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What is "What Is God?"

“What is God?” is the title of Jacob Needleman’s 2009 book, and one of his methods at arriving at a semi-answer is to cover all the things that God is not. In this he is consistent with the standard set down by Sherlock Holmes (“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”)

One thing that God is not--or is not entirely—is his father’s God. “The religion of my childhood,” he writes, “…had nothing to do with the sky full of stars, the still and silent mantis, or the surging water of the Wissahickon Creek.” On his father’s side of the family, God was a harsh and vengeful tyrant; on his mother’s side, “God was a just but distant king.” Either way, God was irrelevant. Young Needleman became an atheist. Nature was magnificent and awe-inspiring, but it had nothing to do with God.

Still, he often thought about God. Sometimes the exercise was rewarding, sometimes not. It all depended on the approach. When he thought about God (or “ultimate reality”) without an awareness of an “inner vibration,” then he became simply clever, or flippant, or outrageous – his thoughts were without substance. But when he did feel that inner vibration, which he describes as a variety of yearning or readiness, he despaired of his cynicism.

Now, in the present, he sees such heartless thinking more and more, Needleman says. “For God or against God, ‘belief’ or ‘atheism,’” he writes, “it makes no real difference unless…the call of the Self and its need to ‘breathe’ is heard.” (Not the self, but the Self; more on that later.)

On the subject of breathing, Needleman writes in the very first sentence of his book, “To think about God is to the human soul what breathing is to the human body.” That is, it is both natural and necessary, even to the non-believer or the agnostic.

Needleman is a professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University, and the author of “Why Can’t We Be Good?” and many other books in this vein. “What is God?” is a beautiful, elegant, and, yes, a heartfelt rumination on what he considers the central question of our existence. I’ll continue discussing it next time.

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