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What Would I Believe if I Didn't Believe Anything?

What Would I Believe If I Didn't Believe Anything? A Handbook for Spiritual Orphans
by Kent Ira Groff
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004
256 pages.
Reviewed by Edwin Beers

During an unbidden encounter with interior drought, the author asked himself “What would I believe if I didn’t believe anything?” Immediately three insights flashed into his mind. First, experiences of grace emanate from life in all its ordinariness. Second, “wonder happens” and takes us by surprise. Finally, the notion of transformative force in “mysterious hints of devastation and renewal in nature, in nations, and in my own life.” That three-fold awareness laid a new claim on his life. It was an awakening “like knowing something deeply, yet feeling less sure of external beliefs.”

His new well of truth raised a further question: “Then how shall we live?” Hildegard’s answer, “Live open to all,” is precisely Groff’s response. He writes for adherents of all living religions and those who “don’t care about the God-issue but often care about people.” His primary intention is to provide a “compass for all who have a gnawing spiritual homesickness but are not at home in religious institutions.”

In twenty-five concise, lively essays and fifty reflection exercises, Groff unfolds sequential responses to his revelatory observations. A trove of resources, ancient and contemporary, appeal to a company of searching companions who also long to “listen beneath the surface of life.” Journaling, meditation, and abundant suggestions for exploration through poetry, film, music, and art constitute resources, all of which lend themselves to group spiritual direction.

Paradox is a recurring theme. The Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, reminds us how garbage and flowers, not usually associated in our minds, actually require each other. Despite their beauty, flowers are always on their way to garbage. Hence, “wasted experiences if we meditate on them can be redeemed.” The great music and art of Bach and Van Gogh rose out of their painful lives, just as jazz was born out of violence and the civil rights movement.

Another gift Groff offers is his capacity to breathe fresh meaning into tired or brittle religious phrases. But occasionally he will develop an important concept requiring further illumination, only to abandon the reader’s interest in favor of an entirely new idea. The author has poured years of learning and wisdom from his journals into this book, which gives a sense of arriving at a sumptuous table to sample a generous spread of hors d’oeuvres but to never be served the main course.

Despite the author’s fine intention, my own soul was not fed by his book. Since Groff seems to have a younger audience in mind, it might be a generation gap. However, as Huston Smith, professor, author and philosopher has observed, “If what you’re looking for is water, better dig one well sixty feet deep than six wells ten feet deep.” Though the author asks us to probe beneath the surface, my thirst was not satiated. Often ruminating on a single idea was sufficient. One can’t fault the author’s passion to reach seekers, but to read the entire book in a short period may be counterproductive. At some point one begs release from the plethora of vignettes, pithy quotations, and literary references, to breathe into silence, a practice Groff suggests without instruction. The writer confesses to a short attention span. Perhaps that quality shapes this book’s intense, shifting, erratic style.

Edwin Beers, formerly United Church of Christ campus minister at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for twenty six years, also served parishes in Ohio and Wisconsin, USA, rural Venezuela, and the inner city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. Retreat leader and spiritual guide, he is the author of Contours of Prayer: Searching for Life at the Center.

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