The National Catholic Review

One of the abiding mysteries in the Book of Psalms, a work that James Kugel, Starr Professor of Hebrew Literature emeritus at Harvard, has studied probably as fruitfully as any living person, is the sudden pivot in many of the so-called Psalms of Lamentation (or Complaints). Four-fifths of the way through, songs intensely devoted to bemoaning their authors’ dire straits abruptly shrug off their sackcloth and seem to proclaim, “Despite the fact that my bones are melting and my heart failing, I assert my faith in You.”

In his latest, most personal book, In the Valley of the Shadow, Kugel advances a proposal that solves that particular mystery, although it extends beyond the psalms: that rather than “Despite all that,” it is “because of all that”—because of the experience of helplessness, because of the “eerie proximity” to death illustrated in the Complaints—that we profess faith. Tragedy lies in the loss of that sense of helplessness.

This insight did not come cheap. Ten years ago, when he was 54, Kugel’s doctors diagnosed him with cancer (he never specifies what kind) and gave him two years, perhaps five, to live. Obviously, he has beaten the odds—the doctors now say he is cancer-free. (In the years since, in fact, he produced his magnificent and provocative How to Read the Bible.) But during his illness and grueling treatment, he inhabited the place where, as he puts it, the background music suddenly stopped —that is, “the music of daily life…of infinite time and possibilities…now suddenly…replaced by nothing.”

Most people lucky enough to experience that state and survive would hurry to forget it. Kugel does not chase the memories, but he regards the fact that “they keep following me around” as a “privileged insight.” For him, the eerie proximity, the sense of his life as a “compact, little thing,” of having a “semi-permeable soul,” of inhabiting “a stark world”—the book is poetic, as obsessed with naming and renaming the condition as analyzing it—is both the door to faith at its elemental level and the reason moderns find it increasingly hard to enter.

For if Kugel’s subject is the “small” state of mind, his goad was his hospital-bed reading on scientific explanations for religion and the New Atheist literature that cites them. In the Valley is Kugel’s own idiosyncratic volley in the God/no-God wars. He found himself both fascinated and exasperated by evolutionary biologists’ contention that religion is a “hyperactive agency detection device,” the reflex of attributing agency to every random ripple of the tall grass because back in the day, a saber-tooth tiger would often jump out. As big predators declined, goes the argument, the hypersensitivity to inexplicable phenomena lived on; and God or gods, the ultimate Agent, became the (erroneous) receptacle for all the corresponding emotion.

Kugel demurs. He concludes that however archaic our agency detection device may be, it remains valid regarding the one irreducible mystery of material life: death. Our error, really our calamity, which he tracks back as far as the early Middle Ages, is that as we have gradually subtracted phenomena from the inexplicable list we have come to think of our own role as progressively “bigger,” to the point where all agents outside of those huge selves have been crowded out, rendering faith incomprehensible. At which point death, the exception, becomes unbearably terrifying. Nor does Kugel think that moderns can recover our former sense of the cosmos: “There we hang, so big that we can barely see that which is real but…outside ourselves, and utterly unable to return to what was an earlier, truer sense of things.”

This is plausible but hardly conventionally uplifting, first, because one hates to feel this lost. And also because even if we could recover the old way of seeing, we would regain our reason to believe, but not (by this particular argument) any content for that belief. This is an occupational hazard of arguing God/no-God; but Kugel once wrote a book called On Being a Jew, so presumably there was some kind of faith ready when he needed it. He does not explore it here.

Offsetting the aridity of his destination, however, is the ride. Kugel has always worn his great erudition not just lightly but alluringly, and a memoir/polemic frees him as never before. He unveils a stream of perfectly framed illustrations, associations and digressions featuring everything from African witchcraft to the psalms (exemplifying art that expresses both death’s starkness and the only useful response) to Leonard Cohen to Wittgenstein to the ancient radio punch line “Was you dere, Charlie?” to the enduring puzzle of why we hit the elevator button when it clearly has already been pressed.

In the Valley of the Shadow’s other virtue is Kugel’s indelible insistence on his experience, in all its small, eerie particularity. At one point he compares himself to Tiresias, the mythical Greek who (involuntarily) shuttled back and forth from male to female and back again. This rendered him uniquely wise, but inquirers sometimes found his wisdom disquieting. In the admittedly vast American genre of near-death tales, it is hard to imagine another book simultaneously so tough-minded, so uncanny and yet, despite all, so enjoyable. Kugel’s last line is, “From way up here…I can see you all, floating.” What makes this unnerving is that he is still down here, writing. What makes us grateful is the same thing.

David Van Biema is writing a book on the history and cultural interpretation of the Psalms.