Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion

By Kaplan, Edward K. | Shofar, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion


Kaplan, Edward K., Shofar


Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion, by Abraham Joshua Heschel. New York: Farrar, Straus and Young, 1951.

I was earning a Ph.D. in French literature, with a specialty in poetry, when I first read Man Is Not Alone. Enthralled by the intensity of Heschel's prose, I was seduced by lyrical sentences such as this: "Words expire when uttered, and faith is like the silence that draws lovers near, like a breath that shares in the wind" (p. 73). Most significantly, it was the first Jewish book that convincingly evoked for me the presence of God. What I did not find in Hindu philosophy, Buddhism, or even in Martin Buber, I found in Heschel, an entrance to Jewishness that aspired to a concrete experience of the divine. I met Heschel and participated with him in the religious opposition to the Vietnam war, deciding to entrust my personal quest to Judaism.

Man Is Not Alone is both poetic and philosophical, expressive, analytic, and mystical. It is Heschel's blueprint for a theological revolution, intended to train readers to receive nothing less than divine revelation. He developed the book from articles he wrote in the 1940s on prayer, faith, and "The Quest for Certainty in Saadia's Philosophy." The book's biographical unity is demonstrated by Heschel's germinal essay, "An Analysis of Piety," first published in 1942 and transported almost verbatim, with only subtitles added, to form the concluding chapter, "The Pious Man." This model of devoutness as a constant awareness of God's presence should inspire readers to lead a holy and righteous life.

The book is divided into two parts. Part I, "The Problem of God" (chapters 1-17), appeals to thoughtful, open-minded, and self-critical seekers, introducing the "cognitive emotions" of awe and wonder leading to a state of "radical amazement." Awareness of "the ineffable" prepares the mind for receptivity to transcendence. These opening chapters deploy a sort of philosophical housecleaning, a rigorous questioning of conventional ways of thinking about ultimate meaning. Heschel compels the person to abandon secular preconceptions and even drives the mind into a state of despair. Plunged into anguish, the person can surrender the ego; radical amazement should lead to radical insight. Heschel's philosophical goal was to train readers to achieve "certainty" in the divine reality.

Heschel recapitulates this itinerary in chapter 9, "In the Presence of God," which can be read as a prose poem with its own internal commentary. The seeker enters a new phase with "dark apathy," a loss of self that allows the living God to enter human consciousness: "But, then, a moment comes like a thunderbolt, in which a flash of the undisclosed rends our dark apathy asunder. It is full of overpowering brilliance, like a point in which all moments of life are focused or a thought which outweighs all thoughts ever conceived of.... Apathy turns to splendor unawares" (pp. 78-79). Normal, ego-centered thinking is reversed: "We are penetrated by His [God's] insight. We cannot think any more as if He were there and we here. He is both there and here." The mind receives a jolt of God's presence at the initiative of the divine. I call this event mystical illumination; Heschel calls it intuition or insight.

Whatever the label, this paradigm shift comprises Heschel's theological revolution: the recentering of human subjectivity from the self to God. (Kant's "Copernican revolution" in philosophy placed the emphasis on the human subject.) In religious awareness, the mind is illumined by a radical "turning" to God-centered thinking. God is the Subject of whom I am the object. Rather than speaking of a mystical encounter with God, he used philosophical terms, a "categorical imperative" analogous to Kant's rationalism. But mystical it is, for the person receives an unmediated incursion from the living God. Heschel trusted that all readers might eventually welcome this modern form of divine revelation and prophetic inspiration. …

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