Carry That Weight

Photo by Davidson Luna on Unsplash

“Religious insights have to be carried over a long distance to reach expression, and they may easily shrivel or even perish on the way from the heart to the lips.”1

I wish I could remember a moment, some white-hot flash, when I first realized the sacred in the flood of the senses. I’d like to think my search for God began early in life, but that would be claiming too much. What I do remember is saying goodbye to a friend when I was five.

My grandparents and I were moving from Canada to California and I was leaving behind my first-grade friends, the hill behind our house where I sledded, and the stand of junipers in our back yard that grew so thick I could crawl beneath them to watch the world and dream.

I knew we were moving away because my grandfather had explained it to me. My impression was we would first be here and then we would be there. The logistics of it didn’t occur to me. There were no pictures in my head of us climbing into our Studebaker and driving from Ontario to California. Neither did I understand how long it would take nor what California was. There was a gap of experience that simply did not rise to imagination. So, I cheerfully went about my young life, immersed in the pursuit of bugs, building roads and tunnels in my backyard sandbox, and peering out through the branches of my juniper fortress.

Bustle and commotion, the moving van pulling up and the contents of our house boxed up and carried down stairs and up ramps into an enormous box on wheels. It wasn’t until we were finally in the car — me in the back seat with my books and the box lunch my grandmother had made for us — and my grandfather was praying for traveling mercies, his head bowed over the steering wheel and his murmured words gathering into me, that the truth hit my gut.

“I have to do something!” I yelled, and I wrenched open my door before my grandparents could stop me and dashed around the house to the sandbox in the back yard. Squatting down, I clawed a hole in the sand and sat back on my heels. And I saw not wet sand and twigs, but a green, lush, and fertile canopy of trees far below and at the lip of the hole, his legs dangling, my merry little elf, my invisible friend.

I told him I would miss him, but we were going away and I was pretty sure they didn’t allow elves in California. He would guard the fortress under the junipers until I should return. This was not goodbye. That was understood. And then he grinned and waved and leaped and I covered the hole. I stood up, brushed my knees, and ran to the car idling in front of our house and we drove away.

We arrived in California in due time. We built a home on the side of a mountain overlooking the Napa Valley, on a site tangled with manzanita bushes and strewn with volcanic rocks that were pitted and bubbled. I immersed myself in that nature, with acres of abandoned vineyards just up the road and streams and lakes to explore. There in Nature was the depth of the mysterious, clothed in the familiar forms of animals, trees, stone, and clouds.

There may not have been a law against elves in California, but I never saw another one nor did I apparently need to. The companionship of an invisible elf gave way to visible friends. It was my first experience with the numinous.

***

Our impressions of the divine coalesce early and later we subject them to reflection. The absence of my father from my life — alive, but far away — shaped how I regarded God for many years. Our separation was the result of fate, forced choices, and the slow accretions that time and habit build up from settled ways and random circumstances.

God-hauntedness has run like a dark thread through my life. Alongside a quietly intense religious upbringing there was the constant presence of the absence of God, an absence with a voice. We have no images of God nor definitions. We have only God’s name, “I Am,” a name that in its utterance brings us to silence and dissolves all time into a present pregnant with the future.

“Something is asked of us. But what?” wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel.2 It is a recurring theme in his books. It is the question, Who — or what — is God? The question is our silent companion, standing off to the side as we move through the world under the sky, give and take with others, and face our eventual death. This is what we can only begin to respond to when we have decided to listen, to feel, to receive, instead of first postulating, arguing, or explaining.

Faith, said Heschel, begins in wonder and awe. That doesn’t preclude rational thinking about God at all, but as one of my professors was fond of saying, “No one was converted by the ontological argument.”

We cannot live on mystery alone; desire to know gives rise to language and language both orders and liberates. We wield the structures of language in shaping the welter of sense impressions flooding in on us from the world. Though we are limited creatures, there is almost no limit to how we may express that ordering through imagination. In our creativity is the strongest evidence of our family resemblance to the Father of us all.

“Religious insights have to be carried over a long distance to reach expression,” said Heschel, “and they may easily shrivel or even perish on the way from the heart to the lips.”3

I have thought about this vivid experience now and then in the intervening sixty-four years. Even now, if I shut my eyes, I can see the backyard, the sandbox, the febrile green of the forest canopy (only visible if seen directly from above), and the wizened, mischievous face of my elf. At the time, I easily made a distinction between what I saw and what was “real.” Yet, I felt compelled to do it and there was a sense of completion in having done it. It wasn’t something I discussed with my grandparents at the time nor with anyone since. Writing about it now breaks up the ice on a long-frozen river.

Any moment in our history can be a window to our interior life. When I gaze through this one, I see a child putting away childish things — without which he could not have imagined later the unseen presence of the Son of Man.

