Thursday, September 21, 2006

Heschel on the Decline of Religion

Some of you know the strange path I took to getting my college degree. I flunked out of college not once but twice, wrestling with immaturity and undiagnosed mental illness. When I was twenty two years old, not sure when or if I would give school a third try, I got married. My marriage to Sami provided me with a safe and stable home environment. Her love an encouragment literal pushed me back into a classroon.

Just over a year after we got married, I enrolled in a community college, full of anxiety, and eager to see if all of the academic skills that others saw in me would translate into success in the classroom. To prepare for my return to school I put together a reading list to try to jump start my brain. I'd spent the years out of school working dead-end jobs while studying theology on my own. With theology as the only academic discipline I'd ever really known, my reading list was full of it. The summer before classes started I read copious doses of Bonhoeffer, Tillich, and H. Richard Niebuhr (but, for some reason, not the other Niebuhr. I also read a couple of more general books on Buddhism, especially Donald S. Lopez, Jr.'s The Story of Buddhism: A Concise Guide to its History and Teachings.

I don't know whether or not the reading list helped. I do know that when I went back to school I was as good a student as I was a bad one the first two times I'd tried college. I spent a year at the community college rehabilitationg my transcript, before tranferring to a state university. It took me three years (one at the community college and two at the university) to earn my bachelor's degree, with High Distinction, no small feat even if I hadn't been working as the Youth Minister of a United Methodist church the whole time.

If all goes as planned I'll be back in school - after a one year layoff - this spring, working on a Master of Arts in Religion as a stepping stone to a PhD or ThD, possibly in theological ethics. Remembering my old reading list, I've been putting together a new one, to re-jump start my brain. The last few weeks I've been studying contemporary issues in Judaism as a way to prepare myself to read Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's great God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism.

Heschel, Professor of Ethics and Mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (where he eventually eclipsed Mordecai Kaplan - responsible for the first bat mitzvah, a sign of the full inclusion of women in at least some forms of Judaism - as the dominant theological voice) was perhaps most famous outside of Judaism as an activist. He not only marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Civil Rights movement, he also spoke out against war and violence as a part of the peace movment. A brilliant and lucid scholar, he is a credit to the religion which produced him, and his insights spread far beyond the narrow scope of a single religion.

That is perhaps what attracts me to him most. While he writes within a religious tradition that is not my own (even if it is both - in the form of the religion of ancient Israel - a parent religion, and - in the form of the rabbincal Judaism which emerged after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE - a sister religion to my own Christianity), what he writes can inspire the practice of people of just about any faith.

Yesterday, with great anticipation, I finally picked up his most famous work, the aforementioned God in Search of Man (or, in the gender-inclusive language of our day, God in Search of Humanity, since Heschel doesn't here mean that God is seeking only those of us with a penis), and read this:

It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religionin modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion has declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion - its message becomes meaningless.

Religion is an answer to man's ultimate questions. The moment we become oblivious to ultimate questions, religion becomes irrelevant, and its crisis sets in. The primary task of philosophy of religion is to rediscover the questions to which religion is an answer. The inquiry must proceed both be delving into the consciousness of man as well as by delving into the teachings and attitudes of the religious tradition.


Those words which, first published in 1955, open Heshel's greatest book, still speak poignantly and powerfully today. In fact, perhaps they speak most powerfully today, in the midst of a culture war which pits religion against those bugaboos idenitfied by Heschel as "secular science and anti-religious philosophy." Religious people today are too often most fearful of any idea which seems to contradict the tennants of their belief system, as we confuse systematic belief with deep and abiding faith. As such we have a near war between science and religion, with evangelical parents either yanking their kids from the "Godless" public schools and thus financially crippling them, or, worse, working with political instiutions to change the fundamental character of public education. Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection - which Teilhard put to such good theological use - is, despite long being accepted science, under increased attack by people who mistake mythos for logos.

Thus science is pitted against religion, even though, as Heschel points out here, science and religion ask very different sorts of questions. But it is not just science which is pitted against religion. The culture wars place almost everything against religion, waging a war on too many fronts to name. In this suspicious environment, in which nothing is allowed to challenge the tennants of one's belief without being seen as a diabolical plan to steal faith from the faithful, Heschel's warning that religion is responsible for its own demise could not be more timely, even if it is now more than fifty years old.

Tomorrow, or perhaps this weekend or early next week (the great thing about blogs is there are no externally imposed publishing deadlines!) I will break down these two paragraphs in more detail. For now, however, we should simply meditate on them. I am interested to hear what other people think about the way Heschel opens his magnum opus on philosophy of religion in general and philosophy of Judaism in particular. So, if you're so inclined, leave a comment or send me an email, letting me know your take on Heschel's comments. What do you think he's saying, and is it valuable today?

1 comment:

Troy said...

This is very interesting, but I have to note that in America at least, much popular science has set itself up as in fact providing the true answers to the questions religion has asked and answered for so long.

Where do we come from? Random chemical and biological mutation, don't worry about it. Where are we going? No place, man, this is it. What am I? Ultimately, a highly complex set of biochemical reactions. Can I be saved from my anxiety? Well, maybe, but if not, there are some great new meds.

I am oversimplifying for time's sake, but for many, the Darwin fish with feet car-sticker is a meaningful symbol. Blindly naturalistic evolution, which has not been observed, is true history. Jesus' resurrection and miraculous life, which were observed and recorded, are the height of faith and fancy.

I'm willing to accept evolution, but there is no doubt that for many evolution precludes a deity and science and belief in its progress has replaced religion in the search for meaning.

t