BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

A splendid book ...

This was one of those “throw ins” that I'd seen on-line and added to an Amazon order … with my only vaguely being aware of what it was about (i.e., I'd not seen a review, or had it recommended or followed up on a reference in another book). I'm very glad that I picked it up, as Jacob Needleman's What Is God? is a really fantastic book. Those who follow me over on will appreciate this … I actually rated it … which I've only done on four books out of the over 2,000 I have over there!

Of course, there has to be a reason for this, and I think the surprise of stumbling over an unsuspected “Fourth Way” book has a lot to do with it. As folks who are familiar with my library know, I've read a lot in the Gurdjieff/Ouspensky oeuvre and I was rather pleasantly surprised to find that this is in that vein. However, this is not a book about that philosophy, but about the author's own path, which eventually finds its way to The Work.

What Is God? is in four parts, dealing with various aspects of Needleman's search. It starts with his family, and his Jewish background, moves into his shift into Atheism, and encounters with Zen (especially a youthful, yet lasting in its effects, interaction with D.T. Suzuki), and various other religious traditions. He is a college professor by trade, and he looks at the way that has brought him to understand certain truths about people (students), and caused him to dig deeply into the inner workings of Christianity, Judaism, Gnosticism, etc. It was this latter influence that led him to the Gurdjieff material, and he approaches it with a very new awareness/perspective than any of the other books I've encountered on that. Interestingly, the book that grabbed him was one I've recently looked at here, the DeHartmanns' Our Life with Mr. Gurdjieff.

The second section follows his path further, his involvement with the Gurdjieff Society, his friendship with Tibetan teacher Lobsang Lhalungpa (who has a wonderful response to Needleman's question “How can you say that it's rare to be born as a human being?” while walking on a crowded San Francisco street, asking in return: “How many human beings do you see?”), and revisiting an early infatuation with Kant. Needless to say, this develops a heady mix of influences, world views, and approaches, which carries him into the third section, where he addresses a time in his courses when he, from an Atheistic point of view, had to deal with a student's Christian fundamentalism, and the emotional impact of religion, as unfolded via a discussion of William James' work, which leads him (and his class) to a sense of a “common ground” of all religions.

The final part deals with his eventual immersion with the Gurdjieff community … I was very excited to read this, as I'd not suspected that there was any such thing, and was pleased to find out about the likes of Pentland and the on-going propagation of The Work (including finding out that there was a Gurdjieff Foundation of Illinois operating in Chicago!) … and introducing his take on “attention”:
I am my attention. Everything else is given, is not mine. But what, exactly, is this uniquely human capacity which I do not understand or really value? I value something I call my knowledge, my skills, my actions; I feel remorse also for my actions, or feel pleased by them; I admire or dislike my body, my strength or weakness. But my attention? It is I! How could I fail to value it? How could I have lived without consciously recognizing it as the heart of what I am, the mind of what I am?
{I was struck by how this dove-tails with the current concept of attention in the Social Media sphere … that what counts “out there” is attention, and here the concept comes up on the inner planes as well … a sign of the singularity?} Needleman outlines moments of clarity in these contexts, and beautifully wraps them in the trappings of all his professorial data. The closing pages were so rich in important material that I had a bookmark stuck between nearly every one … here are some key bits:
... we are on the verge of saying, knowing, the shocking truth that God needs not just man, but awakened man, in order to act as God in the human world. Without this conscious energy on the earth it may not be possible for diving justice, mercy, or compassion to enter the lives of human beings.

… a universe of intermediate beings between God and Man and between Man and Hell is rooted in inward experience – the age-old experience of life as a guided path, a way handed down in ever new language from ancient times to the present moment. There is the idea of a path, an inner work, leading step by step to the ability to receive “what the religions call God”. And there is help at every step, from others whose essence-obligation is to transmit the Way to those who come after them. This aspect of religion has been largely forgotten in the West – it is only now just beginning to emerge again out of the shadows of the symbolic language that has not been received inwardly as the promise and the vision of inner evidence and proof of what we are and are meant to be.

Man must choose; that power and gift is his essence. And the instrument, the principle instrument of his choice is his uniquely human attention. But as he is now, man on earth is a being without Attention. His body, the cells and tissues of his body obey only the attention of the animal or the plant or the mineral within him. Man's being, as he is now, cannot obey his mind; it is his mind that obeys his body, which is of the animal or the plant or the mineral.
Again, What Is God? is not a book about theology, or philosophy, or The Work, but a wonderful telling of the author's journey of discovery. As noted at the start here, I found this particularly awesome, and I'd recommend it to anybody, but especially to anyone who is a “searcher” or has an interest in the Fourth Way materials. It has only been out for a couple of years, so should be “out there”, but the on-line guys have it for 35% off of cover, and there are copies in the used channels for a low as a penny (plus shipping). Make sure to pick this one up … it's a treasure!

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