The Wisdom of Abraham Joshua Heschel
Abraham Joshua Heschel was a Polish-born American rabbi and one of the leading Jewish theologians and philosophers of the 20th century. He was a prophetic genius, a voice deeply concerned about justice and human rights, and a strong advocate of Jewish-Christian dialogue. He had a profound insight into society and its discontents. Here are some quotes from his thought.
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Philosophy can be defined as the art of asking the right questions… Awareness of the problems outlives all solutions. The answers are questions in disguise, every new answer giving rise to new questions.
Wonder (awe) rather than doubt is the root of all knowledge. Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement … get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.
The worship of reason is arrogance and betrays a lack of intelligence. The rejection of reason is cowardice and betrays a lack of faith.
What is the meaning of my being? … My quest is not for theoretical knowledge about myself … What I look for is not how to gain a firm hold on myself and on life, but primarily how to live a life that would deserve and evoke an eternal Amen. What am I here for?
To be human is to be involved, to act and react, to wonder and respond. For humans to be is to play a part in the cosmic drama, knowingly or unknowingly. Living involves responsible understanding of one’s role in relation to all other beings.
We cannot restrain our bitter yearning to know whether life is nothing but a series of momentary physiological and mental processes, actions, and forms of behaviour, a flow of vicissitudes, desires, and sensations, running like grains through an hourglass, marking time only once and always vanishing … Is life nothing but an agglomeration of facts, unrelated to one another–chaos camouflaged by illusion?
Humans are more than what they are to themselves. In reason the human may be limited, in will perhaps wicked, yet the human stands in a relation to God which one may betray but not sever, and which constitutes the essential meaning of life. The human is the knot in which heaven and earth are interlaced. God in the universe is a spirit of concern for life … We often fail in trying to understand him not because we do not know how to extend our concepts far enough, but because we do not know how to begin close enough. To think of God is not to find him as an object in our minds, but to find ourselves in him.
A religious man is a person who holds God and man in one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair.
God is not a hypothesis derived from logical assumptions, but an immediate insight, self-evident as light. He is not something to be sought in the darkness with the light of reason. He is the light.
Faith is not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart.
People of our time are losing the power of celebration. Instead of celebrating we seek to be amused or entertained. Celebration is an active state, an act of expressing reverence or appreciation. To be entertained is a passive state–it is to receive pleasure afforded by an amusing act or a spectacle … Celebration is a confrontation, giving attention to the transcendent meaning of one’s actions.
A test of a people is how it behaves toward the old. It is easy to love children. Even tyrants and dictators make a point of being fond of children. But the affection and care for the old, the incurable, the helpless are the true gold mines of a culture.
The Search for reason ends at the known; on the immense expanse beyond it only the sense of the ineffable can glide. It alone knows the route to that which is remote from experience and understanding. Neither of them is amphibious: reason cannot go beyond the shore, and the sense of the ineffable is out of place where we measure, where we weigh. We do not leave the shore of the known in search of adventure or suspense or because of the failure of reason to answer our questions. We sail because our mind is like a fantastic seashell, and when applying our ear to its lips we hear a perpetual murmur from the waves beyond the shore. Citizens of two realms, we all must sustain a dual allegiance: we sense the ineffable in one realm, we name and exploit reality in another. Between the two we set up a system of references, but we can never fill the gap. They are as far and as close to each other as time and calendar, as violin and melody, as life and what lies beyond the last breath.
Remember that there is meaning beyond absurdity. Know that every deed counts, that every word is power … Above all, remember that you must build your life as if it were a work of art.
Morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.
There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious. Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time; to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year.
We stand on a razor’s edge. It is so easy to hurt, to insult, to kill. Giving birth is a mystery; bringing death to millions is but a skill. It is not quite within the power of the human will to generate life; it is quite within the power of the will to destroy life.
Creation is not an act that happened once upon a time, once and forever. The act of bringing the world into existence is a continuous process. God called the world into being, and that call goes on. There is this present moment because God is present. Every instant is an act of creation. A moment is not a terminal but a flash, a signal of Beginning. Time is perpetual innovation, a synonym for continuous creation.
