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A man of faith's credible defense of believers

Why Faith Matters; David J. Wolpe; HarperOne: 208 pp., $24.95

September 26, 2008|Jonathan Kirsch | Special to The Times

"As a critic," declares Harold Bloom, "I have learned to rely upon [Emerson's] apprehension that our prayers are diseases of the will and our creeds diseases of the intellect."

Thus did Emerson anticipate the current public conversation about the role of faith in American life. His point of view is nowadays embraced not only by Bloom but also by such contemporary figures as Christopher Hitchens ("God Is Not Great"), Richard Dawkins ("The God Delusion"), Sam Harris ("The End of Faith"), Julia Sweeney (in her one-woman show "Letting Go of God") and the movie-making team of Bill Maher and Larry Charles in their upcoming "Religulous."

Now a new David has picked up sling and stone and taken aim at the critics of religion. He is David J. Wolpe, senior rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and author of six previous books, including "Making Loss Matter," a book inspired by the health crises in his family. (Wolpe and his wife are cancer survivors.)

Wolpe, who recently turned 50, is an articulate, credible and even endearing spokesman for his cause -- he was named the No. 1 pulpit rabbi in America by Newsweek this year, and he is a frequent contributor to newspapers and news broadcasts on the subject of religion.

Wolpe is no Bible-thumper, however, and here he is clearly not preaching to the pews. Indeed, "Why Faith Matters" appears to be addressed to the secular reader and sets out to repudiate the arguments of bestselling authors such as Hitchens and Dawkins.

Significantly, Wolpe never calls on the reader to accept religion out of true belief; rather, he asks us only to keep an open mind on the subject. "I do not believe our choice is either an absence of God or an over-zealous embrace of God," he writes.

". . . All of our culture is built on the assumption of free will; it is the teaching of great religions that such will is God's paradoxical gift to us -- to do good, or to do ill."

Personal crisis of faith

Thus, for example, Wolpe recalls his own crisis of faith when, at age 12, he saw "Night and Fog," the Alain Resnais documentary about the Holocaust: "Spirit suddenly drained from the world," he writes. "Surely if there was a God, this would not be permitted." Although his father was a rabbi, Wolpe became what he describes as "a strong, self-confident atheist in a world of weak, credulous believers." He returned to a belief in God only when his adolescent self-confidence slackened and he entertained the possibility that he might be wrong.

Wolpe is a reader and a thinker, and he cites the writings of Nietzsche and Gibbon and Sartre as readily and as expertly as the Scriptures and, in fact, considerably more often. He makes no strong assertions about what religion is capable of revealing: "From its earliest days, religion has taught that at the heart of everything is not a puzzle but a mystery . . . ," he declares. "Acceptance of mystery is an act not of resignation but humility."

And he insists that the believer is actually more willing than the nonbeliever to grapple with the complexities of the world: "One can have simple faith, but faith is not simple."

Wolpe considers and rejects the argument that religion is a "misfired strategy of survival" dating to our cave-dwelling ancestors, and he declares instead that religion has been, on balance, a civilizing and elevating force in human history.

"That everything from the cathedral at Chartres to relief missions is a result of an evolutionary misfiring is impossible to maintain," writes Wolpe, thus repudiating the argument of naysayers like Hitchens who are perfectly willing to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Based on examples ranging from the Crusades and the Inquisition to the horrors of 9/11, he concedes that religious true belief can be deadly but notes that it has also inspired people of faith to "live decently and to care for others."

Indeed, he argues that religion has served to check the human impulse toward violence, "although by a kind of ideological jujitsu, it sometimes contributes to the very violence it seeks to tame." In a display of his own rhetorical jujitsu, Wolpe quotes no less an authority on skepticism than Michael Shermer ("How We Believe") for the proposition that "for every one of these grand tragedies there are ten thousand acts of personal kindness and social good that go unreported."

Measuring faith

Wolpe always avoids over-claiming when it comes to measuring what faith can accomplish. "Religion is neither an answer to a question nor the solution to a problem," he concedes. "It is a response to the wonder of existence and a guide to life."

At moments, he appears to be asking only that atheists become agnostics rather than true believers: "Surely with a touch of imagination, and a touch less arrogance, we can appreciate that there is much in this world, its creation, governance and majesty, that we do not begin to understand."

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