What do Americans, as a people, believe in? What are the experiences that have transformed their lives? How does faith—in God, in human goodness, in politics, progress, money, or pleasure—illuminate our actions?
These are the questions that Phillip L. Berman asked when he set off on a four-year, 35,000-mile odyssey to chronicle America’s moral imagination. By the time he was through, he had spoken to some five hundred people from all walks of life. What they told him makes this engrossing and radiantly insightful book the first oral history of the religious and philosophical beliefs of contemporary Americans.
Vividly compelling in the extraordinary variety of its many voices, The Search for Meaning offers a full-scale portrait of the moral state of the union.
“Fascinating characters . . . colorful interviews . . . one of the most inspiring of its genre.”—San Francisco Chronicle
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About the Author
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This is a book of stories by Americans from nearly every walk of life who told me about their lives and the meaning they found within them. Most of these accounts are highly personal and confessional by nature, and each addresses the ultimate question of philosophy and religion: How should I live my life?
Many of the men and women I met with concluded (although often with great reluctance) that we are less the arbiter of our own destiny than self-help gurus would have us believe. Our destinies, in other words, are as much the product of caprice as they are of planning. Just when we feel “in control” of our lives the universe has a nasty habit of unfolding in a most inscrutable manner, stepping in either to bless us or bedevil us with some significant and totally unexpected event. How we deal with these pivotal events, and the lessons we draw from them, invariably alters our beliefs—and therefore also our lives.
The pivotal event that altered my life and eventually led me to compile this book was my father’s death of colon cancer during my senior year of high school in 1974. In the six-month period during which I watched my father wither I was forced to accept the reality of death. But at seventeen, ready to embark on a life of my own, an acceptance of death was hardly enough. I was convinced that a career decision would have to be postponed until I answered to my satisfaction the same question I posed to those who appear in this book.
Initially, I felt an unsettling urgency for answers. But as I worked my way through college, majoring in philosophy and comparative religions, urgency gradually gave way to a growing, quiet joy in the study of life’s mysteries. By discarding the notion that I needed to be certain about what I believed, I decided that William James’s advice to “steer safely between the opposite dangers of believing too little or of believing too much” was the best and most difficult advice to follow. It wasn’t long before I realized that the meaning of life might well be found in the search for meaning itself.
Part of my own search took me to the Harvard Divinity School in 1980, where my classmates jokingly referred to me as “The Jew studying Buddhism at a Divinity School.” My graduate studies in comparative religion were pleasurable enough, but the minutiae of academic research soon left me dry and empty. An activist by temperament, it wasn’t long before I yearned to leave those dusty libraries and musty theologies behind. Aware that it was possible to get “all A’s and flunk ordinary living,” as Walker Percy so keenly put it, I impatiently awaited the day when I could do a bit of learning in the “real world.” In the back of my mind a dream gestated that I might one day travel America and learn from the stories of, as Oklahoman Fred Means puts it here, “ordinary people like you and me who, by dint of sheer effort, awake in the morning and go to their work, and do it and come home to their families.”
Some four years after completing my studies, on February 1, 1986, I would get my chance. Armed with a contract from my publisher, I packed my car with the essentials for a long journey, added a camera, a couple of tape recorders and dozens of blank cassettes, and headed out from my home in Santa Barbara, California. Over the next three-and-a-half years I would log more than 35,000 miles and visit twenty-two states, zigzagging across the country in an effort to chronicle the diversity of the American moral imagination.
In compiling these interviews I did not intend to provide a social-scientific study of American beliefs with a “4 percent margin for error.” Instead I sought to produce, a challenging, inspiring, and by turns alarming chronicle of the diversity of our moral and spiritual beliefs. In other words, I set out not so much to undertake a study, but to provide a tool for study. By presenting my readers with an opportunity to peer into the spirit of America, I hoped to provide them with an opportunity to peer into themselves.
Since this is a book about American moral and spiritual beliefs, it is, largely speaking, a book about American religion. Yet it does include a significant number of interviews with men and women who are decidedly nonreligious or even irreligious. I chose to include these not only because I know it is possible to live a meaningful life without a specific religious affiliation, but because I realize (as much, I’m afraid, from observing myself as others) that our professions of belief, however lofty, often exert little influence on our day-to-day lives. We have all met the churchgoing Christian who professes to love Jesus but is full of hate, just as we have met the warm and compassionate atheist. I therefore felt it important to present a sizable sampling of beliefs between the covers of this book, from the passionate, reverence-filled confessions of undoubting believers to the reserved, cautious deliveries of intellectual skeptics. You will even find a nihilist here, Los Angeles performance artist Elisha Shapiro, who believes “there isn’t any significance to life, none whatsoever.”
Still, whether we call ourselves nihilist or theist, mystic or hedonist, we each must contend with the primary task all theologians face, which is to determine how we ought to live on this tiny planet in this immense and incomprehensible universe. And while it is fashionable in our “postmodern world” to deride those who hope to ferret some meaning from the mystery of being human, no one can deny that mystery. We arrive here, after all, with few clues as to where we came from, and with even fewer clues as to where we are headed. Here on earth, between time and eternity, ours is but a fleeting little stopover, the only certainty before us being death. It therefore matters little whether we claim to be religious or nonreligious. What matters, I believe, is the extent to which we have reflected upon our lives and acted upon the fruits of those reflections with sincerity, commitment, and courage. The meaning of our lives will be found in our efforts to grow.
Somewhere along the way it occurred to me that this book, dealing with religious and philosophical issues as it does, focuses directly on what may be the last taboo of American life. For what you will find discussed within these pages is seldom a topic of conversation at the typical American dinner party, or even in intimate talks among friends, where people focus more often upon work, family problems, and the political and economic issues of the day. Discussions about personal moral and spiritual beliefs are seldom encouraged. And if you bring them up, you run the risk of offending your hosts.
This American aversion to spiritual and existential matters can be traced, in part, to our nineteenth-century heritage of pragmatism. We are, after all, a practical people. We want answers, not problems. And I think we realize, if perhaps only subconsciously, that when dealing with moral and spiritual matters we do deal with mysteries—the insolubility of which we find deeply discomforting. Much of what we call American life is about this discomfort, and the manifold ways we seek to deny it or avoid it. The problem is further magnified by the fact that our capital-driven society discourages reflection in order to encourage consumption. As Roger Walsh, a psychiatry professor I met in San Francisco, put it,
“ … you can see that basically our lives are, to a large extent, spent in avoiding a confrontation with ourselves. And then you can begin to make sense of the enormous amount of our culture’s daily activities, which attempt to distract us from ourselves, from deep reflection, from deep thinking, from existential confrontation. There’s a wonderful phrase by the philosopher Kierkegaard, “tranquilization by the trivial.” And I think American culture has mastered that better than any culture in history, simply because we have the wealth and means to do so.”
Our national antipathy to deep spiritual reflection can also be traced to the fact that our country was founded at a crucial turning point in history, when the Old World ideas of religion were forced to compete with the New World ideas of the Enlightenment and the scientific inquiry it encouraged. America is therefore unique among the countries of the developed world in that, as University of Chicago religion professor Martin Marty points out, we are “all-pervaded by religion,” and yet, at the same time, a “secular, nonreligious culture.” As such, we tend to remain sufficiently antireligious or “scientific” to do justice to our modern, pluralistic Enlightenment heritage. But we also tend to hold on to our belief in God (however infrequently we may think about the Diety) as an expression of fidelity to our Old World religious heritage. While some of us lean more toward the secular view, others lean more toward the religious. But the vast majority of us lie somewhere, uncomfortably, in between.