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.
4 thoughts on “Always Here”
John, My first thought: To be is a blessing, to live is holy. Now, I’ve got to read this.
Only somebody wrestling with elusive and important matters could come out sounding so muddled…
I think you’re mixing up the common ideal of ‘objectivity’, ie that people will agree on something, with life’s absolute significance. Which is neither narrowly personal nor in need of outside validation.
A life is real, and matters, because God is aware of it. From inside.
Its awareness of existing and God’s awareness of it are the same reality. [The content of its own awareness is naturally more limited, but the very awareness of the fact of awareness is a mystery that slips out of all my attempts to talk about it. “Ground of being” is nice, but it’s been too much used, a phrase that people are likely to recognize without finding much juice in it, unless they’ve found its meaning some other way.]
You might like Stephen Gaskin’s model [borrowed from his friend Suzuki?] of an ego as being ~’like a hole in a fence.’ In this model, there’s a whole moving scene behind the fence… but the content of each ego is the part of the scene you can see via looking through. What’s “unconscious” to you are the mental processes going on around the borders of that opening. Enlarging the hole, you’d see more… but God takes in all of it…
Anyway, keep on wrestling!!!
Thanks for your comment, treegestalt.
I hear a lot of Hegel in your line of thinking, with a significant dose – in your basic idealistic assumption that mind/God is behind the world and thinking it into being – of George Berkeley. To say that life is real because God is aware of it from inside is still holding on to a form of metaphysical realism; although, as in the tradition of Western idealism, the concept of God has been pretty much drained of color and definition.To say that “God” is aware of “it” (the life-world) is assuming a separate existence for God, even if it’s only separate in the sense of an absolute subject to the thought-up object.
What the metaphor of Ground does (at least for me) is offer a place in thought where all our concepts of ultimate reality can be dissolved in experience. Hence, Ground of Being is not intended as a concept of God but as a metaphor of experience, where life and consciousness are most present and real. Once we release our conceptual grasp on reality, we can be more open to the Ground. I also like the label “Divine Presence” – as long as it isn’t turned too quickly into “the presence of God.” In that place, before our minds get going with the business of building boxes, thinking up theories, and making meaning of it all, we are in the Presence of an ineffable Mystery.
I’ve read a little about Berkeley & Hegel, consider that they were on to something about How It All Be…
To say that life is real because God is aware of it from inside is really: to ground everything in primary, given experience.
See http://synchronicidaddy.wordpress.com/2012/07/23/all-right-now/ for one way of dealing with the conceptional muddle that results from trying to be accurate about mystical truth with physical-world words… [Anyone who wants to mess with Reality needs be a poet, not an abstract architect.]
Not separate, but transcendent… The whole is bigger than the view through any hole, is beyond even the-view-with-the-fence-torn-down. Because of that aspect of being background of Being… [Ever been utterly blown away by the existence-of-anything-at-all?]
If you don’t like 3-letter words, you don’t need to use them — but it’s the word we’ve got… Anyway, fun talking at you!