"Finally, a rabbi offers a corrective to ideas about what Judaism is and what it requires in Mensch Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi (HCI, Apr.). Joshua Hammerman, rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn., and a journalist, writes, “So many Jews say to me, ‘Rabbi, I feel like I am a good person, even though I’m not a good Jew.’ Since when must the two be mutually exclusive? Jewish ritual is vacuous if it does not lead to ethical ends. Judaism, which should instinctively be linked to kindness, modesty and honesty, too often is associated with ritual correctness, ethnic tribalism and an unyielding ethic of holier-than-thou.” He says that being a mensch—a loving human being—transcends any other accomplishment."
New books offer answers to the big questions for those leery
of traditional religions
Mar 22, 2019
Participation in traditional religions in America continues to decline, but eternal questions don’t go away. Many of those who now call themselves spiritual but not religious are searching for ways to make sense of the world and their place in it, to find community and compassion, and to be inspired. Authors are tackling those questions from multiple angles and offering readers ways to feed that hunger.
Religion’s most important function may be to provide a framework for finding meaning and purpose in life. But if not through a religion, how does one find such answers? Fourteen philosophers explore that question in How to Live a Good Life: A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy (Vintage Original, Jan. 2020), edited by Massimo Pigliucci, Skye Cleary, and Daniel Kaufman. The essayists go beyond theory, offering personal accounts of how practicing philosophies such as pragmatism, existentialism, and Confucianism has given them alternatives to institutional religions.
The editors write, “Despite the sometimes sharp differences among the religions and philosophies of life... there seem to be universal principles that were as valid two millennia ago as they are today: the need for meaning and a sense of agency, compassion for others and the notion that cooperation and prosociality are the best ways to insure human flourishing, regardless of one’s metaphysical views.”
Pigliucci is a professor of philosophy at the City College of New York and author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life; Cleary is a philosopher who teaches at Columbia, Barnard, the City University of New York, and the New York Public Library and is the author of Existentialism and Romantic Love; and Kaufman is a professor of philosophy at Missouri State University.
For centuries, religions have dominated as the way to make sense of the origin of the cosmos and human life. But, as philosophy professor Michael Ruse writes in A Meaning to Life (Oxford Univ., Apr.), the advent of the theory of evolution set in motion a decline in religious faith and sent some people looking to science for answers. Scientists, however, have thus far failed to resolve the mysteries of human existence. “Are we not in the same place with respect to our worries about meaning and what we might call the ‘ultimate questions’?” Ruse asks in the book. “If we think about it, if we use our reason, then we have no answers.” Ruse teaches at Florida State University and is the author of The Problem of War.
A simpler philosophy rooted in Okinawa also addresses the need for meaning. How to Ikigai: Lessons for Finding Happiness and Living Your Life’s Purpose (Mango, out now) is Tim Tamashiro’s introduction to the concept of ikigai, which he defines as “the reason you get out of bed.... It’s what you do every day, that’s meaningful to you and to others.” Tamashiro’s ikigai is to delight; for others it might be to serve, to nourish, to create. He tells readers that by discovering their ikigai and living it, their gifts become an offering to the world.
But philosophy is not enough for the dozen scholars who contribute essays to Faith and Reason: Philosophers Explain Their Turn to Catholicism (Ignatius, Apr.), edited by Brian Besong and Jonathan Fuqua, with a foreword by Francis Beckwith. Philosophy professors Edward Feser, Peter Kreeft, Candace Vogler, and others tell why they embraced Catholicism as a superior source of wisdom. The editors write, “[The] conventional wisdom is that beliefs arising from faith are by their very nature contrary to the deliverances of reason. But for... Catholic academics, like the contributors to this volume, who have both a deep faith and a sophisticated mastery of philosophy, that’s not at all how they understand the relationship between faith and reason. They see them as complementary, that we can know some things by both faith and reason, some things only by reason, and some things only by faith.”
In Defense of Jesus
Franciscan priest Richard Rohr offers not substitutes for Christianity but fresh ways of looking at it. In The Universal Christ (Crown, out now), he examines anew the meaning of Jesus’s life and teachings, writing that too often our understandings of him and his earthly ministry have been shaped by culture, religious conflicts, and the human ego. Rohr—author of The Divine Dance—writes that “unless religion leads us on a path to both depth and honesty, much religion is actually quite dangerous to the soul and to society.” He continues, “In fact ‘fast-food religion’ and the so-called ‘prosperity gospel’ are some of the very best ways to actually avoid God—while talking about religion almost nonstop.”
