once. I know, because sometimes that person was me.

I talk about this in the book because I think it’s a model of some people’s idea of what religion is all about, “the need to do something.” People say prayers, go to churches or temples, offer sacrifices or slip a dollar bill onto the plate – but deep down they’re like the people waiting for the elevator. They know it’s not going to do any good: the elevator can’t register any more than one press of the button, it can’t feel their desperation or hear their pleas, and it can’t deviate from what it has been programmed to do: make all its intermediate stops until it gets to the bottom floor. But people keep pressing the button just because they feel they should do something.

Q: But you don’t agree with this view of religion?

A: No, I think it really misses the whole point. “The need to do something” may be there, but people don’t pray because they definitely believe they’re going to get what they ask for. They certainly hope that might happen, but in the end it’s more a matter of what the French proverb says, “Man proposes, but God has the final disposition.” In fact, the Bible said it a long time before: “Many are the plans in a person’s mind, but God’s decision is what prevails.” So we’re really back at “Man is small and God is very big.” In a sense, the very act of praying is an acknowledgment of our smallness, you might even say, an enactment of our smallness. Of course, that’s not why a person prays; a person prays to get help. But in so doing, he or she is also expressing that great truth of human smallness, the one we mostly have forgotten nowadays.

Q: You mean religion is just innate?

A: Well, the word religion covers a lot of territory. But at least some of it – and especially this way of seeing – seems in a sense to be built into the human brain. This might sound fishy, but nowadays we know that there are lots of things that we know are simply in our brains when we’re born: our minds are no blank slate, as scientists used to presume. I suppose the best known example of this is language. Nowadays we know that little newborns come equipped with brains designed for language acquisition: they are born with, so to speak, little boxes in their brains that help them to sort those sounds they hear from grownups into nouns and verbs and to make sense of them, no matter what language is involved. So, scholars today think that it’s not only language that human brains are set up for, but all sorts of other things – including some of the things that belong to the area of religion.

One day I happened to hear Judy Collins singing her a capella version of “Amazing Grace,” and I was struck by the all-or-nothing, black-and-white quality of the words. “For I was lost and now am found, was blind and now I see.” Religious poetry often has that same quality – whether it’s in the Bible or in other religious traditions. Of course that’s not how people usually see things, no matter what society they live in. Life is not usually either-or, black-or-white, lost-or-found, But it’s precisely that way of seeing that’s all over religion.

Q: What’s the message that you want people to take away from this book?

But all this leads me to talk about something that is rarely discussed. I believe that the reality of religion – the reality of God – is something that a lot of people in the modern West have trouble seeing nowadays. It’s hidden because of us, because we have lost the old, small way of being that humans had for thousands and thousands of years. What I try to do in the book is give readers some sense of what that smallness was, and the stark reality that it can open up before our eyes

4 responses to “Q & A with James L. Kugel, In The Valley Of The Shadow

  1. Having designed electronics, I know that pushing an elevator call button that’s already been pressed sometimes does indeed have an effect. Though the switch light is already lit, the internal controller may register the subsequent button pushes, and if the designer allowed for it, the elevator might make a beeline to the requesting floor, skip stops it might otherwise make, send another car to that floor, or otherwise modify the traffic algorithm.

    Kugel may have thought that it was futile, but maybe the button pushers knew something that Kugel didn’t?

  2. Now that I’m on a (Rav) Soloveitchik roll, I’ll point out that this sounds exactly like LMoF.

  3. Why exactly does he talk about the Arab saying inshallah and not the Jews saying im yirtsa or b’ezrat hashem?

  4. Also, in a speech I heard from Kugel based on one of his books (I forget which), he contrasted the difference between the different types of G-d in the Bible. And he certainly stressed the personal G-d who comes by and visits people (I remember once example with Samson’s parents). So what gives here? Obviously the Jews of old had both concepts. And those have to come to us in modern day — we have both concepts and you need to find balance between them. Of course G-d is immense and not understandable. But equally He created us and ask things of us personally. So… I don’t get Kugel.

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