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 two 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.
Related Content: Dear Abbie- The Non-Advice Podcast
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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 52.
Scott Langdon [00:01:11] Hello and welcome to Episode 52 of God: An Autobiography, The Podcast. I'm your host, Scott Langton. We continue this week with my interview with Abigail Rosenthal, Jerry Martin's wife. I asked Abigail about the specific challenges that Jerry's work brought to her spiritual life and how she embraced them as part of her own journey. We talk about what being Jewish means to her, how that specific challenge has shaped her worldview, and how she sees God moving forward. Here is part two of my interview with Abigail. I hope you enjoyed the episode. I'll see you next time.
Scott Langdon [00:02:08] There are a couple of times in the book when Jerry talks about, writes about how some particular things that he and God talk about trouble you and you find challenging. What do you think are some of the biggest challenges to you, to your spiritual life that came about as a result of this conversation with God that Jerry has had, and the subsequent book, and so forth?
Abigail Rosenthal [00:02:42] I guess there were two. One was- Oh, the Christians were right about Jesus, not about the Trinity, not about original sin, not about the crucifixion, expiating original sin. Those doctrines are not Jewish and they're not in the God book. So, I had no problem with that. But the Jesus was a unique, irreplaceable connector between God and the human race that the Christians, the Jesus movement was right about that, was a grief to me because in history the Jesus movement turned into something I don't think authorized by Jesus. But you know all the groundwork of contempt. Contempt is such a force, the contempt that the Christian world had rained down upon Jewish existence, it's despising the Jew, despising. And so, all these resistances marshaled in turn, you know, this tragic but maybe inevitable rift. And so, to think- oh, the basic point, what Jesus meant, they were right about. You know, the contests between cultures are partly about who's got the truth, and so that was a grief to me. Though, Jerry also said that I had a relationship with Jesus that was old, and close. And that has taken some time to manifest and does not seem incompatible with my position on that map of history at all. And Jesus did say he hangs out in synagogues more than I do. So, there was that, and then there's another thing. Jews exist on the timeline, and they make sacred history real. They've paid a terrible price for that fact, but it is a fact. And it occasions Cain and Abel responses from their Christian cousins. But part of living in history had been for me, the myth, that the whole thing lines up with a happy ending. There's an end to history. It's all going to work out. You know, Marxism holds that. All of the left holds that, the Christian right holds that, and Jews at least talk that way, when the Messiah comes, it's going to be okay. Oh, no, it's not. That's still difficult. What I find when I try to sort of empathically become congruent with that idea that we're involved in a partnership with God that does not include a happy ending, a denouement, a ribbon tying it all up forever. When I get congruent with that, I feel as if I'm a little more balanced and a little more in touch with the way things actually are, including me. But I don't find it easy to hit that note and hold it. You know, I kind of slide out of that and into some sense, that I think Christians entertain even more than Jews, of impatience with life here. When will we get a happy ending so that it will all work out. We're going to all be friends like the way I had friends when I was ten. It's going to be all over the planet that way. When? I'm impatient. Can't we get there? And then when I think we're in a more subtle and nuanced way, I think, "No, that's not actually how it goes. Everybody's got to work out their life problematic from where they stand. And that's got to take its own time. It's an unfinished business." So, I can slide in and out, that has been the most lasting difficulty. The rest, the Jesus thing, the book is not so un-Jewish as I thought. There are Jews, Martin Buber, lots of Jews, Rosenzweig, lots of Jews can get on quite well with Jesus.
Scott Langdon [00:08:34] Yeah.
Abigail Rosenthal [00:08:35] Not with his friends. Not with the people who claim to be his defender so well, but, you know, it's not that bad. A woman I greatly respect in Paris, disciple of Levinas, very persecuted as a Jewish intellectual in Paris, said, "Among the ones who have been best in standing by her were Christians who pray." So, you know, that's been also my experience, actually.
Scott Langdon [00:09:15] Christians who pray?
Abigail Rosenthal [00:09:17] Yeah.
Scott Langdon [00:09:17] Yeah.
Abigail Rosenthal [00:09:17] They can be people you can count on.
