Spiritual Envy: Michael Krasny’s Agnostic Quest

Just this morning, I was late to work, sitting in my car listening to Michael Krasny talk to Salman Rushdie about religion in the political sphere (Rushdie is opposed to it, naturally). If you can be at the edge of your car seat, I was. And it wasn’t the first time. Host of KQED’s Forum, Krasny is, as Dave Eggers once put it, “the alpha brain and conscience of the Bay Area.”

I was so eager to get the chance to talk to him about his honest and searching new memoir, Spiritual Envy, that I forgot to be nervous about interviewing one of the great interviewers on radio today. We talked about his motivations for writing a book on not knowing, whether Judaism and agnosticism have a natural affinity, and what it means to break from the faith of your parents.

You’ve written a book on a huge topic: agnosticism. You must have been thinking about this for a while.  

I’ve been thinking about God for quite a while and, well, there were a few things; both my parents were strong believers in God—a very personal concrete god. And I loved them and I honored them and I thought: why do I love them and honor them? Because a commandment says so? So things started coming together. But I’ve been interested in theology and philosophy my whole life, so I thought let me just see if I can get down what it is I believe or don’t believe.

I think the genesis of this book was wanting to get that down for my children, and for myself. It’s as if the book had been gestating without my knowing it and then suddenly it just poured out of me.

Did you find anything out in the writing of it that you hadn’t known before?

Yes, I think I did. Jacob Needleman talks about the division between internal empiricism and external empiricism, and I don’t know that I ever really accepted deep down that I couldn’t find the inner empiricism to give me faith. Or to give me some kind of knowledge or mystical illumination that would convince me, give me some certainty. And I would have welcomed that.

But what came out in the writing was the certainty of uncertainty. Or the uncertainty of certainty. Take your choice, because either option works.

You write about Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and the notion of the human being as an entity who waits.

I mention in the book that that work had more influence on me than anything I’d read. A lot of the critics see it as a work about nothingness, because it’s Beckett—a great literary creator nevertheless identified as the Prince of Nothingness. Nothing happens in that play and yet things do happen. Pozzo goes blind and Lucky goes mute; but for Gogo and Didi, the two protagonists, things don’t change. They’re in this flux of time and this Godot is going to come, or maybe he’s not going to come. One is a little more skeptical than the other and they play off each other: What are we here for? Godot. Oh, right.

When the play was first performed, one of the early productions was at San Quentin and those prisoners really related to it in a very deep and profound way. Because so many of us are in this kind of limbo, whether we’re behind bars or not; we’re waiting for something to happen in our lives. The Gestalt psychologists taught me the importance of being in the moment and thinking about just being in time. I felt it important to talk about being in time and that whole idea from the play of “accursed time.”

It seemed to me that the play embodies the human condition: a wonderful poetic image of what it means to be human. Everything’s impermanent, everything’s in flux. Everything is waiting. And to some extent, waiting to expire.

It’s funny at a conference recently I heard someone say, “I’m an aspiring writer.” And I turned to my wife and said “expiring writer?” You know, mortality is accompanied by waiting. There’s simply no making a division between the two. Even if it’s just for the next day to dawn and for the years to pass and for something to happen that is unforeseen. Even though sometimes, like Beckett also said, habit is the great deadener.

I think Augustine said that habit was the gateway drug to sin.

And sin, or what we think of as sin, can come out of that feeling of restlessness and boredom that can be almost cosmically overwhelming. It can also be terribly paralyzing of course. There’s a play by Caryl Churchill where she writes about this Buddhist who says people who are being burned by fire, but why should I do anything? It’s not going to make any difference in the grand scheme of things, because we’re all in flux and impermanent and so forth. But I think the human condition is one that’s attached to waiting.

But you also talk a lot about questioning as a mode of being.

I still do a lot of it.

I was going to say. I like the alignment there. Because that’s what you do: you’re a questioner.

