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Question or Problem?

October 1, 2009 By:
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SPEAKING VOLUMES

As the High Holidays approach, publishers begin rolling out their appropriate "seasonal" titles; and among them each year will always be the one book that looks at modern life from a theistic point of view, providing a diagnosis of what's wrong with society and its many members, and eventually prescribing antidotes to the illnesses that plague us.

Such books, by their very nature, are concerned with the large issues of life: Why we human beings are here; what the nature of meaning is; what we should actually be working toward in life; and what place religion can or should play in our lives, especially now that we're well along into the third millennium.

As might be expected, there are many such titles out there right now, and one of the most approachable and least assuming of them happens to be Byron L. Sherwin's The Life Worth Living, published by Wm. B. Eerdmans. One of its distinct benefits is that it's brief without giving short shrift to any pertinent subjects, and is written in simple, clear language while never bordering on the simplistic.

The author, who is a rabbi and Distinguished Service Professor at Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago, makes no bones about who his ideal reader is; it's this forthright attitude that makes his book different from the run of the mill "what's wrong with modern society" titles common to the High Holiday period.

In the preface, Sherwin states that the person who would most benefit from The Life Worth Living would be someone "looking for a faith-based response to the fundamental problems of human existence, [who] sees religious life as an intellectual as well as a spiritual adventure, wants to attain a higher spiritual standard of living, believes that life is not an aimless journey, but a pilgrimage that leads -- with God's help -- toward a destination and a goal, is seeking a means of articulating religious faith as an action-plan for a life of meaning, goodness and individual fulfillment, and wants to craft his or her own life into an exquisite work of art."

In addition, this individual will not accept simplistic, "Sunday school"-type answers to the large spiritual matters facing what Sherwin calls the educated religious believer. This ideal person wants an "accessible" explanation of the problems, "without the use of technical and obscure theological jargon."

Not for nothing does Sherwin preface his book with a quote from Abraham Joshua Heschel. From his neo-mystical point of view, Heschel conceived of religion as a question posed by God that we humans must answer. As the great thinker and theologian put it, "Unless God asks the question, all our inquiries are in vain."

Navigating the Quest

Sherwin accepts this dialogue-like construct as fundamental to the search, stating that "living as a faith-based person entails a quest for answers" to the puzzles of life. "Cast at birth into a marvelous and mysterious world," the author continues, "we want to know why we are here, what is our mission, what should we do with the gift of life. Our religious traditions contain a treasure-trove of wisdom to help us navigate our quest. It is our task to access this wisdom to see how the spiritual maestros of ages past have responded to these questions, for our questions were also their questions. How we respond to these questions shapes the nature of the life we live."

And according to Sherwin, the first question comes in the Bible when God asks Adam, after he ate the fruit in the Garden of Eden, "Where are you?"

Continues the author: "Why does God ask this question? Does the all-knowing God not know where Adam is? Is God asking Adam to disclose his location, or is God asking Adam something else? Does Adam answer the question he is asked? Is this question directed only to Adam or to others as well?"

And is this even really a question, Sherwin then asks? A question seeks information, and can be resolved solely by settling on certain details. God's query is, in fact, a problem, and a problem is something else altogether. As the rabbi points out, a question is a product of the intellect, while a problem concerns a person's whole being. To put it another way, a question is an exercise for the mind, while a problem distresses the soul.

"Unlike a question," writes the author, "a problem is the outcome of perplexity and often of anxiety; it is not easily answered. God's query to Adam poses a problem rather than a question. God is not asking Adam the question, Where are you situated? What are your geographical coordinates? Rather, God is asking, What is your situation? Where are you in your life, now that you have eaten the forbidden fruit?"

And because this is a problem rather than a question -- and Adam understands this instinctually, that he is in a different place since he ate of the fruit -- he has trouble coming up with an answer. Instead, he hides from God, avoiding a response -- and all the implications arising from his new situation in life.

The fact that the name "Adam" is also the Hebrew word for "human being" complicates the problem even further. "Hence," writes Sherwin, "God's query is directed not only at Adam, the first human being, but also to each human being. God asks each of us, 'Where are you?' -- that is, where are you in your life, what is your existential situation? ... God's inquiry is a challenge: You can run, but you can't hide. You must eventually ask yourself: Where am I in my life?"

According to the rabbi, the point behind this story is that every one of us is Adam, and no one can avoid God's question. In this first dialogue between God and a human being, the "spiritual quest" is under way. Sherwin's book is about this search for where we are, and each of the work's chapter looks at a component of the journey. The author considers the modern striving for success, what we use to give meaning to our lives (all of them secular and pointless, in the rabbi's estimation), and where these days we find love, friendship, happiness and fulfillment.

After analyzing each of these components, the author concludes that, for the most part, none of them, in and of themselves, have made modern men and women happy. Sherwin does not argue that the pleasure we take from the various elements of existence is wrong or unnecessary or purposeless. Pleasure gives a "desirable spice" to life, he states emphatically.

But what so many modern individuals have done is elevate love, money or acquisitions, and made them the pinnacle of existence -- have used them to define happiness. But most human beings, if they're honest with themselves, have found these various and wonderful components empty treasures.

To live a meaningful life, to be truly happy, writes Sherwin, is to live by God's law. "For the Hebrew Scriptures, a happy life is a life lived in covenantal relationship with God. It is a life rooted in faith, informed by God's teachings, characterized by the cultivation of the moral virtues -- especially wisdom and justice -- and by the articulation of faith in deeds correlative with God's way, God's will, God's commandments."

For it is only through achieving this level of awareness and self-knowledge -- by having a full relationship with God -- that we know where we are and exactly where we belong.

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