"Fascinating, elegant . . . [Easterbrook] invests the timeless question of life's meaning with distinctly contemporary pertinence."George Will, Newsweek
Yes, says Gregg Easterbrook in this provocative and probing new book. In the tradition of Jack Miles's God A Biography and the work of Karen Armstrong, Beside Still Waters ponders the question "Is there anything left to believe in?" Gregg Easterbrook persuasively argues that rationality and outright doubt are inevitable and indeed vital elements of spiritual faith. Other new and important ideas about spiritual thought include the challenging observation that the Bible never actually proclaims God omnipotent a concept, Easterbrook suggests, that arose through the sociology and politics of religion, nor Scripture. Bucking the current trend to undermine the Bible's historical value, he affirms that it is neither simple myth nor mere literature, but rather it records many genuine events that can be seen to chart a spiritual journey not only of man but also of God.
A thought-provoking book for anyone who believes that true faith can and should accommodate sincere doubt, Beside Still Waters addresses some of the central spiritual issues of a profoundly skeptical age.
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About the Author
Gregg Easterbrook is an award-winning journalist and the author of This Magic Moment and A Moment on the Earth. He lives in Washington, D.C.
Read an Excerpt
To me the sole hope of human salvation lies in teaching man to regard himself as an experiment in the realization of God.
George Bernard Shaw, 1909
One day in the early 1990s archaeologists working a dig near the town of Haifa on the Mediterranean Sea found vestiges of an ancient human grave with characteristics unusual for its time period. To picks and trowels the powdery site yielded the ancient skeleton of a young mother whose arms had been delicately wrapped around the form of an infant, the two having been buried together after both died, presumably during childbirth. Tests dated the bones as 100,000 or more years old, meaning they were interred early in the Pleistocene ice age: tens of millennia before genus Homo knew of controlled agriculture, writing, or the wheel; long, even, before the cave paintings of France.
What was striking about the find was that the bodies appeared to have been buried ceremonially. At a time when the highest achievements of human culture were campfires and sharpened stones, someone spent many days tenderly fashioning a resting place for two departed souls. Someone, in that place, surely wept as earth was heaped in over the still forms of woman and child. Possibly someone uttered the sort of words now called prayer, with eyes raised to the heavens, demanding answers.
Coolly rational modern analysis might say that a prehistoric man weeping over the death of a prehistoric woman and child represented nothing more than the deterministic interaction of hormones governed by genetic codes designed to maximizereproductive strategy, supplemented by a primeval cost-benefit analysis of lowered economic forecasts owing to reduction in the labor force. Any ceremonial aspect, modern analysis might add, was a sociological accretion engendered by mythology and dysfunctional power-structure dynamics, to say nothing of a poor expenditure of resources better devoted to chiseling flint.
Yet the realization that our distant ancestors memorialized the fallen tells us that questions of life and purpose, of meaning and loss, of yearning and spiritual hope, have been in the human family for an unimaginable span of time. Women and men began to wonder about the purpose of their lives, and to reach for a sense of spiritual meaning, seemingly from the moment they began to think.
Stretching as far back as the first written records and likely much further, every culture has evolved beliefs that life enfolds purpose greater than mere satisfaction of want or sustenance of biological need. "We are born believing," Emerson wrote: women and men "bear beliefs as a tree bears apples." Either some divine power made Homo sapiens spiritually inclined, or nature did so, through the offices of natural selection. In either case the human heart yearns for a sense of the unseen.
That people believe things does not necessarily make beliefs true. For centuries some people have believed that stones, totems, or secret incantations convey good fortune or bad. People have believed in mythical creatures, and in charms to ward off those creatures. Even in an information age, people ardently hold insupportable beliefs, such as conspiracy theories; or improbable ones, such as astrology; or highly fanciful ones, such as removing money from politics. The very unlikelihood of beliefs sometimes makes men and women cling to them all the more tenaciously. For some people, as Mark Twain observed, conviction may be defined as "Believin' what you know ain't so."
But credence for amulets or alchemy has never grown beyond a minority; most people know flimflam when they see it. Occasional widely entertained beliefs that arise at specific junctures in history, such as the turn-of-the-century fascination with seances, rapidly peak and decline. Controvertible ideas that do manage to find adherents from generation to generation, such as fortune-telling, rarely spread to more than a tiny fraction of the population.
