Heschel: “How to save the inner [life] from oblivion – this is the challenge we face. To achieve our goal, we must learn how to activate the soul, how to answer the ultimate, how to relate ourselves to the spirit.”
The cultural atmosphere of the 1960s, as it relates to religion and spirituality, was galvanized by the rediscovery of Nietzsche’s announcement of God’s death – of the mythological god, that is. Major global conflicts, anxieties over communism, and the escalation of racial tensions at home left many utterly disillusioned over whether God was looking out for his favorite nation – or if he even really existed. Speaking through the madman of his parable more than a half-century earlier, Nietzsche realized that his message had been delivered to a generation not ready for it; the 60s were ripe.
Abraham Heschel was a path-breaking proponent of what he called “depth theology” – reconsidering the nature and meaning of God not from the high perch of religious myth and orthodoxy, but out of the deeper ground of the human spiritual experience. As other so-called “neo-orthodox” Christian theologians were working hard to repair the metaphysical realism that Nietzsche had torn down, Heschel was participating in a new wave of religious reflection. These thinkers were really, as I see it, moving Nietzsche’s program into the next step. If he had said “no” to (the mythological) god, they were exploring whether there was any validity to saying “yes” to God-beyond-god.
Heschel observed an emptiness in the inner life of his generation, a stagnancy and disorientation. Once we have let go of the mythological god – the one who created heaven and earth, freed the Hebrews from Egypt, spoke through the prophets and raised Jesus from the grave – are we all alone in a cold and indifferent universe? Some, like the existentialist writer Albert Camus, accepted this absurd condition as our true reality. But Heschel kept faith in God, not as one “up there” or “out there” – an ideal object to the possessive ego – but as a call to freedom and responsibility, coming directly to us from the heart of reality itself.
The mythological god is a character of story, a stage performer who plays to the detached and spectating ego. We read of supernatural acts accomplished in a time not our own, to people not our contemporaries. In our everyday lives we don’t encounter this god of word and deed; we don’t interact with a personality in the way we do with other humans. Put aside for the moment the question of whether miracles actually happened. The issue here is that they are described on the Bible page to a reader-observer: the ego. And in the choice whether or not to believe their veracity, ego is also judge. God is object – “my” object.
Heschel’s radical step was to turn the tables on religion. God is not my object, not one whose existence is to be decided on the basis of evidence, holy scripture, or wishful thinking. God does not exist as other things exist; God is not a thing.
Instead, God is an ultimate question addressed to the soul. In being addressed, the human senses an obligation to answer. This is not about what I believe or to what religion I belong. It is a challenge issued from beyond me; an invitation to authentic life, to sanctify this brief time I have by living fully in the moment. What are you doing with this moment? Where are you going with your life?
If I turn my attention to the emptiness within and listen – not look as an observer but listen in quiet receptivity – the question becomes easier to hear. What I do next is my true religion.