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See Professor Ron Dart’s new book The North American High Tory Tradition (American Anglican Press, 2016)
A significant struggle began in the year 1776 over the fate of a continent, and there are those who believe that this struggle ended in the year 1783, with the ancient ways of the Old World being given over entirely to those of a New. Is it true, however, that the end of what has been called ‘The First American Civil War’ saw the complete victory of the republican way, and the banishment of the older Tory tradition from these shores? The North American High Tory Tradition tells another story, one in which a different vision for life in North America emerges from the cold of the True North where its flame has been kept burning until the present day. George Grant (1918-1988), the most influential High Tory intellectual of the 20th century, warned us in his Lament for a Nation of the collision course which lies ahead for these two different ‘North Americas’–that embodied in the Dominion of the North, and that in the Republic to its South. Is the disappearance of the Tory alternative an inevitable fate to our future as ‘North Americans’? In The North American High Tory Tradition Ron Dart shines light upon the classical lineage, deep wisdom and enduring nature of the High Tory tradition as it has been planted and grown in the soil of North America, and in doing so reveals how Canada may serve as a north star to lead North Americans to a different destiny than that planned for them by a certain few in 1776.
I am enjoying the insights (historical, moral, philosophical and political) of this well-written book. The reflections are rooted in some of the key shapers of the Canadian identity. We need sane, substantial voices and balance amidst today’s sometimes bizarre political theatrics, growth of populism and the ideology of image. I would also recommend highly the book by Chief UK Rabbi Jonathan Sacks called The Dignity of Difference; it is a fair treatment/critique of religion and globalization. One might also view on the same theme Yale professor Miraslov Volf’s insightful 2016 book, Flourishing: why we need religion in age of globalization. ~Gord Carkner
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UHejQDNwARk Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Modern thought raises no barriers to a future nihilistic war against liberal democracy on the part of those who have been brought up in its bosom. Relativism–the doctrine that all values are merely relative and which attacks all ‘privileged perspectives’–must ultimately end up undermining democratic and tolerant values as well. Relativism is not a weapon that can be aimed selectively at the enemies one chooses. It fires indiscriminately, shooting out the legs of not only the ‘absolutisms’, dogmas, and certainties of the Western tradition, but the tradition’s emphasis on tolerance, diversity, and freedom of thought as well. If nothing can be true absolutely, if all values are culturally determined, then cherished principles like human equality have to go by the wayside as well. Francis Fukuyama, The End of History (1992, 332)
Mankind…is not merely the maximizing animal. We are also, uniquely, the meaning-seeking animal. (J.Sacks, The Dignity of Difference, 194)
Man was not made for the service of economies; economies were made to serve mankind; and men and women were made–so I believe–to serve one another, not just themselves. We may not survive while others drown; we may not feast while others starve; we are not free when others are in servitude; we are not well when billions languish in disease and premature death. (J. Sacks, The Dignity of Difference, 196)
Economic superpowers, seemingly invincible in their time, live a relatively short life-span: Venice in the sixteenth century, the Netherlands in the seventeenth, France in the eighteenth, Britain in the nineteenth, and the United States in the twentieth. The great religions, by contrast, survive…. Why this should be so is open to debate. My own view is that the world faiths embody truths unavailable to economics and politics, and they remain salient even when everything else changes. They remind us that civilizations survive not by strength but by how they respond to the weak; not by wealth but by the care they show for the poor; not by power but by their concern for the powerless. The ironic yet utterly humane lesson of history is that what renders a culture invulnerable is the the compassion it shows to the vulnerable. The ultimate value we should be concerned to maximize is human dignity–the dignity of all human beings, equally, as children of the creative, redeeming God. (J. Sacks, The Dignity of Difference, 195)
I have proposed a simple set of ideas that might guide us in the choppy waters ahead. Control means taking responsibility and refusing to see economic or political development as inevitable. Contribution means that there is a moral dimension to economics. Advertisers who mislead, producers who turn a blind eye to inhumane working conditions and starvation wages, beneficiaries of the system who do not share their time and blessings with others, are unacceptable whether or not what they do is legal. Compassion means that developing countries must take seriously their obligation to the world’s poor, protecting their independence while opening up ways of escaping from poverty. Creativity suggests that (not the only, but) the best way of doing this is through investment in education. Co-operation tells us that market do not survive on competition alone. They presuppose virtues and what I have called covenantal relationships, without which the Prisoner’s Dilemma tells us that individual self-interest will fail to generate collective good. Conservation reminds us of our duties to nature and to the future, without which the pace of economic growth will merely be a measure of the speed at which we approach the abyss…. Freedom means restraint. (J. Sacks, The Dignity of Difference, 174)
The Incarnate One
by Edwin Muir
The windless northern surge, the sea-gull’s scream,
And Calvin’s kirk crowning the barren brae.
