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Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest
Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest
by Michael Krasny
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.57
111 used & new from $0.01

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Who is this good and decent person?, November 13, 2011
I have admired Michael Krasny as a teacher, talk-show host and a friend/mentor in my life for over thirty years, and when I began reading his latest autobiographical work, Spiritual Envy, I was pleased that our world views seemed so similar. However, having similar views is not the same as having exactly the same views, and what I want to comment upon here are the ways we are one or two millimeters apart and how that might matter.

Being a psychiatrist with a traditional, mostly psychodynamic bent, immediately, I found myself analyzing what Michael had to say about his experiences growing up. I wanted to know if Michael's evolving images of God would prove similar to the images in his mind of his mother and father. The short answer was, yes, they seemed to run parallel. However, more important, reading about his childhood, I saw the wealth of love and mirroring he received as a child growing up, especially from his mother.

Michael quotes his mother as saying: "God made no two people the same. Not even twins. And God gave you many blessings he did not give to others." He explains: "My supposed good looks and intelligence and winning personality, which a loving Jewish mother complimented and brightened at, were gifts handed to me at birth by God himself. Such notions sustained me like mother's milk."

When it came to his father, however, Michael experienced a good deal of doubt. "If he told me he loved me, he did so only on rare occasions, usually when I was being disciplined or if I became ill. He would say, `You know your father loves you.' It was never `I love you.' It was always, `Your father loves you.' I desperately wanted his attention. I wanted above all in life to know he cared about me and loved me. It was the same with God. I wanted to know he approved of me. I wanted to make both him and my earthly father proud. How could I be certain of God's love or my father's love? How much did my heavenly and earthly fathers even like me?"

Nothing radically tested Michael's childhood faith in the goodness of life, or his basic trust that the universe was just. Instead, it was Michael's self-confidence, fortified by "mother's milk," and his keen intellect that led him gradually to question all religious and philosophical dogma in favor of a belief system rooted in uncertainty.

While I admire Michael's open-mindedness and his even-handed treatment of all points of view, I have never felt comfortable calling myself, as he does, an agnostic. As far back as I can remember, I doubted there was a supernatural being who administered cosmic justice and listened to my prayers. On the other hand, whenever I have contemplated the enormity of the universe or the miracle of life itself, I have become overcome with awe and felt a deep respect for something larger than myself. Does this make me an atheist for what I don't believe, a gnostic for what I do believe, or an agnostic for being all over the map?

A feeling of wonder is important to me. Michael, on the other hand, laments that reading great literature and writing about his inner-most thoughts has brought him only "moments of illumination, but no real answers." He sees life as a journey that seeks ever more truth, however, lacking a sign from God, Michael suggests there's nothing a person can do but reserve judgment and simply "wait." He writes about science as a body of knowledge, but never about science as a way of knowing. It seems to me he has overlooked something important. Rather than surrendering to uncertainty and forever just "waiting," the "scientific method" offers an active, on-going process of exploration, discovery, and self-correction. Michael so much champions respect for all points of view that he risks taking no moral stand at all, whereas, it seems to me, that there are, in fact, moral principles and provisional truths such as the golden rule, which are true for most people, most of the time.

At times, I found myself questioning whether Michael's celebration of uncertainty and waiting might be a defense. As long as one never takes a stand, one can never be proven wrong and can never offend. At one point, he acknowledges this reticence to offend: "I had become, it seemed to me, too sensitive to the good opinion of others! I needed to think of all the great men and women, even the most revered and beloved, who stirred up enmity by fighting evil and doing what they believed was right, good, or true. Think of Thoreau and Gandhi. Raoul Wallenberg. Martin Luther King, Jr. Harriet Tubman. Rosa Parks. Margaret Singer. Hanah Senesh. Or of all the heroic men and women whose names are not known or written in our history books." And yet, never really does he respond to his own advice, stick out his neck, and make a point of taking religious, political or philosophical stands.

After mentioning dozens of celebrities or possible religious authorities he has met, or read about, or watched on TV, as well as describing the pros and cons of any number of possible philosophical positions taken by these personalities, Michael points out that none of them can be counted upon as verifiable and true. The more definitions of God or spirituality he offers, the less any one definition seems compelling. Michael's soul-searching and encyclopedic exploration of all sorts of psychic or religious experiences struck me as thorough and well-researched, but, in the final analysis, rather perfunctory and uninspired.

