The Language God Talks: On Science and Religion
Little, Brown and Company, 2010
183 pp., $23.99
The Language God Talks
What goes through your mind when you hear the name Herman Wouk? He's dead, isn't he? No, actually, he's not. If you are of my father's generation, you might be instantly transported to the scenario of The Caine Mutiny (book or movie or both). If you haunted used-book stores when they were still thick on the ground, you might recall the once-torrid paperback covers of Marjorie Morningstar (didn't Natalie Wood star in the film version?) and Youngblood Hawke. Or maybe you'll recall The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, late-career hits for Wouk as books, and even more popular as maxi-miniseries. If you are my age, you might easily ask Who is Herman Wouk? But you probably wouldn't hear "Herman Wouk" and think "science and religion."
Think again. A couple of months before his ninety-fifth birthday, a new book by Wouk showed up, The Language God Talks: On Science and Religion. The subtitle and the cosmic swirls of the dustjacket photo suggest that the book is about science. And it is, sort of. The Language God Talks is two parts memoir, one part NOVA episode, and one part theological and philosophical reflection—a scattered and sometimes frustrating book in which Wouk discusses his own religious journey and argues for the viability of faith in an ever-expanding universe.
Wouk sets the book up with an epigraph from Richard Feynman, the legendary theoretical physicist: "It doesn't seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe … 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." Apparently Feynman's quip, made off-handedly to a prying television commentator, has "long haunted" Wouk, and he writes that, while neither of his books on Judaism can counter Feynman's statement, "I believe it's possible to disagree, and that is the main theme of this book."
Wouk utilizes Feynman's theater metaphor for the structure of his book, and he sets out to give readers a tour of Feynman's "Big Stage" and "Drama," starting with the space race, moving to the astronomers who probed the size of the universe, and moving to quick discussions on the missing link, consciousness, and the development of language. On some levels, the tour is rather underwhelming, in part an effect of the author trying to cover too many topics too quickly. Readers might learn as much about astronomy, space exploration, and geology by perusing a few Wikipedia articles.
But because Wouk lived through most of the scientific developments of the 20th century—his age becomes apparent when he notes that he was ten when the Scopes monkey trial took place—he writes with a rare excitement, especially in his chapter on the space race. He remembers the craze induced by Sputnik. He was at Cape Canaveral for the launch of Apollo 11. He tried, over a lunch, to convince Neil Armstrong to write a book on the moon landing. Further, Wouk is able to convey the humanity of the scientists he chronicles: their intellects, virtues, and deep flaws. ("Neither a theologian nor a scientist," he allows, "I tell stories.") This is particularly true of Richard Feynman, who comes across as larger than life: "Feynman sported with Las Vegas showgirls, banged on bongo drums, picked locks at Los Alamos with boyish glee, and taught groundbreaking physics in comedy-store Brooklynese." The book may be worth reading for Wouk's portrait of Feynman alone.
Apparently the author and the physicist first met in the Sixties, when Wouk was researching the Manhattan Project for what was to become The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. They met again as summer fellows at the Aspen Institute. In The Language God Talks, Wouk says he only had three conversations with Feynman at Aspen, though clearly they were quite memorable. Wouk wrote in The Will to Live On, "My lunches and long walks with Feynman in Aspen remain a treasured memory. If time and chance allow me to write a memoir of my days, that will be an experience I will enjoy recounting." Among other things, The Language God Talks is that memoir. Wouk dedicates the book "To the memory of our fathers, Abraham Isaac Wouk and Melville Feynman, who emigrated from Minsk and gave us our lives in America."
Despite this common ancestry, Wouk and Feynman took very different paths. As Wouk chronicles his own religious upbringing, studying Talmud with his grandfather weekly, he also traces Feynman's refusal to have a Bar Mitzvah, his subsequent abandonment of Judaism, and his refusal to repeat the Kaddish at his father's interment. For Wouk, Feynman is emblematic of the diminished role of faith and tradition in the lives of modern Jews: "most Jewish Babies—in Israel, in America, in all the diaspora—are born today in the world view of Feynman." This is a subject that Wouk has tackled repeatedly. In 1959, he published This Is My God, a religious autobiography of sorts that served as primer on Orthodox Judaism at a time when many were falling away the tradition. Forty years later he wrote The Will to Live On, which urged secular Jews to return to Jewish traditions and texts. Whatever his disagreements with Feynman, Wouk writes of him with a mixture of sadness and hopefulness.