Heschel: “It takes three things to attain a sense of significant being: God, a soul, and a moment. And the three are always here. Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.”
A sign is something that, by definition, points beyond itself. A curved arrow on a sign alongside the road indicates that the road ahead is going to curve, just as a stop sign points to an action required of a driver approaching an intersection. Fever is a sign of infection, and rising interest rates are often a sign of inflation. But what does it mean to speak of our existence as significant? Does it makes sense to think of a human being as pointing beyond itself, whose value is not self-contained but only discovered in an act of self-transcendence?
It may seems as if I’m splitting hairs here, but “meaning” and “significance” are not mere synonyms. If my life is meaningful, then it has value and importance to me. But if my life is significant, then somehow its value is no longer mine or about me but about my place within a larger system of reference. Meaning is “for me” while significance is “from me”; one is a confirmation of relevance, whereas the other is a consecration of existence.
The difference in these two words that are often used interchangeably helps to illuminate the threshold between ego and soul. The shift from personal to spiritual awareness requires a detachment from “me” and “mine,” often described metaphorically as a death followed by an outward leap of full release into a greater reality. So much of religion – all of it, Nietzsche would say – is arranged around the ego and its anxious need for security, identity and immortality. Everything is personal, and even ultimate reality is personified. The final goal is “my” salvation, the rescue of “my” soul from sin and death – a soul that is “mine” and belongs to “me.”
While in professional ministry I was chronically frustrated over the egoism of contemporary Christianity – and it isn’t merely a modern problem but has deep roots in historical Christian orthodoxy. People go to church or leave a church based on its adequacy to their needs as religious consumers. They are looking for convenient services, a fellowship of like-minded believers, and a promise of everlasting life in heaven.
Were they to come across a saying of Jesus on the necessity of dying to find real life or giving up everything for the sake of the New Reality he called God’s kingdom, a flash of insight might cross their faces. But just as quickly it would vanish and their egos would grab onto the “so that” – the reward, the prize, the payoff. What’s in it for me?
In choosing significance over meaning, Heschel is intentionally moving beyond morality and the mythological god, beyond ego and tribal orthodoxy. Heschel’s God is clearly something other than a supernatural ego, demanding worship and jealous for glory. For him, religion is not about rescue but presence, not meaning but mystery, not dogmatic certainty but wonder, gratitude and responsibility.
The very formation of ego generates the delusion that I have a body and a soul. As the center of my personal identity, ego also divides time into past and future, what happened to bring me here and what’s coming next. As is the case in all forms of dualism, the opposing pieces are inevitably distorted and misunderstood. Even more tragic, however, is that the division of consciousness between an outside (body) and an inside (soul), a before (past) and an after (future), distracts us from the only reality there is – here and now.
God is a word that points beyond itself, beyond language, and beyond the mind to the present mystery of being. Soul is a deep center of awareness that connects us to God as the ground of our being. And this moment – right now, before we try to grasp it and make it meaningful – is our jumping-off point, where we must let go and give ourselves over to the wonder of being alive.