Join the meaningful discussion of the book God: An Autobiography, As Told To A Philosopher by Jerry L. Martin.. Discover more about the book, history, humankind, spirituality, and God through the first of a continuous series of ambitious interviews with insightful guests.
Part one of host Scott Langdon interviewing Dr. Abigail Rosenthal, wife to Dr. Jerry L. Martin, author of God: An Autobiography, As Told To A Philosopher.
Dr. Abigail L. Rosenthal is Professor Emerita at Brooklyn College of The City University of New York. She is the author of Confessions of A Young Philosopher (forthcoming), Pulitzer Prize nominee, A Good Look at Evil, and Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column.
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Read God: An Autobiography, As Told To A Philosopher.
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Scott Langdon [00:00:17] This is God: An Autobiography, The Podcast. A dramatic adaptation and continuing discussion of the book God: An Autobiography, As Told To A Philosopher by Jerry L. Martin. He was a lifelong agnostic, but one day he had an occasion to pray. To his vast surprise, God answered- in words. Being a philosopher, he had a lot of questions, and God had a lot to tell him. Episode 51.
Scott Langdon [00:01:06] Hello and welcome to Episode 51 of God: An Autobiography, The Podcast. I'm your host, Scott Langdon. We return this week to our series of interviews with those of us on the creative team here at God: An Autobiography, The Podcast. For this episode, I sat down with Abigail Rosenthal, professor emerita of philosophy at Brooklyn College, author and Pulitzer Prize nominee for her book, A Good Look at Evil and the wife of Jerry Martin. In fact, if you've listened to the podcast from the beginning or read even the first chapter of the book, you already know how Jerry's love for Abigail is what set everything in motion to begin with. We talk about what her world was like when she first met Jerry, what she was working on in her professional life, and how her faith background presented specific challenges to her experience of Jerry's revelation. My initial plan was to have our interview take up only one episode, but our conversation was so fascinating to me that I couldn't find very much at all to leave aside. So, we'll have another two parter. Here is part one of my interview with Abigail. I hope you enjoy the episode. I'll see you next time.
Scott Langdon [00:02:31] Well, hello, Abigail Rosenthal. It's so good to see you and talk to you.
Abigail Rosenthal [00:02:35] Good to see you, Scott.
Scott Langdon [00:02:39] I've been fascinated with yours and Jerry's story since this began. You know, I came, as you remember, into your living room and sat with the two of you and told my story a little bit and heard your story. And we got to a place where we wanted to, you know, do some work together with Jerry's book. And when I read it, I was fascinated by the early chapters which talk about, you know, in some detail the effect that you had on Jerry and how that led him to pray, something he hadn't really done in a long time, if ever, really, in that way- just so full of gratitude to pray, and things kind of went from there. What I was always curious about was what was going on in your life when you first met Jerry? It talks about in the book how you met and what was the circumstances, what was going on with your life at the time?
Abigail Rosenthal [00:03:45] Well, I had just given up on personal life because there was a fight to save Brooklyn College's liberal arts curriculum. And I thought, I can prepare my courses and I can fight this fight, but I can't meet friends and I can't go to the museum, and I can't do what belongs to my personal life anymore. The end. But I can't die without fighting this fight. So, farewell, personal life. I thought that, you know, as it happened that would take care of that question. One always has to pay attention to personal life because if you're not happy, you'll be mean to other people. So, you have a kind of moral responsibility to try to be happy, but I felt there was a moral responsibility to the college I serve that trumped that other one, and that was that, and I was very one-pointed in trying to follow Jerry's long-distance instructions. Get this document, do this, don't do that, contact so-and-so, that's a really bad idea. I just wanted to be functional and so I wasn't paying attention to my personal feelings. I bracketed them, so to speak, and did not notice that I was actually falling in love. Other people, when I told them there's somebody in my life, would say, "Is it the man in Washington?" But that was news to nobody but me.
