Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic's Questby Michael Krasny
As the host of one of National Public Radio’s most popular interview programs, Michael Krasny has spent decades leading conversations on every imaginable topic and discussing life’s most important questions with the foremost thinkers of our time. Now he brings his wide-ranging knowledge and perceptive intelligence to a thoughtful and thought-provoking
As the host of one of National Public Radio’s most popular interview programs, Michael Krasny has spent decades leading conversations on every imaginable topic and discussing life’s most important questions with the foremost thinkers of our time. Now he brings his wide-ranging knowledge and perceptive intelligence to a thoughtful and thought-provoking exploration of belief and lack of belief.
Many books and pundits advocate for a specific God, while others adamantly declare there is no God. Yet these strident viewpoints often speak right past each other, rarely convincing anyone but the already convinced. In Spiritual Envy, Krasny helps believers and nonbelievers alike understand their own questions about faith and religion, about God and human responsibility.
Krasny challenges each of us to look closely at faith and its power, and to examine the positive and negative aspects of religion as expressed in culture, literature, and human relationships. Personal and universal, timely and timeless, this is a deeply wise yet warmly welcoming conversation, an invitation to ask one’s own questions no matter how inconclusive the answers.
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An Agnostic's Quest
By Michael Krasny
New World LibraryCopyright © 2010 Michael Krasny
All rights reserved.
As a boy I used to imagine that God was watching over me and could do anything he wanted with me, could move the chess pieces of my life to any spot on the board he chose, but would not, as Shakespeare would have it in King Lear, play with me as a wanton boy plays with flies. I trusted him. How could I not? God suffused my young life. I felt he (I use the male pronoun for convenience and because he was solely a he to me) was a companion, a presence with whom I could share my most secret thoughts and fears and wants.
My parents were believers, and while my doubts spread as I grew into young manhood, my mother was certain that God marked down even our smallest lies and indiscretions. She would speak of God as the creator who had filled the world with an amazing range and variety of people, and she spoke with near wonder at how the differences in people were what God handed out at birth — talents and abilities, defects and disabilities, handsomeness and ugliness. To her, the beauty of the divinity was in the wondrous diversity and breadth of human creations, the miraculous feats of a master builder. "God made no two people the same. Not even twins," she would say. "And," she assured me, "God gave you many blessings he did not give to others."
My supposed good looks and intelligence and winning personality, which a loving Jewish mother complimented and brightened at, were gifts handed to me at birth by God himself. Such notions sustained me like mother's milk. They were difficult to shake even as I was increasingly drawn away from belief. When as a young child I asked my mother how I was born and came to be, she had a stock answer: "Your father planted the seeds, and we prayed to God." So I imagined my parents getting a package of seeds like the ones on the rack of flower and vegetable seeds sold at the pharmacy in our Cleveland Heights neighborhood. And for many years the facts of life to me meant planting seeds, as one did in order to grow roses or asparagus, but with a requisite preconception prayer to God. In my mind, childbirth depended on God's allowing planted seeds to grow. My entering the world was the result of God answering my parents' prayers.
As a boy I liked feeling God was my father. I loved my biological father and tried to honor him as the commandment dictated. But he worked terribly long hours and came home too tired to do anything but eat supper, read the newspaper, and head off to sleep. If he told me he loved me, he did so only on rare occasions, usually when I was being disciplined or if I became ill. He would say, "You know your father loves you." It was never "I love you." It was always "Your father loves you." I desperately wanted his attention. I wanted above all in life to know he cared about me and loved me. it was the same with God. I wanted to know he approved of me. I wanted to make both him and my earthly father proud. How could I be certain of God's love or my father's? How much did my heavenly and earthly fathers even like me?
