An Interview with Daniel Spiro, author of The Creed Room: A Novel of Ideas
Daniel Spiro is a graduate of Stanford University, the Harvard Law School, and is a lifelong student of philosophy. He works as a Trial Attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice. When he is not busy with work, his family (a wife and two daughters), or his local synagogue, he writes novels. His first novel, The Creed Room, was published by the AEGIS PRESS in the summer of 2006.
Dan is eager to work with media outlets. His expertise in social, political, and philsophical topics will make him an eloquent and informed guest for talk radio.
What is The Creed Room?
It’s a novel for people who like to think about ideas. I expressed these ideas through many voices, and none is louder than Sam Kramer’s. Sam is a young Jewish high school social studies teacher. He’s totally devoted to helping his students love to think for themselves, and he’s willing to say shocking things if that’s what it takes to open their eyes. So even though he’s a great teacher, he’s an administrator’s worst nightmare. We live with Sam through his classroom tribulations, and through the ups and downs of his love life. It’s largely through his eyes that we come to understand the other characters in the book.
All the people who meet in the place known as the “creed room” are thoughtful and passionate about their beliefs. But that’s where their similarities end. Some are liberal, some are conservative. Some are devoted to God, and others are atheist. Yet they’re stuck with the job of reaching a consensus. That’s because when they answer an ad in the newspaper, they find themselves in a position where a mysterious “benefactor” with a hidden agenda pays them big bucks to create a new creed.
So the book is partly an indictment of our educational system, partly a love story, and partly an expression of a philosophy. There’s also an element of intrigue about what this “benefactor” was up to, and how the creed he commissioned was able to change the course of history.
How did you come to write this book?
I’d been writing essays for years, but as I was turning 40, I reached the point where I needed a bigger challenge. I wanted to express my philosophy of life, both in order to share my thoughts with other people and, frankly, to help think through my own ideas. I thought about writing a dry philosophy book, but that’s just not my personality. I wanted to create a book that would be fun to write, equally fun to read, and accessible to anyone who enjoys thinking about the big issues.
The idea of a “creed room” came to me because I’ve always enjoyed sharing thoughts with people who see the world totally differently than I do. In fact, those dialogues have done a lot to shape my views. I figured that the best way to express how I’ve come to my own beliefs is by creating a diverse group of characters who get into passionate discussions with each other and are somehow forced to hammer out a common philosophy. For example, one character expresses my heretical side, whereas another expresses why I’ve come to adopt a belief in God. And the same thing applies to my political views -- one character expresses my conservative thoughts, and others express my liberal ones.
So the book started as a way for me to explain my philosophy of life. But as I got into it, I became very attached to the characters, and I also realized how important the concept of a “creed room” could be to help us solve problems with our society.
What do you mean by “The Great Divide?”
It’s the Red State/Blue State divide. The simplest way to think of it is between secular, coastal liberals, on the one hand, and fundamentalist, midwestern conservatives on the other.
When I hear the term, I’m reminded of that cartoon that was all over the Internet after the recent Presidential election. It grouped the Blue States together as “The United States of Canada,” and grouped the Red States as “Jesus Land.” There really is a sense in America today, at least in American politics, that we’re becoming two separate countries. And that wouldn’t be such a big deal if these “countries” were able to get together and deal with problems like global warming or poverty. But that’s the tragedy: as long as we’re so divided, we’re not going to be able to mobilize the will and energy to accomplish any grand objective.
Strike that. We can always come together and fight a war. But I’m assuming there’s more to life than killing people. And I’d like, just once, to see us all fight a war where the winner doesn’t have to kill anyone.
In writing The Creed Room, you sought to write a philosophic novel. What is a philosophic novel and what is the difference between “a novel of ideas” and any other novel?
Let’s be clear that “philosophical” is the adjective and “novel” is the noun. Philosophical novels are, above all else, stories. Like any other storybook, if the readers aren’t interested in either the characters or the plot, they’ll probably not enjoy reading the book. But there’s a fundamental difference between a philosophical novel and other works of fiction. First, the author of this type of book is placing a major focus on the types of timeless questions that thinkers have grappled with over the centuries. Second, the authors don’t just touch on the questions superficially, but sink their teeth into them.
If you’re writing a novel, you don’t have the luxury of analyzing an issue to death, like you might if you wrote a non-fictional work of philosophy. But you also don’t confine your philosophizing to an occasional sentence or two. A novel of ideas takes some time to state arguments for or against a particular perspective. So the reader doesn’t have to simply intuit whether the author is on to something. The reader actually gets to see a bit of the author’s analysis and figure out if it makes sense.
What does “empathic rationalism” mean?
