Portions of this review originally appeared in Louvain Stuides 22(Summer 1997): 188-190.
Our current age is frequently characterized by its loss of a sense of transcendence. It is a legacy inherited from centuries of evaluating the relationships between the divine, human, and cosmic realms. In his second book, Richard E. Friedman investigates the complexities of these relationships. The divine has slowly moved from direct interaction with the human and cosmic to a sphere of existence hidden from mortal concerns and worldly actions. Friedman's exposition begins with the Hebrew Bible and extends to the modern thoughts of Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, the mysticism of Kabbalah, and to the scientific notion of the Big Bang. Far from presenting these varied subjects as disjointed topics, Friedman unites them under the three sections of his book.
The first section is a most intriguing biblical odyssey, investigating when and where God can and cannot be found throught the Hebrew Scriptures. These first six chapters are the highlight of the book and are essential reading for anyone interested in seriously discussing God's presence or absence from within the Judeo-Christian tradition. Friedman embarks upon a re-reading of the Hebrew Scriptures with a new hermeneutical key: tracing how God systematically disappears from one historical period to another, and how the balance of power between the divine and the human shifts along with it.
The second section is devoted to the "death of God" as a legacy of the present age, particularly as it comes to us from Nietzsche and Dostoevsky. This section is about half the length of the first section, yet it tends to be repetitious. More about Nietzsche's doctrines and less about their relation to his madness could have strengthened this section. Still, Friedman's point is intriguing. Drawing upon "mysterious" parallel after parallel between the writings and lived experiences of Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, Friedman explains that both men in their own way "envisioned a stage in the relations between humans and the divine in which humans could no longer tolerate the presence or even belief in the existence of a God" (p. 191). Nietzsche embraced this new step for humankind while Dostoevsky resisted it.
The third section of the book consists of one chapter on the scientific model of the Big Bang, one on the mysticism of Kabbalah, plus a final chapter which draws the entire book together. This third mystery concerns the parallels between the twentieth century Big Bang theory and the Jewish mystical vision of creation. He suggests that through the different mediums of science and mysticism we reach similar conceptions, such as creation emanating from a point. However, I was not convinced that the parallels were anything but coincidences. Given his reasoning, one should expect far greater agreement between humans in their concsciouness regarding creation. In his defense, he does admit, "I am simply posing a possibility."
Friedman uses this possibility in the final chapter to provide some basis for suggesting the reunion of the divine and human realms. He poignantly summarizes the contemporary scene: "Nothing has come to replace the direction and security that a more widespread relaince upon God once provided" (p. 255). Because their is a profound sense of divine absence, two crises have arisen. First, we live in an age of great fear and uncertainty. Second, the disappearance of the divine undermined the basis of morality. Friedman proposes that the path back to God, solving both crises, is through science. Basically he gives his own spin to the cosmological argument. He proposes a cosmic God, a God that is not necessarily personal. When we are reduced to space dust we may simply be part of a cosmic nonpersonal God. The scientists are the ones to lead us, but Friedman declares that we all have a role in promoting species loyalty. Science can supposedly rebuild our feelings of security. Also our morality will find new roots in acknowledging "our common heritage and, more urgently... our common danger" (p. 280). But can science be called THE path back to the divine as Friedman asserts? He even admits that may scientists, in whom we are called to place our greatest hope, not only do not see a point to the universe, but do not see why we should look for one.
Perhaps Friedman's greatest disservice is to the unbeliever. If God truly has disappeared as Friedman asserts, then Friedman does not go far enough. He wants to return a monotheistic God inside the universe, but maybe we should be happy with the universe without God being inside or outside. Maybe Friedman is too close to death-of-God theology and not close enough to Nietzsche.
My difficulties with this book are far outweighed by my esteem for Friedman's successful project. This book is insightgful, clearly written, logically ordered, and thought provoking. It is quite accessible to the layperson, while remaining sound reading for the scholar. His bits of humor are welcomed, as are his sober admonitions. This book is also usettling; it cannot be read seriously without the believer calling his or her faith into question, nor without the unbeliever wondering wheter there is in factg some higher dimension. In a provocative way, this book challenges time honored opinions regarding the meaning of human existence and our relationship to the divine.