Monday, November 06, 2006

Another Heschel Quote

In September I posted on a Heschel quote about the decline of religion. While Troy was the only person to respond, so I can't say that this is back by popular demand or because it was such a rousing success, here is another thought-provoking quote by rabbi/philosopher/activist/mystic Abraham Joshua Heschel, again from his God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism. Perhaps I'm posting it because I really like these three paragraphs, perhaps I'm posting it because I need more typing practice, perhaps I'm posting it because I think that it will generate good conversation, or perhaps I'm posting it because, while I feel the need to write something profound while I'm off work nursing my wounded wing, I simply can't come up with anything. Whatever the reason, here's what Heschel has to say about the relationship between religion and language:

It is impossible to define "goodness," or "fact," not because they stand for something irrational or meaningless, but because they stand for ideas that surpass the limitations of any definition; they are super-rational rather than subrational. We cannot define "the holy" or utter in words what we mean by "blessed be He." What the "holy" refers to, what we mean by "blessed be He," lies beyond the reach of words...

If our basic concepts are impregnable to analysis, then we must not be surprised that the ultimate answers are not attainable by reason alone. If it is impossible to define "goodness," "value," or "fact," how should we ever succeed in defining what we mean by God? Every religious act and judgment involves the acceptance of the ineffable, the acknowledgment of the inconceivable. When the basic issues of religion, such as God, revelation, prayer, holiness, commandments, are dissolved into pedestrian categories and deprived of sublime relevance, they come close to being meaningless.

The categories of religious thinking, as said above, are unique and represent a way of thinking on a level that is deeper than the level of concepts, utterances, symbols. It is immediate, ineffable, metasymbloic. Teachers of religion have always attempted to raise their insights to the level of utterance, dogma, creed. Yet such utterances must be taken as indications, as attempts to convey what cannot be adequately expressed, if they are not to stand in the way of authentic faith.


MadPriest said...

I really am sorry, but I don't agree with any of this. I may not be able to fully describe the divine but I must make an effort to. Although you can't say to people that you can know everything about god, you must let them know all that you do know. From a mission point of view (or a religious education point of view) nobody buys anything that is not described to them.

These are pretty words that mean nothing. They are a theological cop out. The job of a theologian is to provide the church with definitions and definition.

Hopefully, this will make 2 comments this time.

Sandalstraps said...

Mad Priest,

First off, thank you for your comment.

Now, a question:

Is it the same thing to say

a.) God cannot be known by reason alone, and cannot be adequately described by human language, and

b.) God cannot be known at all or described in any way?

It seems to me that Heschel is saying a.) and you are hearing b.) The distinction between the two is important.

Heschel's project is to make a sharp distinction between scientific reasoning and mysticism, and to establish that while scientific reasoning is very useful for understanding the natural world, mysticism is the path to God.

He may be making a "cop out" of sorts, but it is certainly not a theological one. In his work (and I know that the qoute here does not give you a full description of his work, but just a single nugget taken out of its oh so important context) he may fail to wrestle adaquately with both secualr humanism on the one hand and pantheism on the other (I think that he offers poor caricatures of both) but he certainly does not fail to wrestle with his own Jewish tradition. In fact, my biggest criticism of him is that he is too rooted in a religious tradition - the kind of rooting that is what I think you mean by "provid[ing] the church with definitions and definition" ; that is, a rooting which answers only the questions and concerns of tradition, taking that tradition as the given.

In other words, I'm not sure that you understood Heschel here, which is no surprise given the limited nature of the quote offered you. Perhaps you could try reading this quote again, with the distinction made at the top of this comment in mind, and see if you don't arrive at a different interpretation of the quote. You are certainly not bound to agree with Heschel, but I'm not sure that you are yet responding to him. Instead I think you are responding only to your reading of him, which is by the nature of this post a limited one, with at least one major misinterpretation of his project.

Tyler Simons said...

I'm not sure that we can't define goodness or fact. I doubt that we would all agree with any particular definition, but I think that we could come up with definitions that satisfy ourselves and argue reasonably over discrepancies.

Heschel, it seems to me, gets himself into a jam if he's actually trying to argue that "goodness," "value," or "God" are beyond or above reason. I have serious doubts as to whether reason can lead us to accepting the existence of something supra-rational.

Even if Heschel is saying simply, "God cannot be known by reason alone, and cannot be adequately described by human language," how can we evaluate his claim except by deciding whether or not it seems right according to our personal experience? If that's all we've got, it seems to me that the vision of God held by, say, a Barthian is no less wrong to me that that of someone who says that, essentially, God is purple and cow-like. That seems a little off.