I think of Giotto the Tuscan shepherd’s dream,
Christ, man and creature in their inner day.
How could our race betray
The Image, and the Incarnate One unmake
Who chose this form and fashion for our sake?
The Word made flesh here is made word again
A word made word in flourish and arrogant crook.
See there King Calvin with his iron pen,
And God three angry letters in a book,
And there the logical hook
On which the Mystery is impaled and bent
Into an ideological argument.
There’s better gospel in man’s natural tongue,
And truer sight was theirs outside the Law
Who saw the far side of the Cross among
The archaic peoples in their ancient awe,
In ignorant wonder saw
The wooden cross-tree on the bare hillside,
Not knowing that there a God suffered and died.
The fleshless word, growing, will bring us down,
Pagan and Christian man alike will fall,
The auguries say, the white and black and brown,
The merry and the sad, theorist, lover, all
Invisibly will fall:
Abstract calamity, save for those who can
Build their cold empire on the abstract man.
A soft breeze stirs and all my thoughts are blown
Far out to sea and lost. Yet I know well
The bloodless word will battle for its own
Invisibly in brain and nerve and cell.
The generations tell
Their personal tale: the One has far to go
Past the mirages and the murdering snow.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation. T.S. Eliot
The Imago Dei, God’s Icon
The wonder of the incarnation presents humanity with the possibility of full, but finite, personal embodiment of logos, the will and wisdom of the divine. As a fleshly, personal wisdom, it sets out an alternative paradigm from self-mastery, self-invention and self-promotion. Jesus is the image (icon) of God that we long for in our honest moments, the most excellent representative of God on earth. He is fully God and fully human. In this way, he provides an exemplar of life lived in the presence of God, offering us an archetype of human goodness that is inspired by heaven. Stephen Long (2001) appeals to the moral normativity of the life of Jesus, revealing that we are hard wired for such a transcendent relationship.
In Christian theology, Jesus reveals to us not only who God is but also what it means to be truly human. This true humanity is not something we achieve on our own; it comes to us as a gift … The reception of this gift contains an ineliminable element of mystery that will always require faith. Jesus in his life, teaching, death and resurrection and ongoing presence in the church and through the Holy Spirit … orders us towards God. He directs our passions and desires towards that which can finally fulfill them and bring us happiness. (D.S. Long, 2001, 106-7)
Transcendent goodness is made present and accessible in the human sphere through the incarnation. It offers us a transcendent turn to a new kind of humanism centered in agape love. Transcendence of the strong variety (C. Schrag, 1997, 110-48) does not mean aloofness or indifference. It is not a burdensome, or unreachable, abstract standard of perfectionism. Rather, it is a creative, palpable engagement with the world, including individuals, society and public institutions. Jesus shows that this goodness can be lived out in the human theatre. The final litmus test of a good moral philosophy is its applicability, its praxis.