I had an imaginary friend who had a full name — Michael Berber. I also had Sammy Kaye. Doubtless out of father hunger, I announced one day that Sammy Kaye, the bandleader, was my second father. God was my imaginary friend, too, but he was also, like Sammy Kaye, my imaginary father. Was he imaginary? He surely seemed real to me then, even if I vested him with a reality formed from my imagination, a reality that many who exalt art tell us is superior to the reality we identify as the reality. As a kid I watched Miracle on 34th Street, with Maureen O'Hara and Natalie Wood, the warm and bathetic Christmas story of Kris Kringle, played by Edmund Gwenn, who claimed he was the real Santa Claus. When the child played by Natalie Wood sat on his lap and asked him about the reality of Santa Claus, he told her there was another nation called the imagination, a line I fancied just as I fancied the sound of the word Godspeed, which concluded many orations. Was hunger for God simply a result of an oedipal need for a strong father who could be relied on for whatever one needed or longed for? Was the God whom I felt was my heavenly father merely a production of my seeded imagination? Was there such a thing as Godspeed?
When I write that God suffused my young boyhood, I mean it. The words under God were officially added to the Pledge of Allegiance when I was a boy, despite the many people who insisted on keeping them out. In courtroom television dramas like Perry Mason, men and women testified in court after putting a hand on the Bible and swearing to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help them God. As youngsters we argued about God questions with a seriousness that bordered on passion. We did not argue about whether God existed, because for nearly all of us his existence was a given. What did it mean to take the Lord's name in vain? Were you even supposed to swear to God? (I remember a guy we called Tommy T saying, "I swear to God, I don't believe in God.") Could you say "goddamn"? Would God punish us for hanging out in the backyard of our neighbors' home at night to sneak peeks at their teenage daughter, Gloria, as she came into her bedroom naked after a bath? Would he exact payback for our chewing gum on Yom Kippur?
Kate smith sang "God Bless America" on Ed Sullivan, and we all sang "America the Beautiful" in classrooms, asking God to shed his grace. The presidents ended their talks with "God bless America." Money said "In God we trust." Men and women who helped the poor and those who donated their time to charitable causes, as my mother did, were said to be doing God's work, and when the snow in Cleveland reached five or six inches we stayed home from school because of what was called an act of God. Something that occurred in the nick of time, a stroke of good fortune, was a Godsend, and one eluded an unhappy fate by the grace of God. God was the ultimate signifier. Adonai and Elohim and Ha Shem and Jehovah and all the various other names attributed to the invisible prime mover, the patriarch in the sky, were represented by that three-letter word. He was our God and the God of our fathers.
And he was my God. God Almighty. God the omnipotent. God the eternal, and God the everlasting. Nearly every Jewish home had a mezuzah outside its door with the Shema inscribed inside, words I said over and over and over again throughout my boyhood: "Hear oh Israel, the Lord our God. The Lord is one." It was God, after all, who had brought my people out of bondage and provided the perennial land grant that legitimated Israel as the promised land, the newly created state surrounded by bitter enemies. God was the father of us all. I knew by heart the Christian prayer that began: "Our father who art in heaven." He was our father and father to us all. He was my father, the force behind my existence and all others.
Before I learned to sing Christmas carols in school, I would get up on Sunday mornings, turn on the television, and watch programs about Jesus. There wasn't much else to watch on Sunday mornings in that era. I was just past kindergarten, and I recall asking my mother and her older sister, Pearl, when Jesus was going to return. They both seemed upset, though slightly bemused, that I had come to Jesus just by watching Sunday morning Christian television programming. I was put through a quick deprogramming of warnings about why as Jews we did not and could not accept Jesus as our savior. We were believers in one God, the only God, and Jesus was not his son. I was told that I, like all boys, was a son of God, but there was no single son of God who rose from the dead after being crucified. I was dismayed by my Aunt Pearl, who said to me, "Those Jesus stories you're watching are no more real than the cartoons." How could that be, I wondered? How could the television not be telling me the truth?
