Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic's Quest Hardcover – Oct 5 2010
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About the Author
Michael Krasny, PhD, hosts the nation’s most-listened-to locally produced public radio talk show,Forum with Michael Krasny. A widely published scholar and literary critic, he is an English professor at San Francisco State University and has taught at Stanford University and University of California, San Francisco. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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Unbelievers and theists both assert they have proof. Krasny finds that atheists "resembled fundamentalists in their atheism," yet he cannot accept their reduction of a creator to "the traditional, anthropomorphic God tied to religion's dark history." Instead, he looks to his childhood Judaism for a moral code based on the Ten Commandments yet open to an existentialist honesty enriched by his literary and cultural inspirations, whether Mort Sahl or Samuel Beckett, Ernest Hemingway or Mel Brooks, San Quentin's prisoners or his accountant who doubled as a magician. This combination of the personal anecdote and the erudite explication deepens the impact of Krasny's account.
This attempt to overcome such dualism between denial and verification of God's presence derives from a comfort with the unknowables. Yet, oddly, Krasny skims past Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion" where he admitted that atheists cannot ultimately verify the divine absence. They may edge towards very dogmatic agnosticism. Krasny rushes past his own radio interview with Dawkins, a summary of which might have enriched this discussion.
These deep questions, as Krasny spends over two hundred thoughtful pages considering, may continue to elude us no less than, say, what happened before the Big Bang. Yet, as scientists ask, so does he as an agnostic. He calls himself a "spiritual wallflower on the sidelines watching and learning and absorbing without the willingness or inability to cast off doubt and skepticism and join in the dance." He finds kin in Beckett's "wait-and-see tramps" in Waiting for Godot, and Kafka's Hunger Artist, "who simply did not like the food" or in Krasny's case "what is out there in the spiritual troughs."
While never repetitive, the concentrated nature of his prose does make this a book that may reward slower appreciation rather than rapid perusal. A palpable determination to keep exploring difficult topics lures the reader on, and this pace can weary the less committed follower. Krasny avoids jargon and keeps the reader as close as one of his interview subjects, but this is one title on agnosticism deserving an armchair and a slow pace rather than a talk show or a theological seminar. He remembers the common listener when he talks: "Think honestly about what or who allows you to temporarily escape the onus of time, and you will have discovered a great deal about who you are and what you need in this life and, if you believe in it, the next."
He sums it up by returning to the problems that have filled his intellectual and spiritual life. He concludes that while writing this book has not ended his search for these mysteries and their solutions, he holds more faith than ever in the power of asking the right questions of himself, and of us as his readers. This modest, yet admirable stance, then, represents Krasny's own calling, to take on the same challenges that inspired his Jewish ancestors, his favorite authors, his many journalistic moments, his students, and those whose lives and ideas fill this book.
But (on the other hand) he also sneaks in some real philosophy. He correctly illuminates the fact that agnosticism is not a half-way point between atheism and theism. And he frames agnosticism in the only way it can truly make any sense: as not just an "I dunno'" position but instead an admitting that the object of hoped-for belief--i.e. God--cannot be known, and thus one is forced into agnosticism. I'm still not personally convinced, but this is the best framing I've seen of the position.
Lastly, a warning: if you're an avid reader, you'll find Krasny's multitude of references hard to resist and will then find yourself back at the bookstore with another stack of books. He references them not in the academic way (though many are "academic" sources) but in a much more accessible, conversational manner, dropping little nuggets in his writing in much the same way he does as an interviewer.
This is a book that should be included amongst the recent fervor of atheists and theists (and deists, etc.) as it aims not to be polemic but, instead, to provide a foundation for understanding and reflection.
* We share the same position--no God until proven otherwise. Krasny writes: "Agnosticism is a position that denies the existence of absolutes and hidden spiritual forces behind the natural or material world until they can be empirically proven."
* Krasny and I agree that no guiding hand in the sky is behind life's events: "I knew, unfortunately at a young age, that we were deceived if we believed a guiding hand was behind tragedy or that faith could move the cold hand of death, let alone mountains."
* We both think the popular image of God is a human self-projection writ large: "Thinking of God having needs or expectations where we poor mortals are concerned is another product of anthropomorphic imagination, that in us which insists on creating the creator."