  1. Heschel, Abraham Joshua. Man is Not Alone. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1952, p. 98.
  2. Heschel, p. 98.
  3. Heschel, p. 98.

Spiritual Audacity: Abraham Heschel’s Prophetic Role

In Martin Doblmeir’s new documentary, Spiritual Audacity: The Abraham Joshua Heschel Story, Heschel emerges not only as the foremost interpreter of the Hebrew prophets in the twentieth century, but also as a prophet himself. With his cloud of white hair, his expressive eyes, and his rabbinic beard, he looks every inch a latter-day Micah bearing witness to walking humbly with justice in one hand and mercy in the other.

“Remember, in a free society some are guilty but all are responsible.” Heschel’s ringing words plunge us into the tumult of the civil rights struggle of the 60s, the protests against the Vietnam War, and the turnabout toward the Jews by the Catholic Church during Vatican II. Heschel plays a leading role in all three of these history-making social movements.

Doblmeir’s documentary approach surfaces the formation, the passion, and the legacy of his subjects. We learn about Heschel’s birth in Warsaw, Poland in 1907, his family’s long lineage of distinguished rabbis, his move to the University of Berlin at twenty to study philosophy in 1927, and his deportation in 1938 at the hands of the Nazis. Although the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati brings him to America to teach in 1940, he is forced to leave his mother and his three sisters behind. They are exterminated in the Holocaust.

In 1945 Heschel leaves Hebrew Union College to join the faculty of the conservative Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. He remains there for the rest of his career, even as his influence begins to extend far beyond the campus and the scholarly world.

In March of 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr., invites Heschel to march with him in Selma, Alabama. Many of the Black pastors in the movement had read The Prophets — King’s copy was underlined and annotated throughout — and as Andrew Young says, “He was the authority on the prophets. But on this occasion, he was the prophet.”

Footage of the march shows Heschel on the front line with King, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, and John Lewis, his white hair and beard flowing. Despite the misgivings of local rabbis, Heschel marches in solidarity with hundreds of others, ready to face the brutality of the police.

His passion is to explore the nature of God’s deep compassion for humans and the extent to which God is willing to partner with us for the cause of justice. For the prophets, says Heschel, injustice toward one person is injustice to everyone, a message that resonates deeply in the Black community.

Heschel’s growing influence thrusts him into another controversy — the attempts within Vatican II to create a rapprochement with the Jews after centuries of hostility. When a conservative faction within the Vatican calls for the conversion of the Jews, Heschel is incensed. “They must understand,” he argues, “that I am willing to die for my faith.”

In an arc that entwines with that of Martin Luther King, Heschel grows increasingly critical of the war in Vietnam. “My father was not a pacifist,” says Susannah Heschel. “And he was not a communist sympathizer, by any means. But killing civilians — that was unacceptable.” Heschel asks, “How can I pray, knowing that I am co-responsible for the death of innocent people in Vietnam?”

In April 1967, at the Riverside Church in New York City, Martin Luther King, at Heschel’s urging, makes a major statement against the war — and is roundly denounced by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other influential news sources. In an address following King’s speech that Sunday, Heschel adds his own voice to the growing critique of the war by major religious figures. Susannah Heschel comments that “My father wouldn’t be quiet. No one could silence him.”

His final cause is to speak out for the Jews in Soviet Russia. Despite suffering a heart attack in 1969 that keeps him in the hospital for three months, Heschel is tireless in advocating for Soviet Jewry. It is exhausting. On a Friday night in December 1972, at the age of sixty-five, Heschel dies at home. “To die in your sleep,” says Susannah Heschel, “especially on the Sabbath, is a kiss from God.”

As an introduction to Abraham Joshua Heschel, Spiritual Audacity is an inspiring and enjoyable guide. In just fifty-seven minutes, Martin Doblmeir’s sensitive eye vividly portrays Heschel’s Hasidic roots, his remarkable career, and most of all, his moral witness. Paintings by Marc Chagall woven into the narrative add to the visual beauty of the film.

Those familiar with Heschel’s written works — The Prophets, God in Search of Man, The Sabbath, Man is Not Alone, and Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, will appreciate seeing and hearing this passionate twentieth-century prophet, a witness for the awe and wonder that is faith in the living God.

Martin Doblmeir’s documentary work includes films on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Reinhold Niebuhr, Howard Thurman, Dorothy Day and — familiar to readers of Spectrum — The Adventists, an award-winning film that portrays Adventists as some of the healthiest people on the planet.

This is Only a Test

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Man is always being challenged; a question is always being asked of him. Abraham Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity

When I walked out of my comprehensive exams at graduate school, it was a beautiful Southern California day and I thought, “That’s it, I’m done. No more exams!” Of course, I was wrong, which is concrete evidence of how much I still didn’t know. Life is a series of tests, none of which we can cram for and many of which we will not see the results of until long after we’ve forgotten what we were tested on.

