Writer Adam Gopnik will speak about the state of spirituality at the Cardin Memorial Lecture.
Adam Gopnik believes there’s more than one way to rationally examine the world around us.
“People most often accept one truth about the world while also accepting a second,” says the award-winning author, essayist and staff writer for The New Yorker. “It doesn’t mean being a wishy-washy centrist. You can still be passionate and have genuine disagreements. But it means incorporating those passions and disagreements into a universe of people who are equally passionate and opinionated in other directions.”
On Nov. 1, Gopnik, 62, who has written for The New Yorker since 1986, will deliver the Jerome S. Cardin Memorial Lecture at Loyola University Maryland. The talk is titled, “Believing without Belief, Spirituality without Team Spirit: Thinking about Tolerance in the 21st Century.”
The annual lecture, established in 1986 by the Cardin family, examines topics pertinent to the Jewish and Christian traditions. Past speakers include the late writer Chaim Potok, political activist and philosopher Cornel West, author and editor Susannah Heschel, historian Taylor Branch and author Stephen Greenblatt.
A Philadelphia native who grew up in Montreal and now lives in New York City, Gopnik told Jmore that his talk will be about “reimagining liberalism and the struggle to reconcile liberal secularism with spirituality. I am a liberal before all else. Liberal, for me, is a positive, constructive, aggressive term that refers to a radical set of beliefs, including the belief that you can have genuine disagreement, passionate, profound disagreement within a broad fabric of tolerance.”
Dr. Mark W. Osteen, director of Loyola University Maryland’s Center for the Humanities, which hosts the Cardin lecture, says Gopnik’s subject matter is particularly relevant in the current political and social climate.
“This topic is extremely timely given the current divisiveness in our country,” he says. “Gopnik’s lecture will provide a lively forum for discussing the nature and limits of religious tolerance and belief.”
While his great-great-grandfather served as chief rabbi of Baghdad and his great-grandfather was Lisbon’s chief rabbi, Gopnik grew up exclusively culturally Jewish. His parents, Irwin and Myrna Gopnik, were “atheist academics,” he says, a result of which was that he and his siblings grew up “experiencing religion through literature and music — the Bach ‘Christmas Oratorio,’ Handel’s ‘Messiah,’ and medieval carols and classical Christian poetry, Donne, Blake, Hopkins and particularly W.H. Auden’s nativity poem, ‘For the Time Being.’”
Gopnik says his father, a professor at McGill University, “strongly rejected the religion of his fathers, the explicit Judaism that he had inherited. … [But] our Jewishness was visible through the marks of the eraser, which, in fact, were probably stronger than the original writing itself.”
If there’s something distinctive about the Judaism he grew up with, Gopnik says, it’s the argumentative tradition that developed over two millennia of debating the fine points of Torah and Talmud.
“[Jews] argue with God. We argue with each other,” he says. “We argue with the text. And I think that that’s a really rich way of thinking about the part of faith that has a significant overlap with the way we go about understanding the world.”
Just as argument and respect can coexist, Gopnik contends, so can such seemingly disparate subjects as science and religion.
“Anyone who’s committed to science is acutely aware of the limits of scientific explanation. Evolutionary biology, for example, is not an ideology that one believes in or doesn’t,” he charges in his essay, “The Evolution Catechism.” “What it demands is not belief but what science always demands, and that is the ability to evaluate the evidence and hear out the theory, and to poke holes in it if you can.”
On the public radio program and podcast “On Being,” Gopnik imagined Charles Darwin writing to his wife, Emma: “’I know what you believe, and I honor and love you for believing it. What I know for certain, or near certain [about the world], is the way the universe actually operates. And here’s why it shouldn’t be a threat to your feelings and shouldn’t be a threat to your beliefs.’”
In that same broadcast, Gopnik noted, “We constantly go back to the ethical systems and value systems that we’ve inherited, and we remake them. We interrogate them. We remake them to find values within them that give meaning to our lives and sense to our ‘generations,’ in the biblical sense. We may be, ultimately, in the universe on our own, but we are not on Earth newly born. We descend from long lines of people who’ve asked similar questions.
“Our ancestors acknowledged doubt while practicing faith,” he said, while people today “are drawn to faith while practicing doubt.”
The 2018 Jerome S. Cardin Memorial Lecture will be held on Nov. 1, at 6 p.m., at Loyola University Maryland’s McGuire Hall, the Andrew White Student Center, 4501 N. Charles St. The event is free and open to the public. For information, visit loyola.edu/join-us/cardin-lecture. Registration is required.
Jonathan Shorr is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.