A riveting exploration of human doubts depicted in new book

Even though its author is a professional psychiatrist, this is far from a dry-as-dust scientific textbook.

Deference to Doubt: A young man’s quest for religious identity in first-century Judea (photo credit: Courtesy)
Deference to Doubt: A young man’s quest for religious identity in first-century Judea
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Written originally in his native Dutch, Herman van Praag’s new book has been provided with an excellent choice of title for its English translation, Deference to Doubt. Even though its author is a professional psychiatrist, this is far from a dry-as-dust scientific textbook. It is essentially an exploration of the doubts that every human being has about the meaning of life.
Emeritus Professor van Praag chooses to undertake his examination of these questions through the eyes of a young man, Amos, living in Judea in the first century, a time of religious and intellectual ferment. In a sense Amos replicates the intellectual journey undertaken by the Preacher, the eponymous author of the book of Ecclesiastes ‒ in other words King Solomon himself, if we accept the commonly held view as to its authorship. Van Haag acknowledges his debt to the Preacher in his dedication. Like the Preacher, Amos is filled with doubts about the purpose of life, the true worth of its apparent successes and the reality of its apparent failures.
The book also serves to illustrate one of the Preacher’s most famous, and to some people most puzzling, pronouncements: “What has been will be, and what has been done will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” Because the religious, intellectual and moral problems that Amos grapples with are universal and timeless, parallels with present-day issues inevitably present themselves at every turn. The reader begins to appreciate that in some sense history does repeat itself, or that in the common French phrase “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (the more things change, the more they’re the same).
The book is written in the first person. Amos is giving us his own account of his journey for meaning in what he fears might be a meaningless world. He meets and cross-questions seven individuals in a series of fascinating no-holds-barred conversations. One of them is with Jesus of Nazareth; another with John the Baptist. He meets a leader of the Qumran community and Philo of Alexandria. I do not want to end this review on a sour note, so I will get my complaint in at this point. I am very sorry that the publishers have chosen not to adopt accepted custom in the presentation of reported speech on the printed page. If a speech extends beyond one paragraph, it is standard practice to open every new paragraph with quotation marks. This tells the reader that the speech is continuing. In this volume, the reader is repeatedly left confused as to whether a speech is on-going, or whether a new topic is being broached. In this book in particular, which consists in large measure of intellectual argument, the omission of quotation marks at each new paragraph of a long speech is an especial difficulty for the reader.
With this caveat, Deference to Doubt is a book that will provide great pleasure to anyone who relishes the idea of a mind-expanding voyage of discovery into the questions and doubts that beset all of us from time to time. On such a journey, the assiduous reader welcomes signposts. The tiny numbers guiding us to the end-notes are no distraction, while the fourteen pages of end-notes open up a treasure house of references, well worth exploring in themselves.
The book ends with Amos returning home and telling his father about his spiritual quest.
“I’ve become wiser, Father,” he says, “but no more certain.”
He says that on his journey he was inundated with opinions, but that no two people said the same thing. Their perceptions of God varied widely, and so did their beliefs about death ‒ is it a final end, or the gateway to immortality? Some believed in predestination, that our destiny is determined before we are born; others that we have free will throughout our lives. People were divided also about whether humanity should hope for the coming of a Messiah.
“There are even those who believe that the Messiah in in our midst,” Amos told his father. ”I talked with the man a number of times.”
Amos describes him as a complex, unfathomable, tragic figure. “An odd combination of certainty and doubt, hope and despair.”
Amos concludes that there is no ready-made package of answers to the questions that beset him. He will have to forge his way through a forest of possibilities, but that there is no destination.
“In other words, I’ll never get there. I am becoming, and that genesis is without end.”
In form and style Deference to Doubt rather resembles Plato’s Socratic dialogues, with Amos taking the role of Socrates in questioning everything in the hope of uncovering the truth.
Although Socrates made no claims to a settled philosophy, his ideas on concepts such as truth, beauty, justice and ethics did emerge obliquely during the course of his dialogues with his students. Amos, after his long intellectual journey, has delved deep into religion and morality in a quest to satisfy the doubts that he cannot prevent rising in his mind, but remains uncertain to the end. He has explored these issues with some great minds, but he has not reached journey’s end. Perhaps his greatest discovery is that there is no end to that journey, that the questions he is asking can never be fully answered by mere human beings.
This volume is a rare intellectual treat, to be relished by those ready and willing to explore these great issues along with Amos.■
Deference to Doubt: A young man’s quest for religious identity in first-century Judea
Herman M. van Praag
Urim Publications, 2020
296 pages, $24.95