I remember the rejoicing when Israel became a state. A homeland for Jews at last after the Shoah, the massacres, the exterminations, the genocide. A homeland promised to the Jewish people by God himself, the God of Moses, the God who gave us the Torah and the Ten Commandments, the God of "America the Beautiful" and of the Pledge of Allegiance. The God in the Thanksgiving song I sang with a group of children onstage, and even the God whose alleged son I would sing Christmas carols to while knowing he was not part of my religion. I could sing praises to Jesus without believing in him and without feeling any need for dreidel songs or Jewish rock-of-ages songs to level the song-playing-field. It didn't matter that I didn't believe in Jesus or his virgin birth. I knew my God, and knew he was the real king of the Jews and Israel, the land he made into a state. It was also the desert land the Jews made bloom. My mother led paper and orange sales to benefit this land, we paid for trees that would be planted in it, and we brought money for it to Hebrew school, which we put in a little blue tin box. The land promised to my ancestors.
I began to doubt God in high school. This is a common enough story. I was immersing myself in books, trying to make myself into an intellectual, discovering the worlds of science and skepticism and free-range secular thinking. I read Bertrand Russell and Charles Darwin, and I formed doubts and the doubts worried me. I suddenly couldn't be absolutely certain God did exist or that he was involved in my life.
When time passed and I became more informed, I wondered whether Arthur Koestler was possibly right that Russian Jews like me and my family were descended from the Khazars, a band of quasi nomads of Turkic origin who converted to Judaism, rather than from the ancient Hebrews. And what was a Jewish agnostic — if that was what I was morphing into — to do about Israel? Was belief in Israel, like the Ten Commandments, contingent on belief in God? If it was the promised land that God vowed to give his chosen people, then of course it was our land and not the land of the Arabs who had been living on it and growing olive trees in its soil, and who were claiming it. Israel was the birthright of the Jewish people, and to many it was the sense that could be made out of the sacrifice of millions who died from the flames and bullets and poisons of the holocaust. Israel seemed to have more power over many of the Jews I knew and came in contact with than the Ten Commandments or any tenet of Judaism.
It seemed no accident that many Jews became ardent Zionists, socialists, communists, or feminists, as if they needed a surrogate, secular messianism to replace a more ineffable faith. People of all faiths and creeds began to have doubts. As my skepticism grew, I found that I wanted to hold on to my faith but still drew closer to agnosticism, even though agnostic, like atheist, felt like a word I could not attach myself to for fear that God, if he did exist, would punish me. Doubt did not have to mean abrogating God, did it? if God existed, how disloyal it would be to call myself an agnostic — even if I said it only to myself. My God knew my every thought and would be angry. If he did exist and loved me, I would be torn from his good graces.
As a boy I had been pious, more religious than my parents had ever dreamed I would be. With a skullcap on my head and cantorial training from the cantor's youth club, 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. Before doubt began invading me, I tended an abiding faith in God and prayed to him nightly in intimate conversational and cathartic fashion. I was certain he was listening as I released my secret thoughts and wants, not necessarily expecting him to grant what I wanted or longed for, but knowing he heard me and took full account of all my thoughts and actions. Then I read an article in the Reader's Digest, one of the few written materials available in our house, aside from the Bible and the Merck Manual, kept on hand by my father, who was frustrated at not having become a doctor. The Digest article assured me that one should never pray for selfish wants or expect to be catered to by God. After reading the article, I feared asking God for much for myself, lest he think a vain wish should trump any deep fear I had about my safekeeping and the health and lives of my parents.
This went on for years, until I began to agonize over feelings of unrequited love in junior high school and broke my own rules by asking God, in my nightly prayers, for the girl I longed for, even though I assured him it was a prayer of lower importance. Safekeeping and protection were what mattered most. Wishes were, for the most part, to be reserved in case of emergencies; requests could be made only with utter discretion. I could, after all, wind up on crutches or in a wheelchair like kids who had polio — which, in the prevaccine era, I felt fortunate not to have. Polio could get me, as it had former president Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the children whose pictures I'd seen on the March of Dimes solicitations. It was, I believed, swimming around in ready-to-attack microbial formations in Cumberland, our local municipal swimming pool.
