The biblical scholar James L. Kugel has written a new book on life in the shadow of death. Diagnosed with cancer ten years ago, Kugel doggedly finished The God of Old, a study of the religious experience (as Jack Miles put it) “before the time when God came to seem omniscient and omnipresent,” and only then did he set to work on In the Valley of the Shadow, published in February by the Free Press.
The diagnosis of cancer sent Kugel on a “quest for the foundations of religious belief,” writes Eve Levavi Feinstein at Jewish Ideas Daily. “While Kugel’s previous books focused on Jewish and Christian traditions, In the Valley of the Shadow deals with basic, universal questions and seeks answers wherever they may lie”—including in neuroscience and evolutionary biology.
Still, Kugel ends up preferring the God of old. Modern man now has, as Feinstein says in summarizing his views, “so much stronger a sense of power and agency,” which may explain “why true religious experience is so rare today.” Or, as Kugel himself says, “man is very big, and God is very far away.”
The God of the Hebrew Bible, whom Adam and Eve hear moving about the garden, with whom Abraham argues and Jacob wrestles, who permits Moses a glimpse of his backside, could be near at hand for the cancer patient, if somehow he cover recover the ancient belief. As Kugel says on the last page of The God of Old, written in the full awareness of his cancer, “[A]ncient Israel somehow came to believe that it is simply God’s nature to hear the victim’s cry, that despite all the evidence to the contrary and despite all common sense, this was, in Israel’s view, a realistic portrayal of God’s essential nature.”
How surprising to learn from Feinstein, then, that Kugel believes the “sickening question” asked by most cancer patients (How could this happen?) is not the right question. For Kugel the right question is some variation of Who said life is fair? On his own evidence, God said life is fair. It is modern man, a stranger to God’s closeness, who confidently rejects any notion of life’s fairness—until he is diagnosed with cancer.
For someone like myself, though, living for the past three-and-a-half years under the shadow of a Stage IV cancer diagnosis, neither question is right. Both of Kugel’s questions are “sickening.” The first is an expression of self-pity, which may be forgivable as an immediate reaction to overwhelming knowledge, but which shades over into denial the longer it is asked. The second question is a denial of another kind: it denies that there is any pity—any fairness—in the universe.
Both questions, it seems to me, are attempts to ask the meaning of cancer. But cancer is not a text to be interpreted or puzzling behavior to be understood in context. It is an organic process to which the human body reacts as an organism. This is why I am irritated when I am told to “fight” my cancer. Perhaps the drugs which are administered to me can be said to “fight” the cancer. At best I am ringside at the fight.
As an organism, I react to cancer in ways that I am unable to control. As a person, though, I respond to it—and not to an organic process, but to a human drama. My response is entirely within my control. I can elect self-pity or a universe without pity or take an altogether different stance. The right question, then, is How am I going to respond?
A diagnosis of cancer is a life-changing event, and the only question is what changes to make. In his new book, Kugel describes the change movingly:
From then on I decided that, if I could no longer think as well as I once did, I could still direct streams of thought over the objects I chose. If I could no longer roughhouse with my boys as roughly as I once did, I could still roughhouse with them. If I could no longer be married to my wife “forever,” as I once promised, I could still be married to her for as long or short a time as remained to me.
The error that so many commit, upon hearing a diagnosis of cancer, is this. Cancer is not the concluding sentence, but a revision in a work that remains unfinished.