It is a distinct honor when someone as lettered as Leon Wieseltier takes one on in public, as he does in “Dumbing Religion Down in the New York Times,” published October 24 in The New Republic. He does seem to have written this essay in one of his grumpier moods. He accused me of proselytizing for religion (or, to capture the tenor of the critique, of turning The New York Times into a Pentecostal tent revival, as one of my own readers, Jon Bialecki, pointed out). That’s not my understanding of the intent of my columns or of my work. I see myself as pointing out that an activity which makes many readers of The New York Times spit nails—or at least shake their heads in bafflement—has something to recommend it. I mostly ignore the politics because, while there is much to say about the political swing of many evangelicals, sharp writers like those who appear in The New Republic and The New York Times already say it well. But there is nothing inherently right-wing about evangelical religion and there are a lot of left-wing evangelicals to prove it. My goal, instead, is to follow the lead of one of the great founders of anthropology, Emile Durkheim, who said that we could not understand religion if we began with the premise that religion was founded on a lie. He did not mean that God was real (he was a devout atheist). He meant that if we wanted to understand why religion is so palpably important to so many people, we need not to begin with the assumption that they are idiots.
And the awkward thing—from the point of view of those embracing the “they are all idiots” explanation of faith—is that the evidence is pretty clear that many, many of those of faith are not idiots, and that something about what they are doing is good for them. Going to church every week adds almost as many years to your life as a daily workout on the treadmill. Being an evangelical gives you a happiness boost equivalent to moving from the bottom economic quartile to the top one (yes, happiness increases as you move up). Of course, these studies have their limits (the ones I am citing here appear in John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge’s God is Back, but there are plenty of others). But if they were about the value of, say, eating bananas, most readers would add bananas to the weekly grocery list while further work was being done. Surely it is worth trying to understand why faith might be helpful for the faithful.
The charming thing about Wieseltier’s incensed outrage—his essay opens by identifying the title of the column, “Why we talk in tongues,” and then asking “We?”—is that after I published that column on tongues, a number of Jews wrote to me, with thanks, to say that the column taught them that when they recited prayers in Hebrew without knowing the meaning of the words, they were, in effect, speaking in tongues and the column helped them to understand why this manner of prayer was powerful. One man wrote to his friends:
Like many of you with a Conservative or Reformed upbringing, I was taught to read and pronounce the Hebrew letters along with the various chants, but never understood what we were memorizing and repeating. Today, 67 years after my Bar Mitzvah, I can chant and recite from memory a litany of words that have absolutely no meaning. Today, when I hear these chants, it engenders a warm recollection of part of my youth and a verbal connection to a peoplehood with whom I feel a very close connection. From the article, that, for me, is talking in tongues.
Wieseltier himself writes chidingly that “God cannot accurately be captured in language.” That is the point. When those who use a sacred language whose words they do not understand—speaking in tongues, but also chanting or reciting prayers in Hebrew, Arabic or Avestan—those words connect them to a God beyond understanding, a God for whom their words fall short. Many of those who pray in tongues prefer to say that they are “praying in the spirit.” One woman in the American evangelical church I studied told me that when she prayed in the spirit, she felt that she joined an angelic chorus that, most of the time, she could not hear. A woman in Ghana explained that she preferred to pray in tongues because those words had not been sullied by ordinary humans. “I am not communicating with any man.” Praying in this way reminds people that the God they reach for is sacred.
Now, to be honest, did I—raised Unitarian in an orthodox Jewish neighborhood—once think that speaking in tongues was pretty odd? Of course. I grew up moved by the sound of ancient language, but when I first encountered tongues, it seemed like babble. Yet I also think that some of the things I do for my own well-being—running hamster-like on a treadmill while watching figure skating reruns—look pretty peculiar to others, too. That’s the anthropological point. We’re all pretty odd to each other, and at its heart, life is mystery.