God in Search of Man, #2

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.

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8 Responses to God in Search of Man, #2

  1. bography says:

    Interesting thoughts.

    You mentioned Heschel’s “The living God of the prophets is the source of reason.”

    The Prophets would add that Yahweh was also the source of everything else, including experience of Him, and that the only right way to experience Him is through the Hebrew scriptures. Christianity is an extension of this belief.

    You also said:

    “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

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  3. bography:

    To be clear: I’m not saying all paths lead to God. I do believe the Bible is the self-disclosure of God.

    But, I’m less apt than you to disdain the “subjective.” We are whole people, not walking brains. Heschel emphasizes the subjective (so it’s not as if I simply made that part up).

    I don’t believe that pantheism will satisfy the searcher like Judeo-Christian theism. Pantheism is not true to who we are.

    I simply don’t believe that one has to begin from Judaism or Christianity, as if God limits his search for men and women to those who begin in this sphere.

    I always appreciate your thoughtful pushbacks and let me know if I’ve misunderstood you.

    Derek Leman

  4. bography says:

    Derek, I agree with you entirely that one doesn’t have to start from Judaism or Christianity, or any other religion, or any thought system, or an experience of any kind. What I mean is that you can only (begin to) come to THE truth – which I believe is only to be found in Jesus/Yeshua – when He draws you to Himself. Salvation is entirely a work of God.

    So when you say: “Do the claims of these other systems fit with your own sense of being? You could test it,

  5. bography:

    I agree about the Bible as necessary.

    I think the statement “salvation is entirely a work of God” is too simple. The Bible indicates both people seeking God and God initiating the search. I would not want to give people the idea that “let go and let God” is the best approach.

    I prefer Heschel’s advice: seek God’s Presence in the world, in the Bible, and in sacred deeds.


    • bography says:

      I agree, “let go and let God” is crassly stupid and totally unbiblical. My point is that you can’t let God do anything unless he first lets you do it. In any case, he does whatever he wants; no one lets God do anything; we ask God to enable us to do it (after he has put the desire in us to ask Him). God is not disappointed by anything for the reason that he appoints everything, including people to eternal life. That’s what kings do, that is, any king worth his sovereign salt.

      In an Augustinian nutshell:
      “Give me what you command and command what you will,” or to put it clearer (in my mind at least):

      Command what you will, and give me (the ability to do) what you command.

      Jesus commands us to be perfect; but, of course, we can’t even be good (by “good” I mean love in a godly way).

      By the way, Heschel can teach us some useful things, but not what ultimately counts: how to be reconciled to the Father, which, according to the Gospel, he was not.

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