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SpiritSite.com interview with Niles Goldstein is copyright © 2000 by SpiritSite.com.

"If God is everywhere and can be found through everything, then God is certainly present in the muck and mire of this world."

Rabbi Niles Goldstein: Interview

Rabbi Niles Goldstein, founder of The New Shul in Greenwich Village, New York and a contributor to several internet web sites (including generationj.com) joined SpiritSite.com to discuss his new book, God at the Edge.

SpiritSite.com: Your latest book is titled God at the Edge. What is the "edge" that you refer to?

Niles Goldstein: A lot of what passes for spirituality is approached from a perspective that is comforting and clean Ė you have twelve steps for this, seven rules for that Ė and by calling the book God at the Edge, Iím suggesting that we can find God not only in a place of comfort and ease, but in a place of shadows and ambiguity. For me, the best word that seemed to capture that was "edge." Thereís a long tradition of men and women finding God in those kinds of contexts.

You yourself have spend a night in jail, traveled around with drug enforcement agents, and engaged in a number of other adventures detailed in your book. Do you think people need "frightening experiences" in order to find God?

No I donít. By "edge" I mean that place where the finite confronts the infinite, where the mortal collides with the eternal, and I think anything can really bring about those experiences. Going through the breakup of a relationship, dealing with the death of a loved one, going through a major life transition Ė I think any kind of an experience can bring about the phenomenon I am talking about. It doesnít have to be as traumatic as the ones I am attracted to. I happen to be an adrenaline junkie.

People often turn to God when they reach a point where they canít go on in their normal ways. Do you think that people who arenít interested in "pushing themselves" quite to that level can still find the experience of God?

I think you can. If you view the human condition itself as one of struggle and sometimes pain, then no matter how hard you try to avoid those experiences, you just canít. There was a wonderful book a few years back by Ernest Becker called The Denial of Death. We like to run away from difficult experiences, and the experience of death is perhaps the most difficult. But you canít run away from death. If we donít sit with the experiences that challenge and unsettle us, weíll find that in the end we really canít escape them. Itís in our interest to face them head-on and see what kind of wisdom they have to teach us.

In the conclusion to God at the Edge, you write, "God is as present in the darkness as in the light." Can you expand on this?

Thereís an old saying that, "there are no atheists in a foxhole." A lot of people use this phrase to denigrate those who have religious faith Ė saying that, like Freud, we have faith because of a desire for wish-fulfillment, or like Marx, religious faith is nothing more than a narcotic. But we can have a more expansive approach to what this phrase means. As Jesse Ventura says, it's not a question of whether we have weak or strong minds. Itís a question of whether we have open or closed minds. Sometimes it does take these terrifying experiences to open us up and allow the realm of the transcendent to enter into our soul. By saying, "God is as present in the darkness," I simply mean that if God is really God Ė if God is everywhere and can be found through everything Ė then God is certainly present in the muck and mire of this world.

When you meet someone who says, "I wish I could believe in God, but I just canít," what do you say to that person?

Often when people tell me that they donít believe in God, what I find out later is that itís not that they donít believe in God Ė these people are often very spiritual. Itís that they donít believe in a particular concept of God. I try to talk about the myriad different conceptions of divinity and try to figure out exactly what it is they donít believe in. I tell them very frankly that there are dozens of conceptions of God that I donít believe in. I try to offer them alternate conceptions that maybe they werenít even aware existed, within both mysticism and mainstream religion.

You have been very successful in reaching out to people through the internet Ė forming a "cybersynagogue," as youíve said. How does this differ from presiding over a traditional community?

Itís a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the internet allows you to reach a lot more people. There are blurred lines between clergy and laity which is good Ė people are not as intimidated about talking to me, and they can open up much more. Itís a much less threatening environment. But I think people mistake contact for communication. The internet can be a wonderful thing, but I always tell people it can only be a supplement for human interactions and not a replacement. If people treat it as a replacement rather than a supplement, then I think theyíre making a very serious mistake. In terms of education, there are tremendous benefits. In terms of liturgy, pastoral counseling, and all the things where face-to-face encounters are vital, I think itís a poor substitute. Although I think you can do some things.

Thank you for your time.  Best wishes for both the success of your new book, God at the Edge (read an excerpt), and all the other work youíre doing.

Thank you.

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