Since Messianic Judaism is a hybrid of Judaism and Christianity, I had the bright idea of doing a blog series on a great, modern thinker from Judaism and another from Christianity. Obviously (many will agree) the choice for Judaism is Abraham Joshua Heschel and for Christianity, C.S. Lewis. Their lifespans overlap greatly and their ideas too (some may be surprised).
In this second installment on Heschel’s God in Search of Man (which will be the J-BOM [Jewish Book of the Month] for January and February on Messianic Jewish Musings), I am excited about something: Heschel presents us in this chapter with great thoughts about our search for God . . . and I mean great thoughts.
Let me list some of the basic topics in Heschel’s second chapter and I will expand on a few of them:
(1) The Bible is absent in philosophy (“The prophets are absent when philosophers speak of God.”).
(2) Two approaches to the Bible prevail in philosophy/theology. The first is that the Bible is a “naive book,” to be ignored. The second is that the teachings of the philosophers are in harmony with the Bible. The second approach has been very common in theology (think of Philo, Augustine, etc.).
(3) “Judaism is a confrontation with the Bible, and a philosophy of Judaism must be a confrontation with the thought of the Bible.”
(4) Judaism (equally Christianity) is about the living God, not the philosopher’s God. I will explain this one below.
(5) Judaism (equally Christianity) is not simply the memory of one event, long ago, dead, happened, over with. It is a connection with God that continues through the generations.
(6) The Bible contains both information from God to us and our questioning about God and his ways (note: many people neglect the human aspect of scripture).
(7) Seeking God in the Bible is about experience, not reason. One word: understatement!
(8) There are three ways people can search for God and all three are vital: seeking his Presence in the world, seeking his Presence in the Bible, and seeking his Presence in sacred acts. This one I want to explain below as I find it very helpful.
The Living God vs. the Philosopher’s God
Heschel is not denying the validity of philosophy for what it is (less than philosophers think it is, but still). He is, after all, writing a philosophy of Judaism.
What he is saying is that philosophy ignores the questions and methods of the prophets. Philosophy makes rational inquiry absolute. Prophets make experience of the divine absolute. Can the two meet?
The philosopher’s God is a construct of reason. If a certain idea about reality is pursued, what sort of God might solve the equation?
The living God of the prophets is the source of reason. Though reason can approach him up to a certain distance, what is needed is more: the experience of his Presence. Heschel will develop this thought much more specifically as the book progresses.
Three Ways People Approach God
Heschel’s three ways correspond to worship, learning, and deeds:
…seeking his Presence in the world = worship = Isa 40:26, “Lift up your eyes on high and see; who created these?”
…seeking his Presence in the Bible = learning = Exod 20:2, “I am the Lord your God.”
…seeking his Presence in sacred acts = deeds = Exod 24:7, “We shall do and we shall hear.”
Consider what Heschel is saying. It goes against so many of the ways we have been taught to think. The (new) atheists reject this form of knowing. The average person rejects this form of thinking. Philosophy does not approach God this way.
But if we approach God by experiencing him, why start with the Judeo-Christian scriptures? Why not start with some other metaphysical or religious ideas? Doesn’t experience open the door to any experiential belief?
You could, actually. I’m not saying I recommend it. But you could seek to experience the Hindu notions of deity and meaning or approach meaning through paganism.
Does your experience through these other revelations cohere with your knowledge of who you are? Do the claims of these other systems fit with your own sense of being? You could test it.
But meanwhile, there is no fault in starting with the tradition that has come down to those of us who are Jews and Christians. And it just may be that you will find a sense of his Presence as you do this. You may encounter the living God. And it will be your whole person, the knowing, feeling, intuiting, apprehending person that you are (not just a walking brain) that encounters the living God.
This is what Jews and Christians, at least the ones who have not attempted to define themselves through rationalism or naturalism, have been trying to say for a long time. Heschel just says it better than most and with a depth of insight that makes his writing a classic.