Robin Meyers also wants to show Christians they can rescue their faith from the rigid morals and doctrines that have turned so many off. In Falling Off the Ceiling (Crown, Jan. 2020), Meyers writes that the image of a vengeful God who demands obedience and metes out rewards and punishment has driven many Christians out of the church. He encourages readers to move from a harsh theology to one that emphasizes love and activism. Meyers—author of Saving Jesus from the Church—is a Christian minister, peace activist, and professor of social justice.
Biblical scholar Amy-Jill Levine encourages readers to reconsider their abandonment of Jesus and the church in Jesus for Everyone: Not Just Christians (HarperOne, Nov.). Levine argues that Jesus’s historical and cultural influence make him relevant for the faithful and for nonbelievers alike. Jesus’s life and teachings, she writes, are important for everyone—even those who reject religion—because they hold valuable insights for today.
Levine writes, “I am not a Christian, in any sense of the term.... yet I have most of my life, since the age of seven, been asking questions about [Jesus], reading about him, seeing the movies and attending the plays, looking at artistic representations and listening to music about his passion.... Jesus the speaker of Jewish wisdom has taught me much, and continues to teach me, about priorities and principals, about how to live, and how to love.”
Levine is a professor of New Testament and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School and the author of The Misunderstood Jew.
Mind-body-spirit publisher Inner Traditions offers a different lens for viewing Jesus. A Theology of Love: Reimagining Christianity Through a Course in Miracles by Richard Smoley (Nov.) draws not only on the Bible but also on Buddhism, gnosticism, Hinduism, and esoteric and mystical teachings, such as A Course in Miracles and the Sefer Yetzirah, the oldest known kabbalistic text. Smoley is also the author of Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition and How God Became God: What Scholars Are Really Saying About God and the Bible.
The Riches of Religion
Why Christianity? Why the church? Those are the questions Mark R. Kowaleski tries to answer in Traveling Home: Tracking Your Way Through the Spiritual Wilderness (Church, Aug.). Addressing Americans who are ambivalent about the value of the faith, Kowaleski makes the case for Christianity as the way to answer ultimate questions, writing, “Beyond the way we orient ourselves in place and history we also need to understand our place in the bigger picture of the cosmos.... Where did we come from? Why is there something rather than nothing? Is there a bigger purpose for my life? Is there some thing or someone who brought this all into being?” For Kowaleski—dean and rector at St. John’s Cathedral in Los Angeles—Christianity provides the answers.
Many Christians have been turned off by the institutional church but still want to do good in the world. Bartender turned comedian turned pastor Jerry Herships offers ideas that don’t necessarily include church membership in Rogue Saints: Spirituality for Good-Hearted Heathens (Westminster, out now). He leads After Hours Denver, a group of drug addicts and other misfits in the traditional church who meet in bars and pubs to talk about God while making sandwiches for the homeless.
Herships—author of Last Call: From Serving Drinks to Serving Jesus—writes, “I want this book to alleviate guilt, create joy, and give people permission to find God in new and different ways, even if that means sleeping in on Sundays.... Religion can give us a framework, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a house everybody wants (or frankly, needs) to live in. Community and a connection to something higher can take a lot of forms.”
Mary Jo Sharp offers a similar message in Why I Still Believe: A Former Atheist’s Reckoning with the Bad Reputation Christians Give a Good God (Zondervan, Nov.), arguing for a Christian community that is inclusive and focused on love and service instead of judgment and exclusion.
How did the world become so hostile toward religion? That question prompted Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter Timothy Egan to embark on A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith (Viking, Oct.). Egan recounts his thousand-mile walk along an ancient pilgrimage route, with stops at shrines, churches, and monasteries that were significant in the early history of Christianity. His destination is St. Peter’s Square, where he hopes to meet the pope who is leading a besieged church of 1.3 billion Roman Catholics and seeking to preserve the Catholic church for the future.
Egan, a columnist for the New York Times, is the author most recently of The Immortal Irishman. He won the National Book Award for his book on the Dust Bowl, The Worst Hard Time.
Finally, a rabbi offers a corrective to ideas about what Judaism is and what it requires in Mensch Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi (HCI, Apr.). Joshua Hammerman, rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn., and a journalist, writes, “So many Jews say to me, ‘Rabbi, I feel like I am a good person, even though I’m not a good Jew.’ Since when must the two be mutually exclusive? Jewish ritual is vacuous if it does not lead to ethical ends. Judaism, which should instinctively be linked to kindness, modesty and honesty, too often is associated with ritual correctness, ethnic tribalism and an unyielding ethic of holier-than-thou.” He says that being a mensch—a loving human being—transcends any other accomplishment.
Finding Religion in Unexpected Places...and Books: Among the array of choices for the spiritually adventurous readers are some innovative paths that may or may not involve UFOs.
A version of this article appeared in the 03/25/2019 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: The Search For Meaning