Monday, 17 May 2010

The Begining of Knowledge is Awe of God: Heschel's Approach to God

I have been discussing in my posts the concept of non-rational religion. What I basically had in mind was the approach of Avrham Yehoshua Heshcel as expressed in his book God In Search of Man. I want to discuss how Heschel justified belief in God.

Heschel believed that we can sense God’s existence emotionally. He focuses on the emotion one experiences in the presence of the sublime or mysterious. The sublime and the awe it entails are present everywhere. “The sublime may be sensed in things of beauty as well as things of goodness and in search of truth.” “We explore the ways of being but do not know what, or why or wherefore being is. Neither the world nor our thinking or anxiety about the world are accounted for.” When we stand in awe and astonishment of the world and its incomprehensibility we are experiencing a sense of the transcendent , of the enigmatic. “The mystery is an ontological category. What it stands for is to most people most obviously given in the experience of exceptional events. However it is a dimension of all experience everywhere and at all times. “

Heschel is careful not to reduce the concept of God to mystery. He does not believe in naturalistic religion. “We do not deify the mystery; we worship Him who in his wisdom surpasses all mysteries.”

Heschel stresses that God is not a scientific concept. God is ineffable and is a concept which cannot truly be articulated in words. Modern man impressed by the achievements of science and rationality has forgotten that not everything in the world can be explained. The irreligious man tries to ignore the essential mystery of the world but he is merely kidding himself.

The mitzvot (and presumably all forms of religious service) according to Heschel are a response to the mystery inherent in the universe, a constant reminder of he who “is concealed in darkness” We make a beracha on everything because ultimately everything stems from that ultimate mystery of existence. “It is not a feeling for the mystery of living, or a sense of awe, wonder, or fear, which is the root of religion; but rather what to do with awe wonder or fear.”

I think that pretty much sums up Heschel

This line of reasoning (or maybe emotionalizing) is very similar to the romantic approach first espoused by Rousseau. The romanticists often felt that they knew God’s existence from their feelings not their reason. Heshcel seems to continue this tradition but was the first to express it with Biblical and Talmudic phraseology.
So what do I think about all of this? Bertrand Russell (in his characteristic scornful tone) has the following to say about Rousseau’s (and Heschel’s) romantic approach
“There are two objections to the practice of basing beliefs as to objective fact upon the emotions of the heart. One is that there is no reason whatever to suppose that such beliefs will be true; the other is, that the resulting beliefs will be private, since the heart says different things to different people.”

Also I would like to add something else. Heschel does not really explain how a being who is beyond mystery (God) follows from the fact that there is mystery. Yes we may have a sense of mystery and transcendence but does it follow that there is some sort of transcendent being? In fact the entire first section of God In Search of Man could easily be about naturalistic worship of “mystery.” Heschel’s insistence on a “real” God does not seem to fit into the scheme he lays out in his book.

I think Heschel’s ideas are very useful for those already convinced of God’s existence. Those who “know” already that there is a God but want to feel him in their everyday lives can derive much inspiration from this book. Heshcel initially presents his book as a rediscovery of the questions to which religion is an answer. Maybe Heshcel is only speaking to the unmotivated believer.

But does Heschel have anything to offer to the more skeptic minded?


MKR said...

Your account exactly agrees with the impression that I had formed from trying to read Man Is Not Alone. Heschel describes the contents of that book and of God in Search of Man as "philosophy"—"A Philosophy of Religion" in the first case, "A Philosophy of Judaism" in the second. This promise of a Jewish philosophical approach to religion is what has made me want to give his work a try. But I have found nothing worthwhile in these books. I don't find any kind of rational argumentation or critical analysis in either work, and I can't recognize something as philosophy without those ingredients.

I am willing to grant Heschel, for the sake of argument, that there are mysteries in our condition; but, for one thing, if that is for the sake of argument, then for heaven's sake give us an argument! And for another, choosing a putative mystery as your subject is not a license to engage in mystification. Heschel's modus operandi seems to be to invoke mysteries as a pretext for being mysterious himself. That, to me, is not philosophy but a vicious counterfeit of it.

On the other hand, I have looked into Heschel's little book The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man, and find it much more promising. What you aptly call his "emotionalizing" seems suited to the explication of the meaning of a religious observance.

Anonymous said...

Shilton, how does one reach you by email?

Shilton HaSechel said...

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