Belief and knowledge can coexist within us. But often they contradict, forcing us to navigate between what we feel to be true and what we know to exist. For instance, creationists who can no longer ignore scientific evidence have tried to negotiate the contradictions in their belief by inventing Intelligent Design. Similarly, Stephen T. Asma must discover his own direction through belief and knowledge throughout the course of The Gods Drink Whiskey, which centers on the author’s time in Cambodia, teaching at Phnom Penh’s Buddhist Institute. Of course, the content of the book is more intellectually manageable in its approach to faith and fact than any pseudo-spiritual, pseudo-scientific theory.
Faith and knowledge both turn blindly to the unknown. Dangerously ignoring the fact that doubt may be a great boon giving us freedom from our certainty. The doubt China gained from the Cultural Revolution could have perhaps dampened the damage done to Cambodian society if the Khmer Rouge had listened to Chinese warnings. But the belief in the Khmer Rouge’s communism could not be shaken be the observation of history. Unfortunately this certainty of belief could not place Year Zero away from the past and the weight of history still presses on Cambodia, now without a lineage of spiritual and intellectual leaders to regulate it.
Even with my own bias, I realize the preference for knowledge also has its blindness since in its truest from it requires devotion to only that which is observable even when dealing with more ethereal aspects of human life. Asma suggests that a fuller understanding of culture (in this book’s particular case, Buddhist culture) can be found in the fundamental philosophic and cultural texts often ignored by researchers or simply fetishized by the faithful.
To what extent can we leave our culture? Leave our questions of systems of knowledge? Asma forces us to examine what areas of faith and secular life are inseparable from our identities, and in so doing he becomes an interesting counterpoint to the normal hero of the travelogue. He is so innately connected with his new faith that when he travels to Cambodia he comes primarily as a teacher of the principles of the national faith, Buddhism, and not an explorer.
Although this book is rooted in Asma’s actual experience it is not just a record of events and observations. He finds himself at odds with the purely observational root of religious studies. Early in the book he lambastes those who examine religion in a purely clinical way since they exclude the more intangible areas of faith and philosophy. It is through the lenses of belief and philosophy that Asma examines his experiences. A good example of this method is his discussion of the Cambodian sex trade.
Like a good Western intellectual, this sector of the economy is not only odious to him. He, originally, assumes the trade is rooted in the continuing colonial motives of globalization. However when he is on the ground several counterintuitive facts confront him such as most of the clientele are Cambodians and that legalized prostitution protects the girls from harsher exploitations since legalization promotes free agency among the women.
Asma must confront the additional fact that his friends, those who have helped him navigate in this foreign culture frequent these businesses. He himself eventually takes on the sex workers non-euphemistic massage skills. He must continue to negotiate what he has brought with him and the customs he both understands intellectually but must struggle with actually. This book achieves a satisfying balance of anecdote and philosophy, faith and reality.
The complexity of Asma’s challenge in The Gods Drink Whiskey is admirable. His attempts to write personal essays on philosophy about teaching Buddhism to Cambodian Buddhists is noteworthy for the attention he pays to both theoretical and practical applications of faith. Asma stands against all truisms about the zealousness of converts. He does reveal a certain zeal for the Middle Path through praising and criticizing both his culture of origin and the culture that surrounds him. He places neither in a superior position, providing the reader with an intelligent and engaging method of navigating the world.