And suddenly, incomprehensibly, all at once, despite the heavy summer air that always absorbs most of the starlight – suddenly, as if by magic, the black sky was instantly strewn with millions of stars. Millions of points of light. Millions of worlds. Never, before or since, have I seen such a night sky, not even in remote mountains on clear nights. It was not simply that my eyes had become normally adjusted to the darkness; is was as though an entirely new instrument of seeing has all at once been switched on within me.
In What is God? Jacob Needleman, Professor of Philosophy at San Francisco State University explores this timeless question. Needleman emerged from years of philosophical training at Harvard, Yale and the University of Freiburg, Germany with little more than bored distain for the classical texts of the Judeo-Christian philosophical tradition. However, an unsettling meeting with the venerated Zen teacher D. T. Suzuki combined with his acceptance of a position teaching those very texts to undergraduates forced Needleman to reexamine his dismissal of Jewish and Christian thinkers.
Needleman does indeed convey to the reader a certain mysterium tremendum he developed through the study of Jewish, Christian and Eastern Scriptures. However, he saves much of his excitement for the teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff, a Greek-Armenian mystic and spiritual teacher, who argued that that people cannot perceive reality in their current state because they do not possess consciousness but rather live in a state of a hypnotic “waking sleep.” In this light, much of What is God? could be thought of as Needleman’s record of his “waking” from an “atheistic” existence to the realization that “the lives we were intended for, the very nature of the human experience must change, including the very structure of our perception and, indeed, the very structure of our minds.” This may well be the case but Needleman fails to offer the reader the how/where/when/ or even the why this must happen. Toward the end of the book he writes as length in a sort of philo/psycho-babble that proves impenetrably opaque. It is in this aspect that What is God? is most disappointing. Needleman certainly goes a long way toward offering the reader a sense of the numinous but fails to offer any idea as to how one should respond.
What is God? is an important question and worth more exploration that western culture currently places on its exploration. Needleman, however, does much to excite one’s passion, but little to advance one’s knowledge on the subject.