God Fettered in Jail? Heschel, Rilke, and the "Vollendung"

By Coetsier, Meins G. S. | Modern Age, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

God Fettered in Jail? Heschel, Rilke, and the "Vollendung"


Coetsier, Meins G. S., Modern Age


There was never a time in which individual expression was so much in evidence. Over the past decade, mass media and the Internet have played a major role in world politics: MSN, Google, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and the wide-ranging blogosphere have not only altered election campaigns but also pushed the integration of technology into the process of field organizing, affecting Western politics significantly. As the first American president with a Facebook page and a YouTube channel, Barack Obama has, according to some, successfully integrated technology with a revamped model of political organization that stresses volunteer participation and feedback on a substantial scale. Moreover, that part of ethics that had to do with the regulation and government of a particular nation or state has now become an online stage, a political arena, for worldwide interaction. The preservation of our civilization, its safety, peace, and prosperity, the defense of its existence and rights, has become not only dependent on but also susceptible to the matrix of the Internet and the World Wide Web.

Yet despite ongoing developments of communication technology, there was never a time in which true personal expression was so rarely achieved, in which there was so much pressure to adjust oneself to convention, to media cliches, and to the latest trends, opinions, and similar news flashes. The irony is that in an age of excessive communication, or rather information, we are losing the power for relationship. Since genuine relationship (Martin Buber's "I-Thou"--in German, "Ich-Du") and individual expression provide an answer to an ultimate question, we face an additional predicament in our modern age: we do not hear the ultimate question anymore. (1) There is too much "noise pollution"--a surplus of unwanted data devoid of meaning, an overload of headlines, images, and emotions.

Conversely, the soul or "consciousness"--the "something" in our humanity that is the site and sensorium of the divine presence--has been "silenced." (2) Words are recurrently empty, opaque--that is, literalized to the point of losing their original meaning--or even dead. Consequently the inner life of man is a deserted landscape, a forgotten language waiting to be rediscovered. In addition, if words or symbols are just "artificial signs"; if meaning is but a "contraption," a "piece of equipment"; if there is no echo of experience, of the torment of a fear-ridden world; if man is alone and unaided; and if the world moves in a vacuum, of what ultimate worth is technology and (political) expression? (3)

Modern man is in danger of becoming a forgotten "thing" among things (of dwelling exclusively in Buber's realm of "I-It"--in German, "Ich-Es"), (4) a lost object in space and time. Man's deep-seated spiritual condition of insecurity and despair--i.e., "anxietas" (Cicero), "dread" (Kierkegaard), "fear of death" (Hobbes), or "Angst" (Heidegger)--shows how a shift has taken place from the classical experience of joyful participation in a theophany to the hostile alienation from a reality perceived as hiding rather than revealing itself.

Today we might know our desires and feel our whims and our failings, but we do not know our ultimate commitment. We may be conscious of the effect of our actions, but we do not understand what they mean. We stand in awe of many things, yet deep down we do not know what we stand for. God is exiled in the human heart: "fettered in jail." (5) We have lost any appreciation of what could be our highest concern, in Eric Voegelin's terminology--that is, of our ultimate fulfillment in the "divine ground"--because such fulfillment is found not merely through psychological "self-inspection" but also through our rational and spiritual attunement to the One who is concerned with man.

Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) and Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) are perhaps unlikely figures to associate with the philosophy of Eric Voegelin, but they also seek to find the divine ground. …

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