A new book based on interviews from the PBS program "Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly" finds a spiritual hunger beneath the secular veneer of modern culture, with many searching for something beyond the material world.
"The Life of Meaning" (Seven Stories Press, $29.95, 448 pp.) was edited by the show's executive editor and host, Bob Abernethy, and longtime journalist William Bole. Essays in the book were drawn from interviews conducted by Abernethy, who founded the show 10 years ago after four decades as an NBC correspondent, and other Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly correspondents and producers. Bole has written for many publications, including The Washington Post and Commonweal magazine.
The insightful speakers featured in their book explore personal struggles with faith and doubt, individual reflections on suffering, personal experiences of God and thoughts on the ultimate meaning of existence.
Filled with ideas of people from scientists to writers, the book dismantles the myth that postmodern thinking offers little room for faith.
"A lot of people have this feeling that there is `Something More,"' said Abernethy. "They find their greatest meaning in life in attempting to be in touch with, in communication with, this `Something."'
Some call it God or a higher power; many give it no name at all. Some of the people in the book are religious, ranging from Hindus to Jews to Protestant Christians. Many have no formal faith affiliation, but might generally be described as spiritual or truth seekers.
Bole said he learned from both types, absorbing bits and pieces of their wisdom.
"The people in this collection, they are good noticers," he said. "Anne Lamott makes the point that just paying attention is about as spiritual as you can get. Anything that brings you into the now, the present moment, is a gift. ... My kids notice more things than I do. I'm an unreconstructed philosophy major. My mind wanders at church. Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of being mindful of everyday things like walking and breathing."
The book groups essays into such sections as "The Meaning Makers," "Evil and Suffering," "Prayer and Meditation" and "Paths Up the Mountain."
In the section on evil and suffering, historian and religion scholar Edward Linenthal explores the myriad memorials found at places such as the site of the Oklahoma City bombing and the site of the Sept. 11, 2001 crash of United Flight 93 in the rural serenity of Shanksville, Pa.
"We look for the sacred in lots of places now," Linenthal says in the book. "We consider ourselves a secularized culture. ... But I don't think there's been a secularization of consciousness at all. Everything - from our fascination with certain sacred sites or relics, with the apocalyptic, with that which is beyond the immediate, graspable, or material - says that the religious sensibilities in the culture are very, very, very strong."
No matter where they spring from, such sensibilities shape how we understand life and how we understand each other, Abernethy said.
"There's no preaching here. We don't attempt to say, this is how you find a life of meaning. We talk to these people. We listen to these people. They are insightful, eloquent. We just lay it out."
The book's essays feature all sorts of people, from famous rabbis Irving Greenberg and Harold Kushner to Buddhists such as the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh. It includes a veritable who's who of writers - Barbara Brown Taylor, Studs Terkel, Thomas Lynch, Phyllis Tickle, Rachel Remen, Martin Marty and others.
Some have likened the book to a feast or banquet, Abernethy said, but he takes the imagery farther.
"You are served at such an occasion. I think it would be a little more accurate to think of it in terms of a buffet, a smorgasbord. You can sample and choose from an enormous variety of perspectives."
(Cecile S. Holmes is the former religion editor at the Houston Chronicle and now teaches journalism at the University of South Carolina.)
© 2007 Religion News Service. All rights reserved.