July 19, 2016
RELIGION–The Quest for Meaning and Solace
A NONE’S STORY
Searching for Meaning Inside Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam
By Corinna Nicolaou
289 pp. Columbia University, $35.
The increasing numbers of young people in Pew surveys who select “none” when asked to choose their religious affiliation cause extensive hand-wringing among religious leaders and pundits. But this phenomenon is more productively addressed through a memoir like Nicolaou’s sincere, idiosyncratic “A None’s Story.”
Nicolaou sets out to “quench my thirst for spirituality and address the religious ignorance I had felt so acutely in the wake of 9/11” by attending as many houses of worship as she can. Her four-year itinerary is not a methodical survey; it’s religious tourism. She celebrates Mass with Catholics, whoops with Pentecostals, meditates with Buddhists, celebrates Purim and Passover with Jews, Ramadan and Eid with Muslims.
The author’s naïveté can be grating, and she covers so much ground so quickly that her tone can veer jarringly from breezy to suddenly spiritual. But her determination to understand practice rather than ideology is wise. To those who criticize her project as superficial, or who expect her to eventually settle in a denomination, that’s “like being criticized for being homeless by people tucked under cozy comforters. I don’t have a snug bed — that’s the point.”
PUTTING GOD SECOND
How to Save Religion From Itself
By Donniel Hartman
180 pp. Beacon, $24.95.
If religion is supposed to guard our best human virtues, why does it so often lead to war and injustice? Rabbi Hartman puts forward the radical notion that religion has an “autoimmune disease,” a critical flaw contained within it that leads to its misuse. (He sticks to Judaism here, but calls for similar self-criticisms within other traditions.) The disease’s two main symptoms are “God intoxication,” which over focuses believers on the superficial worship of God, and “God manipulation,” which allows believers to justify pure self-interest in religious terms. Faith in God, Hartman argues, should not be excised from human life, it should be “treated and cured of its pathological side effects.” He attempts to do this by returning to the tradition’s texts, especially to one Talmudic saying of the Rabbi Hillel:“What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.”
Hartman argues that the true moral and ethical center of Judaism does not depend on a notion of God, but on an autonomous, universal moral consciousness that it is our job to interpret responsibly. Religion should be a “moral mentor, reminding, cajoling, exhorting and at times threatening its adherents to check their self-interest.” Though this book will necessarily appeal more to the “loyal opposition” within Judaism, Hartman’s courageous, meticulously supported argument deserves wider hearing.
A Search for Faith in a Violent Religious World
By Dennis Covington
212 pp. Little, Brown, $26.
Best known for “Salvation on Sand Mountain,” in which he embedded deeply with snake-handling preachers, Covington has always been drawn to danger and God. Now in his 60s, he decides to go to “places where religion bled,” where he can “write about faith as an action rather than just a set of beliefs.” He sets out for the site of ancient Antioch, in Turkey, following the movements of early Christians. But soon he can’t seem to stop making trips across the Turkish border into Syria. The horrific violence he witnesses at the beginning of the ISIS takeover draws him into the international humanitarian catastrophe. In taut, immersive chapters, Covington broadens this war story in time and place, back to his childhood during the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Ala.; his reporting in the El Salvadoran war; and his relationship with his severely disturbed older brother.
Always questioning his own motives, Covington doesn’t spare readers the discomfort of his obsession with violence. “It wasn’t a suicidal impulse; I knew what one of those was like. This was the opposite, a desperation to live intensely so as not to die before we were dead.” The faith he finds is not steady, historical, or some kind of inner light. It is a mode of life occurring at the front lines, where people suffer most — haunted, tormented, but always intensely alive.
A Spirited Manifesto
By Lesley Hazleton
212 pp. Riverhead, $26.
Agnostics have it rough in American culture; their refusal to take a stand has the whiff of cowardice or laziness. But in Hazleton’s vital, mischievous new book, the term represents a positive orientation toward life all its own, one that embraces both science and mystery, and values the immediate joys of life.
Fully aware that a manifesto of a non-creed is a contradiction in terms, Hazleton nevertheless takes on the task with considerable gusto, insisting that “the absence of an ‘ultimate’ meaning of life — a grand, overarching explanation of everything — does not render life empty of relevance.” She proceeds through a number of the big questions or themes where she finds herself feeling most “agnostic”: the anthropomorphizing of God, the suspicion of doubt, the conflation of faith and belief, the characterization of a “soul” as something that can be either “lost” or “found.”
In each of her wide-ranging reflections, Hazleton nimbly avoids the “danger . . . of entering chicken-soup-for-the-soul territory” and the pitfalls of being “spiritual”: “The tag feels too nebulous and at the same time too self-congratulatory.” Instead, she remains intimately grounded and engaged in our human, day-to-day life.<
Brook Wilensky-Lanford is the author of “Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden” and editor of Killing the Buddha, an online magazine of religion, culture and politics.
A version of this review appears in print on July 17, 2016, on page BR26 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Religion.