Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Language God Talks: On Science and Religion By Herman Wouk, (Little, Brown & Co), 183 pages, $23.99

Reading a great literary work can be a deeply spiritual experience. In exceptional moments, art allows us to hear God’s voice. Not surprisingly, when Noble Prize winning physicist and avowed atheist Richard Feynman told Herman Wouk that calculus is the language God talks, Wouk knew he had something, and it was something too valuable to be buried among the conversations with Feynman that he recalled in The Will to Live On: This is our Heritage (2001).

Richard Feynman had expressed an idea with mystical appeal, philosophical depth and the ring of a catchy title. Herman Wouk just couldn’t pass up a winning title simply because he lacked a suitably grand idea for a book to go with it. And so we got The Language God Talks: On Science and Religion.

A great book inspires superlatives. A truly bad one can be the basis for a really good laugh. But what does one write when an acclaimed author sets out to answer ultimate theological questions, promises to reconcile religion and science and explain faith in a post-modern world, but does not seem to deliver? Not surprisingly, kind reviews of The Language God Talks tend to avoid the book’s content and focus upon the author’s well-known biography, his past accomplishments, and perhaps comment upon his fluid, inviting writing style.

Wouk does not directly answer the questions he poses. In all his meandering through the American space program, Big Bang theory and Columbia University’s famous Core Curriculum, Wouk knows that the clash between his faith and Richard Feynman’s atheism is neither one of religion versus science nor one of ancient faith confronting contemporary culture. In This is my God (1959), Wouk wrote: “Modern theologians now take for granted – as the rabbis long ago suggested – that Genesis is a mystic vision of the origin of things, put in the purest and strongest words, intelligible to the child, inspiring to adult genius, clear enough to survive in primitive eras, and deep enough to challenge sophisticated cultures.” The man who wrote that knows that the differences between him and Feynman are not to be sought in the questions he poses as narrative hooks.

Wouk surely also knows that the awe of experiencing “the language God talks” cannot be rationalized. Explaining the experience of God’s “voice” is like describing the sensation of hearing a musical performance. Writing “da da da dah, da da da dah” will not evoke Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in the mind of a person who has never heard it, any more than saying “the people saw the thunder and the lightening and the sound of the shofar” actually provides us with a rational understanding of the theophany at Sinai. Discussing the language that God talks requires common ground. Some shared experience or symbolism must serve as the metaphor that evokes the unique and otherwise ineffable consciousness. The point is made by German theologian Rudolf Otto at the beginning of The Idea of the Holy (1923): “The reader is invited to direct his mind to a moment of deeply-felt religious experience… Whoever cannot do this, whoever knows no such moments in his experience, is requested to read no farther.”

Feynman’s atheistic gibe that Wouk should learn calculus because “it’s the language God talks” is a more profound insight into what Otto meant than anything Wouk says in his attempts to make his case for faith to the reader or the doubting physicist. Ultimately, the argument must come down to “you had to be there,” and rational argument will not take either Feynman or the reader back to Wouk’s Sinai.

Nevertheless, Wouk, the Columbia-educated Pulitzer Prize winner, seems convinced that he must provide an intellectual argument for his naïve faith. After devoting two books to telling what he believes (This is My God and The Will to Live On) he seems to need to say why he believes. But Herman Wouk the novelist knows better. What cannot be described or explained rationally provides poor material for a work of non-fiction, and all the more so autobiography, which well may be the least penetrating literary form.

The most revealing form of literature is the novel. In a great novel, the characters the author creates become independent of his will, and he must allow them to be what they must be. Although the author is not any of the characters, that sense of what his characters must be most intimately reflects who the author is and what he believes. Herman Wouk is a great novelist, and it is therefore in his novels that one must seek the answer to why, in a world in which one can so easily live without faith, he continues to believe.

At the beginning of The Will to Live On, Wouk wrote that since publishing This is My God, “I have been writing afterwards and epilogues to successive editions”. Ultimately, The Language God Talks is not an independent book; it too is an epilogue – an updated afterward to War and Remembrance. It is a personal note in which Wouk tells his readers that if they want to understand why he still begins his day studying the Talmud and putting on tefillin, they need only try to identify with the author of War and Remembrance. If they can do that, they will know the unspoken answers to Wouk’s questions.

Avinoam Sharon