Scott Langdon [00:05:49] Right. Now, Jerry was working in Washington and was helping you guys' kind of from a distance, put this plan in place to help save part of the Brooklyn College that was kind of fading away. And during that time, he said that he fell in love with you over the phone, and as you mentioned, you were doing it as well. One thing he said to me one time while we were talking about you, he said, "Abigail talks the way Tolstoy writes." Which I thought was an amazing line to say. He said that what he was referring to, I think, was when you were talking on the phone and just the way you would be so careful with language and very you know, and he just loved the way you would describe things and talk about things. So, there's something about the voice that brought you two together. And when I think about the first thing God says to Jerry, when He says, "Listen," that there is something really powerful about this idea of talking on the phone and listening that you guys got together that way first. Do you think that that had a significance that you were so long distance and not personally in touch with each other?
Abigail Rosenthal [00:07:09] Yeah. I wasn't flirting. We were back-- for my money, the ideal relation between boys and girls was going on when I was ten and we all played together, and we didn't pay that much attention about boys and girls. We were just, you know, racing around and playing with this and that, and because we were in a combat, I like peaceful life and don't seek a fight, but sometimes it has what I call my name on it, and this was one nobody else was going to fight, and I was right there. So, this was a fight, and in a way, it brought back the sincerity of life before puberty. You know, where you're just who you are and whoever is more agile can win the race, but no hard feelings. It's not-- there's a kind of sexual ego that gets enmeshed with human relations while you're figuring out, can I be happy with this one? Can this or that work out? You know, we have the well, what's your sign? You know, what's your history? How horrible is it? And all that was out of play in a way. We were back to ground level, back to being ten years old, in my mind. I wasn't, at first, I had bracketed what is laughingly called personal life, and then I had bracketed boy/girl life, because we were just in a fight. And one of the advantages of a fight is that you can just bring to bear what you have, not seductively what you want to suggest that you have. Less for timber of voice, and Tolstoy, Jerry likes Tolstoy, a lot. Hmm. Hmm. Well, there are all kinds of things there that you probably have made a specialty, Scott, of studying this as an actor. What's the color of a person? What's the texture? You know, I should think if you were impersonating Hamlet or Lady Macbeth, that won't be necessarily what you do, but, you know, you would ask those particular questions and, in a way, they're deep identity questions. But I hadn't focused on that simply because I'm very permeable and scareable, but one thing I like about a fight is you bracket all those inconvenient personality traits because you're just functional. You’ve got to win this thing or know the reason why. So, for me, it was a pretty ideal way to meet another grown up of the male persuasion.
Scott Langdon [00:10:45] Mm hmm. Yeah. Now, when you got to the point where you found yourself in the park and Jerry's, you two are sitting there, I think you were either on your journal or reading something. And Jerry has this initial experience of seeing God and hearing God and a sort of visual experience that went along with it, which the book describes really interestingly, I thought. And he hears this voice, and then one of the first things he does is sort of turn like any of us would to whoever is around, and you are right there, and asks you, you know, "Did you hear that?" And you say, "No, I don't know what you mean," or whatever. And it goes on, you know, it goes on that he tells you what happens, and, here, you know, "I think I've heard God's voice." What did you think about that when he told you, did it seem to fit what you thought might happen with somebody like Jerry, or did it surprise you totally, and then what did you think about it?
Abigail Rosenthal [00:11:58] It feels so weird to tell you this, but I think, Scott, that I took it as natural. You know, that sounds Looney Tunes. How can you take such things? Well, in a couple of ways. First of all, I know Jerry wasn't lying, because he doesn't go in for puffery, for hype, for a lot of these, you know, competitive things that people use to survive and get more powerful than they otherwise would have been, use intimidation, but Jerry doesn't do that. It's probably he's deeply secure or something, but so in that way a communication from Jerry, "I've been talking to God," doesn't sound otherworldly. It sounds like, okay, you know, you were talking to your neighbor and now you've been talking to God because I knew he had been. And the other thing was, I guess he mentions this in the God book, I had been previously married, as many of us modern people of a certain stage of life can say, that hadn't been my ambition. Although, a lot of things hadn't been my ambition in that department, but that was one of them. I was formally married, divorced, and one of the things that I resolved after the marriage that failed was it cannot be based on two egos battling, you know, clashing by night, that will not make a marriage. It has got to have a component X, a spiritual component. And it's just that the recipe doesn't work anymore. It used to be the woman was baking and cooking and baby making and the man was doing what men do and everybody had a role. And so there wasn't that much time for the ego. You know, you by that time, it was time lights out. You know, the night fell and that was the end of the day. Now we have all these wonderful contraptions that liberate women, and you got two egos in the room. And so when Jerry had asked me to marry him and was not a believer, the thing I was thinking about was, can we go forward spiritually if I'm carrying that load for two? You know, will that work? It's not about the way I love him. It's about, can we do this? This is a, you know, this is a big deal- two continents are hooking up. You know, modern people who can mess up as well as, you know, deliver the goods safely. And so when Jerry told me he'd been talking to God, it was like a puzzle piece moving into place. Oh, then he's more himself. He's more whole. He's more the Jerry I love than he could have been before. So it seemed to me natural, in a funny way. And as for what that made of me, why should that be bad?
