Bob Abernethy ’49 *52 talks to people about faith and doubt

As host and executive editor of PBS’s Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, Bob Abernethy ’49 *52 has talked to hundreds of people over the last 10 years about their faith. Now Abernethy and William Bole, a religion writer, have edited some of those transcripts into a book: The Life of Meaning: Reflections on Faith, Doubt, and Repairing the World, published by Seven Stories Press in May. Represented are a range of voices, from retired Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu to Rachel Remen, a physician who examines the difference between healing and curing, and Thomas Lynch, a funeral director and poet who talks about the rites of death. Abernethy spoke with PAW’s Katherine Federici Greenwood.

Why do you like talking with people about the “big questions”?

So many of the people we talked to had this honest, clear sense that there was something more to reality than the material world and that this was something that they could ground their lives on. ... They don’t pretend that the world is all nice. They recognize the existence of suffering and disappointment and all that, and yet they see also joy and beauty and things like that. They live just as much in the world as any of the rest of us, but they also live in this spiritual dimension.

Which people resonated the most with you?

Rabbi Irving Greenberg is trying to figure out a theology after the Holocaust and an answer to what everybody sooner or later asks: How can an all-powerful God permit terrible things to happen? He wanted to develop a theology that could stand up to the presence of burning children. And then he went on to say that the way out of the dilemma was to imagine a God that was not all-powerful but who was particularly close to us in times of suffering. I also love Thomas Lynch, the poet and undertaker, for many reasons but partly because of his language. Among other things, he said, “Grief is the tax we pay on loving people,” and poetry and funerals pretty much try to do the same thing: They both try to find meaning in the unspeakable.

Many of the people seem to express their search for meaning and for answers to life’s big questions, instead of the answers themselves.

That’s right. One of the lessons is that there are a lot of ways to approach these questions and to approach the holy. I did an interview with Frederick Buechner [’47], a writer and ordained Presbyterian minister, that did not get into the book. He says, “Listen to your life.” What he means is that if you pay attention to what’s going on and what has gone on in the past, you perhaps will see places where God broke into what you were up to or appeared in some way. Another person who says much the same thing is Rachel Remen. She talks about suffering [with Crohn’s disease] and coming to feel that there was something spiritual growing inside of her. Although she didn’t get cured, she had become stronger and a more perceptive person as result of a lifetime with the disease.

The scientists in the book believe in God. Did you ever interview scientists who were not believers?

I’ve also interviewed atheists, and I’ve been impressed by the recent spate of books by atheists, such as Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Those books in turn challenge a lot of us to re-examine our own traditions and what we believe and why — that is, whether God exists, whether there’s any meaning, how you find it, and how you define it in your life. I think our book has in it things that people who are looking for answers to the atheists might find interesting. For example, I loved the line by Francis Collins [the medical doctor and chemist who directed the Human Genome Project of the National Institutes of Health] about what a double pleasure it was for him to preside over the process of unlocking the genetic code, a pleasure both as a scientist and as a religious believer, because he said he discovered something nobody else had known before but God.