It’s a philosophy that I spent many, many pages explaining, and I hate to sum it up in just a few words. . . . But I’ll do it anyway.
At the core of Empathic Rationalism is the commitment to choose one’s beliefs and live one’s life by following the voice of reason wherever it leads – and that means never adopting a view that seems less reasonable than some other perspective simply because it makes us happy. In other words, Empathic Rationalists seek wisdom even more than their own happiness. Yet they value something else perhaps even more than wisdom, and that’s empathy. Empathic Rationalism stands for the proposition that empathy must be the rudder that steers our lives.
History teaches that without empathy, even the smartest, most intellectual minds can come up with some very ugly ideas and behavior. Empathic Rationalism is a philosophy that seeks a life of beauty, and there’s no soul more beautiful than an empathic one.
As a philosophically-minded Jew, what is your opinion about the ongoing conflict between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East?
I think things are going to get worse before they get better, but I refuse to look at the problems of the Middle East as unsolvable. I also refuse to see the problems solely from the standpoint of what’s good for the Jews.
Viscerally, I can’t help but care more about Israel’s welfare than that of any other Middle Eastern country. But I believe we’ll never have peace in that region until more Jews sympathize with the Arab perspective and more Arabs appreciate the perspective of the Hebrew people.
For example, I look forward to the day when Jews can accept that certain aspects of Zionism are anti-democratic, and I say that as both a democrat and a Zionist. What that tells me is that the land of Israel needs to relatively limited, because we can’t justify seizing too much land that belonged to another people.
Personally, I’d like us to adopt a new goal for Jerusalem: that someday in the distant future, it can be an international city that stands for peace among all the people of Abraham. That would make it a much holier place than merely giving it to one tribe that’s able to use military means to defeat another.
In some ways, your book hinges around a conspiracy plot. As a Washington D.C. insider, how much do conspiracies truly influence the way things work in this country?
I can best answer this question by thinking about the scams that I’ve investigated over the years. In my experience, if you’re talking about sleazy or criminal conduct on a large scale, it’s pretty rare that only one or two people are in on it. Few people have the guts to perpetrate a big scam all by themselves, and besides, that’s almost impossible to pull off logistically. But the number of conspirators can’t get too big. When enough people are actively involved in sleazy behavior, it gets harder and harder to keep the genie in the bottle. Besides, conspirators expect a payoff, and that can get really expensive very fast.
How feasible is it to put together a real “Creed Room?” Have you attempted such a project?
I haven’t taken the time to organize one of these groups, but I absolutely think the creed room idea can be replicated in the real world. Any diverse group of people who are interested in soul searching can pull it off, provided they have some time and energy. Of course, I can’t deny those commodities are in short supply these days. That’s a big problem we have as a society – we’re too busy to do any serious thinking.
By the way, what I’d really like to see is the formation of a creed room among Jews, Muslims, Christians and others from different countries. The results of their work would be fascinating.
What was the most difficult part of writing The Creed Room?
Coming up with a first chapter that I could live with. When you’re beginning a novel, you have to make people care about what happens to characters that they don’t yet know. That’s tough to do. I don’t think I ever felt that the first ten or fifteen pages were as compelling as a lot of the chapters that followed.
Another challenge was to figure out how to shape the character of the “Benefactor” who sponsored the creed room. There, I think I succeeded, but it took a while. In my early manuscripts, the Benefactor was a sweet guy without a hidden agenda. I definitely needed to make him more sinister.
One of the more memorable characters in your novel is a “Jewish mother” who in spite of her obvious love, often smothers her son. Did you have such a mother? Is there such a thing as a classic “Jewish mother?”
By anybody’s definition, my mother would count. She has so many of the classic characteristics that Jewish novelists and Borsht Belt comedians have loved to joke about over the years. I hardly need to list them all – the book makes them crystal clear.
I have to say, though, that my mom is a much cooler person than Sam’s mother. That lady would have driven me crazier than I already am. My mom has a great sense of humor and she usually can tell when she’s about to go overboard. Usually.
In a world with such varied peoples—with all their various philosophies and beliefs—how shall we ever manage to make compromise and to find peace? How can we get conservatives and liberals to talk reasonably? How can we get believers and atheists to speak respectfully to one another and find compromise?
Before we can find the antidote, we have to identify the poisons – like apathy and dogmatism. All people who care about the future of our species had better actively work for peace and justice. Otherwise, the wackos will form a critical mass and continue to wield all sorts of power. And it’s not enough to care about issues, we need to approach them with an open mind. People who are sure they know the truth are almost certainly the most ignorant, wouldn’t you say? Somehow, we have to figure out a way to get them to listen. The question is how?
