Saturday, July 12, 2014

A Book is Born

In 1799, Friedrich Schleiermacher wrote a short book called On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers.  Religion was the hero of this little book, and Schleiermacher’s aim was to reveal the essence of his hero, which he obviously viewed as the path to virtue and truth.  “To have religion,” he concluded, “means to intuit the universe, and the value of your religion depends upon the manner in which you intuit it, on the principle that you find in its actions.   … [I]n religion, everything strives to expand the sharply delineated outlines of our personality and gradually to lose them in the infinite in order that we, by intuiting the universe, will become one with it as much as possible.”  Schleiermacher went on to say that the way in which the people of his day conventionally viewed immortality is “completely irreligious” and that religion has “nothing to do with the existing and commanding God” – meaning the deity worshipped by fundamentalists.  Clearly, this man, who is often known as the “Father of Modern Liberal Theology,” was an impassioned critic of organized religion.   And yet, as we can tell from his book’s subtitle, he passionately strove to refute the perspective of religion’s “Cultured Despisers.”  In short, he wanted to clean out the bathwater of religious orthodoxy, but only as a means of preserving and venerating the baby.  

Lovers of Spinoza could detect more than a bit of the old master in Schleiermacher’s words.  And indeed, like so many German intellectuals of the late 18th century, Schleiermacher adored the man whom he labelled “the holy rejected Spinoza.”   In one of many tributes to the “rejected” philosopher, Schleiermacher argued that “The high world spirit permeated him, the infinite was his beginning and end, the universe his only and eternal love; in holy innocence and deep humility he was reflected in the eternal world and saw how he too was its most lovable mirror; he was full of religion and full of holy spirit; for this reason, he also stands there alone and unequaled, master in his art but elevated above the profane guild, without disciples and without rights of citizenship.”  

Au contraire, my dear Sir (allow me a few words that are just as flowery as Schleiermacher’s);  methinks that you should be counted among Spinoza’s disciples, as well as Goethe, Einstein, Santayana … even Nietzsche.  Truth be told, Spinoza has had many disciples.  It’s just that few of them want to create a cult in their mentor’s name. We don’t think of him as a Son of God, a Prophet of God, or even as a supernaturally-inspired exemplar of God’s moral law.  To be sure, we see him as a teacher and a moral exemplar, but one who is flawed like the rest of us.   Mostly, Spinoza inspires us to dare to philosophize – to follow the truth wherever it leads, and if it leads to a rift with the Orthodox, on the one hand, and religion’s “cultured despisers” on the other, so be it.

This week, 215 years after Schleiermacher published “On Religion,” Cascade Books published the work of a neurotic Jew from Bethesda, Maryland.  This new book also concerns religion.  And once again, the book is generally an attempt to respond to religion’s “cultured” critics.   But today, these critics don’t so much despise religion as dismiss it.  Frankly, my dears, when it comes to religion, the cultured men and women of today couldn’t give a damn.  

Like Schleiermacher, the author of this new book is passionate about speaking back to religion’s opponents.  The dedication page reads, “For all who wage war against both religious apathy and fanaticism.”  Normally, one doesn’t find “fanaticism” and “apathy” linked together, and certainly not as objects of war.   It sounds like the author is calling for a jihad and in a sense, he is.  The “greater jihad,” Muslims will point out, citing the hadiths of Muhammad, refers to a non-violent spiritual struggle.  And the struggle that the author invites involves two independent, yet related, activities, both of which would be pursued with vigor:  (a) identifying and confronting the “bathwater” of religion, which he summarizes by the term “religious fanaticism,” but he could have also added such words as “dogmatism,” “chauvinism” or “exclusivism;” and (b) venerating the “baby” of religion, which requires first and foremost a willingness to give a damn.

So what is that “baby”?  For me, it starts with an attitude of piety, which entails generally treating the individuals and institutions that came before us with respect.  Great men and women over the centuries have dedicated their hearts and minds to one or more gods – indeed, that has been the rule, not the exception.  So piety requires us to recognize religion’s historical importance, investigate whether it is worthy of our own devotion, and, regardless of whether we remain skeptical, at least keep the pilot light flickering.  Personally, I spent most of my youth believing that “God” was a fiction and “religion” largely a nuisance, but my heart and mind never closed altogether.  I was never religiously apathetic, and I always recognized in my childhood atheism that I could very well be missing something profound. 

By contrast, so many of religion’s “Cultured Dismissers” have turned off their pilot lights altogether.  They don’t seem the least bit remorseful about it.  I must say, I find that attitude to be almost as alienating as religious fanaticism.   John Lennon once asked us to “imagine no religion,” but it was Paul McCartney who wrote “I’d love to turn you on,” and that is my dream – to approach religion’s Cultured Dismissers with a different perspective that ultimately can actually turn them on to religion and God.  Those domains, when considered through a non-dogmatic lens, are far too beautiful to remain moribund among large swaths of our educated classes.   

In case you can’t tell by now, the new book I’m referencing is my own.  While it’s my third book, it’s my first work of non-fiction – meaning that when it came time for me to write about something real, as opposed to imagined, this book’s topic was the one I chose.  Some would call that ironic, given the title and subtitle:  Liberating the Holy Name: A Free-Thinker Grapples with the Meaning of Divinity.   But I’m fine with whatever jokes you’d make about the idea of writing a “non-fiction” book about “God.”  Jokes I can handle.   Not caring a whit about religion to the point where one’s mind and heart are as closed as a bank vault?  That, I can’t.  For one thing, I can’t look such people in the eyes and honestly tell them that they would enjoy my book.   Rather, I write for those who are open to searching for that which is transcendent and  mysterious.   My God, you see, is infinitely more mystery than man.

So far, I have said little about the substance of the book.  For example, I haven’t even mentioned what is meant by the need to “liberate” the Holy Name, and how such liberation could possibly help us in waging a war against religious apathy and fanaticism.  If you’d like a substantive overview, go to my newly revamped website,, and you can find all sorts of info about the book, including numerous endorsements from prominent religious or intellectual leaders and even a promotional video.  If you’d prefer to get the book on the cheap – and who doesn’t? – go to and use the code “Spiro.”  Excluding shipping, copies can be had for $16.80.  That’s probably a half-penny in Schleiermacher’s day.  

To an author, books truly are like babies.  They take a lot of tender loving care to get them anywhere close to their ultimate form,  but we never know until long after the process began whether they will be healthy or stillborn – and we don’t really feel like we’re in control of the process.  

Why then do people write books when the odds that they will “succeed” (i.e., make a difference in the lives of readers) are so much less than the odds that, say, a human baby will survive and be happy?  The answer is because we have something to say and an irresistible passion to say it.  That was certainly the case for me in this book.   If you enjoy this blog, I hope you will check out Liberating the Holy Name – even if that means buying it, leaving it on the shelf for a while, and then weeks, months or years down the road, looking at it and saying “The hell with my apathy.  I want to go on this voyage.”  One thing I can guarantee you is that this book will never become antiquated.  Our kind will be arguing about this topic until the Sun becomes a Red Giant and burns us up, or until our apathy about the Big Issues causes us to destroy our planet before its time. 

Some would say that part of the reason we’re not bothering to nurture the planet is because we’re so busy thinking about God instead.  In this book, however, I explain how once the bathwater is dumped and the baby preserved, it can help us solve many of our most profound earthly problems.  Don’t take my word for it; ask Schleiermacher.  His body might be gone, but his spirit thankfully survives … in his books. 

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