The book was Jacob Needleman's latest: What Is God? Turns out to be an autobiography, of sorts. No, no, he doesn't present himself as a divinity, so don't go there; but as one whose life has been subtly but relentlessly shaped by this question.
I've been reading Needleman's books for a long time, starting with Lost Christianity which I read nearly twenty years ago, and basically everything he has published since then. Here's a secular Jew who is a professor of philosophy, able to represent in lucid and sympathetic fashion a more coherent vision of what Christianity is than many fervent believers can do.
Back when I was studying history, especially the history of Western philosophy, it struck me that the greatest, isolated minds who make contributions to the stream of thought we call the intellectual history of the planet generally find within themselves, at best, the capacity — and I'm talking about the rare geniuses here — to discover, develop, or articulate, at most, as much as one original coherent idea, each. Very rarely indeed, you get an Isaac Newton who might lay claim to more. That's enough to get you into the major leagues. Most don't even rise that high, and the best of the rest of us get to comment on, or clarify, some small subset of the original ideas of one or two of those who have gone before. The common way of saying this, in academic circles, is something like: "The history of Western philosophy belongs to two people: Plato and Aristotle. All the rest are footnotes." If we take that framework at face value (which I don't, completely), then most of the intellectual giants since then get to contribute at most a footnote each. Thus great, complex, highly nuanced, hugely influential philosophical or theological notions which lay the groundwork for the thinking of generations of ordinary folk are summarized merely by the recitation of the names of their first presenters: Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, Luther, Kant, Hegel, Hume, Nietzsche, Whitehead, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Wittgenstein .... each of these and others evokes a sense of an idea around which an entire system of thought can form, has formed.
Needleman would not, I think, pretend to be an original thinker in league with all of these. But his work has crystallized around a few ideas, which have helped him make some sense of philosophy, ethics, psychology, religion, and the inner life of man. Central to these ideas is a subtle notion of consciousness as awareness, attention, that engages body, mind, and emotions with a sense of something, dare I say it, holy. He reveals his struggles to account for these experiences in his own life, in different ways in each one of his writings. More than that: he seems to me to have the capacity, through a kind of vulnerable authenticity that comes through in his presentation of his material, to evoke in the reader the very sort of strange awakening of attention he is talking about. It makes me want to meet the man.
My own need to continually rouse from the waking sleep which is the ordinary lot of most of us, and experience each present moment in all its poignant fleetingness, to truly be with the ones I am with at any given time, without turning my back on the complexity of the world that confronts me, maintaining my own sense of peace which keeps all of that from overwhelming me: these disciplines are addressed and somehow brought into focus as I read of the professor's journeys along the same lines. Somewhere he learns to associate the source of that attention with "what the religions call God."
The trouble with articulating any profound truth (let's say, "God is Love" as an example) is that it comes out sounding banal, trite and commonplace, and needs to be immediately corrected lest it be taken to mean quite the opposite of what was intended. Thus those who have access to some great truth and want to communicate it have to find ways to, as it were, catch it unawares, not in a bald statement but in a parable, a story, or a paradox of some kind. I have this very problem as a preacher of the gospel. I can easily dress up the profound, radical, life-changing, world-revolutionizing ideas that are working on me from the Spirit and the Word, in such traditional language that my hearers who have been inured to such language for years and years are in danger of thinking they know what I'm saying before it is said, and as a result hear nothing, and experience no profundity, no change, no revolution, no inner contradiction. I am quite helpless in this regard, because the equal and opposite danger is that someone will react to a non-traditional presentation the way a sleeping person in a tent reacts to a buzzing fly: with irritation and quick, dismissive action whose sole aim is to let them get back to sleep.
So I am caught in my own contradiction: I must find ways to speak of what I see, but to get someone to hear what I have to say (even to be sure that what I have to say is worth saying, and not just a product of my own defensive ego) is beyond me. If something that is beyond me, then, does not show up— and when it does, we tend to call that something "God"— I got nuthin'.