Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Poetic Theologian

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Poetic Theologian

Article excerpt

Poetic Theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence BY SHAI HELD INDIANA, 352 PAGES, $38.95

Few modern theological personalities have been as widely loved as the inimitable Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. It takes a unique soul and a special voice to exhilarate at once Jew and Christian, conservative and liberal, scholar and layman. The spiritually thirsty of all stripes have found nourishment in his teachings. "Grandeur, audacity, radiance," wrote Fr. Neuhaus, "that was Heschel."

Heschel's enduring popularity has earned for his writing a considerable secondary literature. You have your reader's guide introductions, your scholarly investigations, your biographies, devotional meditationsthrow in a selected works collection or two and you've got yourself a satisfying day at the beach. But abundance does not in itself meet all needs: Too much of the existing commentary on Heschel, Shai Held laments, collapses into "either uncritical adoration or overly facile dismissal": Loyalists praise and exalt without pause, critics dismiss and deride out of hand. And so Held, a recently minted Harvard Ph.D. and the dean of Yeshivat Hadar (a non-denominational Jewish seminary in New York), aims to fill the gap with a treatment both "genuinely sympathetic and unapologetically critical." Simply put, Held's mission is to take Heschel seriously.

For many, the virtue of Heschel's writing lies less in its propositional content than in its electrifying spiritual lyricism and personal resonance-its incomparable capacity to set readers' souls aflame. Those less charitably inclined cite the same qualities in dismissing Heschel's writing as mere poetry, mere liturgy, or else just a "fountain of devotional aphorisms and lapidary formulations"; serious thinking, however, it is not. Others, of course, are more candid: Held quotes one critic's caustic observation that "on reading Heschel, one gets the impression that inconsistency is not only tolerated but is made a virtue." This is a representative complaint.

What is needed, Held counsels, is an approach that gives due regard to Heschel's poetic dynamism-he is "emphatically not a systematic philosopher who just happens to write beautifully"-without ignoring the intellectually substantial reasoning at its foundation: "Heschel does seek to move his readers, but he does not seek merely to move them." Held appeals here to Karl Rahner's concepts of poetic theology and mystagogy, modes of theological discourse whose business is not only to analyze and clarify, but to enliven, awaken, and inspire. For Rahner, religiously fruitful theology "must not speak only in abstract concepts about theological questions, but must also introduce people to a real and original experience of the reality being talked about." It follows that to ask "whether Heschel is a philosopher or a poet" is to posit a false dichotomy; Heschel, Held insists, is "a theologian and a poet, and to some extent he is the latter precisely because he is the former." And he ought to be read that way.

Held's first order of business is to engage Heschel's thought with the kind of "sustained critique" it has so rarely received but so eminently deserves. Central among Heschel's preoccupations is the role of wonder and "radical amazement" as the foundation of all genuine religious, moral, and indeed human experience. We moderns have come to take the world for granted, isolating ourselves in shells of indifference, ignoring any intimation that the universe might be more than a set of objects for our exploitation.

This indifference is the root of our day's unprecedented human crimes and calamities, and, if we do not soon recover our spiritual bearings, the source of untold perils to come. (Students of C. S. Lewis, Martin Buber, Hans Jonas, Aldous Huxley, Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss, Karol Wojtyla, and of course Martin Heidegger, to name a few, will find they are on familiar territory here.) Cocooned in artificial worlds governed by egocentric utility and mechanistic, value-allergic calculation, we moderns lose touch with that which transcends us and thereby compromise our faith, morality, and humanity. …

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