I was also afraid of wanton violence. I knew at too young an age that it was out there lurking like a hungry tiger. I knew my people had been indiscriminately slaughtered in ovens and by Zyklon B and firing squads. If I proved myself good enough, worthy enough, surely God would protect me and those I loved from disease, suffering, violence, and death.
To a boy who embraced the tenets of his faith, the Ten Commandments were to be obeyed without question. Obedience to God meant in return, I hoped, protection from harm. The Ten Commandments were not only the foundation of Mosaic Law but also the essence of what God wanted and demanded, and one could hitch one's faith to them. It seemed a pretty sweet deal if all I needed to do to please God and avoid his punishment was simply to obey those ten perfectly reasonable and easy-to-follow commandments. They could be carved in my heart for life as they had been carved by God himself on the stone tablets he handed down to Moses.
The Ten Commandments are the cornerstone of, and the linchpin between, two of the world's major religions. Both Christians and Jews perceive the sanctity and importance of the Ten Commandments, which, according to scripture, were given to Moses on Mount Sinai. But as doubt began to erode my certainty about God's existence and his role as stage manager of my life, I began to doubt the Ten Commandments too, because, like God and country, God and the commandments were inextricably linked. To doubt God was bad enough, but to doubt the laws God commanded us to follow was perhaps most dire. How could one doubt commandments such as those that forbade us to steal or kill, commandments that had become essential to Western law and fundamental to ethical precepts? Yet could one not doubt the law if one doubted the lawgiver? Despite absorbing, by high school, a lot of ideas from freethinkers, and despite undergoing a serious diminution of faith, I wasn't ready to break fully from what I had taken in from my mother, my father, and my religion.
Before doubt set in, I imagined my life as a kind of unfolding drama or opera or what today might pass for reality TV. And who was my audience? Why, God! God was watching over me and watching how I reacted to every incident, person, and event, large or small. And of course, he was judging me, keeping, like Santa in the Christmas song, tallies of the bad and good things I did ("so be good for goodness sake!"). I would sometimes imagine him experimenting with me, providing stimuli as a laboratory scientist does with a small mammal. I thought these thoughts and felt twinges of emotion as I moved beyond adolescence and into young manhood with the sense that God could not possibly be like I had imagined him as a boy.
Reason accounted for doubt. I reasoned that no one could know there was absolutely and incontrovertibly a God, but also that it was impossible to conclude there was not. people got ill, suffered, lost loved ones, and died without heavenly oversight or intervention, but did that mean there was no God? if he was overseeing the human domain, he had a lot to monitor. Was he, for example, watching over all those billions of Chinese commies and godless Russians? What if we tossed in the animal kingdom, down to the level of the phyla I had memorized for high school biology tests — Protozoa, Porifera, and Coelenterata? Or how about ants, spiders, and rodents? His power to be involved in the lives of all creatures seemed impossible. Yet how could we mere mortals hope to divine the divine or, if there was a divine, begin to comprehend it?
As the years went by, it was easier for me to dismiss the idea of God's direct involvement in human affairs. But it was not so easy to dismiss God from involvement in my life, or to dismiss the possibility of a mystery beyond human reckoning, or to cast off fears and superstitions that crept up alongside my uncertainty, such as my fear of the potential price of denying my God. Whenever my mother accidentally spilled salt, she would toss a few grains of it over her left shoulder. It seemed like superstitious nonsense to me, but I did it too, just as I picked up her habit of at times speaking the word kinahora, a Yiddish term meant to keep the evil eye or bad luck away, just as knocking on wood or spitting is meant to ward off the evil eye. I wondered whether deference to God worked in a similar way for those who had begun to feel unconvinced that the deity existed or to doubt his omnipotence.
Excerpted from Spiritual Envy by Michael Krasny. Copyright © 2010 Michael Krasny. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Michael Krasny, PhD, hosts the nation’s most-listened-to locally produced public radio talk show, Forum with Michael Krasny. A widely published scholar and literary critic, he is an English professor at San Francisco State University and has taught at Stanford University and University of California, San Francisco. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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