Saturday, February 19, 2011

God In Search of Man, A Review (Rave, Really)

While I was working on my master’s degree, something strange happened. I found a book that I absolutely fell in love with. I read this book like it was the decadent treat that it was, with words to luscious that I had to force myself to refrain from licking the pages. It is a book that I return to frequently still yet, reading and rereading my favorite parts. My poor copy is dripping with ink that I have added, questions I wish to explore further, passages that moved me underlined with green ink and underlined again with red so they leap from the page. What makes this so strange is this book was assigned, it isn’t a novel, a historical work, or even a collection of encouraging Christian phrases – it was a philosophy book about faith.

Written by Abraham Joshua Heschel, it isn’t even written from a Christian perspective. It is an exploration of Jewish thought and faith. He explains the challenges that face anyone who wishes to take the Hebrew Scriptures seriously, to make them an active central part of our lives. I suppose in some ways it seems strange that I would be so captivated by a work about a faith that isn’t specifically mine, but when we remember the debt that Christianity owes to Judaism I find it strange that we all aren’t celebrating, or at least honoring, this great religion.

The questions that Heschel offers are valid questions to ask of our own faith. They encompass Christianity in that our faith springs from the very Scriptures that are the foundation of Judaism. He grapples with the issues that face any faith that wishes to be more than simply another tradition, a faith that moves beyond mere observance of rituals and rights but becomes a radical life changing force within ourselves and our world.

As I held the book for the first time, I found ideas and thoughts that were so close to those that already danced about my head, but with accuracy I do not posses. I saw the words that captured that fleeting thought that had defied definition, and therefore understanding, pinning it to the page, allowing me to know the true nature of the question. Heschel’s work about his own faith, a faith that he lived radically and boldly, has helped me to understand the nature of my faith as few Christian works have done, and I am not alone.

It is easy to pick out a Heschel fan, simple start the line, “The Bible is not man’s book about God, . . .” And they will chime in with, “. . .it is God’s book about man.” What a simple but theologically profound statement! And we get it. Not because we are brilliant, but rather that we have experienced how this little shift in our perspective changed how we read the Bible. It has reshaped our theology, and suddenly God became so much bigger than we had ever allowed ourselves to hope.

Heschel proposes that theology presupposes that it has the answer, and this mindset has often prevented us from asking the questions we need to ask. Philosophy, on the other hand, makes no pretense of having an answer, but offers us the tools to ask the right questions. When we allow both of these disciplines to shape our approach to matters of faith, God, and the Bible we can understand that while we have the answer if we do not know which questions it answers and how it answers those questions than we are unable to apply the answer to our lives.

In his work, the God Heschel presents is a God big enough to handle our questions, even desires that we bring his questions to him. God is not distant or far from those who love him, he is seeking a people who rejoice when he is revealed to them. God is seeking us for relationship, fully aware that relationship with flawed humanity will be necessity also be flawed, but a God who desires to know us any way. He is a God who makes concessions to humanity while still calling us to be greater than we were without him.

Heschel challenges religion to be big enough and responsive enough to be source of inspiration and strength for this time and place. He points out the failings of religion in the past, when it dried up and was nothing more than a carefully preserved heirloom, and he loudly declares that this is not enough. God is alive, so any faith that claims to be of and for him must also be alive.

To be fair, it is a long book, and can be dry in some places, but digging out the nuggets are worth the time. The depth and layers of meaning in Heschel’s writing warrants reading and rereading to wring the most from the words. It is not a book to borrow from the library, you will want to write in it. Nor is it a book that you want to order used, because the previous owner actually read it they will have written in it. So if this appeals to you go head and ante up, pay full price it is worth it.

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