Tag Archives: Abraham Heschel

In a Nutshell

I conclude my conversations with Nietzsche, Watts and Heschel by summing up what I’ve learned. All of them were lights in their time, and each one spoke out of – and to – his particular cultural context. My re-reading of these authors has opened up a new insight, however, with regard to their respective places in human history. Whether they were German Lutheran, Anglican beatnik, or Hasidic Jew, these three thinkers have become portals of a new vision for humanity. Something deeper underground than what is specific to any given cultural moment breaks to the surface in their writings. Here are the main ideas.

We live like fish submerged in an unfathomable mystery called reality. Each moment offers a fresh experience of the ineffable wonder of being alive and part of it all. Humans have evolved an ability to reflect on our experience, to pull out the patterns – or put them in – in order to make sense of what’s going on. This business of meaning-making is our chief preoccupation as a species, and the products of our effort – identity, value, significance, and purpose – are vigorously defended as truth-itself.

In fact, for the longest time humans were not self-aware in this construction of meaning. That is to say, we were unselfconscious creators: the projections just came spontaneously out of our deeper imagination in the form of dance, art, symbol, poetry and myth – forming the web of meaning we call culture. We saw ourselves in these projected patterns of meaning, but we didn’t consciously recognize the intelligence “looking back” at us. In the ensuing dialogue of cultural development – over many millenniums – we have come to realize our role in all of this.

One place where our evolving intelligence looks back at us is in the mythological god. This term refers to the key figures of early narratives who are depicted as the primary agents in the creation, supervision, intervention and redemption of the world – focused mainly on the local worlds of the tribes that recited and passed on the stories. As we stretch out the history of mythology we notice that god has evolved over time, beginning as the intention within the forces of nature, becoming more interested in the moral foundations and government of tribal society, and eventually ascending to an absolute position outside the world-system as “the one in control of all things.”

A mythic-literal reading of the sacred narratives is confronted with this personal development in god, which is difficult to accept since god is supposed to be outside of time and essentially perfect. But what if, following the theory that the mythological god is really our own developing consciousness looking back at us, we use this growth chart as a leading indicator of human evolution? The evolution of our body is on a very long trajectory reaching back millions of years; but our ego development correlates exactly to the career of the mythological god. Coincidence?

The rise of ego (self-) consciousness begins in the visceral urgencies of biological life. Under the influence of the drives and reflexes that have secured our survival for countless generations, the infantile ego is powerless to resist. But over time and through the disciplines of tribal morality, “I” (ego) takes its place at the table as a civilized – Nietzsche would say, domesticated – member of the herd. At this point, our focus of value and concern has shifted from the biological imperative of survival to the task of maintaining a social identity, with its driving need to “fit in” (belonging) and “stand out” (recognition).

Remember that all of this world-construction activity is taking place on the ego, by the tribe, and under the divine supervision and final judgment of the mythological god. This gearing-together of who I am, who we are, and who’s in control of it all makes for a very captive audience. Once the doors are locked it’s nearly impossible to manage an escape – but who would want to leave anyway? Our god is the true god, we are the chosen people, and I will be rewarded with everlasting life in heaven for being good (that is to say, obedient).

Remember, too, that all of this construction is taking place outside and around the present moment, where our soul swims in mystery. The erector set of culture makes for an exceedingly interesting, developmentally necessary, and magically entrancing game of distractions. Nietzsche wanted to pull it all down and clear the path to a higher humanity (Ubermensch), beyond good and evil. Watts taught that we can see through the cultural facade and step out of the role-play that is currently holding us hostage; we can wake up from the trance and find wisdom in our insecurity. And Heschel challenged us not to rest in this illusion of security, but rather to use the leverage-point of personal (ego) freedom to leap for the ring of responsibility.

This leads us back to “now” – which we never really left, nor can we. Having arched out of and away from the real presence of mystery and through our self-spun webs of meaning, we arrive once again in the living moment. Our awareness has been opened up and the focus of our attention now sees through what we once took as real. The seeds of creativity, compassion and wisdom, once the special possession of the mythological god, have begun to take root in their proper ground.

We are still becoming. The future is already being felt in the contractions. Don’t be afraid.


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Polarity and Paradox

Heschel: “There are two ways in which the Bible speaks of the creation of [humanity]. In the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, which is devoted to the creation of the physical universe, [humanity] is described as having been created in the image and likeness of God. In the second chapter, which tells us of the commandment not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, [humanity] is described as having been formed out of the dust of the earth. Together, image and dust express the polarity [in human nature].”

