The evolving God

James Kugel deals with religious perception, when man reaches to something outside the self.

James Kugel (photo credit: Avi Katz)
James Kugel
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
In the year 2000, James Kugel, former Starr Professor of Hebrew Literature at Harvard University, and presently, Professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University, was 54 years of age. A respected scholar and popular lecturer, known for his combination of erudition and down-to earth humanity, he was informed that summer that he had a particularly aggressive form of cancer and could be expected to live between two to five years.
In “In the Valley of the Shadow,” Kugel describes his state of mind at the time. “The background music suddenly stopped. It had always been there, the music of daily life that’s constantly going, the music of infinite time and possibilities. And now suddenly it was gone, replaced by nothing, just silence.” Concomitant with the stark world with which he was suddenly confronted, he describes being overcome by a sense of smallness, as if everything was compacted into this one small body. “That’s all there is,” he writes. “All that infinite time collapses.”
Kugel feels that this encounter with cancer catapulted him into a state of mind that echoed the sensibility of the biblical period.
According to Kugel, the material and invisible worlds interfaced in earlier times.
The inanimate world was alive, fraught with meaning. Man was constantly confronted by the otherworldly. Angels came, for example, in the form of humans to bring God’s messages to Abraham; the man struggling with Jacob turned out to be an angel of God. At first there was a fog, a lack of clarity about the “man” with whom Jacob struggles, but slowly, he perceives him to be an angel, a “divine messenger.”
An ominous world
Kugel describes the world as “ominous.”
“The starkness was always just over there, concealing itself behind the drab colors of the day.” Even more so, he explains, “God was behind a curtain, ready to jump out at you at any time.” “There was a sense of self open to the Great Outside,” which modern man does not usually possess,” says Kugel who uses the word “semipermeable” to describe the movement from inside to outside, and vice versa. “Our world has become a strangely closed, stunted place,” he laments.
The immediacy of the divine and the smallness of man, as expressed in the early books of the Bible, lead Kugel to delve further into the development of religious consciousness. He explains that he is less interested in the concept of God as sovereign over the whole world, and more with the existential experience of God whose presence is felt right in front of man’s nose.
He uses the word “starkness” to describe this sense of a strong presence. It is also synonymous with a feeling of awe or dread.
He finds this sense “of a different reality more powerful and truer than the one we live in everyday” in a variety of sources including the Psalms, John Newton’s hymn “Amazing Grace,” the Dead Sea Scrolls, the writings of the early Christians, and the Viennese philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein.
He admits that today, this might be viewed as delusion, mental illness, but ultimately he celebrates “that moment of privileged insight [when] we are enabled to catch a glimpse of what lies beyond our own real being. Such a moment may come at any time, but it is, as I have been trying to argue, the foundation on which the religious consciousness is built.”
This biblical “dread,” of which modern man might have a glimpse now and then, is clearly not the prevailing sensibility. And ironically, one of the reasons for this change was the influence of monotheism. God is no longer behind the curtain able to jump out at you. The world is no longer full of omens, signs to be read to make one’s way in a threatening and threatened world.
Instead, the concept of God’s greatness is transformed from a human-sized, albeit powerful God behind the curtain, to an omnipresent God. Greatness means largeness.
God is spread all over at once. He’s also omniscient. If He’s all over, then He knows everything man is thinking. Yet if He is all over, “then He is never somewhere particular,” writes Kugel. God loses his concreteness.
“God became more remote; less present to people. This kept the starkness at hand.”
Kugel feels that “you shall have no other gods before me” is certainly part of the biblical message,” but there was constant backsliding. Monotheism didn’t happen at once. “Slowly, the way ordinary people thought about God became very different from what it had been. This more distant deity brought with him a lower level of anxiety. The other “stark” visionary way of seeing began to recede. Kugel sees the concept of a universal, omnipresent God to have taken hold around the Middle Ages.
It is also concomitant with man’s increased control of the world. Man’s dread of God’s stark reality receded accordingly.
“By the late medieval period and the Renaissance, man’s perception of himself, the place of the individual, became larger, more central. This sensibility developed slowly and irregularly.
The sense of death
But the experience of cancer, the feared C word, more than almost anything else today, hurls man back to the earlier sense of reality, a sense of his smallness and the constant threat that looms over him.
Man’s sense of death, though, is different than it once was. Until the late Middle Ages, man accepted his death, went about preparing for it. He saw man’s place in the whole. But once the individual became so important, man himself so central, “the theme of death’s inevitability thus came to be replaced by the new, overwhelming realization that this particular individual was to disappear forever.” The individual was overwhelmed “with the utter blackness of his own cessation.”
Although discussing highly philosophical- theological issues, Kugel is not pedantic or bombastic. His tone is modest, contemplative, even conversational. The difficulty with this is that it lacks incisiveness, can sometimes be rambling. But this is compensated for by the poetry and pointedness of his existential insights, when the reader feels the intensity of what neurologists call the “godspot” in the brain.
Kugel is both inspiring and amazingly erudite, calling upon many different disciplines in addition to the Bible. He culls from anthropology, ancient literature, evolutionary biology and neuroscience to popular songs to describe the development of religious consciousness.
Many of the anthropological studies refer to those who might be perceived by modern man as primitive people living in a magical world. Yet, according to Kugel, they share the perception of space that existed in the Bible and ancient literature, where man was small, and “fit snugly into a world that was overwhelmed by divinity.”
Space is open “and it is filled – with our yearning for, or fear of, or simply our raw awareness of the divine.”
Kugel’s thesis has been that cancer opens man to the starkness perceived in earlier times. And yet, is it not this very terror of the loss of the individual that calls up this dread? There is a subtle contradiction in claiming that early man always lived with terror, and at the same time, didn’t feel this individuality, knew his place in the universe, accepted his death stoically.
There are those who might question the congruence of early man’s experience of “starkness” with the terror that takes hold of contemporary man stricken with cancer.
But ultimately, Kugel has written a book about religious perception, when man feels his smallness and reaches to something outside the self.
He claims this experience occurs not only in the face of death. We feel this “awe” in the reading of the Psalms or visiting a medieval Church, or hearing gospel music. In all this, man feels God’s stark presence. He lives for a moment in a world of absolutes.
We can only be thankful that Kugel has applied his own experience as well as his far-ranging knowledge to raise our consciousness to those exquisite, existential moments, when man is overwhelmed by a sense of something greater than himself. He has done so in a manner that is both inspiring and honest.
In The Valley of the Shadow: on the foundations of religious belief
By James L. Kugel
Free Press
222 pages; $26