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Review: 'What is God?' by Jacob Needleman

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If you are looking for a theologically erudite discussion of the nature of God, the Divine attributes of creation, revelation, and redemption -- then this book will disappoint you.

But if you are concerned with asking and answering the question, "How can one approach the question of God in an honest and authentic manner?" then this is the book to read.

Jacob Needleman, emeritus Professor of Philosophy at San Francisco State and prolific author of such insightful books as, "Why Can't We be Good?", and "The Heart of Philosophy", is a truly wise individual. Wise in the sense indicated by Ben Zoma, who, in the Jewish sayings of the fathers asks the question: "Who is wise?" and answers, "Not one who has amassed a great deal of book learning, but one who can learn from everything and everyone."

As we read his latest and most intimate and self-revealing book, "What is God?", Needleman traces his search for knowledge of God by taking us on a biographical and intellectual journey, from his early childhood discussions with his father, to significant contact with deeply wise individuals, to his many interchanges with his students and colleagues over the years, and finally, to the present day. This book details an inner journey searching, not necessarily for concepts or borrowed definitions of God, but rather, for a genuine idea, an idea that is transformative and vital.

Everything that Needleman integrates into his philosophy is dedicated to the task of answering, what for him has become the essential question, What is God?

One soon learns as one reads the book that the search requires certain qualities in the seeker in order to get at what are the truly essential questions. An example of this is his profound discussion on the quality of attention. Needleman comes to this in the most moving exploration of the exchange between him and his students. Although he has often reported talks with students in his other books, here it clearly becomes more personal and revealing.

Those who have read Needleman's many other works will immediately recognize that this is his most intimate book; that the question about God is such an overwhelmingly important one that he brings all his many talents of mind learning and vast experience to bear on it. He candidly confesses his past atheism as he taught courses "about God." He also illustrates how so much in (organized) religion can turn an inquiring seeker away from the very question of God and, in his many talks, Needleman often refers to toxic ideas, ideas that are reductionist and make it impossible to be open to anything that is transcendent.

Now, through this inner struggle and transformation, he comes to the realization captured in the very first sentence of the book: God is to the soul, what breathing is to the body.

What Needleman points out is that for many, God is an abstract concept unconnected to any genuine experience or theoretical framework. As a concept, it can easily flitter away, since it has no grounding through a transformative search; note, not a search for transformation but a transforming search; not where the end result is clear beforehand and one only has to find the best means, but a transforming search. The very seeking becomes the finding and the finding the seeking.

We come to understand through Needleman that asking questions constitutes a task. How rarely do we ask our own genuine questions? How often do we deal with not just borrowed answers but even more perilously, borrowed questions?

There is something sui generis about this book. It is not easy to classify and a facile classification would not do it justice.

Nonetheless, I think this is Needleman's best-written and most thoughtful book. At a time when people produce all types of tomes, usually quickly and superficially, it is a breath of fresh air to encounter the summary of the life-thought of a very sensitive and wise man on perhaps the most critical issue of our time.

I do not want to give the essence of the book away. I want the reader to travel with Needleman, first as a spectator, then as a companion, and then as a co seeker.