What about Albert Schweizer's writings about "Reverence for Life," I thought, or the Mary Midgley's work, "Beast and Man," that links human life to the larger web of life, reminding us that each moment of life is unique and extraordinary, or Gandhi's exemplary life and provocative statement that "God is Truth?" Michael rightly challenges simplistic definitions of God based upon Judeo-Christian personifications of the divine, but it felt like he kept returning to defend uncertainty as stubbornly as a true believer might defend God.

As I plunged deeper into the book, the more I wanted someone to challenge Michael the way he challenges his guests on the radio. I missed the feeling of excitement when two strong personalities enter into real dialogue, advancing and retreating, to get at or camouflage the truth. I wanted someone to aggressively hold Michael to the same high standard and not let him off the hook. What I missed, I came to realize, finally, was Michael interviewing himself.

Too often throughout the book, I felt he didn't want to risk alienating his Jewish mother or father, or the Jewish community of his childhood or perhaps even the world-wide Jewish community of today. He writes of his youth: "I remember the rejoicing when Israel became a state. A homeland for Jews at last after the Shoah, the massacres, the exterminations, the genocide. A homeland promised to the Jewish people by God himself..." In high school, he started to waver then felt afraid. The word "agnostic, like atheist, felt like a word I could not attach myself to for fear that God, if he did exist, would punish me." One option chosen by many Jews is a secular Jewish identity without a belief in God. He writes: "It seemed no accident that many Jews became ardent Zionists, socialists, communists, or feminists, as if they needed a surrogate, secular messianism to replace a more ineffable faith."

Is this what he chose? He jokes later: "Since my Jewish cultural identity had always been strong, my wife entertained the notion that I could perhaps one day cross the threshold into religious Judaism even though agnosticism had become an integral and unbending part of who I was." Clearly, some sort of religious or cultural longings appear never to have left him. While he questions a traditional belief in God, he never makes clear whether he has rejected the identity of a loyal, secular Jew or not.

Clearly, my own bias is to replace religious and tribal loyalty with something larger. I look around the world and see petty, ethnocentric thinking creating havoc almost everywhere on the planet. Shouldn't Michael distance himself from his Jewish roots and see the world exactly as I see it? Shouldn't everyone? As I chuckle at my own thinly-veiled ego- and ethno-centricity, I wonder, what would Michael say if he were interviewing me? Might he rightly point out the immense suffering heaped upon vulnerable, indigenous tribes throughout the ages, by larger, more powerful, majority populations advocating assimilation or extermination? Which attitude, someone might ask, is better for the greater good of humanity while protecting minority rights? Michael's restraint, anchored in uncertainty, or my own vision of one enlightened species with universal human rights?

What are Michael's views regarding Judaism and ethnocentric thinking, I found myself wondering, again and again. If a Christian called on the U.S. to purge itself of all other religions, would he count on me to stand up and speak out? Does he see the dangers? The answer is, yes. He writes: "If my code is not to dehumanize, not to strip other human beings of their humanity by demonizing them or objectifying them in a way that makes them the enemy, the heretic, the other, then I must be able to determine who, specifically, my enemy is, or if there is an enemy, and who is potentially in alliance with evil and may dehumanize or demonize me or others. This, alas, is another matter in which God, even if one believes in theodicy, provides no help."

In the last paragraph of Spiritual Envy, he says, "lighting candles in memory of one's parents... can't hurt. Neither can saying Kadish, the ritual prayer for the dead... God, after all, might be somewhere watching, for all we know, seeing the candle's flame, hearing the mourner's prayer." Is he, in truth, still open to such hope? Has his identity stayed loyal to Jewish family and friends? Am I, a non-Jew, equally welcome in his world? Who is the real Michael Krasny, I found myself asking over and over. A Jew, an agnostic, a teacher, a thinker? To whom and to what does he give his greatest allegiance, his respect, his heart?

Which brings me to a telling story: Once, many years ago, a beginning writer sent his manuscript to Michael unsolicited and Michael read it. He could have easily begged off, claiming he was too busy. He could have blown off the young writer with the attitude: I'm an important man doing important things. But he didn't. Still, today, I wonder why.

