The Root of Religion

So many people assume religion is what we believe about God. The primary assumption of the religious is that there is a God and they know something about that God. Theology is man’s systematic beliefs about God. (I purposely used “man” because with a few exceptions, women have not been allowed over two millennia to participate in the formation of theology—a fact which perhaps explains why so much of Christianity has been bogus throughout history.) Theology is the creation of limited minds and souls. What so many take as the last word about God is often inadequate or even broken words about a Mystery which is beyond human imagination, much less understanding. 

A philosopher and theologian who was always guided by an awareness of the ineffable nature of God’s transcendence was Abraham Joshua Heschel. For reasons I have discussed elsewhere in this blog, Heschel realized the pointless absurdity of trying to prove the existence of God. Being which transcends this universe will always shatter the feeble efforts of human intelligence to understand What/Who is beyond our calculation or unravelling. Besides, the kind of God we think we have discovered through our intellectual efforts eventually becomes an idol of our own creation. Reason has its place in authentic religion. No religion should be irrational. However, if God is transcendent and thus more than we shall ever comprehend, I think we can assume that God is suprarational as Isaiah claimed when he represents God saying, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways.” Human reason is limited evolutionarily, genetically, and culturally. All theology is, at best, rational and disciplined guesswork done by fallible human beings. 

Heschel, in his monumental work entitled Man is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion, approached the essence of religion from the experience of awe and wonder. What is primordial is our sense of Mystery, the Ineffable, the Eternal. Heschel maintained that all human beings are capable of sensing the Ineffable, but as critical as that experience may be, it is not the root of authentic religion. The experience of the Ineffable can be so powerful and awe-full that it has the ability to transform our very being and demand something radical from our daily lives. Ponder his words: 

The beginning of faith is not a feeling for the mystery of living or a sense of awe, wonder or fear. The root of religion is the question of what to do with the feeling for the mystery of living, what to do with awe, wonder or fear. Religion, the end of isolation, begins with a consciousness that something is asked of us. It is in that sense, eternal asking in which the soul is caught and in which man’s answer is elicited…

Endless wonder unlocks an innate sense of indebtedness. Within our awe there is no place for self-assertion. Within our awe we only know that all we own we owe. The world consists, not of things, but of tasks. Wonder is the state of our being asked. The ineffable is a question addressed to us.

All that is left to us is a choice—to answer or to refuse to answer… 

The ultimate question, when bursting forth in our souls, is too startling, too heavily laden with unutterable wonder to be an academic question, to be equally suspended between yes and no. Such a moment is not the time to throw doubts upon the reason for the rise of the question. (Man Is Not Alone, pp. 68-69)

I cannot help but wonder how many people in our contemporary society have a clue as to what Heschel was referring to in this quote. Modern and Post-modern existence has very little awareness of or connection to the Ineffable and the experience of awe and wonder. Modernity has rationalized the Ineffable as no more than wishful thinking or the product of chemical reactions of brains tragically and mistakenly trying to find purpose in a meaningless and cold universe. Post-modern thinking, trapped in doubt and ennui, lacks the courage or ability to make a commitment to anything Transcendent and Eternal. Doubt can be helpful in developing a healthy and vibrant faith, but it can also facilitate a lazy and convenient decision to sit on the sidelines in the game of life. If we wait until we have all the answers before we commit ourselves, we will never have to make that costly choice. But in refusing to choose, we will also miss out on what it means to be fully human if the Ineffable, Transcendent, Eternal, Awesome and Wondrous Mystery is real

I believe there are still those who sense the Transcendent, Ineffable, Eternal, Awe, and Wonder all around and within them. Something transcendent within them is lured to Something/Someone Transcendent beyond them. They feel deep down that they are not alone and that behind, beyond, and within this glorious creation is a greater Mystery. They choose not to waste time trying to prove it or trying to explain it with inadequate words or trying to dismiss it through the limited capacity of reason. They know they have experienced something which claims, connects, and invites them into an adventure which has eternal dimensions. So, the primary question of their lives is what to do with their experience. What is demanded of them by the Ineffable? What commitment is required? How must their life now be defined and spent? 

Theology has a legitimate place after one has experienced the Ineffable, but it will always be secondary to both the experience and the tasks demanded by that Eternal Mystery. Theology can help define the contours of a life lived in response to Awe and Wonder, but it must never take the place of such a life. It can be a helpmate but must never become a master. Once we confine the Ineffable into human words and concepts, we have killed the Spirit and robbed our souls of any future sense of Mystery and Wonder. The Ineffable has no name, no limits, no boundaries. Such Awe appears to us, comes to us, reveals undefinable glory to us, overwhelms us, and addresses us in ways that we cannot describe with words. We can only respond with joy, humility, and an integrity of living which inadequately points to the Ineffable Mystery which has graced and shaken us to our very foundations. Such a process never ends because the Eternal is so much more than the little portion we can detect in our little lives. The Ineffable is the Eternal condescending to our finite level with more than we can ever understand or appropriate. But there is enough revelation in that experience to change our lives and orient us toward a Mystery for Whom we were made. 

Heschel experienced this Ineffable throughout his life. He once wrote, “I never asked for success. I asked for wonder.” I am convinced that the spiritual awakening we need in our greedy, materialistic, arrogant, violent, and rootless society can only come about if we open ourselves to the Ineffable—to God who has no name—to Mystery which is the source of our being and, of necessity, must be the Source of our becoming. Heschel believed that the Ineffable is all around us, in every place, every creature, every time. We must be open to the “burning bushes” which surround and envelope us. Only then will we be willing and able to determine what tasks such Mystery requires of us. 

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