November 5, 2015
Adam Gopnik —
Practicing Doubt, Redrawing Faith

The wise and lyrical writer Adam Gopnik muses on the ironies of spiritual life in a secular age through the lens of his many fascinations — from parenting, to the arts, to Darwin. He touches on all these things in a conversation inspired by his foreword to The Good Book, in which novelists, essayists, and activists who are not known as religious thinkers write about their favorite biblical passages. Our ancestors acknowledged doubt while practicing faith, he says; we moderns are drawn to faith while practicing doubt.

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is a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. He is the author of several books, including Paris to the Moon and Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life. He wrote the foreword for The Good Book, edited by Andrew Blauner.

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In your dreams, magical thoughts. All things are real, unless you dream they're not.

I am going to enjoy your discussion with Adam Gopnik. After listening to your introduction one of the most beautiful written descriptions of speaking about similar experiences of human emotion, Thomas Merton writes in his book titled "No Man Is an Island" that:

Finally, the purest prayer is something on which is impossible to reflect until after it is over. And when the grace has gone we no longer seek to reflect on it, because we realize that it belongs to another order of things, and that it will be in some sense debased by our reflecting on it. Such prayer desires no witness, even the witness of our own souls. It seeks to keep itself like a wound, like a scar that will not heal. But we do not reflect upon it. This living wound may become a source of knowledge, if we are to instruct others in the ways of prayer; or else it may become a bar and an obstacle to knowledge, a seal of silence set upon the soul, closing the way to words and thoughts, so that we can say nothing of it to other men, For the way is left open to God alone. This is like the door spoken by Ezechiel, which shall remain closed because the King is enthroned within" (pg.51).

"From a Christian lens," I should have ended.

I always enjoy the program, but today's was particularly fine. Mr. Gopnik is an excellent writer, but he is also a good conversationalist. He and Krista clearly enjoyed one another's company.
I hope he takes it as a compliment when I say he sounds a bit like Woody Allen, even down to the "right?"!
Perhaps the high point of the conversation for me was his wonder at the grief of his young daughter over the death of her goldfish.
Truly, "we are here to give praise."

"What religion brings us is a practice. and not a dogma...are not at war" is beautifully stated. In the Jewish tradition I think of Halakhah.

Even after reading and enjoying all of his writings, novels, New Yorker essays et al, this interview has made so clear to me why Adam Gopnik is a reflective, compelling thinker. He is, put quite simply, a humanist for our time. Thank you, Mr. Gopnik.

I'm at 25:00 and just want to say this is wonderful. I really am enjoying this an will add Adam Gopnik to my reading list.

At 26 minutes I've thought about how language works in a secular context with modern day technologies and the reframing of biblical texts that is going on. As one example I think of the text Luke 6.46. It's not heresy to think about, setting aside, whether one agrees or not. It's looking through a particular lens because of modernity and what is being asked objectively speaking.

I've thought a lot about this--keep in mind your thinking about time and some constructive criticism from Amy-Jill Levine re the kingdom--and I think for the Christian the King is the triune God Head. Thus, when Jesus hand over the Kingdom to His God this is the experience that, as I said is articulately written by Merton in my first comment, seems to be the subjective religious experience that Merton many religious warn not to get trapped in--the subjective experience. Time is just fascinating, and I think quantum physics is a great lens to think about subjectivity and 1 Corinthians 15:24 through. (Thanks for dealing with me. I miss this and feel great. Take what I've thought about with a grain of salt.)

About stretching out the table of morality. I like what is being said but my experience is that this is just not true in action. It seems to me the rule of law doesn't apply to all and depends on one's occupation and position on the economic ladder. I don't know but maybe if the same rules of theft and illegal substance abuse (I think thirty years on a substance is more than mere "opinion') had to sit in prison for six months the "rule of law" would be more objective and possibly bend toward justice.

Although I appreciate genuine efforts to thoroughly and honestly examine deep existential questions (hence my appreciation of "On Being"), when it comes to questions of "belief" and "God", I am often puzzled by the fact that the most articulate and eloquent speakers usually seem to take it for granted that the words "belief" and "God" have a uniform or similar meaning for everyone : "belief" being a conceptual view, i.e. an opinion, and "God" a humanoid superman-like figure that dwells and looms in the wings of and over our existential theater.
Is it not in itself a kind of fundamentalism to confine oneself to such rather comfortable and somewhat "lazy" definitions?
Is someone who refuses to reduce Godliness to a set of attributes manageable by the human intellect an atheist? Then Meister Eckhart would be called an atheist, which he was obviously not, and many others like him, so would most Buddhists, Taoists, etc.
When "believing in God" means "entertaining the idea that there is a super-Person, out there", a Person we must develop a relationship with, are we not in fact trying to bootstrap ourselves to a better Ego with God-like personal status? There is nothing wrong to strive to become a better person, but confusing it with becoming God has always been disastrous. Reading "Not-God" by Ernest Kurtz should convince anyone who doubts that.
I once playfully mimicked John Lennon's famous song "God" by adding a simple "E" to the title and replacing God by Ego throughout, with minor changes to the final words. Here is the result:


Ego is a concept
By which we measure
Our pain
I'll say it again
Ego is a concept
By which we measure
Our pain

Ego believes in magic
Ego believes in I ching
Ego believes in Bible
Ego believes in tarot
Ego believes in Hitler
Ego believes in Jesus
Ego believes in Kennedy
Ego believes in Buddha
Ego believes in Mantra
Ego believes in Gita
Ego believes in Yoga
Ego believes in kings
Ego believes in Elvis
Ego believes in Zimmerman
Ego believes in Beatles
Ego believes in Masters
Ego believes in Alter-Ego
Ego believes in reality.

But what is reality?

Reality is a tear
In the eye of the Dream-weaver
And none holds the blade and the spear
But Ego, Ego the Grim-Reaper.

The dream is not over
What more can be said?
The dream is not over
And so, dear friends
You'll just have to carry on
The dream is not over.

Thanks to the On-Being team for on-going quality programs.

Do you believe in Yoko and you? ;-)

Not in Yoko, not in me, only in AND !

Erratum : one should read "by adding a simple "E" to the title and replacing "I" by "Ego" throughout".

Two moments that really struck me during the interview were: 1) Gopnik's description of his child leaving home, the length between contact getting longer and longer, and then the calls late at night about a poem that he wanted to share with his father. I do the same with nearly every On Being podcast and my father. 2) The rapidity of life and the most I can do is bear witness to my own chapter. So lovely.

My thanks for producing such mindful and provoking content! Love, love, love your podcast.

I so agree with Ellison here. When Gopnik spoke of his own intense adjustment to his son suddenly not being at home I was so grateful to have it articulated! People talk about the "empty nest" but I had not heard anyone reflect so eloquently what I'm experiencing. My son called me today after a building was damaged at his school and he ostensibly wanted to be sure I wasn't worried, but I would not have known about it...I said that I was glad he wanted to talk to me about it and he said, "You are great to talk to when sh*t goes down". The poignancy of still being important to our grown children in that way, even as the times of contact get fewer and farther between- it was a blessing to have that reflected in your conversation.

My daddy lied to me also, about the capacity of fish to feel pain. If he has learned, bothered to research this important fact, he's have had to stop causing them the suffering we do so callously and without thought.
How tragic Mr. Gopnik's young daughter, as sensitive to the suffering of fish as she is perhaps to all living beings, got her first lesson in being DEsensitive, as she enters the world of cold and callous SPECIESISM, the anthropocentric privilege that humans alone can suffer or will to live, a deadly falsehood that has shaped human society, and not for the better.
Mr. Gopnik would have us think that it matters not what we put into our mouths ,only what comes out. Truth begins with how we THINK about what we put into our mouths which has, for centuries, shaped our use of power, both verbal and physical...
To that fish, life matters just as it does to every being that has the breath of Hashem and LIFE FORCE within.
I would urge Mr. Gopnik to read "Who Stole My Religion," by Richard Schwartz, and Eternal Treblinka, Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust,by Charles Patterson.... That flounder he eats for dinner DOES in fact have self awareness and will to live.
As a Jew myself, I am always shocked when other Jews take the LIVES of ANY other being lightly. His daughter's world has been shaped by this shallow and speciesist thinking... Not very kind is it?

Faith is not irrational - it begins with reason and transcends it. it's rational to believe in God; it's rational to believe that God revealed himself to man; it's rational to do what God commanded us to do. Strict rationalists deny revelation, that is not rational.

Religions do evolve and grow, Catholicism included. But to say that Catholicism is completely different than it was in the first century is not true - the descriptions of the Mass and the moral law (see the Didache, see the Eucharistic Prayer of Hippolytus) look very much like they do today in form.

I think by saying that religions all change radically you mean to imply that they are purely human creations which evolve to match the social conditions. Not so.

I enjoyed listening to this conversation, but Mr. Gopnik's description of his daughter's grief over her fish as "absurd," gave me pause. Her grief was about the very real and meaningful relationship she had with her pet fish. The relationships children have with animals can be as powerful as the ones they have people in their lives. I believe humans do not give animals enough credit. They do not communicate like we do, but that does not mean they are not sentient and possessed of consciousness.

It was very disappointing, and I expected better. NPR and it's outlets seem to keep our debate trapped in a trivial debate between mythic and rational worldviews. The work of Clare Graves, which I have learned of thorugh Ken Wilber's writings, place this in 3rd-4th level discussions. Many of us have moved well beyond the trite debate between science and fundamentalist religion... I would have hoped that your show would not be devolved down to the level I would expect from "Science Friday"- stuck, by definition. in the rational 4th level.
Why not challenge your listeners to move into the 5th, 6th, 7th levels or beyond, as many of us have moved? Interview Ken Wilber, or any of dozens of Trans-personal, trans-rational explorers. It's embarrassing to hear intelligent people speak in such dumbed-down terms.... SERIOUSLY!

