Heschel: “What is an idol? Any god who is mine but not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol.“
This quote from Heschel is taken from his chapter titled “Religion and Race,” which was originally an opening address at the National Conference on Religion and Race in January of 1963. Although well-grounded in the Jewish mystical tradition, Heschel was also a social activist and prophet. His opinions on racism and religion – as negative forces in twentieth-century American culture – were both passionate and thoughtful, as he took his inspiration from the Hebrew prophets of the Bible.
The biblical prophets were radical theologians, meaning that they cut to the “root” (radii) of our human impulse to talk about god. One may have a deeply spiritual experience, but once the process begins of interpreting it, clarifying it, and connecting it linguistically to the meaning of life, it becomes theology – and simultaneously steps out of the spontaneous flow of inspiration. Can’t we just have the experience and choose not to engage in the commentary?
Let’s not forget that meaning-making is not only a shared industry of the tribe, but is going on constantly in the “private” space of the ego as well. The fact is, ego needs meaning because it gives security and purpose to life; which is to say that ego talks incessantly.
The mystery of life, the present mystery of this moment, the mystery of presence and the ground of being are all names and metaphors of the reality available to us from the center of experience called soul. Using the term mystery is an acknowledgement that this reality is elusive and inherently unknowable – beyond the reach of thought and the qualifications of language. It simply cannot be pinned down, boxed up, or strung out in word-webs. As one of the basic building blocks of language and primary units of thought, metaphor functions to carry the mystery of experience into our worlds of meaning.
Once we have the tool of language in hand, so to speak, it is incredibly difficult to resist the impulse to cut the mystery up into pieces and hammer them into configurations that make sense to us. The problem with this – from the higher perspective of the world religions – is that the grimy fingerprints of our egos are all over the meanings we construct. An experience of divine mystery eventually becomes “my” experience “of god,” which means “my” god, the only god that matters. When the mystery has been resolved, divided up, and installed as the gods we believe in and are ready to die for, we are mentally a long, long way from the divine presence.
Heschel makes the point that “my god” is by definition an idol. Unavoidably, as the spiritual experience of mystery is taken up and packaged into meaning, our bias and perspective are reflected in the way we represent God. Of course, in our worse moments we don’t distinguish between the reality that may have inspired the portrait and the portrait itself – a confusion that has motivated more bigotry and violence than just about any other error in thinking. The god I regard as mine, different as it may be from the god you regard as yours, is – both yours and mine – an “untruth,” to use Nietzsche’s term.
So let’s do away with religion and religion’s god altogether. Why not? Won’t we cure the illness of religious dogmatism and militant fundamentalism if we just throw aside theism for good? While the equally dogmatic atheists may scream their endorsement, a more thoughtful and developmentally sensitive post-theism rejects this terminal solution. The reason: the mythological god – the god we tell stories about, the god of religion and therefore the gods of all religions – is necessary, just as the ego (in this view) is necessary in the greater process of human maturity, responsibility and fulfillment.
Humanity is on an evolutionary ascent, and over many generations and millions of years we are slowly actualizing the dormant potential of our nature as a species. (I’m not suggesting that we’ve reached the “end” or “top” of this ascent; surely we still have far to go.) Along the way – just as is the case in our individual development over a lifetime – the pursuit of identity, membership, morality and meaning becomes a powerful preoccupation. Nevertheless, the system of the ego and its world, a god who presides over it and the mythology that provides narrative space for that god to move in and step out as needed, all works to support humanity in its upward climb.
Post-theism is psychologically paradoxical. Ego is a necessary fixation. Meaning is a necessary fiction. “My god” is a necessary idol. We need these, just as we need a ladder to get to the roof of a house. It would be stupid to kick away the ladder once the roof is reached; we will need it again to get back down. And it’s important that we teach our children how to use the ladder, or else they may mistakenly regard it as a place to hold on and hang out.
The real problem is that, on your ladder or mine, there’s only room for one.