Scott Langdon [00:09:23] I found that the talk about Jesus, which happens actually sort of later on in the book. So, a lot of these things that you struggle with that you've just talked about you struggle with. Jerry mentioned some of that earlier on in the book, and then we talked about Jesus. Which I thought as somebody who is coming from a Christian faith background and one that started off more mainline theologically, then moving toward more of an Evangelical tradition, knowing Jesus in both of those arenas changed my relationship with Jesus. It changed my relationship, as I mentioned with Jerry when he was interviewing me, I always knew that I had a relationship with God. When I was an eight-year-old boy and was an acolyte or an altar boy in the Lutheran Church where we were in South Philadelphia, I just knew that God and I were inextricably connected. No one really had to tell me that. And at the same time, I knew that I was getting that notion through art. So, in the Lutheran tradition, especially when we were on the altar, there was this huge painting of Jesus, a baroque painting where Jesus has is, you know, he's in the Garden of Gethsemane and he has his hands to the side and he's, you know, he's white and he has blond or strawberry blond hair. Yeah. And I knew, of course, that Jesus had not sat for that painting, that that was, you know, even as a child. But there was something about that painting experiencing it, perhaps included, was the robe I'm wearing and the task I'm carrying out and just the nature of the place, I don't know what, but a combination of those things, maybe. I just knew that God and I were together. It just was a thing, and we were flowing. And then when I got into the Evangelical tradition and was told, you thought you were in a relationship with God, but you really weren't because you hadn't taken these steps. And so, okay, well, let's take those steps, and we did, and it didn't-- Nothing changed for me. We were baptized. Adult baptism is the thing. And my mom and dad were baptized. And then the next day I was, and my mom and I both expressed some time later, and we just talked about this recently again actually, that when we came up out of the water from the baptism and everybody was clapping and welcome to your relationship with God, now, neither one of us felt different and it scared us to death. Because we thought I'm supposed to feel this connection that I hadn't had now, and I don't. And that haunted me from then on, I felt like I was trying to find, okay, if this didn't do it, these steps didn't do it, there's got to be other steps that I missed. And so, I kept trying to find this way to get to a relationship with God that I already thought I had. Does that make sense?
Abigail Rosenthal [00:12:35] That you had. Oh, indeed.
Scott Langdon [00:12:36] Yeah. So, did you have any kind of transformative experience like that through the process of this, where you saw God and Jesus one way and then it changed into something new? I mean, you already talked about how Jesus is different now.
Abigail Rosenthal [00:12:55] Yeah, probably. I wish I had noticed. I've been too busy to keep the regular journal I normally would keep. Yeah, kind of recently. I didn't have anybody tell me I had the wrong relation to Jesus because my Jewish friends are not keen to hear I have any such relation, and my Christian friends are waiting for me to get saved, but there was something that was going on with me and it's just out of reach, and it's been happening this week. My relationship with Jesus had a barrier that was not imposed by any of the individual or types that I've mentioned, because I wasn't raised a Christian. So, nobody could tell me that I didn't have or had a relation with Jesus of the right kind, because, you know, he wasn't in the movie. He wasn't on the stage where I was standing and, you know, Christians who told me what was wrong with being Jewish in earlier years. I thought, you know, they're not even close. They don't know what they're talking about. So, external reports about Jesus and me didn't have much impact. The barrier had to do-- I didn't think the barrier was my fault or the fault of Jesus. It had to do with this horrible history. Holy cow. You know what a mess, what a misery, what a torment, what an affliction, what a dark story. And there are so many anecdotes, there are so many real cases of Jews taking up Jesus in the long history of Christendom and becoming betrayers. You know, inquisitors, people who could lead Christian authorities to where the Talmud was hidden so that it could be burnt. People who rigged up debates with rules disfavoring the Jewish participants who were compelled to join in the debate and knew exactly, you know, a betrayer knows exactly where the weak points are. Somebody from inside who then brings in the enemy. So, all that stood heavily between me and any friendship with the man who didn't necessarily have anything to do with any of that. But, you know, as things work out, these distortions, bad money drives out good. And, you know, I hadn't been anti-Christian. I hadn't thought that was a wrong development in the history of the world, but this kind of enmity, and its secular aftermaths as progressives take up their unique relation to Israel among all the nations on the planet. You know, you wake up in the morning and you really wish you could turn your brain off. So, I can't quite, I'm sorry, Scott, it'll come back to me, something happened this week so that I had the feeling that Jesus vaulted over this politics of religion barrier and got to be almost as close as once we were. I don't know, I can't quite pick it up. Was I doing something that was like what he was doing? I'm not sure. These are very, you know, sometimes the most consequential choices in life and perhaps in the life of culture are gossamer threads. Tiny. Tiny thread. You can come unraveled when a tiny thread is pulled, or you can come whole when a different tiny thread is pulled. I can't quite put my finger on which one it was. If I think of it, I’ll tell you later. But I know something's changed, and it feels the way a personal relation feels when there's a barrier that maybe isn't the fault of the participants, but suddenly it falls and you're comfortable and it's like you always were comfortable, but there was something in the way. And it's not about becoming a Christian. It's about this terrible rift being repaired. I feel the Jew has an unenviable part to play in history. So, it's not about getting to be in a more enviable position.
Scott Langdon [00:19:45] One of the great things about doing this work for me, and there's been a lot of surprises, a lot of unexpected joys and reflections and catharsis and remembering, and to spend a lot of time spent coming up with ways to do things that I hadn't thought about before in terms of making art. A lot of things started from the ground up. We kind of got through things together, coming up with ideas, and here we are a year and a half later and we finished the book with 44 episodes and now we're talking about it. All along the process, what was great for me was working as a team. So Jerry, and Laura Buck, who is just, I can't even put the words together for her, how valuable she has been to the project. And you- we are all on every email CC'd to one another. So we see all of the back and forths and this draft, in that draft. And every time I finish an episode before we post it, we listen to it and go back and forth with it. During the process of making all of those episodes, I noticed a change in myself through the process of it all. Did you notice any change in yourself, and or Jerry, and or even Laura through the course of making the podcast from us coming together to where we are now as a result of this process, do you feel different or changed?