In the counseling clinic you will find two types of clients: those who are ashamed of themselves and regard others generally as not to be trusted, and those who are conceited with themselves and regard others generally as not to be trusted. Both of them will typically have relationship issues, be chronically unhappy in life, and will either be in therapy for a long time or else jump in and out, looking for the magic trick that no counselor can provide. Fix me.

As I have already suggested, the persistent problems of middle-class mental health in America today are likely a complication of our Western fixation with ego. Instead of following a more contemplative line of research into the spiritual intelligence that grounds us in present reality, Western “psychology” has in fact abandoned the soul (psyche) in favor of personality development and its organizational center, the ego. From the vantage-point of the strained and conflicted ego, any threat to its executive control and perpetual reign is perceived as a problem.

Ironically, then, we have come to prefer experiences of ego-inflation to genuine self-transcendence; what we are has been eclipsed by who we are. Experiences of love, wonder, inspiration and faith – all of which require that we let go of “me” in release to a larger mystery – are seen as threatening and make us anxious. The divine ideal of our own higher nature (god) becomes severed as the object of our aspiration and becomes, not a force for waking and clarifying our dormant virtue, but rather a source of judgment, shame and condemnation. The “God beyond god” is inaccessible to the degree that we insist on saving ourselves.

On the other side of this existential divide – this illusion of duality generated by Captain Ego – is the body and its realm of instinct, mucus and blood (yuck). Strange urges and powerful moods take us by surprise, and much of our shame for falling short of god’s demands is hooked into our bodies. But the body is also in time, and time is passing, and passing time is mortality, and mortality means deathand who wants that?!

The cosmic force of entropy, which is constantly pulling at the heels of higher order so as to reach simpler and more stable arrangements, is also at work on our bodies. As a living composition of physical matter, the body will eventually succumb to this downward pull of mortality and return as dust to dust. In reality this is a marvelous thing, and it might be appreciated as the descending arc of our recycling universe, straining against the upward push of evolution along its ascending arc – a scientific yin and yang that strive together in the beautiful balance of all things.

But again, if ego is attached to the body, then I am going down as well – which is unacceptable. So I dress it up to look younger, take supplements to extend its life, primp, tuck and cinch up its sagging weight. I will not be dust … I will not! What is really an astonishing miracle of matter becomes instead a death sentence, a damnable anchor holding me in time. Thankfully, religion has provided me a way out of this mess, with its doctrine of immortality and the promise of everlasting life.

What would happen, what would it be like if we could embrace this polarity in our human nature? How different would our lives be if we were able – really it comes down to whether or not we are willing – to transcend the ego and move more effortlessly (less anxiously) through the frontiers of body and soul? Can we affirm the image of god in ourselves, and in each other, without becoming self-inflated? Can we embrace mortality and learn to appreciate the fleeting moments and limited time we have?

Not to separate ego from body, and not to confuse ego with soul – this is wisdom. We harbor a divine image, but we are even now passing into dust.


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Mystery and Meaning

Heschel: “The delicate balance of mystery and meaning, of reverence and action, has been perilously upset. Our knowledge has been flattened. We see the world in one dimension and treat all problems on the same level. From the fact that we learned how to replace the kerosene lamp, we have deduced that we can replace the mystery of existence. We may be able to experiment with mice and still be unable to experiment with prayer.”

Imagine being in seminary where all the doctrines of your tradition are fitted together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Biblical foundations, the historical creeds, your denominational standards – all of the edges meet together so tightly, so perfectly. You learn how to translate, interpret, expound and preach the truth as it is represented on the face of your jigsaw puzzle. You will be instructed, examined, ordained and installed some day as an “expert” in these things. But in your second year a seminary professor puts Heschel in your hands. Kaboom.

The “delicate balance” that Heschel speaks of here is indeed delicate, but it is far from being in balance – especially now, as the 21st-century planet is more cross-connected and interdependent than ever before. As we are confronted by alternative worldviews and competing perspectives, the temptation is to lock down our own and defend its truth.

Nietzsche comes to mind. All we have is perspective, a view from somewhere; a construct, an untruth, and never truth itself. Heschel’s distinction between “mystery and meaning” is getting at the same idea. Mystery is not what is still unknown, but our experience of the unknowable. Our effort to make sense of this experience and translate what it means – in symbols, metaphors, stories, theories and doctrines – is so much secondary conjecture. We make up a picture, analyze it into pieces, and then spend generations figuring out how the pieces fit together.

