In the Valley of the Shadow by James L. Kugel


Audiobook.   At the young age of 58 this biblical scholar received a cancer diagnosis that he thought signaled the end of his life.  The immediate effect was to stop the music of everyday life, an effect that moved him to try to address the pivotal question put by the subtitle of this book, “On the Foundations of Religious Belief.”  While there is much of great interest to me in the book, I am afraid I am left with that question unanswered.  I cannot say the blame for this should be laid at his feet.

He tells us about the first century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria who said Abraham was the first to espouse a single diety.  The Caldeans of the time were very empirical:  if you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist.  Abraham broke with that thinking.  Philo said the world of our senses may not reveal all; if we don’t take that into account, we may be blind to actual reality.

He mentions the question of whether epileptics’ visions are insights into reality or merely a malfunctioning brain.  I was reminded of Barbara Bradley Haggerty’s comment on that in her book Fingerprints of God (reviewed here).  She puzzles about the possibility of a God who gives some people better access to receive his wisdom.

We have changed our viewpoint (in the West, at least) from being a very small part of the very overwhelming world which we cannot control, to being the center of the world, he says.  We do seem to have great control over our lives, until a tsunami or the threat of imminent death come along.

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