Sandalstraps said...


Good points. That brings me to this question:

When we speak of the possibility or impossibility of knowing God, are we speaking primarily about propositional knowledge?

I ask in part because when you critique Heschel's approach, you do so by comparing propositional descriptions of God. And, while I don't think that Heschel is here bound to agree that all propositions concerning God have equal value, neither do I think than when he speaks of knowing God he means by that obtaining true propositions about God.

I think - and I may be wrong here - that his religious concern is less doctrinal, less dogmatic, and more, well, experiential. Religion as a path rather than religion as a set of beliefs. He certainly spends time talking about beliefs, but he also seems, especially here, to be removing belief from the center of religion.

As for the set up with the impossibility of defining words like "value" and "goodness," he builds off Plato's Charmides, where Socrates declares, in the end, that "temperance" can be known, but not defined. That is, one can internally know what temperance is, but be unable to articulate that knowledge, because one recognizes that each attempt to describe temperance is ultimately limited, and as such, flawed.

Heschel argues that many important concepts are that way, including the one's that he offers at the begining of this quote. He then says that we cannot properly define these terms, as you noted, not because they are beneath our reason, but because they are beyond it.

I agree with you, in that I'm not sure that part of the argument works. While I'm not sure that we can properly define those abstractions, I think that I disagree with Heshel as to why. Personally, I think that we can't comprehensively define abstractions because both our language and our concepts are fluid. Our use of words change, and our ideas about the virtues change. As such you cannot permanently affix a comprehensive definition to an abstract virtue because both the virtue and the words that describe it are in flux.

Either way, Heschel is using that discussion as an analogy for a different discussion, saying that God, like the virtues, cannot bepinned down by a comprehensive definition. As such, he is interested in propositional descriptions of God only secondarily. Primarily, God lies beyond the bounds of such distinctions. That is where he and I agree, and strangely, given my love for his thought and especially his writing - rigorous philosophy and theology which often reads like poetry - it is one of the few places where we agree.

Or, to get back to your example, I think that Heschel would say with me that both the Barthian and the person who says that God is purple and cow-like are wrong, but not equally wrong. I'm sure we'll have more on that later.

MadPriest said...

Fair comment.
But from a mission point of view I think that saying "I don't know" is better than making a statement (that is not based on anything other than supposition) that God is beyond knowing, or reasoning or (even worse) that God is a mystery.
All references in the Bible to an unknowable God are made by humans. Jesus gives us a picture of an incredibly powerful but a very knowable God who should be understand in very simple and human ways.

To say God is mysterious or to say you do not know all there is to know about God may sound like the same thing. But to the person in the street it is too different propositions. If you give the first they think you're bluffing, if you give the second they think you're being honest.

Sandalstraps said...


It is hard to read a concept of the divinity of Jesus into comments made by Abraham Heschel, since Heschel is Jewish. But, as we are Christians, who believe that in some way the nature of God is revealed in the person of Jesus, perhaps we ought to ask how that happens. In what way is God revealed through Jesus, and how does that bare on the current discussion?

You say

All references in the Bible to an unknowable God are made by humans. Jesus gives us a picture of an incredibly powerful but a very knowable God who should be understand in very simple and human ways.

In what way, however, does Jesus give us this picture? What is the nature of the picture, or the content of the picture?

Heschel is saying, principally, that God cannot be known as a proposition. That is, that there is no list of true statements about God which are obtainable through pure reason. In what way, if any, does this idea deviate from your understanding of how Jesus reveals God?

It does not seem to me that Jesus reveals a God accessible purely through human reason, nor does it seem to me that Jesus reveals a God who can be comprehensively expressed in human language. Rather, Jesus reveals a personal God, to be experienced, not understood. The promise of Jesus is not perfect knowledge of the metaphysical nature of God, but rather an experience of the presense of God.

Christianity itself is not reducible to a list of statements about God that are perfectly understood and agreed upon by all Christians. Rather, Christianity is an experience of God through Jesus as the Christ. It is that experience far more than any shared doctrine which unites Christians - especially since we Christians can't seem to agree on any metaphysical statement.

This problem is not unique to Christianity. Every religion has its internal disagreements. Those disagreements point to the fact that God cannot be reduced to a set of propositions on which all can or should agree. As such, God is not knowable through human reasoning, nor is God knowable in terms of human propositions. But rather than making God less real or less absolute, this makes God all the more real, the fundamental reality which transcends any description.