I suppose it’s not only the psychological value of the resulting world-picture – giving the illusion of reality as secure, stable and significant – but all the generations of human effort invested in meaning-making that motivates our extreme attachment to the meaning we make. The certainty and control we feel on the inside of our world is preferable to the open and fluid nature of what’s really going on “out there.” Like those children in a sociological research study who played only in the center of an open field but explored the entire property after a fence was installed, we need to feel that chaos and danger are kept out of our cultural playgrounds.

Now on the other side of seminary and after a decade and a half of church ministry, I can sometimes become deeply discouraged over the conviction and arrogance that characterize this world-building enterprise – especially when it gets tied to inerrant holy books and infallible authorities. And it’s not just religion. Every human tradition hands along the conclusions of previous generations, and with each transfer of knowledge our reality gets that much smaller.

In my denomination, Calvinism was smaller and more tightly controlled than Calvin’s own faith had been; Calvin’s orthodoxy was itself a reduction of what the apostle Paul thought and wrote about; and Paul’s doctrinal platform was much more dogmatic than Jesus had been. As scientific discoveries, commercial trade, and world travel were pulling open the boundaries of our known universe, local tribal traditions were systematically closing the Western mind.

We need the balance of mystery and meaning. Without a conscious commitment to return to experience, our explanations become rigid, heavy and increasingly irrelevant over time. The security we feel on the inside of our fabricated and well-defended worlds eventually gives way to a kind of fatalism – the existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre called it ennui (the “sick and tired” feeling of boredom). Perhaps we can condition and predict the behavior of caged mice because their situation is so similar to our own.

The moment I begin reflecting on my experience, the business of meaning-making is well on its way. I need to make sense of it – and isn’t it interesting that we have an implicit acknowledgement of our role as creators of meaning, in this common phrase about “making sense” of things? I need meaning in order to keep sanity and thrive as a human being. But can I have too much of it?

Experience is the free-flowing spontaneity of life in this present moment. Yes, I need to make sense of it. I will keep working to figure it out, and then configure these figures like so many jigsaw shapes, into a picture that’s meaningful to me. And you’ll keep doing the same.

But let’s make a pact. Every once in a while, we will put down our puzzle pieces and push ourselves away from the card table. We will take a deep breath, release the tension in our mind and muscles, and open our attention to the present mystery.

Here and now. Amen.


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Depth Theology

Heschel: “Depth theology seeks to meet the person in moments which are affected by all a person thinks, feels, and acts. It draws upon that which happens to [us] in moments of confrontation with ultimate reality. It is in such moments that decisive insights are born. Some of these insights lend themselves to conceptualization, while others seem to overflow the vessels of our conceptual powers.”

Post-theism asks the question of what comes after (post) theism (belief in god). This is not the modernist campaign of secular atheism, which proceeds on the assumption that we no longer need god to explain the universe and orient our lives. Secular atheism stands in opposition to religious fundamentalism, and the error of both camps is their fixation on god. Does god exist or not?

People are made to feel as if they must take a side on the issue. They are “true believers” if they say yes, “atheist unbelievers” if they say no. Post-theism regards both sides of the debate as caught on a technicality. The mythological god is our own invention, a long historical project (and projection) of our creative imagination, the reflex and representation of our confrontation with ultimate reality.

In other words, we didn’t just “think god up” one day because we were bored or confused or lonely. An experience of the real presence of mystery provoked – and still provokes, from those who haven’t entirely lost their sensitivity to the depths of life – an outpouring of rhythm, dance, song, poetry, imagery, metaphor, myth and the mythological god. All of this was – and is – very spontaneous, wonderfully playful and unselfconscious.

With each additional “layer” of creative output, we have gradually come to see more of ourselves in our art. Now, in this cultural moment of post-theism, a growing number of us are realizing that the mythological god is really the advancing ideal of our own evolving nature. For the longest time, this creative process was so much a part of us that we simply took these impressions of mystery and expressions of meaning as separate from ourselves, existing “out there” and on their own.