That’s exactly right. And I try to get at the whole roots of agnosticism to some extent. There’s a long skeptical tradition that’s embodied in questioning. Trying to seek truth. It’s what Socrates is all about. There’s that joke: Why does a Jew always answer a question with a questions? Why shouldn’t he? It’s always seemed to me that questioning has led me to more questioning. Questioning in the cosmic sense, asking what’s above the stellar canopy, has never led me to answers.

And even in Stephen Hawking’s new book, he thinks he’s found answers now—he’s moved in a different direction, toward an atheism that was not clear in his previous work. It’s a jump, for maybe one of the greatest minds of our time. But I can’t continue or discontinue grappling with questions that are simply unanswerable. Okay, there was a Big Bang, but what was before it? There are mysteries on the earth that are impenetrable to us, let alone beyond our planet. So why not just accept? My dad used to say to me when I was a kid that sometimes you just have to say: I don’t know.

Just say I don’t know. Great marketing mantra.

Yes, it’s a good line, playing off the Nancy Reagan slogan. People have asked me: How can you merchandize a book with no answers? Everyone wants a book with answers. Well maybe I should just say: I don’t know.

Which is not what atheists say.

Many of them now say they know. It used to be atheism—the village atheist, and some of these more respectable atheists from times previous—would border on what I think of as agnosticism. Or they would be somewhat hybrid, and they would just say, well we don’t have the answers. But when I talked to Dawkins, or Sam Harris…

You’ve interviewed them…

Yes, and Christopher Hitchens. They seem to have the answers. And if I pushed them, they would quickly concede: well, of course we don’t know what’s in interstellar space; we don’t know beyond our universe or galaxies. And yet, Dawkins told me for example, not in quite this language, that when he found Darwin he found God. That answered all the mysteries for him, explained all the inexplicable. Well, Darwin explains a lot, but not many of these things that we find truly inexplicable. And there’s too much that’s inexplicable. The thing is to never stop questioning. I believe that. And it’s what I do for a living, as you said.

Fanatical atheism is sort of an oxymoron, isn’t it?

Some people are calling it evangelical atheism, because it is proselytizing—fundamentalist atheism. I don’t know that that’s all that far off the mark. Karen Armstrong, when I interviewed her, said that she saw it that way.

Not a healthy climate for discussion. It’s been so polarizing.

Yes, it has been, and it’s disturbing. We talk about political polarization and how partisan everything is, but Reza Aslan recently told me he wrote a piece in the Washington Post that was essentially about being open toward all religions, that that’s what this country was founded on, and he said to me he had never received such hateful responses as he did from the atheists—that being an indication, from his perspective, on how polarized things have become. Militant even.

Well, there are plenty of reasons to think religion is a problem, where extremism comes into play. And this can also be an excuse for nationalism of a different variety. Or nihilism. A lot of these terrorists not only feel no purpose in life but want what Mark Twain called the “evil joy” that comes from destruction. But there are so many decent people of faith, and people who strive for virtue because of their faith.

You talk about the destructive consequences of certainty.

Or belief in absolutes, I call it too. It’s not only the Islamic tradition, it’s very much part of the Abrahamic religions, where the zealot will say that God deems this something that deserves punishment, or God deems that this settlement belongs to our people. And it’s really often just interpretation, and interpretation based on translation or on decidedly subjective and biased points of view.

Speaking of Abrahamic religion, do you ever think there is something Jewish about agnosticism?

I think Jews have always been questioning; we joke about it but it’s true. There are a lot of bagel Buddhists, as they call them. But I think that Jews like to argue, and they like conflict in terms of ideas and the tensions that come out of those conflicts. It hadn’t occurred to me (you talk about things becoming illuminated during the writing) that socialism, for Jews, might have been a kind of surrogacy for messianism—since it wasn’t realized. Or feminism, or particularly Zionism. I wanted to make that point.

I also wanted to make the point that I’m not a spiritual person. In fact, I’m a person who has spiritual envy. Although a lot of people who read this book have said that it shows how spiritual I am, I’m more of a seeker. But I did find myself saying it’s okay if you like to go to a Yom Kippur service and find it moving to hear the Kol Nidre, or are moved by the shofar being blown on Rosh Hashanah. I grew up with a strong strain of cantorial music in my life. I used to daven. And to hear those melodies and to also come back to my youth and my childhood, is something I find very moving.

