In the Valley of the Shadow

On the Foundations of Religious Belief

 
 
 
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In the Valley of the Shadow
On the Foundations of Religious Belief

James L. Kugel

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Ten years ago, I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, one that, the doctors said, would probably be fatal. After getting the diagnosis, I was, of course, disturbed and worried. But the main change in my state of mind was that (as I put it to myself at the time) the “background music” had suddenly stopped – the music of daily life that’s constantly going, the music of infinite time and possibilities. Now suddenly it was gone, replaced by nothing, just silence. There you are, one little person, sitting in the late summer sun, with only a few things left to do.

Despite the worry and uncertainty, I admit that I was intrigued by this new state of mind; I kept thinking about it, and especially the uncanny feeling of human smallness that came with it. There seemed to besomething overwhelmingly true about it – and its starkness reminded me of things I had come across in studying ancient religious texts from different traditions. I remember thinking that this was something I should really look into further – if I got the chance.

In the Valley of the Shadow is the result. I suppose I could best describe it as a study of a certain state of mind – that feeling of smallness, and the starkness that goes with it. How much can you say about a state of mind? But it soon led me to a lot of other things – to the Bible, Islam, cathedral architecture, “Man Stands Powerless Before Elevator,” ancient Mesopotamia, Amazing Grace, and quite a bit more. Ultimately what I tried to get at is what the book calls the “starting point of religious consciousness,” an ancient sense-of-self and a way of fitting into the world that are quite at odds with our usual one today.

Perhaps “quite at odds,” but not lost entirely. I do think most people will know the state of mind I’m talking about (since I think that almost everyone experiences it from time to time), and I hope that will help them to connect with the rest of what I wrote about.

An interviewer asked me a while ago if I thought this book will be of help to people who’ve been diagnosed with cancer. I said I hoped so, but probably not in the way people might think. It’s really not about turning to God in your hour of need. It’s more about the essence of religious faith and what it leads to.


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