In an earlier day we could debate the existence of (our) god or refute the existence of (their) god. Today it’s less important, even a distraction. But there’s more at stake than ever before. Heschel’s “depth theology” helps us look back at the path that has led to where we are, but it also gives us better vision for what still lies ahead. We don’t need to abandon theology (god talk) or throw aside the mythological god. Instead we might learn how to read the depth-soundings of our own spiritual life, treating all this theological labor as so much experiential code rather than supernatural revelation.

Our experience of the present mystery of reality is profound and ineffable. We are in it all the time, but only rarely does our consciousness open sufficiently so as to be overwhelmed by its preciousness, power and depth. In “normal” mode – or what is effectively our trance-state of everyday life – our attention and energy are devoted to the priorities of our tribe. Dutifully we fall in line and roll along the grooves of morality in our pursuit of happiness. But when it does happen, when the box breaks open and reality rushes in, we catch our breath in terror, amazement, ecstasy, or holy recognition.

Human beings are body-and-soul, with an ego squeezing out in the middle and making it seem as if we are bodies with souls, or souls with bodies. In our confrontation with ultimate reality – or I should say, shortly thereafter – we begin to process our experience by feeling its lift and impact, thinking through its meaning and implications, and letting it move us into creative action. Or not, depending on how spiritually grounded and open-minded we are to the mystery; or how flexible, encouraging, and spiritually attuned our tribe is.

Post-theism insists that we still need god; that myth, theology and organized religion retain an important place along the arching line of our evolution as a species. We just see them differently now. We see them as having come out of us, not as dropping out of heaven. We see them as creative expressions of a profound and inexpressible experience – which is a paradox we can celebrate and don’t need to fear.

We see them as suggestions and guideposts of a way still unfolding, intimations of the possible human. Join the movement.


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Metaphors of God

Heschel: “God is every [human being’s] pedigree. He is either the Father of all people or of no one. The image of God is either in every individual or in no one. God’s covenant is with all people, and we must never be oblivious of the equality of the divine dignity of all people. The image of God is in the criminal as well as in the saint. How can my regard for others be contingent upon their merit, if I know that in the eyes of God I myself may be without merit!”

Like spiders spinning webs, humans construct meaning. We live always in the present mystery of reality – or in the real presence of mystery – but we live (and will die) for meaning. From the time we’re still in the womb our brain is not only regulating the homeostasis of the body, but is also gathering information from the environment in the form of basic, very visceral impressions. Perhaps the most “primordial” of all such impressions is our sense of the degree in which the supporting reality of our existence is providential.

Awareness arises in the brain beginning at the level of individual nerve cells, which have evolved the ability to carry electrical charges and spritz chemical messages to their neighbors. These chemicals (called neurotransmitters) serve to amplify or suppress the wave of energy, and as it makes its way across the tiny gaps separating the cells it becomes information and “jumps” to the level of circuits – lines and loops of brain cells “talking” to each other.

Distinct circuits of local communication proceed to link together in networks, pulling information from the various outposts of brain specialization (the various lobes and centers dedicated to processing specific kinds of information like visual, auditory, motion, and so forth). Finally – and this is all happening in fractions of a second – all this cross-talk up and down, back and forth, enables the brain to construct a representation of experience, a meaning of mystery.

I said “finally,” but there’s more. Next the brain makes associations of this momentary representation with many others it has kept on record (in memory). Complicated and historically deep mental maps of our experienced reality are then correlated into a single and fairly seamless worldview, which is the spider’s web we inhabit and maintain throughout our lives.

You should be visualizing a neural latticework arranged hierarchically from individual cells to circuits to networks to a broad-scale symphony of cross-talk among the major brain regions, all working to produce the web of meaning called a worldview. From the far edges of our constructed world picture, we could trace a winding path back down through this complicated webwork and into our moment-by-moment experience of life. This is where we hold our deepest impressions of reality, whether and to what degree we are supported in the larger mystery of being.

Of course, the brain itself doesn’t know that all of this is its own invention, a mere representation or facsimile of the ineffable energy field of reality. It probably doesn’t care. As long as it can manage to produce a worldview adaptive to our various life-environments and give us a chance for reproductive success, it’s done its job. Only with the emergence of a self-aware ego – a center of personal identity – does the philosophical question of truth present itself.

For instance, Heschel invokes the metaphor of God as father, which is itself part of a relational model (since “father” only makes sense in relation to “child”). Where is truth in this metaphor? Are we to take it literally, where God is regarded as a being who is like a father to us? The philosophical position of metaphysical realism supports such a literal reading. (This is the basic assumption that the mythological god, the narrative character who is found in the sacred stories of most cultures, exists outside our myths in just the way he is represented in our myths.)