It’s not that I hated exams; I rather enjoyed the opportunity to explain, describe, and analyze complex issues. It was the build-up to the exams that brought anxiety, the persistent feeling that no matter how thorough your preparation there would always be some question designed not to show what you knew but to punish you for what you didn’t know.

When I started teaching, I kept in mind how I felt about exams. I steered clear of minutiae and tried to design questions that gave students an opportunity to take a long view. I made it clear I expected accuracy in portraying the positions of others, honesty in expressing one’s own position, and clarity in writing. Nobody was getting paid by the word; brevity and conciseness were virtues. On questions of ethical practice as distinguished from analysis of ethical theory, I blessed responses that were exploratory and forward-looking. I encouraged students in philosophy and ethics to use their imaginations as well as their reasoning and analytical powers. Above all, I asked them to see themselves as both teachers and learners.

How would they describe and explain what they knew to someone who was deeply interested in what they had to say, but lacked their foundational knowledge on the subject? Could such a person pick up their written responses and understand them? Could those responses be the starting point for a deep and exciting conversation? Could they lead others to see what they had learned? And could connections be made in all directions from the subject they were studying? What had they learned in their American history class that their ethics might address? Could their ethical theories apply to their health practices, their economics courses, and their intercultural communication?

“There is only one subject matter for education,” said A. N. Whitehead in The Aims of Education, “and that is Life in all its manifestations.”

***

There are two kinds of exams in education. One tests what we have learned (summative assessment) and the other tests what we need in order to learn (formative assessment). Generally speaking, the life of a spiritual wanderer, someone seeking the Water of life, is a process of formative assessment. If life is for learning, then we can look to every day as experimental research into that which helps us learn of God, of ourselves, and of others.

“Speculation does not precede faith,” says Abraham Heschel in God in Search of Man. “The antecedents of faith are the premise of wonder and the premise of praise. Worship of God precedes affirmation of His realness. We praise before we prove. We respond before we question.”

For those who have been on this path all their lives, and who find themselves no nearer knowing God than when they began, this may almost sound like mockery. How can a person in their fifth or sixth decade of life on this planet regain this wonder? “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” asks Nicodemus (Jn. 3:4). We get worn down by life; our capacity for wonder ebbs and our willingness to suspend our disbelief diminishes in inverse proportion to our need to appear objective and aloof. All the evidence that the world is indifferent to our struggle swarms before our eyes and we shake our heads in exasperation. Experience cannot be reverse-engineered back to innocence.

Heschel invites us to look again: “It is not from experience but from our inability to experience what is given to our mind that certainty of the realness of God is derived.” Our very lack of what we seek takes on the outlines of a God-shaped vacuum in our lives, the via negativa of the medieval mystics and contemplatives.

But we are twenty-first century people who respond more readily to the merest factoid, rather than venturing beyond our skepticism. The trust that is the DNA of faith does not come easily, despite the brave face of certainty that we profess when pressed. Instinctively, we believe that a testimony given must be anchored, not understanding that a profession of belief without the trust of commitment can sometimes be a grappling-hook thrown heaven-ward to draw us up.

Doing can result in being, a genuine form of faith.

But there are some caveats to the formative assessment of our education in faith. “Knowledge is not the same as awareness,” notes Heschel, “and expression is not the same as experience. By proceeding from awareness to knowledge we gain in clarity and lose in immediacy. What we gain in distinctness by going from experience to expression we lose in genuineness.”

It’s a risk worth taking. Heschel assures us that “To the prophets, wonder is a form of thinking,” a way forward when faced with the numinous, with the burning bushes, and the whispers of God within the hurricane. “Our certainty,” says Heschel, “is the result of wonder and radical amazement, of awe before the mystery and meaning of the totality of life beyond our rational discerning. Faith is the response to the mystery, shot through with meaning; the response to a challenge which no one can for ever ignore.”

For Christian existentialists, of whom I am one, authentic faith is a leap beyond what can be wholly certified through reason. “Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable,” suggests poet Mary Oliver. That challenge comes in the form of questions put to us by God, corporately and personally. Some of them are formative: they shape us going forward. Others give us a needed pause on this journey, a timeout to catch our breath and look around us. They are summative of what we have learned through our experience.

***

These are some of the questions I am seeking to be shaped by and to answer to.

“Where are you?” – Genesis 3:10

“What does the Lord require of you?” – Micah 6:8

“And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” – Matt. 6:27

“You of little faith, why did you doubt?” – Matt. 14:31

And the most important question of all . . .

“Who do you say that I am?” – Mk. 8: 29

We are questions to ourselves. Life itself throws us demands that we may field as questions. The ones that draw us in, turn us inside out, and lift us higher come to us from the Spirit “who searches everything, even the depths of God (1 Cor. 2:10).”

Photo: Barry Casey