Love Kindness. Do Justice. Change the World ... Right Now!
Love Kindness. Do Justice. Change the World ... Right Now!
Schooled as an attorney and professionally successful as a real estate developer, Jeffrey Small's real passion is religion. A graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School, he earned a master's degree in religious studies from Oriel College at Oxford University in England. He is active in the Episcopal Church, serves on the Board of Trustees at General Theological Seminary in New York, studied Yoga in India and practiced Buddhist meditation in Bhutan. He writes frequently for The Huffington Post. The Breath of Godis his first novel.
You've earned degrees from some highly prestigious universities, yet you're primarily working now as a speaker and writer on religious topics. Tell us a little more about what you do and why you chose your vocation.
My career has taken me down several paths. I began my professional life as an attorney before spending over a dozen years working as a real estate developer. Although I achieved professional success at a young age, I felt like something was missing. I yearned for greater intellectual stimulation and for a deeper connection to the spiritual side of my life. I also felt that the creative side to my brain wasn’t being utilized fully. I began to realize that there is a difference between success and significance. Success was about doing those things that brought me financial rewards and acclaim in the business community, but such rewards felt shallow. I set off then on my own spiritual journey—a journey that called me to put my professional career on hold and move to England while I obtained a Masters in Religious Studies from Oxford, a journey that led me to study yoga in India and practice meditation in Bhutan, and a journey that led me to publish my debut novel, The Breath of God.I’ve always enjoyed speaking and so sharing my adventures and the lessons I’ve discovered seemed to be a natural next step.
The Breath of Godis your first novel. What moved you to write about the themes of similarities among major world religions, and of finding the divine within oneself?
Too often, interfaith discourse degenerates into some version of “My faith is the true one and yours is false.” In certain Christian circles, we hear a lot of talk about who is saved and who isn’t, such that “being saved” has become a badge of membership in that particular group’s understanding of Christianity. I refer to this type of thinking as Country Club Christianity, with a select few proud members of the club looking down on outsiders who have different beliefs. In The Breath of God, I wanted to show the dangers of religious intolerance that can lead to discrimination and violence, but more importantly, I wanted to expose the reader to the deep and wonderful connections that interfaith dialogue can reveal.
One of the themes of the novel is the debate over where we find religious truth: is it in history, in scripture, in our religious leaders, or in each of our own personal experiences of that which is greater than we are? One of the characters, a Buddhist monk by the name of Kinley, explains to the protagonist Grant Matthews the ancient Chinese saying that “the finger pointing to the moon is not the moon.” Grant ultimately must decide whether what he has been searching for is merely another finger, another path pointing in the direction of the truth. Ultimate truth is not found outside but within, he learns, or to paraphrase Jesus, the kingdom of God is not above us but within us.
Progressive Christians are often known for a reluctance to engage the mystical aspects of faith. Do you think your novel will appeal to them?
When I began to study the various the eastern religious traditions, I was struck by how open these traditions were in contemplating the mystical: the creative power that is hidden from us in our everyday lives which is the essence of existence. Then when I returned to delve more deeply into my own Christian heritage, I began to discover the rich mystical history within my own tradition from early church figures like Evagrius Pontus (345-399), Meister Eckhart (1260-1327) in the Middle Ages, to modern-day mystics like Fr. Richard Rohr. To me, religion without the mystical element loses the essence of what makes it religion, and it becomes merely philosophy or ethics. William James wrote that religion has “its root and center in mystical states of consciousness.” I hope my novel appeals to readers regardless of their religious backgrounds or beliefs. I try hard not to preach in the book, but instead try to expose the reader to thought provoking ideas from each of the great world religions that they may not be as familiar with. Ultimately the book isn’t about doctrine at all, but about opening our minds to greater possibilities—to reach out and touch that which empowers us.
The novel vividly describes the pleasures and perils of the academic environment in striking detail. To what extent is your protagonist, Grant Matthews, a reflection of your own experiences in academia?
At heart, I’m an academic. I was very fortunate to have attended three of the world’s great universities—Harvard, Yale, and Oxford. I love the intellectual growth, exploration, and exchange of ideas that takes place in academia. At the same time, academia is not utopia. Politics, pettiness, egos, and money drive academic life just as they do in the business world. These conflicts also make for entertaining reading!
How did you research the personalities and environments of your evangelical characters? Who inspired the character of your antagonist, Rev. Brady?
I did a lot of background reading on various evangelical teachings in coming up with Brady’s character. All of the positions he takes—from the perils of yoga to the dangers of exposing oneself to other faiths—are ones that fundamentalist ministers speak about on a regular basis around our country. Having grown up in the American South, I was also exposed firsthand to a number of these individuals. But while I wanted Brady to be realistic, I didn’t want him to be a caricature. I wanted to make him more savvy than the average blow-dried preacher: a man who cares deeply but whose ego gets him into trouble. One day I thought to myself, “What if Bill Clinton had been a fundamentalist preacher? How interesting would that character be!” Brady became one of my favorite characters in the novel.