* Neither of us believes that prayer is going to save someone's life: "Of course, I did not believe prayers would wrest my father from the jaws of death. . . ."
* We don't believe in souls: "I assume death means the end of consciousness, and that souls neither actually exist nor transmigrate, but as with most matters of agnostic thought, I don't really know because I cannot."
* And not surprisingly, we don't believe in life after death: "Though I remain agnostic, I nevertheless believe this one life is all there is."
* To our minds, religious belief is not the source of morality: "We operate by our own moral navigation system whether we like to believe we do or not. We form our codes of ethics apart from God because the authentic authorship of God's words, either on tablets or in scripture, cannot be known, and even if it could be, people could still operate in whatever ways they choose."
And we have valued many of the same authors: Sartre, Camus, Beckett, Dostoyevsky, O'Connor, Hemingway. His discussion of these writers and their works is one of the more enjoyable aspects of the book for me--kind of like a walk down the memory lane of AP Literature.
But I, unlike Krasny, don't have spiritual envy. Julian Barnes's line, "I don't believe in God but I miss him," resonates with Krasny. Krasny declares, "I would like to believe in God, to know there is a spiritual power over us." Not so with me. I have found that deep spiritual satisfaction IS possible without a belief in God or higher power. One can accept impermanence and even cosmic insignificance and still experience life as filled with meaning and joy. If you agree, then you likely will not find much illuminating in Krasny's ruminations. When considering whether to read this book, you should take seriously the appearance of "envy" in its title because Krasny comes across as a man with a lot of painfully unattended to emotional needs.
Krasny asks, "[H]ow can I or anyone else make up for the loss of a God who once felt real, comforting, close, and personal. How does one fill that vacuum?" To Krasny, "A world without God seemed comfortless." He seeks, among other things, "a release from the entrapment of life's suffering."
The principal source of Krasny's spiritual pain seems to be "time," as he devotes two chapters to its ravages: Chapter 11, "Accursed Time," and Chapter 12, "Escaping Time." "[T]ime . . . is the mother of suffering," according to Krasny. By time he really means entropy--the inevitability that things fall apart. Krasny is pierced through by the impermanence of existence: "What was there to believe in when all was impermanent? . . . I often felt as if nothingness was the very core of existence. How could life mean anything in the face of death?" Death, to Krasny, is "the ultimate cosmic joke." Perhaps this attitude is something he was brought up with. He reports that his parents "both began the descent into death's clutches frightened and helpless. . . ." When talking about the death of a friend, who despite his Eeyore-like nature gracefully came to terms with his death when the time arrived, Krasny dismisses "the choruses of rhetoric about dying a good death, and death with dignity, and the courage necessary to face death and resign oneself to it, and live in the here and now" as "yapping."
I'm not sure exactly how my acceptance of death came to be but I don't fear its "clutches" or perceive it as a "cosmic joke" that drains all meaning from life. Perhaps a straightforward acceptance of death was something I was brought up with. I had the privilege of sharing my father's death with him several years ago, and he faced his death with matter-of-factness and dignity, without the comfort of any belief in an afterlife. Between resignation and acceptance is a great emotional distance. Acceptance of impermanence is possible when one cultivates experiencing life as a privilege rather than an entitlement.
Krasny's fundamental problem may be his sense that without God "we are, after all, alone." Which is not at all true. We have this life to share with all the other people and living things on our planet. But meaningful relations with others and joy in living itself do not appear to be enough for Krasny.
He tells the story of his esteemed cardiologist friend who "had saved many lives" and also watched many people die: "`I know,' he said to me with the kind of confidence that has helped make him a trusted and gifted physician and a good and loving husband, father, and grandfather, `that were I to die today, it would be okay. I would be fine with it. I've lived nearly seventy years and had a full and fulfilling life and done most everything I set out to do. I could die without regret.'" In response to this, Krasny writes, "Does it, I wonder, get any better than that? Can one ask for more from topsy-turvy life, which can seem like a cosmic joke, doomed to conclude yet yield no answers?" I don't see how one could expect life to get any better than to feel personally fulfilled at a healthy old age by one's relationships and contributions to one's community. What more is Krasny thinking there reasonably could be? The answers are in the living itself.
