‘Faith, Interrupted: A Spiritual Journey’ by Eric Lax

“Faith,” wrote the theologian and Christian existentialist Paul Tillich, “is the state of being ultimately concerned.”

But does that concern express itself most authentically in certainties or questions?

Eric Lax’s “Faith, Interrupted: A Spiritual Journey” suggests that, sometimes, the answer is both -- though both may be unexpected. Lax is perhaps best known as Woody Allen’s discerning biographer, yet his eight previous books include not only intelligently empathetic works on actors and comedy but also lucid explorations of pivotal medical advances. He is a writer of gentle precision and clarity.

This book, as its title suggests, is a memoir of growing up as the son of an Episcopal priest -- a remarkable personality who is convincingly rendered in this unsentimental account -- as well as of an education that, for many years, conferred on Lax a reflexive religious affiliation.

It also provided him with the moral vocabulary that led him into service with the Peace Corps and an extended fight for conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War. Gradually, however, Lax came to realize that he no longer believed in the Creed he had recited since childhood and does not, in fact, believe in God.

In a publishing world that nowadays turns out conversion stories like penny dreadful’s, this alone would set “Faith, Interrupted” apart. But Lax makes an important contribution on a broader level.

Americans are the most religious people in the developed world; this is the only advanced country in which a majority still professes a belief in God. We are, however, turbulent and, in many respects, idiosyncratic about our faith. Nearly 50% of Americans will change religious affiliation over the course of their lives, many of them not just once. Among Protestants who leave the church of their birth and then remain religiously unaffiliated, more than seven out of 10 tell researchers they “just drifted away” from their original faith.

Lax’s story, in other words, is emblematic of a significant but heretofore unexplored phenomenon. He’s too fine a writer, though, to undertake that exploration on other than his own terms -- which may strike many readers as being rather like one of those Episcopal services in which he was once an acolyte: unpretentiously traditional, unfailingly tasteful and understated to the point of reticence.

In Lax’s case, there never appears to have been a crisis of faith, no sense of what that most poetic of Western spiritual masters, John of the Cross, called the “dark night of the soul.” Instead, what we have is a quiet account not so much of faith’s slow departure, but of a mature man’s growing autonomy.

As he moves further in space and time from his family and loses his altogether admirable parents, he also feels the faith they’ve bequeathed him -- which he once accepted without question or any particular passion -- falling away. Finally, nothing of it seems to be left but a deep layer of decency and a profound and kindly concern for others.

Neither, of course, are inconsiderable -- and the decoupling of such standards from conventional pieties is something about which we, as a society, could be more cognizant.

In that sense, “Faith, Interrupted” is a valuable, even instructive book. Where it may disappoint is in the subtitle. Despite various references to a friend’s devotion to Centering Prayer as taught by the Trappists Thomas Keating and Basil Pennington and even the Ignatian exercises, there’s very little spirituality in this “spiritual journey” -- and nothing of the author’s struggles, if any, in that regard.

These days, we Americans are not so much -- as we often appear to be -- a God-besotted people as we are a pietistic one, our communal life awash in the outward forms of religiosity but increasingly attenuated from its substance. In that context, there’s something salutary about “Faith, Interrupted” because it reminds us that, all around, lives of loving decency and real consequence are being lived by men and women whose stories involve a long journey out of God’s shadow and into another kind of light. Some of the very best among us were convinced unbelievers from the start. Theirs are the consolations of philosophy and nature’s laws.

Still, in one of his most famous admonitions, Augustine -- to whom Lax returns repeatedly in his memoir -- instructs his readers, “Verus philosophus est amator Dei.” (The truest philosopher is the lover of God.) The problem for many believers is how to keep love alive in the face of absence and utter silence.

In a corner of my own garden reserved for reflection, there’s a plaque engraved with one of the analects of Erasmus: “Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus aderit.” (Bidden or unbidden, God is present.) A visiting Irish Benedictine, his abbey’s former abbot, once cast a skeptical eye on it and mused, “That’s a rather grim sentiment . . . makes God sort of like the brother-in-law you can’t get out of the back bedroom.”

One of the greatest and darkest figures in the history of Western spirituality, the early 19th century Hasidic Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, drew thousands of adherents to his court, then suffered a crisis of faith and withdrew into seclusion for the last 20 years of his life.

He never spoke to his Hasidim again, but they stayed with him all the while. Before his death, he burned his voluminous writings. We know him now through his followers’ stories and those of his sayings they collected and published. This is one of them:

“Where is God to be found? In the place where He is given entry.”

Throughout this soberly intelligent, elegantly composed and open-hearted memoir, you can feel Lax’s hand on the door latch. “Life,” as Tillich wrote, “remains ambiguous as long as there is life.”