Pew Research Center study just came out finding a decline in the percentage of Americans who say they follow an established religion, and an increase in the percentages who claim to be either atheist or agnostic or “nothing in particular.”
In 1949, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote a book called The Earth Is the Lord’s on the culture of the Jews of Eastern Europe; i.e. on a culture that had then been all but wiped out. It was the first book he had published in America, having himself escaped there from Europe during the war.
In writing about the joy that was to be found in the culture of the Hasidim for pure ideas, for endless study and restudy of the Talmud, he says this:
Concepts acquired a dynamic quality, a color and meaning that, at first thought, seemed to have no connection with one another. The joy of discovery, the process of inventing original devices, of attaining new inventions and new insights, quickened and elated the heart. This was not realistic thinking; but great art likewise is not a reproduction of nature, nor is mathematics an imitation of something that actually exists.
Allowing that it might be easy to belittle such impractical and unworldly preoccupations, he goes on:
But what is nobler than the unpractical spirit? The soul is sustained by the regard for that which transcends all immediate purposes. The sense of the transcendent is the heart of culture, the very essence of humanity. A civilization that is devoted exclusively to the utilitarian is at bottom not different from barbarism. The world is sustained by unworldliness.
So it would seem that it is in fact the unnecessary that, finally, we need the most.
Heschel’s quotes stand for themselves, and perhaps one can see how they have enormous bearing on so much of what goes on in our lives.
But I can’t resist the temptation to relate it to one thing that has recently generated a flurry of news stories, and that is the scientist and writer Stephen Hawking’s recent blunt statement that he is an atheist.
The astrophysicist said that the creation of the world is a scientifically explainable phenomenon and not something that has to do with “God,” pointing out that his theories about the origin of the universe are not compatible with the idea that the world was created by a supreme being.
“Before we understood science, it was natural to believe that God created the universe, but now science offers a more convincing explanation,” Hawking said in a video posted by El Mundo.
Well, leaving aside whatever scientific holes there might be in his certainty (and just as Stephen Hawking claims not to believe in God, I claim not to believe that Stephen Hawking is God) I would suggest there is a philosophical vacuum at the heart of the belief that because a God appears to be unnecessary, therefore a God is not needed.
You could dismiss this as mere doubletalk, but to me it’s a real point. People need God, as a quick look around the world and at human history shows, notwithstanding the relatively few like Hawking who claim not to. People need the transcendent, and sometimes in their pursuit of it they wind up with perverse or dangerous views on it, but this doesn’t put an end to the pursuit. Why do people need God, or the transcendent? Why be hard-wired and driven so pointlessly to find that which does not exist?
Some passionate atheists would claim it is simply a flaw that that we need to eliminate in ourselves, or something that humans need to evolve beyond. But if we as humanity truly need to eliminate something so fundamental to our nature, then, well … God help us.
Heschel’s book The Earth Is the Lord’s is still in print, and is a quite short, beautifully intense, and utterly inspiring read.
The following is one of those passages from Abraham Joshua Heschel—extraordinarily common in his writing—that is fascinating when considered as philosophy, penetrating when heard as theology, and quite moving and beautiful when simply read as poetry.
Common to all men who pray is the certainty that prayer is an act which makes the heart audible to God. Who would pour his most precious hopes into an abyss? […]
The passage of hours, almost unnoticeable, but leaving behind the feeling of loss or omission, is either an invitation to despair or a ladder to eternity. This little time in our hands melts away ere it can be formed. Before our eyes man and maid, spring and splendor, slide into oblivion. However, there are hours that perish and hours that join the everlasting. Prayer is a crucible in which time is cast in the likeness of the eternal. Man hands over his time to God in the secrecy of single words. When anointed by prayer, his thoughts and deeds do not sink into nothingness, but merge into the endless knowledge of an all-embracing God.