Someday, I would like nothing more than to sit down with Michael and interview each other, to push each other beyond our polite personas and our trite, automatic replies, and experience a few moments of genuine illumination about ourselves and each other. Will it happen? Probably not. Our worlds barely touch. In the meantime, I trust Michael knows that whether he is a closet believer, a shameless non-believer, or continues to count himself among the "undecided," he will forever, in my mind, be a good and generous man who has made an important difference in my life.

Democracy Is Not a Spectator Sport: The Ultimate Volunteer Handbook
Democracy Is Not a Spectator Sport: The Ultimate Volunteer Handbook
by Arthur Blaustein
Edition: Paperback
Price: $14.95
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Excellent Resource For Would-Be Volunteers, October 2, 2011
Arthur Blaustein's Democracy is Not a Spectator Sport: the Ultimate Volunteer Handbook, challenges Americans who have gotten soft or discouraged. He makes the case that current U.S. policies must significantly change to order to improve our struggling economy, correct the expanding gap between the rich and the poor, and return all Americans to meaningful work. Blaustein pulls no punches criticizing Reagan and the two Bush presidencies for tailoring their policies to reward corporate billionaires and to land us in the current financial mess. On the other hand, he praises Obama and virtually all past Democratic administrations for their consistent efforts to advance human rights, social justice, and to hold the rich accountable, in spite of GOP opposition.

Blaustein's book is much more, however, than a liberal diatribe against greed in America or a historical work praising the Democratic Party. Blaustein reminds us that many of the most important, historic changes in our lifetimes owe their success, not to government, but to grassroots movements. He writes: "When our leaders could not or did not act, the people did. The civil rights, antiwar, environmental justice, consumer, anti-apartheid, disabilities, gay and lesbian rights, anti-nuke, and anti-sweatshop movements - among others - are a few examples..."

To bring this point home, Blaustein showcases more than twenty volunteers who tell their individual stories. William Stacy Rhodes tells of growing up in a church that valued social justice, serving two years in the Peace Corps in Bolivia after being inspired by JFK, and in 2009 being appointed its chief. After losing her house as a teen in the Oakland fire, Sabrina Bornstein joined AmeriCorps-VISTA and worked for Habitat for Humanity, helping others rebuild their homes, and changing the direction of her life. Megan Voorhees volunteered her freshman year of college to teach ESL to migrant workers in Oregon, met Caesar Chavez, discovered the importance of service in every realm of her life, and today runs the Public Service Center at UC Berkeley where last year 6000 UC students volunteered at 270 organizations.

After inspiring the reader with stories such as these, Blaustein shows why the book is sub-titled the Ultimate Volunteer Handbook as he lists more than 150 pages of volunteer opportunities and up-to-date contact information. Divided into twenty sub-sections, the book describes a wide variety of available volunteer opportunities. He describes hard-to-get internships, like working for the Center for Arms Control and non-Proliferation, in Washington, D.C, as well as part-time volunteer work making calls from home for organizations like or the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. He describes jobs that require specialized medical or legal training, like Doctors Without Borders or the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, as well as dozens of hands-on opportunities available to everyone like Ameri-corps, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, Habitat for Humanity, or the Red Cross. There are organizations listed which we have all heard of like the Salvation Army or the League of Women Voters, faith-based organizations, women's organizations, child advocacy organizations, political organizations, as well as research and policy analysis organizations. The list also includes many organizations that I never knew existed, like DoSomething.Org, a teen-focused organization that encourages young people to get out and do, or Pro Vote which has registered many thousands of low income voters.

Repeatedly, Blaustein makes the point that when a person volunteers, everyone benefits. Those in need are helped, and yet there is a feeling of deep satisfaction experienced by the helper as well. It is this feeling of profound connection to other human beings that is neglected and virtually forgotten in today's materialistic world. Blaustein ends this inspirational resource with a list of fifty all-time works of fiction that could be used by a book discussion group to heighten people's consciousness about social problems.

As someone increasingly spoiled by quick access to the internet, the only suggestion I might make for future revisions is to include one or two indexes listing these volunteer opportunities, first, by subject, then, in alphabetical order for easier reference. In so many other ways, this book is invaluable.

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