There are questions that have answers, questions that don’t have answers, and questions that just lead to more questions. In his new book, “A Theology for the Rest of Us,” local writer Arthur Yavelberg tackles all of these types of questions in the hope of providing religious insight in these uncertain times. That’s not to say the book aims to convince anyone of anything, but by examining ideas from various religions on topics such as free will, the identity of the creator, and why evil exists, Yavelberg provides a map of spiritual awareness.
Yavelberg, who worked as a professor of history and comparative religion, as well as director of the Hebrew Academy in Tucson, describes the book as “the sum total of his religious theological knowledge during his lifetime.” But for a book that brings together sources as diverse as the Bible, Buddhist teachings, Dostoevsky’s novels, the Qur’an, and even The Terminator, it boils down to 100 surprisingly easy-to-read pages.
As Yavelberg states in the book’s opening, “We may never reach absolute certainty, but we are reasonably confident that we can make enough progress to make a difference in our day-to-day lives.
When did you first get the idea of writing this and what research was involved?
I’m going to say it half a joke, I was probably about 10 when I started watching King of Kings with Jeffrey Hunter, which I believe was the first major Hollywood movie to have an actor in the role of Jesus, and Kung Fu with David Carradine. So even back then, I was interested in different religions and resilience in the face of different crises. I had no formal religious training, but… one thing led to another and I went to Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, and it was right across from Union Theological Seminary on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and I got revenge More interested. And over time, I became a history teacher, and every time I taught, I always accepted the job as if I was a member of the group I was teaching for. This book is therefore a formalization of things I had been thinking about since my childhood.
How has your time as a principal at Tucson Hebrew Academy influenced your writing of this book?
There are different types of Jewish schools. There are the Orthodox schools, there are the Solomon Schechter schools which are oriented towards conservatism, and there are also the reformed day schools. But Tucson Hebrew Academy is a community day school, which means it’s open to Jews of all faiths. Now, part of that is purely demographic, as there aren’t enough Jews of a particular sect in Tucson for every school. So as a community day school, which even has an admissions policy accepting non-Jewish students, it was very natural for me to be flexible respecting a number of different traditions and families. This had the advantage of allowing people to talk to each other and understand a sense of consensus and community … There is more open dialogue and the feeling that even though we don’t fully agree, at least we let us all understand that we are here with the best of intentions and can find something that may be doable for all of us. And I think that’s the spirit of the book.
In the book, you mention the concept of “brahmin” in Hinduism, which teaches that there is an ultimate underlying reality, and that all religions can be different paths to the same answer. Do you believe that all religions strive to achieve the same end goal?
I think so. The Jewish equivalent is Ein Sof, and in Christianity they speak of Christ consciousness, and in Taoism they speak of Tao. In other words, whatever identity is attached to divinity, there seems to be an underlying mystery. Obviously, there are fundamentalists in all religions who say that “our way is the only way”, and the monotheistic religions are probably the worst in this regard. But I think there is also the understanding that “our way is our way” and that the divine mystery is as it manifests itself differently in different cultures, and in a way that these cultures can understand.
The data shows increasing irreligion for each subsequent generation. Do you think it is because young people are less interested in these issues, or are increasingly frustrated with organized religion?
I saw a poll that said for the first time since statistics were held, less than 50% of the American population is affiliated with a traditional religion, but over 80% is interested in spirituality. So it’s not that they aren’t interested in religion, but formalized religion is deteriorating in terms of support. Personally, I think it’s because formalized traditional structures are more interested in preserving their authority and structures than responding to the needs of the individuals who pursue these things … The way it’s framed is still the same. : “How do we get people back to synagogues, churches and mosques? Invariably, the attitude shows that “we know what is right and good, and people are basically lazy and unwilling to do what needs to be done to accomplish the work of God.” But people don’t go to restaurants to be told what food to eat. They go to restaurants because they know what their appetites are and what food they like to eat. They can ask a waiter for a recommendation, but they are not told what their order will be. People may get outraged and say they know what is correct, but look at the numbers: people are voting with their feet… When Pompeii erupted in Italy there are stories of Roman soldiers who were at their posts and died engulfed in lava because they were so disciplined that not even a lava flow caused them to leave their posts. I think the religious authorities are doing the same. They stick to their ways and people find other sources to meet their spiritual needs.
For the book in general, is there a goal of convincing readers of anything?
Absolutely not. When I first presented the book to the publisher, they took out the cover and everything, but the title was Theology for the Rest of Us, and I said, “No, that’s ‘A’ Theology for the Rest of Us. In other words, this is just one of many possible ways of looking at theology. The purpose of the book is to get people to give themselves permission to reflect and question the things they have learned and to draw their own conclusions. People are skeptical these days because they feel the authorities are selling something, they want them to vote a certain way or join their group. The point of the book is that I don’t want anything, I want you to think for yourselves. People like me who haven’t had an epiphany have a lot of questions and can be a little embarrassed and intimidated to talk about them openly. But when we don’t talk about it openly, we don’t have the opportunity to share our experiences and questions. So I’m not preaching anything, I just want people to recognize that they have their own questions, that there are a number of answers, and that they should feel free to choose what resonates. As long as they reflect on the process, they are continuing their own spiritual journey. As the Buddha said, “Be lamps for yourselves.