We hold these truths lightly

A sociologist examines the condition of America's spiritual life

Like the latest flavor from Ben and Jerry, this book is an astonishing mixture, a bold blend of diverse and spirited themes, all of which are food for famished hearts and hungry minds.

Among the most nourishing are these: biblical exegesis and the Jesus quest, comparative mythology, the intellectual history of Western civilization, atheism and the problem of evil, the war between modern and postmodern views of the human condition, a critique of exploitive capitalism, the impact on religion of Darwinism and quantum physics, wisdom quarried from literary masterworks like Don Quixote, and, most crucially, 40 piercing interviews with Americans who were willing to discuss in public their belief or disbelief in God.

Folks willing to expose their spiritual concerns to laser-beam probing are hard to find, but Douglas Porpora found them and mapped their souls. Over a period of years, he interviewed, among others, Buddhists, Taoists, devout Jews, evangelical Christians, a Catholic nun, Holocaust survivors, business executives, an engineer, a distinguished physicist, and political activists.

Out of all this talk springs Porpora's provocative argument, one that uncoils like this: When asked if they believe in God, 9 out of 10 Americans will answer yes, yet their belief is not accompanied by a deep interest in or love for God. This numbness in the soul, he claims, fosters a bland indifference to the cries of suffering humanity.

The same is true of Americans who believe in a source of goodness other than God. They are emotionally unmoored from the object of their belief and therefore are morally adrift. So the remedy is clear: Only by taking transcendent goodness into our hearts as well as into our thinking can we build a loving and just society.

"My argument in this book," Porpora writes, "is not that we all must develop a relationship with God. What I am arguing for is the need to connect with some vision of the good that lifts our moral horizons beyond ourselves and our own small circle. I am further arguing for the need to engage in more metaphysical thought than we typically do."

"Landscapes of the Soul" emblemizes a shift in the relationship between religion and the natural sciences. Little more than a decade ago, scientific research that took into account the presence and power of God would have been professionally risky, even in a "soft science" like sociology. And to publish the results would have been academic suicide.

Porpora, who chairs the department of Psychology, Sociology, and Anthropology at Drexel University, is refreshingly open about his religion and his politics. He is a practicing Catholic and the author of an earlier book entitled "How Holocausts Happen: The United States in Central America."

I connected powerfully with the mental maps in "Landscapes of the Soul," and throughout my reading of it, I found myself wishing that Porpora had chosen me for an interview, or better, for a dialogue of the sort he describes in a paragraph about what in the Jewish tradition are called haverim, that is, "religious study partners who gently and lovingly challenge each other's claims to truth."

I would have challenged him on his reading of the Christian Gospels. Porpora fails to appreciate the axioms undergirding the healing ministry of Jesus, the metaphysical truths that charged his works with seismic force. He fails to see how dissident and radically confrontational those truths were and are.

As regards the empirical status quo, genuine worship is profoundly revolutionary, a fact about religion which Professor Porpora seems to understand.

He ends his book with this sentence, one that echoes Marx and stands him on his head at the same time: "Children of the world, awake from alienation and resume your cosmic task."

Colin C. Campbell taught English at Principia College for 44 years.

***

'If we believe that God had some plan or purpose for putting us here, should not our part in that plan or purpose be the most important thing in our lives? Should we not trouble ourselves just a little to discern what this plan or purpose might be? Evidently, we do not. For many Americans, belief in God is what Hannah Gottlieb describes as just something to accept and skip over. In fact, many skip over it so fast as never to consider what God might want of us.'

- From 'Landscapes of the Soul'

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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