Spiritual yearning, in contrast, has expanded with the passage of time, embedding itself into the consciousness of billions. Specific religions have had their ups and downs, but in no society has spiritual interest expired nor shown the possibility of doing so. Spiritual yearning has cut across every category of human culture, making believers of some of the brightest, most sophisticated people in history.
Perhaps some aspects of faith do originate in fable. But if artifice were the essence of spirituality, it seems inconceivable that over many centuries, so many people would keep falling for the same tricks. A more likely explanation for the historical significance of faith is that people by the millions have sensed that somewhere within spirituality lies an essential aspect of the human prospect.
WITHIN FAITH THERE IS ALSO FALLACY and intolerance. All the world's scriptures contain statements that cannot be true; all religions sometimes attempt to deny reason; nearly all beliefs have generated hostility as well as harmony.Even if; for example, one reveres the Bible, it would be foolish to assume every one of that scripture's statements are true, since the Bible shows significant contradictions. A simple example is the two mutually exclusive accounts of the boyhood of Jesus. In the Gospel of Matthew, there is no Roman census or donkey journey; Jesus is born at home in his parents' hometown of Bethlehem. Warned by the wise men about Herod's plan to kill their singular child, the family flees to Egypt a place with harrowing connotations for Jews at the time and raises Jesus in that country, returning to Israel only when the boy has become a teenager. In the Gospel of Luke, Joseph and Mary do not live in Bethlehem, but must travel there when the census is being called. During the trip, the baby is born at an inn, angels appear to glorify the moment with hosannas, and in one of the highest moments of all the world's writing, mere shepherds are chosen to receive the child into history. (The shepherds and the wise men never meet: creche scenes are an invention of popular culture.) Afterward Joseph and Mary return home and raise their boy in Nazareth, rather than living in exile in Egypt. Obviously, these accounts conflict in prodigious ways. The presence of contradiction does not disqualify scripture from containing spiritual power, nor, for that matter, from containing records of actual events: one or the other Christmas story may very well be historical. But such imperfections ought to warn us that every organized religion stands partly on institutionally imbedded error.
More worrisome than contradictions in scripture may be the notion of faith as the opposite of logic. As Abdu'l-Baha', a Baha'i theologian, wrote in 1912, "If religious beliefs of mankind are contrary to science and opposed to reason, they are none other than superstitions, for the Lord God has endowed man with the faculty of reason in order that through its exercise he may arrive at the verities of existence." In cautionary notes such as these, we find even a thinker who worked in the spiritualist tradition warning against much of what is wrong with traditional monotheism and with many of the unaffiliated new "spirituality" movements: the inclination to assume that to reach for the unseen, men and women need be "opposed to reason."
No one who yearns for the spiritual ought to fear holding up faith to the methods of reason: you can think rationally about that which fails to meet the eye just as readily as about that which does. The traditionalist Swiss theologian Karl Barth, who wrote in the first half of this century, often said he accepted modern critiques of scripture or findings of natural science because he could not understand why any believer would not want to know as many details as possible about the reality of faith, even if new discoveries overturned cherished illusions. Trying to sift through the question of what aspects of spirituality are profound and which are traceable to error ought to be seen as a positive exercise, helping us to concentrate on that portion of spirituality that is truly worth believing.
More than fear of reason, the behavior of the faiths offers a harsher bill of attainder against belief. A substantial portion of the horrors of history inquisitions, oppression, ethnic hatred, wars has been instigated in the name of the invisible. Spiritual belief continues to serve as a source of animus between the Irish and the English, the Israelis and the Palestinians, the Hindus and the Moslems, the Bosnians and the Serbs, and many other groups. As levels of education rise throughout society, more people come to know of religion's role in past and present barbarities; this knowledge naturally instills a sense of disillusionment. That faiths preach love but generate hate can hardly be seen as a minor shortcoming.But knowing of the many faults associated with the theory and practice of faith should not make us abandon spirituality as an ideal, any more than knowing the exasperating faults of democracy ought to leave anyone longing to turn back the clock to the Hapburgs. As the age of doubt advances, as greater understanding renders women and men more skeptical of the claims of every institution of thought, we engage the risk that the beauty of spiritual yearning will be overturned along with the blemishes. Wanting to rid ourselves of the mythology and intolerance associated with faith, we risk ridding ourselves of its insights and glories as well.
Copyright © 1998 by Gregg Easterbrook