Scott Langdon [00:16:14] Mm hmm. Yeah. What was your-- what is your faith background when you got to that place? What were you bringing to you? What were you bringing to the table in terms of your faith and understanding of God?
Abigail Rosenthal [00:16:25] That's a nice and interesting question. I've been around the block several times. A lot of modern people have. I was raised kind of Jewish, but a little offbeat as my father had left the rabbinate. He was a deeply spiritual man, but he couldn't stand people. Those are not good qualifications for that particular job. My grandfather had been, on mother's side, an eminent rabbi who physically resembled God in the Sistine Chapel, you know, a white beard and thick. And my father, born in Louisville, Kentucky, would read to us from the King James, which is not that Jewish, but he thought it was closer to the Hebrew than all these revised modern additions. So I had an ease about being Jewish in those days, which didn't make it a question. Later, with the reversals of my life, kind of, I thought it more hygienic to be an atheist, but that didn't turn out so great because other gods get in there. Anyway, you know, you can't be without a god. It'll just be a bad one if you don't try to get in touch with the real one. And I tried a yoga group for a while with a real guru, but I saw it turn into a cult. And I could-- I had the means of recognizing what a cult is. So, I guess I had started to pray and have a relationship, but probably because there were situations in my life that I realized with all my philosophy and other sophisticated instruments were insoluble. I better get a little extra help here. So, I kind of got into a dialogic relation to God where I realized, you know, if you want to set up this friendship, you better be prompt with it. If you get any instructions, better do them now because you could lose this telephone connection. So, I had a pretty lively sense that God was real. And then being Jewish, I had a sense you can't escape being Jewish. It doesn't matter how spiritual you are, how much of a Christian you want to decide you'd rather be. Here, well, they'll nail you anyway, you're Jewish, you're nailed in history, you know, you are going to be Jewish. And so, I didn't want to be escapist, but I wasn't that acculturated in terms of Jewish observances, ritual, the ritual calendar and I was kind of Jewish in the head, so it was certainly a cultural contrast, Jerry being Southern, former Southern Baptist. But as it happens, I like country gospel.
Scott Langdon [00:20:24] Yeah.
Abigail Rosenthal [00:20:25] So, you know, I think I related to his parents easier than he did.
Scott Langdon [00:20:32] Right. What is it? What is it you like about country gospel?
Abigail Rosenthal [00:20:38] Oh, it makes the Bible real. You know, if God says build an arc, it won't be just another rainy day. You know, those kinds of lines. Or the line for Daniel, the Lions made him welcome in their home because they saw that he was nothing but backbone. I mean, that's the way I live the Bible. You know, I think it's real. I think those days are not over. So, that part of, you know, and with the King James, in certain respects, except for my being a target in the way a white southern male is not going to be, we were not incompatible culturally.
Scott Langdon [00:21:54] Thank you for listening. To God: An Autobiography, The Podcast. Subscribe for free today wherever you listen to your podcasts and hear a new episode every week. You can hear the complete dramatic adaptation of God: An Autobiography, As Told To A Philosopher by Jerry L. Martin, by beginning with episode one of our podcast and listening through its conclusion with Episode 44. You can read the original true story in the book from which this podcast is adapted. God: An Autobiography, As Told To A Philosopher, available now at Amazon.com, and always at godanautobiography.com. Pick up your own copy today.