As such, God is knowable, but not in rational terms. Here is what Heschel has to say about the process of experiencing God and then reflecting on that experience, which is what he and I mean by theology:

... the certainty of the realness of God does not come about as a corollary of logical premises, as a leap from the realm of logic to the real of ontology, from an assumption to a fact. It is, on the contrary, a transition from a preconceptual awareness to a definite assurance, from being overwhelmed by the presence of God to an awareness of His existence. What we attempt to do in the act of reflection is to raise that preconceptual awareness to the level of understanding.

In senseing the spiritual dimension of all being, we become aware of the absolute reality of the divine. In formulating a creed, in asserting : God is, we are bringing down overpowering reality to the level of thought. Our thought is but an after-belief.

In other words, our belief in the reality of God is not a case of first possessing an idea and then postulating the ontal counterpart of it; or, to use a Kantian phrase, of first having the idea of a hundred dollars and then claiming to possess them on the basis of the idea. What obtains here is first the actual possession of the dollars and then the attempt to count the sum. There are possibilities of error in counting the notes, but the notes themselves are here.

Similarly, our theology is an attempt to describe what we have experienced. We start with the experience, and then attempt to describe that experience, understanding full well that our descriptions will never perfectly capture the experience.

But I'm not sure this has any disasterous implications for missions. In my experience, people thirst for an experience of God, and for a community to help them process that experience; not for a perfect description of the ineffable.

Most people I know, moreover (and, of course, "most people I know" doesn't count as a representative sample of anything) are suspicious of comprehensive descriptions of the divine, finding them self-delusions and limitations which interfere with the experience of God as God. To say, then, that God is a mystery that cannot be perfectly described, but can be experienced, does not exactly cut off the legs of missionaries.

And, just because all descriptions of God are in some way flawed does not make them equally flawed. We can still speak of our great theological tradition, our corporate attempts to describe our experience of God. And we can note that these descriptions, these theologies, help many, many people come into contact with God.

Brian Cubbage said...

I'm coming into the discussion a little late and a little hurriedly, so forgive me if I'm not helping. Are you saying, Sandman, that Heschel's point is that we do know God, just not inferentially? For instance, if I see footprints in the sand on the beach, I might reasonably infer that someone else is on the island with me. But I don't know the footprints on the sand inferentially; I just see them.

So what non-inferential knowing capacity allows us to know God? After all, we don't see God; we don't hear God; we don't sense God at all. (Right? Am I the only one who doesn't?) Maybe I "hear God's voice," maybe "God speaks to me," but not in any literal sense. What's happening, then?

Sandalstraps said...


Yes, I think that is a part of what Heschel is saying. But I don't think that is the whole thing.

For Heschel, as I understand him at least, knowing God is categorically different than any other kind of knowing. For him it is less about cognition or even inference, and more about intuition and what he calls "awe and wonder."

It would not surprise me, in fact, if he said that knowledge pertaining to God (which is not propositional knowledge, not a list of true statements about God, but rather some vague sense that behind absolutely everything there is God, along with some sort of religious experience of the presense of that God in a personal way) existed somewhere other than the brain.

I've been swimming in Bultmann today, but I'll go back through the Heschel I've got to see if he doesn't more specifically address inferential knowledge.

Brian Cubbage said...

Is knowing God "categorically different than any other kind of knowing" because we know God the same way we know other things, just via a different "pathway" than the one whereby we know the world? Or is it "categorically different" because it isn't knowledge in the same way as our knowledge of the world?

If it's the former, it sounds like Heschel is proposing a kind of "sixth sense" whereby we intuit God. Our minds would use whatever we get from that "sixth sense" alongside what they get from the five regular senses (along with whatever contribution they make themselves) and stitch together a picture of the world. If it's the latter, then perhaps our "knowledge" of God isn't really knowledge, but it isn't exactly less than knowledge, either. It's hard to say what it would be, but in any event it wouldn't be the sort of thing that could be corrected by checking it against other kinds of knowledge.

My preference is for the latter account, but I don't pretend to be able to address all of the problems it raises.

Sandalstraps said...


I actually take Heschel to be saying both, but like you prefer the latter to the former. He doesn't come out and spell these things out for us. But, for him, as pertains to God, "intuition" is of much greater value than "cognition." That is, we intuit God; we intuitively experience God. But, again, this comment suffers from my momentary swimming in Bultmann.