And a lot of the new atheism forecloses that; says this is all nonsense. They might concede, perhaps, that ritual can give you good emotional elevation, or that there’s something to be said for the feelings of community you get during worship. But it’s hypocritical, because if you don’t believe, or you don’t know certainty in your heart then it doesn’t make any sense and just feeds all these baleful and banal things about religion.

I write about that Elvis song, “Crying in the Chapel.” Boy, that just says it. The envy part has to do with people who can feel joy, feel peace, and feel uplifted. I would have welcomed, oddly, those kinds of emotions. But you can still feel good emotions if it comes organically out of your childhood as it did for me.

Larry David once did a whole bit about synagogue where he says: Oh God you’re great, you’re fantastic, you’re the highest, you’re the most supreme. That’s how it sounds sometimes, and I want to grapple with that. Why all that adoration? Because we’re afraid, as people have been since time immemorial. It’s not the only reason people make gods and higher beliefs, but it has a good deal to do with it: our helplessness. The fact that we’re waiting, the fact that we’re mortal, the fact that we die.

You spoke of your parents faith. They didn’t manage to pass it along precisely…

No, but they were believers to the end, as I said. My father was a very learned man, self-taught, very smart. My mother was a simpler soul, didn’t graduate high school, and was quite a contrast, their two minds. Sometimes I think I’m a blend of the two of them: a little of my dad’s smarts and wisdom and some of my mother’s simplicity too. They were fervent believers. They weren’t great practitioners of Judaism or anything along those lines, but they were people who never doubted for a moment that God was in their lives.

They were really good, decent people, loving people; and I think they were afraid, certainly, of violating what they thought were God’s wishes. My dad, when he became senile and elderly and helpless, said: Why am I being punished? What did I do? Why is God doing this to me? So that kind of understanding, as I said, permeated their lives and was what they wanted to pass on to their children. God will punish you if you’re bad. God will reward you if you’re good.

So I broke of course. How could somebody who’s reading Nietzsche, Darwin, and all the rest not break away from that? And I felt guilty about it. Not only guilty because I so wanted to believe in God, and I thought if you are breaking away from this you’re gonna get punished by him. You’re going to lose favor with Him (it’s always He!); He’s not going to love you as much; He’s not going to shine his countenance upon you and give you peace, and all that.

So it was a gradual process, that took place with breaking away from what I was anchored in, and trying to find my own code. But it was a code that was birthed from parents who were strong believers in a higher set of ways of living your life.

And that’s what they bequeathed to me. So precious.

Do you think that some people are just better at religion than others? Christopher Isherwood talks about the idea of the “religious genius.” Do you think that’s possible?

Why not? It makes sense. I think Isherwood always talked a lot of sense. You have genius with music, art, sports. Why not genius with religion? At one point I found myself talking about the fact that three men who have been tremendously admired in the 20th century would not have been what they were without their faith: Gandhi, MLK, Malcolm X—and they were all in a different way a kind of religious genius.

I’m sure people are going to say, reading about your intense focus on questions about God, that you seem to be coming closer and closer to…

Finding some enlightenment? Or faith? I’ve been open to it my whole life. And I remain open to it. I thought going to Israel, land of my ancestors and all that (if they were my ancestors!), I thought would this bring about some kind of experience. And there was one moment when I was at the Wailing Wall and out of nowhere I saw a man walking with a child, holding his hand—both had a kippah on—and all of a sudden I had this feeling in me of wanting a son. Where the hell did that come from? I’m a good feminist, always been happy with daughters; but it was a moment out of nowhere, a quasi-mystical moment.

Later, I realized what it was from. My father would say to me as a boy: you will say my kaddish. That’s what it’s all about, the patrilinear: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the whole sense of mortality, and not having someone to say my kaddish (because when I was a boy, girls couldn’t say the prayer).

And I found in looking back at when my children were born, and out of nowhere praying that they would be okay—it was almost beyond my will. You could say it’s superstition, childhood beliefs coming back.

But you don’t know. You just don’t know.