Jesus provides such an interpretive lens for the human imagination. Although this claim is challenging to grasp, Paul in Colossians 1: 15-20 speaks of Jesus as the source and ‘glue’ of creation and the purpose or end (telos) of creation, both its creative alpha and omega, beginning and trajectory. He is above all things in creation and at the same time the creative basis, the very ground of being. He is that without which nothing would exist, without which this very text would be meaningless. All the fullness of God dwells in him. He is God incarnate, in the flesh, fully God and fully man, as the Athanasian tradition states. In him, God’s eternity connects with creation’s temporality. Paul writes it large: “Jesus is the Yes and Amen to it all” (II Corinthians 1: 18-21). He affirms the human condition while transforming it and setting out new vision for moral capacity in both individual and societal identity.
In his thoughtful book on the subject, J. Richard Middleton (The Liberating Image, 2005) claims that Jesus accomplishes all that was anticipated in humans to become a proper regent of God on earth. He faithfully fulfilled this vocation as that strategic representative. Jesus is the complete human, a fullness of humanity, the true icon of God. He is the presence of God in the world, the nexus of the eternal and the temporal. It is an inbreaking of heaven into our time-space continuum. He is a powerful exemplar of divine goodness, to direct our passions and show us the way to live robustly, honestly, humbly and justly. He came to take us higher, out of the murky shadows of our lies, lust for power, addictions and deceptions, and into the light. In the popular television program Scandal, Olivia Pope the fixer, is hired to save people’s reputation in the halls of power in Washington, D.C. She sees so much darkness that at times, she longs to leave it all, quit her job, and step out into the light. Jesus is the reason for this human longing for a noble character and true virtue, for doing the right thing even if it not the easy thing, a longing to remain faithful to one’s highest convictions.
He is the fulfillment of all the promises made to the ancient Hebrew patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Israel) and the prophetic utterances and longings of the Old Testament, the Jewish Messiah, fulfilling the promise of redemption, renewal, and justice for the poor. Humans have spent much time anticipating someone who could show a better way to do politics, to save us from our own destructive narcissism, violence and vengeance, while teaching us the higher wisdom of God. His life is a unique story, a powerful human narrative of restoration and renewal. The Christ story is the apex of God’s compassionate, redemptive interest in humanity.
~an excerpt from The Great Escape from Nihilism: rediscovering our passion in late modernity.
Christmas Reading List
The Language Animal: the full shape of human linguistic capacity by Charles Taylor (2016)
Grit: the Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth (Collins, 2016)
Nujeen: One Girl’s Incredible Journey from War-Torn Syria in a Wheelchair by Nujeen Mustafa and Christina Lamb, Harper Collins
Rising Strong: the Reckoning, the Rumble, the Revolution by Brené Brown (Speigel and Grau, 2015)
Faith and Wisdom in Science by Tom McLeish (OUP, 2014)
The Age of Jihad: Islamic State and the Great War for the Middle East by Patrick Cockburn (Verso, 2016)
For the Glory: Olympic Legend Eric Liddell’s Journey of Faith and Survival by Duncan Hamilton
Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lyndal Roper (2016)
Identity and Idolatry: The Image of God and its Inversion by Richard Lints (IVP)
Last Testament: in his own words by Pope Benedict XVI (Bloomsbury Continuum, 2016)
The Great Escape from Nihilism by Gordon Carkner
Regent Bookstore a great place to find a wide selection of books, cards, etc
Advent Reflections 2016
Just at the right time, kairos time, he comes to dwell among us in incarnate flesh: pulsating corpuscles, arms and legs running to greet us, face filled with compassion, hands breaking bread to feed the masses, words that give life and vision. Here lies the grand invitation to counter nihilism, violence, will to power, to search into the deeper things of life, reach higher for a transcendent encounter with divine Otherness. It is time to ponder the big questions of meaning, purpose and identity: the profound light that shines in the darkness of our world. There is more to this than meets the eye. We need our best philosophers, historians and scholars, poets and scientists to work on this investigation. There are clues to a great quest here. What kind of in breaking is this? How does it connect with our history? What’s the meaning of this virgin birth, this epiphany of grace, these angelic visitations, this gift, this cosmic wonder, this explosion of the imagination? Advent is a sign of that and more…
We have touched him with our hands, rubbed shoulders, felt his robust embrace, dined and broke bread together, listened to wisdom that set our minds on fire, felt his care and inclusion, captured a mission that drove us to reach the world with a compelling love. We saw him die and rise again, ascend through the heavens. Divine presence is with us in his Holy Spirit. It has unleashed an economy of grace and goodness, humility and compassion. The pregnant Mary sings her Magnificat, saying an awe-filled Yes to God’s work in and through her: “Things hidden for centuries have become so crystal clear tonight. Insight and justice have set up a new epistemology, a new way of knowing and being, a new world where love is the main game in town, where peace-making and blessing (shalom) are our politics. It is a new playing field, a new paradigm, a new human narrative. Infinite meets finite like a comet burning through the atmosphere; divine goodness ushers in hope of healing; a new future is born. Our people, our human race, have longed for this for centuries only in our wildest dreams, feeding on divine promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, David. Once we could only hope for such wondrous things. Now they are tangible, palpable, life-transforming.” What a reality check Advent brings to us.