I enjoyed the interview with Adam Gopnick very much. I cannot wait to get to the bookstore to read more of his insights.

Perhaps it's his social circle, but Gopnik seems oblivious to the possibility of reconciling rationality and the need for ritual quite straightforwardly, simply by making a ritual of the practice of critical thinking and scientific method in one's daily life. That's what I do, and I'm not alone.

As a bisexual, I'm also irritated by his statement about how few "pure bisexuals" there are at a gay bar. Bisexuality isn't a matter of degree; either you're attracted to both sexes or you aren't.

Dear Mr. Gopnik - It was a true pleasure listening to you Sunday on NPR. I am a 78 year old secular 'Jewish' psychoanalyst - who majored in philosophy at Columbia and have maintained my interest since graduating. The reason for writing you is my strong feeling that you are a rare kindred spirit.And to tell you of my life long interest in understanding the nature and uses of meaningful coincidences (synchronicities) - on the 'cutting edge' of the interface between 'science' and 'spirituality.' At 19, in a particularly depressed, angry information overloaded state of mind, I began the first page of what eventually became a thirty seven year journal - Oedipus From Miami Beach- the first line of which was "agreeing with Plato that the un-examined life is not worth living qualifying it with however I have found that the overly examined life is incapable of being lived. At this time that I found myself lured to the mysteries of the esoteric occult. Additionally I recorded over a period of ten years what I considered to be 19 major synchronicities. I immersed myself in the relevant literature: Jung and his adherents, Alice Bailey, Ouspensky, mystics of all sorts, attended the First Spiritualist Church of New York every Sunday in the Ansonia Hotel. Dictated poetry purportedly written by Freud and Jung channeled through a tall handsome noted Psychiatrist sitting next to me in 'church' who enjoyed going into trance. Failing 6 years of psychotherapy seeking absolute answers to ultimate questions I eventually entered an 11 year 3x a week psychoanalysis with a Freudian analyst who helped me plug in critical thinking. Over a period of 50 years I investigated the complexities of synchronicities. The results are in my book: DEMYSTIFYING MEANINGFUL COINCIDENCES: SYNCHRONICITIES - The Evolving Self, The Personal Unconscious, and The Creative Process. In so doing I have derived is anon magical/ non mystical naturalistic theory of synchronicities. In so doing I have come with a number of organizing concepts such as a 'grounded faith' and a 'grounded spirituality.' I am aware these concepts are not original however I believe their association with making sense of synchronicities is original. This rather long response is attempt to sufficiently stir your interest in reading my book even though I am aware your time is precious and perhaps over loaded as well. I very much appreciate your point of view and regret that I didn't know you growing up in Miami Beach in the early fifties. I am certain it would have been great dining at Wolfie's Delicatessen discussing science and spirituality while eating bagels and nova scotia with a raw onion - of course. Thanks once again for your inspiring words. Very truly yours, Gibbs A. Williams Ph.D.

I read ANYTHING by Adam Gopnik; he is truly a prophet of our time. I would love to hear his reflections on the thought of Pierre Tailard de Chardin and, more recently, the writings of Illia Delio.

Gopnik's reading interests includes from the Renaissance to food and from science to religion. His new book which is called the good book is an arrangement of knowledge and data figures that reflect on the Bible. Gopnik has a thought that the negation of God does not stop our morality. These are different factors that we have to come up with ourselves in order to function as human beings. He had all sorts of different backgrounds and religion from one of his mother's relatives being Catholic while he was having a Jewish Christmas. Gopnik's experience in spirituality is offered at different times and when he was younger and one of those experiences he said was that his Transcendence was rooted from different carnal Passions or that we have our Hobbies is what I think it means. The existence that we have in place but he believes it was just a brief flash of existence he said that includes ourselves our loved ones and our children because this is how life is it feels like it's going slow and before you know it can be taken away like a flash.

Gopnik says if there's kind of like a wall or tension that is between us and the people that we love and other things that give meanings to our lives. It comes so brief, and yet we can't get enough of the whole story because of that brief mission in our lives. The emotional pressure that he is mentioning is a direct path from saying one's true feelings to a loved one because of this brief moment that Gopnik mentions. The different influences in his life including his writing is the study of Darwin it is not all of the active explanation and the argument. Whether it was from the morality or the effect of the passage, it is up to him to write it and what how he sees fit and only he can decide on what he wants to do with the novel or passages that he writes. He says that the central to Darwin's vision is the hardest part to explain because of the limit of scientific explanation on how I can explain religion or other similar things to it.