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Jacob Needleman - Verna: An Excerpt from "What Is God?"

by Jacob Needleman, Apr 17, 2010


 

 






Excerpted from Jacob Needleman's book  What Is God? The author is a professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University. His book contains a number of stories drawn from his classroom experience...
 
Her name was Verna. Verna Thacher. She was now almost ninety years old-a short, plump lady with a few missing teeth, straggling grey hair and surprising youthful energy in her soft grey eyes and her soft, aging body. When she first starting coming to my classes she could still walk with the aid of a metal walker, but now she came in a wheelchair. Each semester there she was, always, planted in the center of the first or second row. 
      But why was she there? 
     "I don't understand what you're talking about," she would say, "when you talk about God. Where's the evidence?" Speaking like that, she would look at me with suddenly fierce, firm eyes. Whether the text was Plato or Meister Eckhart, or the Bhagavad Gita or Emerson, sooner or later, when the word "God" was mentioned, there always appeared that steely look in the center of that open-hearted face. Five years had to pass before I discovered how to respond to that question and that look.
     It was late in the summer, long after the academic year had ended. Months before, on the last day of the semester, I had asked if some people in the class would like to meet together informally. No required assignments, no examinations, no term papers, no grades. The aim would be to see if the kind of philosophical questions we had been studying could throw real light on how we actually lived our everyday lives and on how the threatened world actually works. About twenty students enthusiastically put their names down on a piece of paper. Three months later I sent out an invitation. Five of them came--plus my young assistant.
     The scene was a conference room lined with philosophy books. When your eyes wandered from the table, you were looking at The Critique of Pure Reason. Beyond Good and Evil. Process and Reality. Language, Truth and Logic. Or perhaps The Quest for Certainty. On Liberty. Plato on Love. Why I Am Not a Christian. A Theory of Justice. Titles, words that you might feel were seeing you even more than you were seeing them; as though one were surrounded by the mind's version of ancestor portraits looking down in distant judgment on their heirs and successors as they struggled to care for their lives with all that had been handed down to them. All the ideas, all the explanations, yes, but mainly: all the questions: What is Man? Why is there evil? What can we hope for? How should we live? And, above all perhaps, the question of God: Are we alone in the universe? 
      Was it not our first responsibility to care for these questions?
"I don't understand what you're talking about when you talk about God. Where's the evidence?" We had all only just sat down together around a conference table meant for many more than six or seven people. I had barely begun to open the discussion when Verna coughed out these words, or something very like them. It was as though she had been carrying this question, this challenge, in the front of her mind all summer, just waiting for the moment when she could put it to me for the hundredth time.
     This time I said nothing. To be honest, I did not really know what to say, how to respond. In that moment I felt more or less helpless. It seemed that in the years that she had been coming to my classes, I had used up every possible response, including ideas from some of history's greatest masters, and nothing had made a difference. It was not that I was trying, really, to convince her of anything. Well, maybe a little. But what most puzzled me and greatly interested me was that the question itself, "What is God?", "Does God exist?" never seemed to enter her, never seemed to be taken seriously. Yet Verna was no hardened academician with a professional ax to grind; nor was she some fashionable author bent on selling atheism to the public. She was just a nice old lady who happened to believe there was no such thing as God. Wasn't she? Then why was she untouched by the universal power of this question?
     And why, then, was she coming to my classes every semester for five years? It could not have been easy for her to get here--and she now even had to engage a caregiver to accompany her and help her with her physical needs. She could not walk, she could hardly hear, even with a complex hearing apparatus hanging around her neck. "I have never experienced anything like what you're speaking about," she would say, defiantly. 
     And why did I think of her, finally, as the most serious person in my class? More than that. I thought of her as one of the most spiritually serious of all my students.
     And that, too, only became clearer to me on that particular day, after five years. 
     I had begun to imagine what she might have been like as a young woman. I pictured the young Verna attending countless talks and living-room meetings on social causes, marching to support labor and equal rights for women, poring over the writings of philosophers and economists bent on exposing the tyranny of capitalism and religious dogma, surrounded and immersed in what seemed in those days the freedom of the mind to think for oneself and, with the advances of science, to bring humanity into a new era of justice and community. Those were the days in which scientific method was implicitly understood, not simply as an abstract system of investigative procedures, but as what John Dewey had identified as a social practice, a concrete realization of the true ideal of democracy. Applying the words of one observer, it was "the openness of scientific inquiry, the imagination required for its successful practice, the willingness to submit hypotheses to public test and criticism, the intrinsic communal and cooperative character of scientific community" [Ref 1] -it was this that made of modern science a powerful moral and, in its own way, spiritual ideal for many of the best minds and purest hearts of an entire generation of Americans. 
      I all but started picturing how she looked and dressed when she was young. 
      In any case, so I imagined, it was for Verna as it had been for many of us, a badge of honor to believe in science and in the awakening power of humanity to take responsibility for oneself and for the human world, and to free oneself from what Freud had so persuasively identified as the illusion of religion  [Ref 2]. 