Perhaps it’s something to do with aging, but I happen to be increasingly preoccupied with questions of time. Not so much the lack of it (which is very obvious and about which I can do nothing) but the nature of it, and in particular the difference between our time and God’s. It doesn’t matter that this is unknowable; if we ceased wondering about things which are unknowable I suppose that we would be very bored and very boring indeed. But you wonder—and I know that all humans, atheist, agnostic and devout, wonder this—why most seconds, minutes and moments just tick away like a great impersonal and unstoppable clock, and why there are other moments in our lives which may be incredibly brief on the clock but the duration and weight of which seem almost boundless to our experience. These moments can come in a wide variety of contexts, but I think they are often those moments in which we involuntarily shed tears, or at least are very deeply moved by something inexpressible. I think that we are certain, in such a moment, that what is happening matters a great deal, and that it will not simply pass on into the void but will somehow be remembered, and not only by ourselves. Are we wrong, or are we in such moments receiving a tiny glimpse of the eternal? Continue reading Time, Prayer and God: Heschel→
Gosh, is it time for another Heschel-related post already? It seems no one can stop me, so the answer is yes. I’ve been reading yet another of his great books, this one titled Man’s Quest For God. It is in major part a reflection on the way in which human beings reach out for God through prayer. I suppose that it easily qualifies as the most moving book on prayer I’ve read. It includes reflections on, among other things, the power and nature of words themselves, and the special nature of scriptural and liturgical words.
The paragraph I’m pulling out here, however, is in reference to that special quality of music to express that which cannot be said with words alone.
In no other act does man experience so often the disparity between the desire for expression and the means of expression as in prayer. The inadequacy of the means at our disposal appears so tangible, so tragic, that one feels it a grace to be able to give oneself up to music, to a tone, to a song, to a chant. The wave of a song carries the soul to heights which utterable meanings can never reach. Such abandonment is no escape nor an act of being unfaithful to the mind. For the world of unutterable meanings is the nursery of the soul, the cradle of all our ideas. It is not an escape but a return to one’s origins.
Naturally, I love everything about what he says and how he says it there, but consider that last sentence in particular. To give oneself up to prayer in the form of music, Heschel says, “is not an escape but a return to one’s origins.” What a wonderful way to meditate upon our origin: this idea that we have come from that same place from which music comes, and the thought that music is ultimately our true language.
People have always sought and found glimpses of the transcendent in music; this surely dates from the moment in which the first human being sang. (And certainly people have been annoyed by music since the time that the first human stomped on the floor to tell his downstairs’ neighbor to turn it down.) We might look around the world sometimes and wonder if the scientific reductionists have it right, if human beings really have no special purpose in any transcendent order, but are merely freaks of nature—nothing more than chipmunks with swollen brain cavities. But how many chipmunks (other than Alvin, maybe) sing like Ella Fitzgerald, or even like your mother or grandmother used to in the kitchen? We credit birds with song, and whales, and frogs, and the sounds they make are wonders of creation, but we humans seem to be pursuing melody and harmony on a very different level. And even if we don’t make music ourselves, we cannot resist listening to it (I deeply pity the rare soul who just never listens to music).
Yours truly spent some years without any easily definable or shall-we-say-biblical beliefs, but never shook off a belief in a God at the bottom of it all, and there’s no question that a love of music was the major reason for that. And it was purely popular music which I listened to during those years, and indeed that remains the form of music I’m happy to listen to most, hour for hour (albeit that some of it stretches the definition of “popular”). Being able to detect some shred of the transcendent in a song and performance which brought tears to my eyes for reasons that were ultimately inexpressible kept me in mind of the fact that there was, after all, a transcendence out there. Many are happy enough to concede the reality of an impersonal transcendence, but to me at least it’s always felt very personal in those moments, shot through with mercy and with hope. Continue reading Music as prayer (featuring Abraham Joshua Heschel and Harry Secombe)→
There could really be no end to picking things out to reflect upon from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s little book Who Is Man?
Take this brief passage:
The man of our time is losing the power of celebration. Instead of celebrating, he seeks to be amused or entertained. Celebration is an active state, an act of expressing reverence or appreciation. To be entertained is a passive state—it is to receive pleasure afforded by an amusing act or a spectacle. Entertainment is a diversion, a distraction of the attention of the mind from the preoccupations of daily living. Celebration is a confrontation, giving attention to the transcendent meaning of one’s actions.
