This is all part of a parallel series on Heschel’s God in Search of Man and Lewis’s Miracles. If Messianic Judaism is a sort of Christian-Jewish hybrid, why not study two the greatest modern thinkers, one from each? And the more I think about the details in Lewis and Heschel, the more commonality I find. In this post, I’d say Heschel’s third chapter compares well with Lewis’s Surprised by Joy.
In his third chapter, Heschel takes on the horror of meaninglessness, the awful shadow of mistrusting our sense of wonder and awe. He deplores the fact that we are ignorant of the fact that we are all surrounded by things which we apprehend but cannot comprehend; that even reason is a mystery to itself. That sounds a lot like C.S. Lewis’s point in miracles that naturalism’s view of the brain as a collection of random molecules undercuts any faith in reason (see C.S.Lewis’s Miracles, #2).
What we need, says Heschel, is a sense of the sublime.
In the course of this short, powerful discourse that is chapter 3, Heschel interacts with classical writers such as Longinus and Caecilius and philosophers like Burke, Comte, and Kant and even the poet Wordsworth.
There are three aspects of nature we might observe: its power, its beauty, and its grandeur. Each is successively more important, in Heschel’s view. To make a simple illustration, consider an iceberg. Those who see its power consider its usefulness (it could be towed into a port and processed into irrigation water in a drought). Those who see its beauty might write of it or describe its clean whiteness or its cold heart that gnaws like death. But those who see its grandeur elevate their thought to the highest level. They see beyond the iceberg, to what it conveys about infinity and eternity.
The sublime has been variously defined. The classical writer, Longinus, saw rightly that the sublime (grandeur) points us beyond objects in the material world to a sense of something greater. Edmund Burke thought the sublime was a terror, a feeling of pain at seeing the vast and terrible. Immanuel Kant thought it was about that in comparison with which all else is small.
Heschel defines the sublime in this way: that which we see and are unable to convey. It is not, he says, about vastness or terror. It is seen in a grain of sand, a drop of water, every flower. He quotes Wordsworth who said it is in the “meanest flower.” And as for terror, the biblical man walks through the valley of the shadow of death without fear, knowing that God is with him, as per Psalm 23.
But there is a terror in modern man related to the sublime. It is not the sublime which causes the terror, but the inability of modern people to believe in what the sublime points to: Modern man is gradually recovering from the shock of realizing that, intellectually, he has no right to dream any more; no right to mourn his lost craving for that which he may need but to which he has become indifferent. He has, indeed, long since ceased to trust his will to believe or even his grief about the loss of desire to believe. . . . We have not only forfeited faith; we have lost our faith in the meaning of faith. All we have is a sense of horror. . . . We nearly drown in a stream of guilt and misery that leaves no conscience clean.
The biblical person, says Heschel, goes beyond the usefulness of things (their power). That is a selfish view of the universe and is modernism’s defining feature. And he or she goes beyond beauty, which is an important step along the way, but is useless by itself. he or she even goes beyond grandeur, the sense of the sublime, which is a pointer but not yet the goal.
Sublime things share in common a trait we persons have, knowingly or not. The mystery of our connection with sublime things is simple, says Heschel. We all depend at every moment for our existence and meaning on the Living God. That is what our senses are telling us if we care to listen.