      A thick silence was enveloping everyone. Through the large windows behind my back the sun was lowering and filling the room with a darkening gold light. Two unshaven undergraduate men sat like illuminated stones at the far end of the conference table. On my right, directly across the table from Verna, was one of my graduate students who almost always had something to say, but he too only fidgeted a little without uttering a word. To my immediate right was my young assistant, still and silent. Everyone was waiting for me to reply. But I didn't and couldn't. There was some kind of tiredness in me, not physical, but, in a way, moral. I was not trying some kind of Zen-like maneuver. I could not even say I was waiting, silently, for her or someone to speak. I felt no anxiety whatever about just sitting there without a word. I wouldn't have minded at all if everyone had just gotten up and walked out. I was tired not only of trying to answer questions, but even of the simple human obligation of responding. I felt that I could have stayed like that for an hour, maybe even forever. I was tired of the obligation to try to help people think. Out of the corner of my mind (or somewhere) I understood that although I was quite alert, I felt no desires at all, of any kind, physical, emotional or mental. 
     My fidgeting graduate student did finally try to help what he must have felt was a difficult situation by questioning Verna about her definition of the word "evidence," or some such textbook maneuver. But the silence swallowed his words like a whale swallowing a small fish. If anything, his words served only to heighten the intensity of the silence. 
     Looking back on this event, I suppose it had been given to me to have entered perhaps the outskirts of what the ancient teachings call a desireless state. The steady alertness I felt was unlike anything I had ever experienced in my life as a teacher. It was a bright, calm attention with no "wiring" connecting it to any impulse to do or manifest anything. No impulse to explain or help. No craving to protect my self-image. Or to "shoulder my responsibility." It was an attention that flowed through my mind, heart and body without mingling at all with the interests, passions and impulses comprising these three fundamental parts of my human nature.
I don't know how much time passed until finally I said something to Verna. "There may be some things that can't be understood by the mind alone," I said. "There are different kinds of knowing. It may be that past a certain point the question of God cannot be approached with the mind alone. By itself, mental knowing may be intrinsically incapable of recognizing what God really is."
     Verna's guard immediately went down. "What do you mean?" she said hastily.
     "What I mean is that the human mind, the whole of the human psyche, may be much, much more vast and complex than we imagine, with many more sources of perception than we can imagine."
     I was more or less ready to stop right there. But for some reason I went on, without feeling any real need to convince her of anything. Looking back on the event, I now see what it was that somehow lent a certain authority, believability, to what was said. It was my state, unusual for me in my role as a professor: my state of "disinterest." But let me try to be clearer about what I am calling "disinterest." It was not indifference. Far from it. But somehow, because I had given up all hope of trying to "win her over," "awaken her mind," make her understand--because all that kind of motivation had fallen away, something entirely new had appeared in my attitude toward her and toward the question we were facing. Somehow, because I had happened to have given all that up in this special, specific relationship with this special, specific person, a strange and strangely quiet kind of faith had appeared in me. 
But faith in what?
     "There's a knowledge in the mind," I said, "but there's also a knowledge in the heart and in the body. And for all the important questions of life, these three sources of knowledge have to come together."
     I paused.
     And then I continued. "When you love someone or something you can understand things about them that you cannot understand or even perceive with the mind alone. Isn't that so? When you look up at a sky full of stars you understand something about the universe that no purely mental process can fathom. "And there is knowledge in the body also. When you learn to play a musical instrument or ride a bicycle or draw a picture or throw a pot, it's essential that the body learns and knows, don't you think?
"And human beings are gifted with the possibility, and maybe the necessity, the duty of bringing all these sources of knowing together. That's what reason really is. Everything else that is called by that name can be done also by a computer or an animal. It may be that the question of God can really be approached only with all three sources of knowing working together. . ."
     As I continued in this vein, I became more and more interested in my own state of even, untroubled self-attention. It is true that I spoke without any impulse to persuade or convince her, or even to help her. But that would not be the whole truth. The whole truth is much more interesting than that. I see now, looking back on the event, that I was somehow, someway, speaking to a completely different part of her, a part of the human being that I had perhaps never addressed in my work as a professional teacher of philosophy. I was speaking to Verna behind Verna--and I did not even really know it at the time. I did not have to persuade Verna-behind-Veran. All that was needed was that I speak, or be in a way that allowed Verna-behind-Verna to appear.
     But also--and this is, if anything, of even greater importance: it was not Professor Jacob Needleman who happened to be speaking. This I see now very clearly. It was, to a degree, I-behind-me who had arrived in the room. 
      Ralph Waldo Emerson speaks of how "Jove nods to Jove in each one of us." So it was here. Verna's eyes widened. Her face became still, quiet, intensely, dynamically alive. Her old body began to straighten. She looked at me--through me--with a look of a kind that I had seen countless times in my young students, but in her, in this woman of many years, that same look went deep, deep into herself--or should I say came from deep, deep in her self, breaking through who knows how many years and decades of imprisonment, and therefore all the more powerful and penetrating than in the face of a younger person. It was not just the look of an awakening mind--that is wonderful enough, and when it appears it is what makes the teaching of philosophy worth everything. Yes, it was that, but also something more. Entirely more. 
 
1. Richard J. Bernstein: Philosophical Profiles, p.265
2. With his characteristic scientific honesty and precision, Freud was careful to speak of religion as an "illusion," not as a "delusion." To speak of a belief as a delusion was to dogmatically affirm it to be false. But to call religion an illusion was only to say (and this of course was already a great deal) that it was very probably false, but that it could conceivably be true. The mirage of water in the desert was the example of an illusion. It could conceivably be that the thirsty traveler was seeing an oasis, but all things considered, it was highly improbable. Freud's revolutionary work, The Future of an Illusion, powerfully characterized religious belief in God as comparable to a mirage engendered by pre-scientific humanity's helplessness and desperate craving for a feeling of security vis-a-vis the overwhelming forces of nature. 
 
    
 

 

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