Why did you give the "villain," Timothy Huntley, such a physically repulsive feature as eczema? He certainly seems evil enough without it! Is his name a nod to that other homegrown terrorist, Timothy McVeigh?
Good pick-up on the name! In earlier drafts of the novel, Huntley was a member of a militia group, but my editor and I decided that he would be more powerful as a misguided soul who was struggling with his own demons. The eczema becomes a marker for the psychological torment he experiences. The more evil he becomes, the worse his skin condition itches. By the end of the novel, you may have noticed that his skin has become almost scaly – like a snake’s. When his front teeth are knocked out, he looks as if he has fangs, and I describe his fast strikes and iron grip as “python-like.” In other words, the symbolic imagery I use with Huntley is to turn him more serpent-like through the book. When the boy-monk Ummon mistakes him for the Devil, the satanic imagery comes full circle.
Your novel seems quite true-to-life in describing evangelicals' argument upholding Jesus as the unique revelation of God in human form. At the same time you touch on the argument against religious syncretism. How do you respond to these critiques?
In The Breath of God, I try to portray the fundamentalist argument as fairly as I can, rather than set up a straw man that doesn’t have any real substance. My response to the exclusivity claims made by fundamentalists is that a God that is truly infinite and ineffable would be experienced in different ways throughout history. In fact, we should be shocked if there weren’t different religions.
Imagine for a moment a prism. We can think of God as the pure white light (a common metaphor for the divine in all of the religions) before it enters the prism. Because we are finite creatures, we see the world through our own lenses of the culture, language, history, upbringing, and traditions of our times. Similarly, we see the divine light through this same prism. When we try to “see God” instead of seeing the white light, one of us might see blue, and another red, while someone else sees green. Each of these colors makes up part of the infinite spectrum that is white light. We might argue with each other over the correct understanding of the light. Red is not blue; blue is not green. The colors are different, even contradictory, yet they still make up the same white light. We see what we see through our own lens. Each of us is correct, but also incomplete.
To say that God has only appeared in one time in a brief moment in history also seems too limiting, making God finite. The proof for Jesus being the one and only Son of God is also not convincing to me when seen in the broader context of the history of older religious stories and myths. Take for example the myths that evolved around the life of the Buddha, who lived five centuries before Jesus:
A shimmering spirit appeared to his mother in a dream, tells her that she will give birth to a son who will change the world and then enters her womb. When the boy is born, wise men proclaim that the child will grow into a religious leader. As a young man, he retreats to the wilderness where he sits in deep contemplation until the devil appears to tempt him from his path. He resists the temptations and then begins a ministry in which his disciples give up their worldly possessions to follow him. He heals the sick, some proclaim him to be a god, and on his death, his followers believe that he will return again.
Aside from the sheer enjoyment of a suspense novel, what do you hope your readers will take away from their reading of The Breath of God?
First, The Breath of Godis a work of fiction, a suspense novel even! So my first job is to entertain the reader. I hope I have done that. But also, I hope that the reader comes away with an appreciation of the different worldviews we find in the East. My characters go on a journey that takes them from the American South to the exotic land of India and then through the dramatic Himalayan landscapes of Bhutan. The physical journey becomes a spiritual one for them as well as they explore the ancient teachings of the different traditions they encounter. I hope that my readers find something in this journey that sparks their own imaginations and that they might relate to the search for meaning and purpose in life that my characters go through and that I as the author have gone through as well.
From your perspective as an expert on world religions, do you hold out much hope that the common threads among the world's faiths will lead to mutual respect and cooperation, if not reconciliation?
For thousands of years, wars have been fought and people persecuted over religious beliefs. That being said, the same evils have been done in the name of power, money, and sex, too! Because of our nature as fallible humans, I question whether we will reach the utopia of eliminating religious conflict, anymore than we can eliminate conflict from the other areas of our social lives. One path toward lessening religious conflict, however, is through dialogue. We fear what we do not understand. One of the reasons I chose to write a novel rather than a non-fiction book on the common mystical traditions we find in the world religions is so I could reach a different audience who might not normally read such a book. I realize that not everyone finds the joy I do in reading ancient Greek philosophers, nineteenth-century German theologians, and the great sages from the Himalayas! I love the emails I receive almost daily from readers around the country who write to tell me that they were not only entertained by The Breath of Godbut that they learned something too!
Interfaith dialogue brings another benefit, in addition to a lessening of tensions between different religions, that I also hope reaches my readers. By exposing ourselves to new ideas, to descriptions of reality in traditional different from our own, maybe we can take our own beliefs and practices in new and exciting directions. Can we remain true to our particular faiths, while at the same time enlighten ourselves through applying lessons we learn from other religions?