Re(li)gional Rail

Re(li)gional Rail

Sometimes a book’s title all but forces you to pluck it off the shelf.

God and the New Haven Railway and Why Neither One Is Doing Very Well did that to me. (Okay, it was a metaphorical shelf; I ordered it online.) The author, George Dennis O’Brien, who the internet says is still with us at age 92, was a philosophy professor at Princeton and later a president of Bucknell and Rochester. But before all that, in the early 1950s, he was an English major at Yale, which helps explain both the craft of his prose and the fact that New Haven’s rail system, of all things, was top of mind while writing this 1986 comparative religious text.

Some years earlier, O’Brien had returned here for his 25th reunion, finding in a shambles what he remembered as an esteemed and well-oiled hub of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad—which, under financial distress, had been merged, rebranded and reorganized multiple times in the interim. At the time, Union Station had been “abandoned,” he writes, its activities moved to a dreary attached “shed.” Later, “a power station blew out and trains crawled from New Rochelle for months.” “A long history of unreliability leads to nonexistence,” he writes in one of thousands of clever sentences, slyly connecting the devotional economics of both railways and religions, and while the regional rail analogy provides a well of relatable insights (and punchlines), it’s the religion he really cares about.

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O’Brien’s central observation invokes a sensation riders of certain train systems know well: “Religion arises… from frustration,” he writes. “Some desire overruns its capacity for realization, and humanity is forced to strike an attitude toward the limit revealed.” But different religions prescribe different approaches to frustration. Buddhism, for example, might tell its followers to resolve their frustrations not by striving to break through the barriers preventing them from getting what they want but rather by discarding the wants themselves. Taking this advice, a commuter frustrated by habitually slow or spotty train service could, for example, cease wishing to get to work on time. But that would probably lead to more and greater frustration, by making it harder to keep a job.

“Biblical religion,” on the other hand, “takes a different course,” O’Brien writes. “While some garden-variety desires are declared off-limits, there is a deep core of human longing that cannot be dismissed and yet cannot be realized—at least by human wit and will. In this tradition one needs help from the top to solve the frustration of the human heart.” A commuter of this mindset might chalk their intermittent lateness up to God’s plan, shedding the stress of the situation without purging useful and beneficial desires.

While he prefers “Biblical religion” for the utility he sees in pacifying frustration, O’Brien doesn’t much care, at least in this book, whether or not Old Testament or New Testament stories are in any literal sense true. Indeed, he expresses a great deal of doubt that they are. As such, God and the New Haven Railway is something approaching an atheistic exercise in theistic apologetics, his distance from doctrine helping to endow the book with a philosophical, not theological, quality. In part because of the unbelief he senses within his expected audience, the author repeatedly and, knowing full well the irony, apologizes for religion’s place within his book about religion. Like a traveler trying to find an open seat on a moving train, O’Brien wavers and wobbles early with caveats and asides, even as he’s determined to land his rump.

Once he does, God and the New Haven Railway’s 159 pages mostly chug briskly along, if you can keep up. Some sentences and sequences required multiple rereadings for their full meaning to blossom, even in the mind of a fellow trained philosopher. Meanwhile, in line with disavowals of universality or certainty—on the topic of God, “all can suggest is that stand on his head, squint, and lean to the side,” he writes; also, “the last thing I would wish for this book would be that it proved anything”—certain questionable assumptions aren’t sufficiently questioned, and some arguments are too hasty to be persuasive. O’Brien sometimes defers too easily to subjective or conventional wisdom and relies too heavily on the power of his (considerable) wit for the work to qualify as hard philosophy, even if the core argument could easily have been packaged as an academic paper.

Instead, the book reads like a fabulously well-read theorist holding court in a salon, lips loosened by a swirling snifter of brandy, the intoxicating attention of a rapt audience and—this being the ’80s and the ideas and modes coming faster than a Robin Williams monologue—a sniff of something stronger. And unlike O’Brien’s experience on “the New Haven,” it’s a pretty satisfying ride.

Written and photographed by Dan Mims. Image features the book with a historical model train display inside Union Station.

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