When did he write that? This morning? It reads like the perfect commentary on our 24/7-non-stop-info-and-entertainment-cavalcade of existence, bouncing from one screen and gadget to the next, sucking up amusement from fifteen different sources every second. But the book is from 1965, based on lectures given in 1963.
Of-course, he is also highlighting a tendency in human nature that is timeless; that is, to bury oneself in entertainment and amusement and to forget the meaning at the heart of everything, or indeed to forget even to ask whether there is any meaning. It was possible to live that way three thousand years ago, although there were probably more frequent reminders of the limits of one’s powers and one’s lifespan. Today, it’s merely a lot easier to keep the volume up and drown out any still small voice that might be asking one to celebrate instead of just to continue blithely consuming. Continue reading Celebration versus entertainment: more Abraham Joshua Heschel (from “Who Is Man?”)→
What is happiness? It’s an odd word, one of such centrality to our lives, and to our reason for choosing to continue to be, yet so far beyond easy definition. The U.S. Declaration of Independence refers to the inalienable rights of every human being which (it says) include “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” We generally know what “life” means (although in our post-modern age it is not exactly a slam-dunk) and we can at least engage in meaningful debate over the definition of “liberty,” but where do we even begin in defining happiness? I do think that it is a beautiful thing that the U.S. Declaration of Independence includes this statement; it is the cleaving of a chasm between that moment and the way things were ordered in the world before it, and yet it is also somewhat maddening. It invites trivial and trite interpretation. What happiness? Whose happiness?
Legalisms aside, it is a little easier from a philosophical point of view to approach the question of what happiness is by first defining what it is not. The following is a very brief extract from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s wonderful little book, Who Is Man?, which I’ve recently read, in which he is touching on this question.
Happiness is not a synonmym for self-satisfaction, complacency, or smugness. Self-satisfaction breeds futility and despair. […]
Self-fulfillment is a myth which a noble mind must find degrading. All that is creative in man stems from a seed of endless discontent. New insight begins when satisfaction comes to an end, when all that has been seen, said, or done looks like a distortion.
The aim is the maintenance and fanning of a discontent with our aspirations and achievements, the maintenance and fanning of a craving that knows no satisfaction. Man’s true fulfillment depends upon communion with that which transcends him.
So, if as Heschel says “man’s true fulfillment depends upon communion with that which transcends him,” then that is a communion which can never be quite complete. You can reach for communion with that which transcends you, but you cannot totally commune with it … because it does transcend you. In effect, you can pursue happiness, but never quite get there. Alternatively, it is in the pursuit of happiness that happiness is most tangibly present. Continue reading Abraham Joshua Heschel on Happiness (from “Who Is Man?”)→
Man had to be expelled from the Garden of Eden; he had to witness the murder of half of the human species by Cain out of envy; experience the catastrophe of the Flood; the confusion of the languages; slavery in Egypt and the wonder of the Exodus, to be ready to accept the law.
Into his studies of the Bible the modern scholar brings his total personality, his increased knowledge of the ancient Near East, his power of analysis, his historic sense, his honest commitment to truth—as well as inherent skepticism of biblical claims and tradition. In consequence, we have so much to say about the Bible that we are not prepared to hear what the Bible has to say about us. We are not in love with the Bible; we are in love with our own power of critical acumen, with our theories about the Bible. Intellectual narcissism is a disease to which some of us are not always immune. The sense of the mystery and transcendence of what is at stake in the Bible is lost in the process of analysis. As a result, we have brought about the desanctification of the Bible.
Similar things have no doubt been said in many different ways, but I think that is extraordinarily well put. Those words were written in 1963. They struck me when I read them more on a personal level than as a societal or institutional criticism, although the “desanctification” of the Bible surely has had plenty to do with the rotting away of the mainline Protestant churches in America. Continue reading Abraham Joshua Heschel on the Bible→