But the evolution of human consciousness has moved us to the place now where metaphysical realism is no longer tenable. In fact, the force of religion, denominational membership and church attendance in our day have fallen off dramatically. Some well-intentioned but increasingly desperate pundits are recommending better marketing gimmicks or innovative outreach strategies, when the real problem (in my opinion) is that the postmodern mind is finding it harder to believe in a god who’s not around anymore.

The solution is neither to abandon our myths and the mythological god, nor to insist dogmatically on their literal truth; the way through is not atheism or religious fundamentalism. Post-theism provides the investigative space where we can take our metaphors seriously, but not literally. How would that look?

Heschel’s metaphor of God as father is not a reference to the mythological god of the Bible, but rather to the present mystery of reality beneath, within and all around us. It’s not that god (a separate and supernatural being) is like a father to us, or that he is literally the father of Jesus the son, as the German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg argued in a lecture I attended back in my seminary days. Strictly speaking, the mythological god is only related to other fictional characters who share narrative space with him (or her). To the brains of storytellers who make up the myths, the mythological god is a metaphor of something else, which I’m calling the present mystery of reality.

Reality is “father” in the way it sources our existence and provides for our needs. God as “mother” is another, even older metaphor for the way mystery contains and nurtures us. Because this real presence is the grounding support and generative life fuse in everyone, all human beings possess a “divine dignity” – even if we regularly fall short of fully expressing it in the way we live. Whereas our egos may get puffed up and strut around in self-importance, thinking “I” am better than the rest, at the level of soul our dignity as human beings is intrinsic to each and equal among all. Saints don’t have more of it, and criminals don’t have less.

My theory is that most of the small-mindedness, internal tensions and sectarian conflicts of religion are really a symptom of an underlying spiritual anxiety. For one reason or another, many have lost faith in a provident reality. Or perhaps we have climbed so high into our worldviews and gotten tangled up in our webs of meaning, that now we dangle over an apparent abyss, afraid to let go.

But we can let go. There’s more to life than just what it means.


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Necessary Idols

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.


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Always Here

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.


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Breakpoint for Religion

Heschel: “You can affect a person only if you reach his [or her] inner life, the level where every human being is insecure and feels his [or her] incompleteness, the level of awareness that lies beyond articulation.

“The soul is discovered in response, in acts of transcending the self, in the awareness of ends that surpass one’s interest and needs.”

Insecurity has two very different meanings. For Watts and Heschel (and I assume Nietzsche would concur), it describes the fact of our existence – that our survival is not guaranteed, nor are the conditions always favorable for our personal happiness and fulfillment. That’s just the way it is. The grand adventure of life and its evolutionary course in time is inherently precarious, fraught with challenges, and dependent on environmental conditions all along the way. Some environments are hospitable to living things, and some aren’t. The fact that every living organism is to an important degree at the mercy of factors outside its control makes its existence “insecure.”

Watts, especially, uses the term “insecurity” to refer to a feeling that can overwhelm the human organism. When you feel insecure, you are anxious to the point of panic over the otherwise natural limits on your ability to control what’s going on. This anxious feeling may then motivate you to take control – keeping others at a safe distance, for instance, or imposing your will on them. You might take out a stack of insurance policies against any and all possible risks.

With Heschel, insecure describes our human condition. As creatures, we are dependent on conditions of reality over which we have little authority or control. Take, for example, our need for oxygen. We can’t make oxygen, yet we need it to survive. The metabolic process that supports life in our cells, tissues and organs makes us dependent on the supply of oxygen from outside ourselves. If it isn’t there, we will die. This may sound as if we are characterizing life as internally vulnerable and weak – and in a way that is important to admit, life is (we might say) naturally deficient. None of us is “complete,” self-sufficient, or fully adequate to sustain life entirely on our own.

At the developmental level of ego where the focus shifts from  survival to identity, human existence continues to be insecure. We need belonging and recognition, but the social reality that might provide or withhold these is also outside our control. Humans that have been deliberately (or experimentally) deprived of social interaction not only end up relationally stunted as a consequence, but also fail to mature and die far earlier than normal.

