THE LANGUAGE GOD TALKS: ON SCIENCE AND RELIGION
By Herman Wouk
Little, Brown, $23.99, 192 pages
The headiest questions anyone can ask, the questions that set human beings apart from animals, concern the place of humanity and its purpose in the universe. No other creature looks back to past generations and wonders about its origin, or tries to peer into the future and wonder what lies beyond the shores of this life. Is there a purpose to our lives, or are we simply going through the motions between the long years bounded by birth and death, between eternity and eternity? Does God exist? Can He be known?
Further, did modern science kill off the very ideas of God and humanity’s purpose, calling them mere myths from the childhood of the race - and if so, how should we live? Especially if, as Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman has claimed, “It doesn’t seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe, this tremendous range of time and space and different kinds of animals, and all the different planets, and all these atoms and all their motions, and so on, all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil - which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama” - a quotation that forms the touch-point of Herman Wouk’s latest essay on the nexus between faith and science, “The Language of God.”
Mr. Wouk, a nonagenarian novelist best known for “The Caine Mutiny” (1951), “The Winds of War” (1971) and “War and Remembrance” (1978), has thought long on these matters. An Orthodox Jew by birth and practice, haunted by the crimes against humanity that were practiced by the world’s most scientifically advanced nations during World War II, he has devoted two books to matters of faith and reason in the past, “This Is My God” (1959) and “The Will to Live On” (2000). “Across the years readers have let me know that those books have been engaging and useful, reward enough for such labors of love,” he writes in “The Language of God.” “Neither one really faces up however, to the stark challenge posed by Feynman’s commonsense prod, the stage is too big for the drama. Awareness of that prod has long haunted me, hence my start on this book.”
Did adoption of evolutionary theory as “the” scientific explanation of man’s origins settle this argument once and for all? Not at all. On this point, Mr. Wouk would find strong common cause with the orthodox Roman Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton, who in 1908 wrote, “If evolution simply means that a positive thing called an ape turned very slowly into a positive thing called a man, then it is stingless for the most orthodox; for a personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly, especially if, like the Christian [and the Jewish] God, he were outside time.”
Mr. Wouk has for many years remained fascinated by the relationship between God and what science has revealed about the nature of the universe and the strange race of creatures called homo sapiens. In “The Language God Talks,” which is part memoir and in large part a freewheeling, wide-ranging rumination upon some of the key figures in modern science, the Jewish faith and the mighty question posed in the Book of Job. Mr. Wouk takes up Mr. Feynman’s claim and considers it from every angle.
Many years ago, while Mr. Wouk was conducting research before writing the ambitious historical novel that became “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance,” he contacted Mr. Feynman, one of the fathers of the atomic bomb. How, the novelist asked, could he begin to understand the technological advances that had enabled the Allies to develop the superweapon to achieve victory in World War II? Mr. Feynman advised that he learn “the language of God,” calculus. Mr. Wouk gamely set out to do so, with limited success. Regardless of his ability to attain a sure grasp of that daunting discipline, his dual-novel treatment of World War II has earned a place in the most powerful brace of historical novels to describe the people and events of that conflict.
Throughout his years writing those novels and for many years afterward, Mr. Wouk was haunted by Mr. Feynman’s words about religion, which the novelist described as “a dithyrambic paean to Nature, a sort of ad-lib agnostic Psalm, excluding from his theater a Creator who watched us struggle with good and evil, as too ridiculously petty for the venue.” One of the high points of “The Language of God” that came out of this haunting appears near the end, in a lengthy conversation the two men hold on the subject of God and science, at the end of which they courteously agreed to disagree, calling a respectful truce. Each man comes away from that brisk back-and-forth with a renewed respect for the other.
Somewhat earlier in the book, Mr. Wouk creates a fine word picture, introducing the symbol of the “Ghost Light,” the single light that remains burning in a darkened theater when all other lights have been extinguished and all the actors and audience have gone home. In the absence of transcendent faith, what is the light that illuminates the lives of men and women? In words that form a fitting conclusion to his book, the author writes:
“For Feynman, the Ghost Light was nothing but his own piercing mind, the spark of Adam in his genius brain, contemplating creation and finding it glorious but senseless. It is a popular view, also the considered view of some, not all, advanced thinkers. As for the author of this causerie, I see a different Ghost Light, distinctly there but very far off and hard to make out. It is not a single brilliant light like Feynman’s intellect. It is an odd irregular flickering flame, like a tumbleweed or low bush that has caught fire. Each time I look, there it is, burning.”
In “The Language God Talks,” Herman Wouk has provided an entertaining and thought-provoking essay intended to both unsettle the complacent and plant a defiant flag of deathless belief.
James E. Person Jr. is the author of “Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow” (Cumberland House Books) and a longtime book reviewer.