Abigail Rosenthal [00:21:35] You know, it's a beautiful question. Sometimes, Scott, I wish we could go to another planet, just a time out where we could have an overview. I soon feel life has gotten increasingly dramatic and crowded, as if from edge to edge, and there aren't the empty spaces that I would crave from which to see the answers to such a question as you ask it, and I had never considered it before. I just loved, I loved the podcasts. The podcasts overcame a kind of personal distance. A lot of people have said to Jerry or implied, why you and not me? You know, does mom love you best?
Scott Langdon [00:22:50] Oh right.
Abigail Rosenthal [00:22:51] Needless questions. The real question is, never mind, religion, smidgen, am I sufficiently loved? And the answer is never. You know, we are never sufficiently loved. But I feel that people were present and you stood in for the person who says, why was I not in the Q&A with God? You were that person for everybody, because listening has no spatial distance. You know, it's right there, even visually, even if you saw God or Jesus or whoever you were allowed to see, there'd be some distance. But to hear, you are actually in the very experience that you hear. It's you hearing it, and when Jerry replicates the voice of God, he doesn't sound like Jerry, he sounds a lot like God would sound if God were audible. And so I think a lot of dense changes were taking place. I think in some way the process was so hard the work you were doing, Jerry was doing, it was huffing and puffing to keep up, and so I was very aware of that. But I think my spontaneous intuition is that the experience was a cheerful one for Jerry. I think there was a cheerfulness, you know, a kind of a zest, sort of a sense, well, this is really happening. This is happening. This is going on. This is re-presenting to people who wish they'd been there, the experience so that they are there, and that objection is no longer usable. You can be there if that's the problem.
Scott Langdon [00:25:19] Yeah.
Abigail Rosenthal [00:25:19] If you don't want to be there, that's a different situation. You know, Jerry is, they say, to estimate the spiritual worth of somebody and the validity of criticality of his experiences, you should look at the humble factor. Has he gotten a swelled head, does he think he's better than you and me? Jerry really passes the humble test. You know, he really is benevolently interested in people's having this connection that he was given for the sake of the world, you know, for the sake of a more general diffusion to God, who hasn't, as a colleague of mine said, retired and gone to Florida.
Scott Langdon [00:26:16] And how do you see God moving forward?
Abigail Rosenthal [00:26:22] Hey. Glad you asked. Ha! You've come to the right address. Yeah, well, the other day, God confided in me his plans to, hang in there, let me see if I can say anything else, I could do a joke. It's hard for me to trust God, and the Jewish experience isn't visual. You know, Raphael's School of Athens, I guess they're painters who've painted Dante's Circles of Heaven and purgatory, and things. It's auditory. So, you don't see. You don't see. You hear and you do, that's the covenantal process. I don't see. And half the time, I'm a very scared person. I'm just sorry! Serene faith, you know, if you're knocking on my door for that, you know, keep looking, because that's not what is on offer, that's not what we're having. I don't have serene faith much. I have scared faith and the struggle to trust, but it's a glorious adventure.
Scott Langdon [00:28:00] So you find joy in the adventure.
Abigail Rosenthal [00:28:03] Yeah. Where else? Its improvements are beside the point. The point is, we're here, and God's consenting to work with the clay were made of and form and shape the hours of our days and the weeks ahead and the prospects. You know, you look to the left and the right. The country is going to hell in a handbasket. The world is in a bigger handbasket. You don't want to know. You know, I'm the most uninformed person for one simple reason. Otherwise, I can't sleep. But there is this pass of what I'm supposed to do with God's help and such guidance as I can receive. Now, today, this hour, the next hour. And what could we do better? You know, what could we imagine, what do we want a trip to stay on the Riviera?
Scott Langdon [00:29:19] Hmm.
Abigail Rosenthal [00:29:19] Boring. Boring things that rich people do? You know, how better could we spend our time? I don't know, Scott. I don't know. But I have learned from this. There is God in the world. There isn't just what we read about in the papers. There are providential linings to our experience. You know, there are-- it's like a silk lining under the rough top of experience. It's going on while we are here and negotiating our way through the rough time. We're not allowed in a gnostic way to pretend life is as smooth paths, it's not smooth for any of us. You know, for me, my life is just ridiculous. You know, just, it's like, customized to keep me disconcerted. So, I am not one of your public figures who can say the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. I can think of lots of things to fear besides fear itself. Don't get me started. I can draw up a list, but God can use me as I, you know, with all the things I would like, improved, no, no, God can work with that. So I don't know a better story than the one we're in.
Scott Langdon [00:31:18] Yeah. Yeah, I agree 100%. Thank you so much for your time. It's been so wonderful to talk to you.
Abigail Rosenthal [00:31:26] Scott. You really are a genius at asking the right questions.
Scott Langdon [00:31:31] Thank you. That's very kind.
Abigail Rosenthal [00:31:35] To be continued, huh?
Scott Langdon [00:31:37] Yes, indeed, indeed. Thank you again. I appreciate it.
Abigail Rosenthal [00:31:40] Appreciate it. Bye, bye, now.
Scott Langdon [00:31:52] 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.