Heschel refers to our “inner life” as that place where our insecurity and incompleteness are most acutely felt, which makes it sound as if the soul is something less than the transcendental center of immortality that popular religion makes it out to be. I admit, it is tempting to put the spiritual life of the soul at a level high above the temporal conditions of body and ego. While these are dependent and conditioned, soul is independent and without conditions. While they are susceptible to the complications of life in time, soul is utterly detached and immune.

Here’s the beautiful paradox: It is at the point of our deepest need, where we are absolutely dependent on what is beyond us – that is, where our insecurity is most evident and inescapable – that we are also connected to a larger reality. Our Western system of values regards dependency as weakness, as a flaw or breakdown in our intended design as self-standing and fully liberated beings. And while it does represent a limitation against our absolute freedom, need is where our presumption of self-reliance must be dropped in order to open up and receive what is needed. Dependency is where our own incompleteness may be painfully obvious, but it’s also where the larger web of life is providentially present to us.

True enough, I can simply “take” what I need and fail to respond in faith, wonder and gratitude. In all my self-preoccupation I may never become aware of my place in the grandeur of being. I need air, I need love. What’s in it for me? The rest be damned. But then, tangled up in my own insecurities and failing to respond, soul goes undiscovered.

The revolution begins tomorrow. I’ll feel better then.


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Faith For Today

Heschel: “Faith in the sense of being involved in the mystery of God and [humanity] is not the same as acceptance of definitive formulations of articles of belief. Even [one] who merely strives for faith in the living God is on the threshold of faith. The test is honesty and stillness.

“Our error is in the failure to understand that creed without faith is like a body without a heart. Just as faith may become blind, cruel, and fierce, creed may become shoddy, sterile, and deaf. Let us insist that alienation from dogma does not necessarily mean the loss of faith.”

I know that there are many more like me, for whom the traditional doctrines are not only uninteresting but irrelevant; not only unrelated to our daily lives but frequently offensive to our intelligence and ethical sensibilities. I know because I’ve met them, many thousands of them along the way. There are millions more all around the planet.

Doctrines – including the Big Ones, called dogmas – are derived from myths, sacred stories of gods and heroes, saviors and saints, revelations and miracles. The myths, in turn, are dramatic narratives that take place against a backdrop of cultural assumptions called a worldview. Such stories may explain how this world came into being or where it’s all going. As long as they are compatible with our mental model of the universe they can be said to make sense.

For millenniums religion was the official storyteller of culture. Ancient myths oriented human life in a universe conducted by hidden agencies whose intentions weren’t altogether apparent, and often required ritual supplication or appeasement in order to move in our favor. To the degree that human action was maintained in accordance with these hidden powers, the cultural order was preserved.

At some point, the objective of religious observance shifted from world maintenance to individual salvation – gaining escape from time and the body and living forever with God, who had by this time withdrawn from the world (escaped his own body) into a separate realm of pure spirit.

This “recession of God” from the world coincided with a growing human fascination over the composition and mechanics of the universe – giving birth to science. Without a fall-back explanation that invoked supernatural agencies making and moving the universe, science began telling very different stories. It also had its priests (researchers) and storytellers (theorists), its rituals (the experimental method) and temples (laboratories).

For a while, the older mental model would have to be periodically modified to accommodate the new discoveries. But eventually the three-story floor plan had to be abandoned. Then the division in history between an age of revelation and “these last days” had to be scrapped. And now the dualism of God and world, soul and body, “us” (the saved) and “them” (the lost) is becoming meaningless – except when a raving prophet or raging politician succeeds in agitating the insecurity of our freedom. Strangely, but perhaps not surprisingly, we can be suddenly willing to throw our support behind “whatever it takes” to feel secure again.

How is a person of today supposed to “hold faith” in a religion whose worldview is obsolete? If a god “up there” has relinquished the earth to human industry and its toxic by-products; if a soul “in here” has pulled attention and care away from our bodies and the physical environment; and if a preoccupation with a life after this one has justified our indifference to the pressing concerns of today – what are we to do?

When a cultural worldview, its mythology, and the dogmatic beliefs that have anchored it in our minds and hearts no longer “work” to orient us meaningfully in the universe, are we forced to believe it anyway (fundamentalism) or else scrap the whole business?

Heschel reminds us that faith – an existential stance of basic trust in life – is not reducible to the orthodoxy of any generation. Our task is to find creative and relevant ways of cultivating faith for today. We live in the same mystery as did those before us. There has always been, and will forever be, a holy presence at the heart of reality.


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From Having Answers to Having to Answer

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.


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