Encountering Heschel Again
I read a number of things daily online. One of those is the New York Times. I am not so careful that I read everything every day. But I try to be consistent in following things. Although there is the usual spate of daily news that is depressing, there are other occasions when I run across something that helps me get a grip on the depressing things. I ran into on such article by George Yancy, philosopher professor at Emory University in Atlanta. I have read some of his stuff before in a posting he calls “The Stone.”
The article that caught my eye this time, Yancy entitles, “Is Your God Dead?” I am old enough to remember the “God is Dead” movement in the 60s and wondered if that theological movement were being revived. The answer is a flat “no.” Instead, Yancey wonders if we---you and me---have lost our real God and only serve some idol of our own making? It is a provocative question that I feel obligated to face.
Yancy is not talking about sophisticated theology, but practical theology. He wonders whether we are looking “in the face of your neighbor on the street.” He does not mean the rich neighbor across the way, but the poor one across town. He presses on with more ornery questions. And then he made a move that I deeply appreciated. He began to refer to various words from Abraham Joshua Heschel, the late twentieth century Jewish theologian---one of my favorites. Heschel was born in Poland, was overrun by the Nazis and harassed till he left for England and then the US. He labored for peace, was a close friend of Martin Luther King and more.
Herschel had a sense of his own need to stay engaged with all sorts of people and make his faith count. He has provoked me before and provided solace, so I want to use some of his words here that Yancy quotes. We can let Heschel instruct us in the faith---his faith and ours and everyone’s faith. And we have to include even those who have no faith---at least, religious kind of faith.
Yancy’s first Heschel quotation portrays him concerned whether we “worry more about the purity of dogma than about the integrity of love.” This is a challenge right away! Following on this, Heschel is concerned about “an outward compliance with ritual laws, strict observance mingled with dishonesty, the pedantic performance of rituals as a form of opportunism.” I am sure I have been and, likely, still am guilty of this. I can do better.
Decades ago Heschel charged, “We are a generation that has lost the capacity for outrage.” I suspect that charge still fits most of us. As I think about myself, I realize I am knowledgeable about things and yet do not move on to action. I can do better. My faith tradition calls for me to do better. I do not need to berate myself and, certainly, not others. Living one’s faith tradition is voluntary. We are not conscripts. But when we pray, “Thy will be done,” we should actually mean it.
Most of the problems of our lives and our world did not just happen. Heschel could use his experience of the Holocaust to make this point. Listen to him when he describes the Holocaust. “It was in the making for several generations. It had its origin in a lie: that the Jew was responsible for all social ills, for all personal frustrations. Decimate the Jews and all problems would be solved.” What are our own personal and social “holocausts” today? They doubtlessly are not as horrific as the Holocaust Heschel experienced, but they still need to be dealt with.
There are a couple other quotations from Heschel I would like to include before concluding. Heschel was a savvy dealer with words, especially when you consider English was not his first or second language. Listen to him challenge people of all faiths. Heschel notes, “Any god who is mine but not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol.” This is a wonderful, simple definition of an idol. Most contemporary idols are not like the old idol gods found in Christian scripture. Instead our current idols are very common-place. But contemporary idols, like those of old, still control our lives and misdirect us from the true God.
One final quotation from Abraham Joshua Heschel may be the most provocative of all. He observes, “one may be decent and sinister, pious and sinful.” That one nails me, for sure. And it probably describes many of the kind of people with whom I hang out. Pious and sinful; that is probably very accurate. Of course, many of our sins are socially acceptable; after all, most people are doing them! And this is exactly what Yancey is trying to convey and he uses Heschel to strengthen the narrative.
I appreciate encountering Heschel again. I have always loved reading him, even if it usually does turn out to challenge me and bring me up short. While most of the quotations here do not bring comfort, that is what Heschel also offers. He’s been there and knows what he is talking about.
Heschel always invite me to live into my better self.