Religion Dispatches is running an interview with Jacob Needleman, Professor of Philosophy at San Francisco State university and author of the recent What is God? (Penguin-Tarcher, 2009). The book describes his “journey from Ivy-educated professor and atheist, to talk about fundamentalist, atheism, separating the sacred from religion, and why listening is the first step of every ethics.”
Here are two parts of the interview conducted by Religion Dispatches senior editor Lisa Webster:
How did your ideas about religion change?
Well, as I say, in my life it was more or less thrust upon me. I needed a job. It was 1962—ancient times—I was hired at San Francisco State and I was obliged to teach a course called the History of Western Religious Thought. For me I had no desire to teach anything like that. I was totally allergic to religion. But I had training as a philosophy student, a grad student, a PhD. I did very well, was at the best colleges, best universities— Harvard, Yale—and I was willing to undertake preparing myself to teach such a course. Philosophers generally don’t want to come anywhere near that kind of stuff—nor did I. But I honorably tried to prepare myself.
It meant I had to read theologians, Christian writers like St. Augustine—whom I had hated. You see in my book where I talk about burning the pages of the book, that’s exactly what happened. I’m not exaggerating. I was so happy to see it go up in flames; I had suffered so much from that book. And later I read it and I loved it—a great, great man.
So it forced me to read and prepare myself, and I couldn’t believe how superficial my understanding of religion had been, even with a liberal education from the best universities. I discovered things about religion; I couldn’t believe how good, how interesting, how profound—and how distorted it had become, how shallow it had become. So more and more I got deeply interested in religion because I had to teach it. And then I got personally interested in my own personal, spiritual search which I started to undertake.
And you teach courses in religion, spirituality, so you encounter every kind of opinion. I was so interested in that encounter you describe with the dogmatic student, the fundamentalist…
What an interesting thing that was for me. Because I was always nervous when fundamentalist people came to my class. Mostly I let them speak but I don’t pay much attention, because I know they’re going to come back with the same old thing and not going to listen to anybody. They’re often nice people but they’re just impervious, waiting for the chance to come in and say Christ is this or that.
This guy, for some reason, there was something appealing about him. He’d greet me: “How are you this fine day?” He would sit in the middle of the room and he would plunk the Bible down. I was teaching a course on really spiritual esoteric thought: René Guénon, and P.D. Ouspensky. These are two heavy hitters in esoteric thought, and I thought, this guy is not going to swallow any of this. Well all right, as long as he takes notes and does the exam it’s fine.
But I liked him. He would always sit there with his bible and he would criticize. It was strong, but it was not hateful; it was not violent. So I took the chance of trying to listen to him. I would make an effort to practice what I preach and listen to a person I totally disagree with about a subject I know a lot about.
So we started having a conversation, and one of the subjects had to do with interpretation of scripture. At one point we were back and forth and I realized: this man, I disagree with him a lot but he has a heart. This is not a maniac—he has a heart, he’s feeling something. And I started respecting his being, really, in a sense, without any sense of agreeing with his thoughts.
Anyway, he started saying things like: you can’t have criticism, you can’t have interpretations, you can’t have commentaries—what is right is what’s in the Bible. It sounded like the old literalistic fundamentalist kind of thing. But it wasn’t, because he was saying something really interesting: let the Bible interpret itself.
And it’s true, if you could really receive the Bible, if you could really open to the words—this leads into the whole big question about how you read scripture. In its deeper sense, scripture was never meant to be an academic study, where you take questions in your mind. In its deepest sense you can only understand real scripture when you need something, when you need truth of a certain kind and you need help. Then scripture speaks. Whether it’s Christian, Jewish, or sacred books of the Gnostics, or whether it’s Buddhist—really scriptural texts.
Scripture is not just recording what Jesus said; scripture is men and women coming together, working inwardly to be true to something and together trying to produce something that has at least a bit of truth of the heart. Real scripture, though it might on the surface seem contradictory or violent, these things are often symbolic and can only be understood with the heart and the head together. Not just with the head.
So I started criticizing as a professor, but I didn’t want to stay in my head like that with this man for some reason. I could give him all kinds of good jabs, ask him questions that would refute him, but as I went on playing my role as a professor I started coming down into my own heart. This guy started being less rigid. He was a heart coming up and relating to a head, and I was a head coming down and relating to a heart. A beautiful meeting.
This so-called fundamentalist was a human being. Someone might look like an unpleasant fanatic in certain conditions, you begin to speak to them, and—well, you might be quite surprised.