Christians claim Jesus as God’s Word (divine logos) made flesh, dwelling among us. Here God’s speech is embodied, full-blooded, not flat and lifeless, not reductionistic or atomistic. It is a sign, a communicative action (Kevin Vanhoozer, 2009), much more than the mere letters. It is poetic, prophetic, pedagogical, full of spiritual vitality revealed in a tangible historic person. The language of incarnation leverages the world and transforms individuals; it is strategically located within the human story, not a fantasy. The incarnation is the only adequate reply to the challenges of dissolution (loss of connection between word and world). There is much to grapple with as we see in Jens Zimmermann’s scholarship on the subject.
Christ the creative wisdom of God, and God’s active Word in creation, is enfleshed in the temporal-historical dimension of our world as the concrete Jewish Messiah, Jesus the Christ…. This is the Word through whom all things were made, and the Word hid in the eternal bosom of God, the Word who spoke through the prophets, the Word whose mighty acts defined the history of Israel. In Jesus the Christ this Word has become flesh, and the eternal has become temporal, but without ceasing to be eternal…. In Christ temporality and eternity are conjoined…. In the incarnation, creation, the world, time and history have been taken up into the God-man, who isthe center of reality…. Faith and reason are inseparable because their unity is in Christ. (J. Zimmermann, Incarnational Humanism, pp. 264-5)
Language (speech act) starts with creation: God spoke and the heavens, the stars, the seas, the plants and trees and living creatures, man and woman came into existence in abundance. They continue to do so (creatio continua). God’s word was enacted in a particular place and time in history. It makes space for new drama. There is intense presence and place; God has carved out space and time for his presence. When humans are addressed by God (the whole premise of Judeo-Christianity), they are drawn up into a divine dialogue, to reason and commune with their Creator, their ultimate mentor. They are identified, loved and valued. A perlocutionary act is a robust speech act that produces an effect in those addressed through the speaker’s utterance. God speech has impact in all of human culture. Theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (R. Gawronski, 1995, Word and Silence) sees the Word of God revealed in three rich and powerful ways: Creation, Scripture, and Incarnation, three different types of language, each powerful in its own right, each complementary to the integrity and impact of the others, using both traditions of language culture. The incarnation is God’s megaphone to late modernity with all its challenges, conundrums, contradictions and struggles.
See also Chapter 10 “Incarnational Humanism Offers a Recovery of our Passion” in The Great Escape from Nihilism.