But Krasny questions whether one can even find the sacred in daily life, "The kinds of activities I write of here are hardly sacred or capable of elevating me to anything beyond the quotidian--as opposed to a higher realm of consciousness that comes close to what traditionally has been called God. Or are they? Is watching a gorgeous sunset, or seeing a deer on a mountain, or looking in awe at the heavenly constellations, or seeing resplendent flowers blooming, or watching a cheetah racing gracefully not a way of feeling elevation that approaches what at least seems like a higher source?" One can cherish the sense of elevation from these experiences without searching for "a higher source."
Krasny longs for powerful insight to be imposed on him from without. "[A]gnostics need to find a way to fill time and amuse and entertain and invent for themselves while waiting for a higher authority or higher meaning that may not arrive." In this yearnful waiting, Krasny appears to cede his own spiritual agency, as if he were not the ultimate author of his own spiritual state. Krasny "would welcome a spiritual regimen, to feel spiritual nourishment or satiety or simply discover an abiding or even an evanescent faith, to experience transcendence or simply to feel the drive to seek enlightenment or follow after some trustworthy pied piper of spirituality, a guru or master strong enough to bend my cognition as well as my will." A suitable spiritual regimen would clearly do Krasny some good but passively "welcoming" it will not. The Buddha did not just happen to sit under a tree one day and have a good idea just serendipitously pop into his head. Spiritual satisfaction, in any tradition, is an ongoing practice of focus, commitment and discipline. And I would not recommend surrendering one's own good judgment over to any other person (pied piper, master, guru, whatever) in the ultimately individual quest for it.
At the end, Krasny pleads, "I still want to know how I, or any agnostic, can feed what may well be innate spiritual hunger when faced with an unremitting vision of spiritual and metaphysical uncertainty and a life fated to expire and a species and a planet all quite possibly moving toward extinction."
In answer to Krasny's quest, I invite him to read the Buddha's poison arrow parable (also called "A Brief Talk to Malukya") and to consider taking up any practices of Buddhism he comes to find nourishing, while leaving aside the metaphysical beliefs, as the Buddha himself suggested: "Whether the world is or is not eternal or the life force is or is not the same as the body, still there is birth, aging, death, sadness, regret, unease, depression, and anxiety. It is the destruction of all of this, in this very world, that I make known." (Culamalukya Sutta; Majjhimanikaya 63, which can be found in Glenn Wallis's Basic Teachings of the Buddha, available at Basic Teachings of the Buddha (Modern Library Classics) ) Coming to terms with the impermanence of existence is one of the focuses of Buddhist practice, and one does not have to buy a word of any of Buddhism's metaphysics (reincarnation, karma, nirvana, etc.) to find great benefit in its practices. (Stephen Batchelor, a self-proclaimed Buddhist atheist, has written a couple of books on this point: Buddhism Without Beliefs available at Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening and Confession of a Buddhist Atheist available at Confession of a Buddhist Atheist.)
I was also disappointed by Krasny's hostility toward atheists. According to Krasny, atheists embrace "a categorical denial of God's existence and more often a flat rejection of any and all religious ritual, practice, ceremony, and community." I'd be interested to see what statistical survey of atheists Krasny bases this latter conclusion on. Krasny deems my lot an insensitive and rude bunch. He expects "some" atheists would hold in contempt and label a "Texas fool" a believing co-worker who expressed her intent to name their sick father in her prayers. A "hardened" atheist may even defiantly respond: "I don't want your useless prayers to a God who does not exist." "It seems to [Krasny] that many atheists are like that. . . ." Elsewhere Krasny notes, "Even atheists speak of the sanctity of human life." Oh, really?! We atheists don't find children to be "a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food . . . that . . . will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout"? (See Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal.)
Because Krasny dislikes atheists so much, he posits a deep divide between them and agnostics that does not exist, as Krasny's own examples demonstrate. According to Krasny, one of his agnostic triumvirate, Robert Ingersoll "[c]uriously . . . somewhat muddied the waters separating atheists and agnostics." Another, Bertrand Russell, said that to a philosophical audience he referred to himself as an agnostic, while to a popular audience, he called himself an atheist. Since Krasny purports to pride himself on his tolerance, his caricature and dismissal of atheists would appear to violate his own code.
