PUTTING GOD SECOND
How to Save Religion From Itself
By Donniel Hartman
180 pp. Beacon, $24.95.
If religion is supposed to guard our best human virtues, why does it so often lead to war and injustice? Rabbi Hartman puts forward the radical notion that religion has an “autoimmune disease,” a critical flaw contained within it that leads to its misuse. (He sticks to Judaism here, but calls for similar self-criticisms within other traditions.) The disease’s two main symptoms are “God intoxication,” which overfocuses believers on the superficial worship of God, and “God manipulation,” which allows believers to justify pure self-interest in religious terms. Faith in God, Hartman argues, should not be excised from human life, it should be “treated and cured of its pathological side effects.” He attempts to do this by returning to the tradition’s texts, especially to one Talmudic saying of the Rabbi Hillel: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.”
Hartman argues that the true moral and ethical center of Judaism does not depend on a notion of God, but on an autonomous, universal moral consciousness that it is our job to interpret responsibly. Religion should be a “moral mentor, reminding, cajoling, exhorting and at times threatening its adherents to check their self-interest.” Though this book will necessarily appeal more to the “loyal opposition” within Judaism, Hartman’s courageous, meticulously supported argument deserves wider hearing.
A Search for Faith in a Violent Religious World
By Dennis Covington
212 pp. Little, Brown, $26.
Best known for “Salvation on Sand Mountain,” in which he embedded deeply with snake-handling preachers, Covington has always been drawn to danger and God. Now in his 60s, he decides to go to “places where religion bled,” where he can “write about faith as an action rather than just a set of beliefs.” He sets out for the site of ancient Antioch, in Turkey, following the movements of early Christians. But soon he can’t seem to stop making trips across the Turkish border into Syria. The horrific violence he witnesses at the beginning of the ISIS takeover draws him into the international humanitarian catastrophe. In taut, immersive chapters, Covington broadens this war story in time and place, back to his childhood during the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Ala.; his reporting in the El Salvadoran war; and his relationship with his severely disturbed older brother.