What is God?
By Jacob Needleman
Publisher: New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2010.
Jacob Needleman, a professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University, is the author of more than a dozen books pondering the age-old question of man’s relationship to the universe. In What is God? Needleman – who once considered himself an atheist – takes the reader through his own life-long journey to know what is true, what is real. At first he did not use the word “God” for that truth or reality, since God was a concept too burdened with superstitions and irrational beliefs. His quest was to know, to awaken to, reality without the trappings of religion.
This quest began for Needleman in childhood. In 1943, when he was nine, he was sitting silently with his father one night gazing at the night sky, when “suddenly, as if by magic, the black sky was instantly strewn with millions of stars. Millions of points of light.” He says it was like nothing he had ever seen before or since. It was “as though an entirely new instrument of seeing had all at once been switched on within me. Or, as it also seemed, as though the whole universe itself suddenly opened its arms to me.” The silence was broken when his father simply said, “That’s God.”
Needleman finds that it is in occasional lucid moments, moments of heightened awareness, that one glimpses something of ultimate reality, not as an idea, but as an experience. He believes that virtually everyone has these experiences, but instead of responding with a yearning for more, they let the experience be “covered over or ignored.”
Such moments may come in surprising ways. One such moment presented itself to Needleman when, as a college sophomore, he read page one of Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant. He read, “Human reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.” He immediately shut the book and almost wept. Needleman explains that, for Kant, reason is unable to show us reality as it is; rather, it “shapes the fundamental lineaments of reality in the process of perception.” Our minds, in essence, show us only appearances, shaped by our own way of thinking. Yet “the human mind, Reason, is driven, called, by its very nature” to ask the very questions it cannot answer. The result is a void, a crisis of uncertainty. Needleman felt that reading Kant had presented him not just with an intellectually intriguing problem of philosophy. Rather, it was a call; something was calling him.
Needleman answered that call by deep and intense study of Western philosophy and theology, as well as the Vedanta school of Hindu philosophy, Zen Buddhism and other Eastern traditions. Sensing that understanding the nature of the self was somehow inextricably linked to understanding ultimate reality, he wrote his philosophy dissertation on the topic “What is the self?” It was, however, an encounter with the Zen Buddhist D.T. Suzuki that conveyed an understanding no amount of study could bring him.
When Needleman met Suzuki, the foremost thing that struck him was his presence. “My mind went blank. The sight of him instantly went right through my armor.” Needleman asked the question he had prepared: “What is the self?” Suzuki smiled and asked, “Who is asking the question?” Needleman stammered, “I am asking it!” Suzuki simply said, “Show me this I.” After a long and awkward silence the interview ended, and Needleman left dissatisfied and disappointed. For the next several months he felt “totally adrift.” He worked hard at his academic studies, but they felt empty. “Underneath it all, nearly always, there was this faint bitter taste.” Then one night: “In the middle of a sound sleep, I sat bolt upright in bed. My God! This was what he was telling me! … I was supposed to find this out for myself! It was not communicable in words, in thought! It was an event, not an idea!”
Needleman says that in moments of heightened awareness, we know that on the surface there is a self that is thinking and questioning, while at a deeper level there is another self that is “knowing and sensing and yearning within the depths of [one’s] embryonic and timeless selfhood.” He declares that if “we look within ourselves, we will discover that the presence of a higher vibration within ourselves is already there, activating the impulse to think about the question of God.” He surmises that too often we are insensitive to this inner, “wordless vibration.”
If such experiences awakened Needleman to his quest, it was in Gurdjieff ’s teachings that Needleman ultimately found a beacon to show him his way. Through Gurdjieff ’s books he found a teaching, a disciplined practice, a community of fellow seekers, and his own “guide,” Jeanne de Saltzmann, Gurdjieff ’s chief pupil. Needleman remarks on “the absence of the idea of God” or even the mention of God in Gurdjieff ’s work. When he first approached those teachings, he found this congenial, since, though a professor teaching about religions and religious thought, he himself disowned both God and religion. Later, however, when Needleman heard de Salzmann speak of the energy or vibration within as “‘what the religious call God,” in a flash he felt the two sides of himself unite.
De Salzmann often talked about “attention.” In meditative practice, Needleman came to see that attention – or, more exactly, the freedom to direct and harness the power of attention – is the “uniquely human capacity.” As he put it, “I am my attention.” When our attention is adrift on “our streams of automatic thought,” according to Needleman, “we are taken, our attention is taken, swallowed…. We constantly disappear into our emotional reactions.… We no longer exist as I, myself, here. We do not live our lives; we are lived and we may die without ever having awakened to what we really are – without having lived.” He gradually came to realize that this power of attention or inner consciousness “could open the door to the experience of God.” God could be experienced as ‘Divine Attention.”
God, in this sense, may be understood to be, among many other things, pure conscious energy, so conscious that it loves and forgives and judges in one instantaneous, infinite act. Everywhere through the endless space of the universe there exists, shall we say, this Divine Attention which everything obeys without question.
Needleman says that philosophers from Socrates to Kant never mentioned God in the context of their philosophies; yet, “attention was the mystery in broad daylight!”
According to de Salzmann, there is “an energy that comes from above,” and this body is “built to serve that energy, to be incarnated by that energy.” Needleman writes about his struggles and his intense yearning to realize this “higher attention” permeating the human body. It seemed not merely difficult, but impossible. “My own attention was something I could work with, I could intend something with it. But this other attention was only something I could allow to enter, something which I needed to receive.” Needleman slowly came to understand that the transformation of attention is possible only through disciplined spiritual practice or meditation.
Science, Needleman says, is strictly based upon empiricism, knowledge of what can be proven through the senses and by physical experimentation. But it overlooks a “massive, towering fact – namely, the existence of the discipline of inner experience, experience of the inner world that is as precise and undeniable as the facts brought to light by sensory experience of the external world.” Needleman calls science “external empiricism,” while the “spiritual philosophies of the world are rooted in disciplined work of inner empiricism.”
What then is the proof of God’s existence? Needleman states that the only real proof comes individually, through one’s own inner development. One must approach this development with the whole of oneself; not mind alone, but mind, heart and body must unite in the quest. “Human beings are gifted with the possibility, and maybe the necessity, the duty of bringing all these sources of knowing together.” Is there an outward proof for the existence of God? Needleman says there is – “the existence of people who are inhabited by and who manifest God.”
In the concluding chapter, “What the Religions Call God,” Needleman asks a question for our times: “To what extent is humanity’s entire concept of how God is supposed to act in the world of man a greatly imagined projection of how the higher Attention acts within the human body?” And he concludes the book asking, what is the meaning of life if we “live without the yearning for what the religions call God?”
Book reviews express the opinions of the reviewers and not of the publisher.