In the Valley of the Shadow:
On the Foundations of Religious Belief
by James l. Kugel
Free Press, 256 pages, $26
Whether we like it or not, death is a constant point of reference, an unavoidable horizon, a question mark over everything. Everyone, gravedigger or intellectual, atheist or fervent believer, is forced by death to think in some way about realms beyond the visible world.
Diagnosed with an aggressive and incurable case of cancer in the summer of 2000, James Kugel, a preeminent biblical scholar, suddenly found himself confronting ultimate questions—not dispassionately, as he was trained to do, but in the most visceral sense. Given two years to live, perhaps three at most, he felt robbed of “the background music” he had always taken for granted: “the music of infinite time and possibilities . . . now suddenly . . . gone, replaced by nothing, just silence.” Along with the silence came also a sense of smallness, an awareness of the ridiculously infinitesimal boundaries of his existence.
As he struggled with chemotherapy—which could only delay his demise—he turned inward, reflecting on the way in which this silence and smallness, and his state of mind, so utterly personal, pointed to some universal truths about the human condition and more specifically to “the whole idea of religion.” The end result of these reflections was this book, which is a rare combination of personal observation, philosophical rumination, and scholarly expertise, and an attempt to discern what it is that makes it possible—or even necessary—for human beings to have religious beliefs.
This is a remarkably daring text, the sort of book many academics avoid like the plague: a book aimed at a wide reading public, written with the hope that it might actually change the lives of some of its readers. Expertly grounded in the social-scientific study of religion, yet ultimately reliant on subjective existential arguments, it does more than suggest the presence of a higher reality. It actually proposes that such a reality is constantly accessed through religious belief. In the process, Kugel also asserts that the existence of religion is best understood through the limitations of human existence rather than through the order in nature that points toward a Creator.
This is no ordinary argument for the existence of God, though it could easily enough be taken as such by some readers, especially because of its unabashed references to the God of Abraham and Moses and its well-placed quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures. Neither is it a functionalist or reductionist argument for the existence of religion, as one might expect from disciples of Ernst Troeltsch, Claude Levi-Strauss, or Clifford Geertz. At bottom, this book is much closer to existentialist sensibilities than to anything else, and its central argument, stripped to its barest elements, is a defense of the reality of transcendence and its accessibility within the human self.
Valley of the Shadow has a sharp polemical edge and is reminiscent of the apologetics of ages past. Its foil, however, is not some false religion or heresy, but the die-hard materialism that suffuses Western culture, and the reductionism that it leads to concerning religion. This is not to say that Kugel simply dismisses all such approaches to religion.
On the contrary, he finds it useful to ponder an array of reductionist attempts to explain the existence of religion, from that which seeks to pinpoint the area of the human brain or the specific genes connected to religiosity to that which sees religion as a malfunction of the human mind or a vestigial remnant from a primitive stage of human development suitable only for whimpering, immature dullards (a point of view championed by the new atheists). Such approaches reveal much to Kugel about the real foe in our day and age, who is not so much a skeptic as an overconfident fool.
What he opposes most stridently in this book is not religious doubt itself or attempts to understand religion as a human construct or a biological phenomenon, but rather what he sees as a very artificial and incomplete view of human nature and its purpose: the very presumption that religion can be explained away as unnecessary and that such materialistic perspectives could be definitive or anywhere near ultimately satisfactory for beings who are obviously designed to crave so much more than mere birth, death, and extinction.
Argument often verges on lament in this book, especially when Kugel is articulating his opposition to modernity. “There is something profoundly weird about the way we in the modern West conceive of ourselves, or rather don’t conceive of ourselves, as we shuffle through our days,” he says.
But the “weirdness” of our current worldview is not really what disturbs him the most: It’s the fact that we have lost something. As he sees it, even the most primitive African animists are better off than we are, living as they do in a cosmos that includes a spiritual dimension. The animist’s soul “is still vibrant and fundamentally open.” Ours “has become a strangely stunted and sealed organ.” Discerning this crucial difference, and perceiving what has been lost, he insists, is absolutely essential for our well-being.
Kugel’s voice is not the only one carrying the arguments, for he relies on others constantly, filling the pages with quotations from a wide range of sources. He quotes biblical texts cautiously, even sparingly, with a purposeful restraint and a poet’s eye. It could be argued that his arresting translations of the Psalms, so judiciously inserted throughout the book, do more to support his arguments than any other authority quoted by him, be it St. Augustine, Boethius, Yehudah ha-Levi, or Wittgenstein.
Refusing to stick with august savants alone, he also sprinkles his text with artistic voices: the songwriter Leonard Cohen, the poets Randall Jarrell and Rainer Maria Rilke, even Vaudevillian Jewish actors from old radio programs. Oddly enough, he does not call upon Blaise Pascal to join his chorus, even though his own book is very similar in tone, content, and purpose to the seventeenth-century apologist’s Pénsées.
The parallels between Pascal’s unfinished apologia and Kugel’s highly polished one are striking, despite the three and a half centuries that separate them. Both have the same foe in mind, more or less, who is more of a pitiable fool than an enemy: the skeptic whose overconfident rational reductionism ultimately fails to take the spiritual dimension into account. Both approach their deconstruction of the foe’s errors similarly, from an existential perspective, pointing to the finitude and smallness of the human self as the entry point into the higher wisdom offered by the spiritual realm.
Both eloquently defend the reasonableness of religious belief but rely heavily on paradoxical propositions that can best be described as intuitions rather than arguments. In fact, two gems from Pascal’s Pénsées would make for perfect epigrams with which to begin and end Kugel’s book: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me” (which sums up his argument about the absolute “smallness” and “silence” that circumscribe our existence and lead us to transcendence), and, “The heart has its reasons, which reason cannot understand,” (which sums up his argument against rational reductionism).
Ultimately, Kugel intends to compel his readers to assess their way of life, and to admit that the dominant materialistic culture in which most of them live has plunged them into a “state of confusion” and left their souls “strangely stunted” and cut off from transcendence. The polemical edge of this book is sharpest here, in those pages that highlight the shortcomings of our dominant mind-set, which he sees as simultaneously overconfident and confused, particularly when it comes to the ethical dimension of human existence. “We have lost what was most valuable,” he warns, “that old way of seeing—seeing ourselves and seeing the stark world that is just over there.”
The spiritual realm is more “stark” and substantial than the skeptics can imagine, less polluted by “subtle shapes and shades,” and therefore also less “treacherous and unreliable.” Moral relativism has no place in Kugel’s “stark world,” which is less of a world than a mind-set: a way of experiencing and living out an “all-or-nothing” and “black-or-white” existence in which the difference between right and wrong does not depend on circumstances alone, but rather on an inherent connection to a different reality which is, as he puts it, “more powerful and truer than the one we live in every day.”
The significance of In the Valley of the Shadow rests not on its ability to convert anyone—an immensely rare quality in any text—but on its eloquent defense of the utter necessity of religious belief. For unbelievers and skeptics, this book should prove a serious challenge. For believers, it should seem a gift and a confirmation of their deepest intuitions.
The mere fact that this book was written in extremis, by a scholar who was staring death in the eye, makes it all the more remarkable and valuable. Add to this the fact that the author was unexpectedly cured of his deadly cancer and that his good doctors could not fully attribute his healing to their science, and what you have is a powerful testimony to the power of faith that not only rings true, but also verges on the miraculous.
Carlos Eire is the Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University.