Curious Obsessions in the History of Science and Spirituality – a book review by Jeffrey Cohen

January 19, 2021 by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen
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Rachael Kohn was for over a quarter of a century the religious voice at the Australian Broadcasting Commission, having retired from the ABC in 2018.

She was the producer and presenter of a number of programs including the Religion Report, The Ark and finally The Spirit of Things. I, like so many, still miss hearing her voice at the ABC.

This book was simultaneously published as Volume 7, Number 1, 2020 in the journal A Forum for Theology in the World and is presented as a Revised Edition.

Having been challenged by her first book The New Believers I looked forward to this one and was positively challenged in my reading of it. Personally, I would welcome a revised version of her first book as so much has changed in the nearly two decades since The New Believers appeared. There are hints of attaining this in the Forward where she touches on conspiracy theories around Covid-19 in particular. She mentions anti-vaxxers as well as anti-Semitism and other xenophobic arguments floating through our society. Members of Parliament who articulate that money for halal supervision goes to funding international terrorism could easily be conflated against kosher products [and many would believe that to be true given the recent decisions supporting Belgium’s ban on both kosher and halal slaughtering]. Living in a time when some of the world’s leadership asks us to trust them over what the sciences tell us does challenge how and where our world is going.

In reviewing this book, I have to admit a bias. My own field of research is Health and Spirituality. I can not only agree but second a comment Kohn makes early in this book that “whatever medicine recommends from the world of religious practice, it is usually subject to the rigorous rules of evidence.” For the past two centuries, Science and religious have at best tolerated each other but for many they have been mutually exclusive as if on different planets (if not solar systems).

If we were to believe much of the populist press, there is a struggle between science and religion. Kohn observes that “(o)ne of the great myths of the present is that religion always stands in the way of scientific progress. The truth is …. that some of the most intellectually adventurous minds to push forward the frontiers of knowledge were men of the cloth” and she presents the reader with a list of some of these persons. She then goes on to observe that “the swiftest way to discredit a public figure, especially a scientist, is to point out that he or she is a believing Christian”. Unfortunately, this is most evident in the Evolution- Creationism so-called debate. This has not been helped when the faith community has used its powers as they did with Giordano Bruno (by the Catholic Church) or Barukh Spinoza (by the Amsterdam Jewish Community) to silence divergent thought. We all know how the Vatican silenced its primary Astrologer, Copernicus when he articulated that the Sun and not the Earth was the centre of our galaxy. Today, it is the reverse where individuals of science including Nobel Prize winners feel the need to be silent rather than speak of their faith.

One thing that Kohn makes the reader aware of is how Catholic thinking of past centuries diverged from Jewish thinking- as especially reflected in Kabbalah. In fact, the church develops a similar system which it called cabala. Here I was reminded of the interesting book by Blech and Doliner {The Sistine Secret: Michelangelo’s Forbidden Message in the Heart of the Vatican} about the relationship between Kabbalah and the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling.

Some chapters may raise questions you had not thought about. Others offer answers for which the reader had thought about, often in passing. I am thinking about The Lost Tribes (of Israel). It is a question which has puzzled many thinkers over the centuries. She mentions one about which I had heard- the British being one of the lost tribes and known as British-Israelism which goes so far as to articulate that the British monarchy is descendants of King David. Kohn introduces for the average reader a side of Menashe Ben Israel which is not well known. Ben Israel is thought as the person who convinced Cromwell to (re)admit Jews to England. He had published a book where he argued that the indigenous population of America represented the lost tribes. Menashe had sent a copy of his book to Cromwell who was the Lord protector. Kohn also mentions the Israeli organisation searching the world, in particular Asia and Africa, for the lost tribe(s). She devoted much of the chapter to the various stories of North America, especially groups like the Church of Christ of Latter-Day Saints [known to most of us as the Mormons]. One issue she chose not to mention is the theory that the United States’ National Anthem where some scholars argue that the words reflect a value that the USA is not only the new Jerusalem but more so the new Promised land.

Given my involvement with the health and hospital worlds two chapters were of particular interest- The Spiritual Art of Medicine and When Religion Became Science. The latter chapter discusses with Christian Science, Seventh Day Adventism and Theosophy. For me, I felt that the fact that Science in general, and medicine in particular owes so much to Religion for centuries beforehand was missing. In fact, theology was once called the Queen of the Sciences. In the past millennium, it was the religious institutions where one went when one was sick and even the word hospital comes from the concept of hospice being a place of refuge when one was sick. She is correct that there are others who would argue that the only thing stopping the healing is a lack of faith. Recently, medicine has accepted that in addition to the biological model which concentrates on the curing model there are other aspects which bring about healing and they include psychology, sociology and indeed spiritual components.

I have two concerns about the book. The first might seem petty but I was surprised that the text used AD and BC rather than CE and BCE which is, in reality, more inclusive words for the 80% of the world which is not Christian. The other problem was that at, by the end of the book I was unsure exactly what the term Spirituality really meant to her. I could argue that Dr Kohn is in good company for even Jonathan Sacks was unclear about what he meant and on one occasion used faith, religion and spirituality in one sentence and the reader was unsure what he meant.

Overall, this is a great book. The writing style is easy to read- perhaps reflecting her quarter-century plus journey with the ABC where clarity together with conciseness was required to explain concepts in minutes where academics could take hours, days or even years. The words flow and it would be the rare person who after reading this book, had not expanded their knowledge and their horizons.

Author: Rachael Kohn

Publisher ATF, Adelaide, 2020

Jeffrey Cohen is associated with the School of Medicine (Sydney), University of Notre Dame Australia as well as on Staff at St. Vincent’s’ Private Hospital, Sydney. He has previously held academic appointments at UNSW Sydney and St Louis University. He was CEO of the Sydney Jewish Museum for 5 years.

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