I say we start by committing ourselves to what I call the dialogue. We have to seek out people who see the world from a different perspective. And we need to engage them respectfully and empathically. I got so sick of watching shows like Crossfire where people choose up sides and each side makes a strawman out of the other side’s position. I’m definitely a liberal, but what I love most about The Creed Room is when one of my friends reads the book and says “I didn’t know you were so conservative.” I’m not. I’m just a guy who’s trying to see all sides of an issue, and I want to help other people do the same thing. It’s really not hard to appreciate what other people are thinking and feeling. Like any psychologist will tell you, empathy with other people is a very natural and powerful force.
What is the most gratifying aspect of completing a novel like this?
Hearing from people who were touched by the book’s characters -- or its ideas.
Let’s face it, you write a book like this mostly because you feel the need to express your thoughts. Even if nobody ever reads it, you come to understand that it does wonders for yourself to get them out on paper. But when it’s all over, there’s nothing like finding out that some people connected with this imaginary world that you created. It makes you feel a lot less lonely.
As a writer, how have you been able to balance writing, family life, professional obligations, and other responsibilities?
It’s very difficult – there’s no question about it. I always make the time to do my job, because I can’t stand the idea of getting money from the government to fight crooks and then dropping the ball. I won’t let that happen. I also don’t want to be one of those workaholics who neglects his family. I adore my daughters. And my number one aspiration in life is to be married to the same woman for 60 years. We have 43 to go, and if we keep our health, I know we’ll get there.
So how much time does that leave for writing? Or for relaxing? (I can’t imagine a life without watching a lot of football, for example.)
All that I can say is that I look forward to the day when I have enough money to retire from work and devote my weekdays to reading and writing. That sounds like heaven on earth. For now, I’ll just have to deal with my guilt feelings over not having enough time to do what I really want to do the most.
Why is Spinoza such a significant philosopher, in your opinion?
Many reasons. One that I discussed in my book is that Spinoza freed us from the attitude that people have only two choices with respect to God – either reject the idea of God altogether, or believe in all the mythology about God that has been peddled by organized religions. Spinoza offered a third alternative that many brilliant minds found compelling, including Einstein and Goethe.
Spinoza has also been called the Father of Biblical Criticism. Here was a man who was steeped in the Torah and the Talmud, and wrote a treatise that displayed his scholarship. But unlike earlier Biblical scholars, he wrote from a perspective that challenged the traditional doctrines of religion. What’s beautiful about that treatise is that Spinoza doesn’t merely question religious dogma, he praises religion in many ways. In other words, he tries to give theology its due, and simply points out its limitations.
And then there’s Spinoza’s political teachings – he’s been called one of the first modern political thinkers. People always associate the principles behind the formation of the American Republic with philosophers like Locke, but who do you think influenced Locke? Spinoza. So many of the ideas Jefferson expressed in beautiful prose were set forth by Spinoza more than a hundred years before. If you’re a liberal democrat, and I use those words in the classical sense of the term, you should definitely appreciate the writings of Spinoza.
I could go on and on praising him, but you get the idea. The man has been my favorite philosopher for a couple of decades, and it’s very gratifying to see him make a comeback in recent years. More and more books are being written about him.
What do you hope to accomplish by writing a novel like The Creed Room?
Hope? Or expect? I expect to touch a finite number of people. Some of them will find the story entertaining. Others might actually take fragments of the book’s philosophy and incorporate it into their own world view.
But my hopes are always more grandiose than my expectations. I hope that the book will be part of a broader movement in our society in favor of a more empathic and intellectual approach to resolving our ultimate concerns. When I listen to political debates and see all the pandering and all the macho rhetoric, I realize how far we have to go before the philosophy of this book becomes accepted in our society. And yet I have faith that someday it will. That assumes we can sit down and talk with our ideological opponents, and maybe even learn to appreciate some ideas that we used to hate. Otherwise, we’re not going to be able to deal with poverty, or environmental degradation, or terrorism.
Seriously, the advances in our weapons technology is totally outstripping any increase in our humanity. That has to change. And I hope this book can do its part to make that happen.
What is your next writing project?
I’m working on another novel of ideas. It’s about two old friends who become rabbis, and then become very, very famous. As you might suspect, they have very different views about things like God and Israel. It’s through their differences that I hope to help people understand better what religion generally, and Judaism in particular, has to offer.
The book is very plot driven, and bounces back in time between the present day and the decades since the 1970s when these friends first met. One of the rabbis is the narrator. But it’s the ideas and actions of the other rabbi that are the main focus of the book. And believe me, he doesn’t resemble many rabbis any more than Sam Kramer resembles many teachers.