Tom McLeish’s The Medieval Big Bang Talk at St. John’s College https://youtu.be/JFFt0kUIlWA
Tom McLeish GFCF Talk at UBC https://youtu.be/m5cmTFPCzt4
Tom McLeish is an original and creative thinker, a broadly informed intellect and a super nice and approachable guy. A deeply curious person, he is offering a game-changing perspective on contemporary debates of science and religion, science and the humanities. He restores our sense of awe and wonder at our place in the cosmos and also our responsibility for it. Professor McLeish represents science while drawing on insights from a wide variety of disciplines (history, medieval studies, poetics, sociology, art, a variety of sciences) to weave his tapestry and to give us fresh eyes of delight. He has spoken at SFU, downtown Vancouver, Regent College and UBC GFCF, Trinity Western University, plus a lunchtime discussion on Chaos and Creativity. His lectures just keep getting better and richer each time, and the question engagement extends the insights and delicately increases the nuance. His book Faith and Wisdom in Science is a gem stone, as Dr. Olav Slaymaker says in his review. Friday evening, he spoke at St. John’s College, a graduate college and residence at UBC of people from around the globe. He claims that ‘science’ is the current chapter of a longer book of natural philosophy, the love of wisdom about natural things. Imagine love and wisdom as brother and sister to science, as driver of the purpose of science. Imagine science as therapy for the soul. He taps into a long human quest to find a healing relationship to the whole cosmos, to move beyond ignorance, fear and violence to covenant. Tom works hard to dispel and expose myths that distort the truth, keep us down and cause us to be fearful. Walker Percy wrote about how we are currently lost in the cosmos; Tom promotes serious deep theological reflection about our home in the cosmos. It is a brilliant manifesto that has ancient roots. His leverage is especially the last few chapters of Job, chapters 38-41, the “snowy peak of biblical wisdom literature” as he put it. He thereby redeems modern science within a biblical worldview of God’s call to join him in seeing the world afresh and to renew our relationship with nature. Five days of genius indeed. It has been a truly outstanding week. The climax was Friday evening.
We’ll post the video link to the talks soon! Many thanks to everyone who participated on all four campuses and downtown. Let’s have some follow-up discussion.
“Very interesting Watson.”
Quick Notes on the Talks:
Science is part of a larger culture. Classically, it was the love of wisdom about natural things.
Science is participative, relational, co-creative work within the overall kingdom of God for healing the broken relationship of humans and nature. It involves the critical factor of a broken covenant between humans and rocks.
Science is not about answers but more about the right creative questions.
The biblical narrative, upon deeper reflection, is deeply rooted in nature from beginning to end, as is the book of Job.
Job in his search for wisdom finds himself alongside God looking into creation with all the good, the bad and the ugly (cosmos and chaos). God asks him to step up to his imago dei status to see (behold) more deeply.
The book of Job is God’s answer to suffering in a poem of questions, not answers. As we know, suffering can very well lead us to wisdom. It depends on how we respond to it.
We need to proceed with a deeper kind of seeing in order to get beyond the kind of myths that block our vision, freeze our intellect, and stifle our creativity. It is a call beyond fear, ignorance and violence.
Wisdom is seeing the deep structure of nature. Nature is taken as the way to wisdom in this part of Job. This offers much to reflect upon.
Wisdom comes from a healthy respect for the otherness of God and the otherness of nature.
In healthy biological life, there is a layer of dynamic chaos below the order. Order, in fact, cannot exist without chaos.
Science and the arts are two sides of the same coin, an attempt to grapple with and re-present reality, re-present cosmos.
Tom, at the end of the day, is pursuing a theology of nature, a theology of science. He wants the big picture to give us a fresh vision of science’s potential to lead us to wisdom. This is a radical paradigm shift in the science-religion relationship.
The Last event was Friday at 6:00 pm Pizza Dinner and Talk by Professor Tom McLeish at St. John’s College: The Medieval Big Bang: an Interdisciplinary Tale
Faith and Wisdom in Science presents science as the current flourishing of a very old and deeply human story. Weaving material from the modern science of the unpredictable together with ancient biblical and historical material it takes a fresh approach to the ‘science and religion’ debate – taking a scientist’s reading of the enigmatic and beautiful Book of Job as a centrepiece, and asking what science might ultimately be for. It makes the case for a story as human as any other – pain, love, desire, reconciliation, risk and healing emerge as surprising ingredients without which science is rootless. Rather than conflicting with faith, science can be seen as a deeply religious activity. There are urgent messages for the way we both celebrate and govern science.
New Book that challenges to hegemony of scientism and promotes a broader interdisciplinary view of science and the humanities: The Great Escape from Nihilism: rediscovering our passion in late modernity. https://ubcgcu.org/new-book-release-the-great-escape/