In the very end, Krasny admits failure at his own goals for the book:
When I began writing this book, I was looking for an equation that might give moral
credence to the Ten Commandments and explain why they ought to be believed, beyond
the reason that God gave them to Moses, and even beyond traditional legal or secular
institutionalized rationales. I wanted to see if I could make some sense out of my
personal lifetime of questioning. I didn't know what I believed. Writing this book has
not illuminated most of the dark metaphysical or moral corners that I had hoped might
So, reader, be forewarned.
I enjoy the almost extemporaneous style of his writing, and the subtle humor throughout. While always trying to be the objective observer, though, his stance of agnostic uncertainty has, in some cases, compromised his intellectual honesty. For example, you would think Michael would acknowledge stronger allegiance to the tenets of atheism, but he writes: "The atheist proclaims with certainty, where the agnostic sides with uncertainty", and "What refutes atheism is the simple fact that one cannot prove a negative." These are trite responses in an apparent effort to differentiate his agnostic position from the "certainty" of atheism. But do our educated atheists make such claims? Carl Sagan has often stated, "The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." Even Dawkins is quoted as saying "There is definitely no way you can certainly say that there is no God." The scientific underpinnings of atheistic creed embrace the unknown and Michael's agnosticism has no exclusivity on that domain. We are left to surmise that this short treatment and terse arguments are to create a distance from more controversial atheistic writers, but it is an awfully thin veil. Michael would have done well to address the differences with more than passing reference.
With the emphasis on an agnostic pursuit of intellectual certainty above everything else, we find that his potential spiritual ascent remains out of the reach of religion, or for that matter, science. Ironically, Michael's explicit ideology of skepticism - avoiding belief without certainty - has ensnared Mr. Krasny in the very thing he is trying to avoid: committing himself to a belief system that will limit his open-minded intellectual curiosity. So it is a bit frustrating to read about his various (and enviable) adventures, only to find out that he often walks to the edge of belief but stops short of taking the experiential plunge into what is ultimately the unknown, and instead only lives vicariously through those that do.
Indeed, as we read more about Michael's envy of those who are on a religious path towards spiritual enlightenment, we glean some insight into his real quest. Faith-based clarity of purpose is not based on intellectual certainty, although that is where he seeks. Michael states that "Spiritual thinking is often not really thinking at all and exists apart from reason." But he does not accept the necessity of belief, or its roots in desire -- even with his steadfast allegiance to agnosticism -- so our journey is always back to his uncertain intellect.
So what is Michael really looking for, and what has he found for the rest of us? His emotional candor gives us insight to the man and we can empathize with his search, but his self-imposed constraints of skepticism appear as shackles on his desires. He explores for us the final reaches of an individual's journey when limited by an intellectual standard of certainty. As religious and non-religious beliefs have both vision and community at the essence of their moral code, "Spiritual Envy" seems to be missing the point. Can we answer questions on what is moral or good through an intellectual pursuit of certainty? Isn't spiritual yearning rooted in a passion for purpose, in which to apply our sensual and intellectual acumen? Perhaps Michael's quest can be better fulfilled through clarity rather than certainty, desire rather than intellect, and satisfying others' needs rather than seeking a personal inner peace. What he wants is the same as you and I; and what he envies is closer than he thinks.
Though he quotes a few eastern principles, he does it from a simple, though well informed, western view. He seems to have little appreciation for how we create our identities and the character of the world. We give meanings to words, including "God", "sacred", "self". What is it to be connected, to know true love, to be one with the universe, to have bliss? Rather than pursuing bliss or comfort, Krazny attributes the lack of these to not knowing and concludes they're beyond him.
Krazny dismisses eastern ideas because he only deals with them as ideas, rather than applying the practices. Meditation is a pretty shallow idea, pretty worthless. It's value lies in its practice, especially when guided by a teacher. With practice, one learns how random one's thoughts and feelings are, how they construct one's reality. Krazny seems to think his reality is true, fixed. He also doesn't consider the findings of neuroscience, that we create our world (and ourselves) through language and ideas, that our experiences are based much more on our brains than on the external world. Or maybe he read such ideas and, like eastern ideas, failed to apply them.
If you want to know what agnostics think, or you want to know if there's more to agnosticism than you know, the book might be valuable. Krazny is bright and very well read. At the end of it, perhaps you can see that your conundrums are the same as his, that you have little to gain from thinking more within the standard western paradigms.
An unexamined life isn't worth living. But it's also not worth much to examine life merely from within your own assumptions.