Jacob Needleman, the self-declared atheist, in 1962 takes a job that hardly any other serious scholar wanted, teaching a course called “The History of Western Religious Thought” at an obscure school, San Francisco State College.
“In those days,” Needleman writes, “and to a great extent even now, mainstream academic philosophy was constitutionally incapable and unwilling to take seriously or even to perceive the intellectual content of religion.”
The young professor was all at sea. He knew nothing about Christianity, only that he hated it. Growing up Jewish, he was bullied by neighborhood Catholic kids and his father cheated in business by people who called themselves Christians.
He resolves to get up to snuff on the subject. His attitude at first is that Christian faith was “little more than passionate belief lacking all rational or empirical justification.” He looks at Christianity through the prism of his skepticism, considering it merely an indication of “the gullibility and irrationality of most of humanity.”
But then a transformation begins. He begins to read some of the books he will assign to the class, including Rudolph Bultmann’s “Primitive Christianity,” an anthology called “The Early Christian Fathers,” and the writings of the great Protestant theologian Karl Barth. Lo and behold, he discovers – “real thought.” Now he can consider Christianity in a new light. The question of whether or not it was true was irrelevant; much more important was the fact that it was interesting.
One thing that interested him was the point, put forth by Jesus and elaborated on by Bultmann, that “God claims the whole man” – that what a man thinks and feels is as pertinent to his salvation as what he does. So God frowns not only on murder and adultery, but equally on lust and anger. The idea that a man’s inner life was as important, or more so, than his inner one, was a radical one in Jesus’s day, Needleman says. The God of the Old Testament was concerned with deeds, not motivations.
Needleman was especially intrigued with Bultmann’s corollary to “God claims man as a whole”: “Therefore man cannot claim anything from God.” He saw something new in the assertion that man had no freedom over against God. Not only was man not to harm another man, he was not even to think of harming him. He was not to feel anger or lust, which was impossible, but which was his duty. Men, who could not choose or control their emotions, were commanded not to have those emotions. It was an obligation doomed to failure, and it was called sin.
The author begins to see something in Christianity, and he sees that to become a Christian a man had to become different inside.
Next time -- Part 3.