On truth and Heschel

heschelAbraham Joshua Heschel (second from right) marching with MLK and others in Selma, AL

I think I can safely say I’ve come to a conclusion in my spiritual journey.  I’d like to make a statement of that conclusion.  Some may find it absurdly simple and self-evident, and I’m ok with that. I’m just processing out loud here.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I judge the truthfulness of a belief system/philosophy/religion by the impact it has on healing and restoring human relationships and human relationship with the rest of creation.  Today, not tomorrow, not a thousand years in the future when everything will be ok. Whatever I may hear of, I ask myself, “Does this approach offer hope for the world today?  Reconciliation? Radical love? Forgiveness?  Today?”

By this standard (though I’m coming from a specific biased place), with my semi-limited knowledge of world religions/belief systems/philosophies, I find historical, traditional Christianity to offer the greatest sense of hope and potential for healing and restoration of all that I’ve come to know.

While saying this, I should add that the religion most caustic, most opposed to radical healing and restoration of God’s creation that I’ve come into contact with is modern Christianity.

There are many reasons why I say this, but the primary one that struck me today is modern Christianity’s world-nial and primary focus on questions of heaven and hell at the exclusion of real, physical life today.  In this system of thought, the radical commitment to love of neighbor and enemy, humility, forgiveness, respect for and cherishing of all of God’s creation, the centrality of church to redeem the world; all of these are relativized, made less important, than questions of eternal reward and punishment.  I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard (and have myself said), “This world is fallen and cursed because of human sin, irrevocably broken beyond fixing.  God is not concerned with saving the world, but instead saving humans from the world.  And God will be blowing up the world and starting all over anyways, so we’d better be ready for his return.”

In fact, in a discussion with a person who’s been a self-confessed Christian for a long, long time recently, they told me, “You’re going to Cincinnati to address problems of poverty.  You probably won’t change much.”  It was almost as though I was confronting the Nathan of several years ago, the Nathan so concerned about “saving people” for heaven without a deep understanding of the call for justice today.  The Nathan more interested in living in a place that is comfortable, safe, where I can shake my head and talk about people “over there” (most often in the city), spend time with persons most like me (in ethnicity and common commitments and social class).  Meanwhile, I would be offending and ignoring God’s call to radical reconciliation in the world; the  Biblical mandate for Christians, out of all the people in the world, to be the most committed to breaking cycles of poverty, violence, abuse, and social neglect.  People of the resurrection, of a God more powerful than the fear of death, should be the most free to be people of reconciliation, yet more often we retreat into our cultural homogeneity.  And what’s worse, we justify it with our theology.

We have literally wrapped the gospel of the Bible around the American individualist dream.  Shoved the gospel into a hole that doesn’t fit, and therefore trimmed off the gospel to make it more palatable, less invasive, less life-altering.

I’m come to realize how how absurdly out of touch that belief is with the Bible, how it destroys the desire and the motivation in people to work for bettering this world.  If God’s just going to start all over again anyways, why invest in a world that’s just “a-passin” away?  When we believe this, our Christianity becomes irrelevant, insipid, evil, and empty.  And something always fills that void. In America, it is the second-most evil approach in life in my book; self-centered individualism.  It is an infection, a cancer in Americans that has metastasized into a disease unto death.  I have become so progressively disgusted with this individualism and its unholy blend with modern Christianity that I deeply struggle with self-righteousness when I come into contact with it.  Because the God of the Bible is much less focused on my individual life, and much more focused on recruiting people to join him in His project of setting things right in His world again.  Or, as I like to say these days, “Christianity is not about God finding his place in my story, it’s about finding my place in God’s bigger story.”  The truth of Christianity is thus much less dependent on my personal feelings of God’s “realness” or what have you and much more dependent on whether I see something transcendent, something deeply hopeful, in Jesus and in the God of the Bible.  And I do.  Much more deeply today that before, which makes my heart ache to see God’s justice and God’s agenda come to pass.

I don’t mind as much when American consumers worship at this altar as their primary belief system.  But modern Christianity has so deeply bought into this cultural message.  Our worship songs focused on “I” and “me” desiring emotional connection with the God who “fulfills the desires of our hearts” and “has plans for us, plans to give us hope and a future,” who “makes all things work for good” in our lives (all Scripture ripped out of context to focus on the individual, with God being judged on whether we sense His care for our individual lives on a daily basis).  Our churches with professional pastors working their butts off to teach well and worship leaders to sing and play and provide an interesting experience for others to consume.  Our budgets devoted to buildings for each individual church filled with the latest in modern technology to attract the crowds; flat-screen TVs, Max Lucado book studies full of sappy self-help reassurance that we matter, etc.  Sometimes I just want to prophetically vomit in the aisle of the church worship gathering and leave it as a testament to how I think God feels.

This feeling became more acute today as I  listened to Krista Tippett’s Speaking of Faith while scrubbing at brick with a wire brush for hours on end.  She interviewed Arnold Eisen, chancellor of Jewish Theological Seminary, about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel; his legacy, and his prophetic voice in the world.  This was the third time I listened to this interview because I became absolutely captivated by the words and leadership of Heschel the first time around, and want his words to sink deeply into my life.  One of his key phrases was this;

The opposite of good is not evil, it is indifference.

I see the truth, and find great meaning in that, though I would rephrase it to state, “The opposite of good is evil, which is most often expressed through indifference.”

Listen to the interview here.  I promise you, if you have a soul that even mildly cares about the world around you, you will be inspired by Heschel to be a more active, more honest, more hopeful presence in the world.

I welcome comments on my thoughts on other religions if anyone’s interested, but I didn’t want to write forever and ever.

“I would say about individuals: an individual dies when he ceases to be surprised. What keeps me alive — spiritually, emotionally, intellectually — is my ability to be surprised. I say, I take nothing for granted. I am surprised every morning that I see the sun shine again. When I see an act of evil, I am not accommodated — I don’t accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere. I’m still surprised. That’s why I’m against it; why I can fight against it. We must learn how to be surprised, not to adjust ourselves. I am the most maladjusted person in society.”

– Abraham Joshua Heschel

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “On truth and Heschel

  1. Greetings, Nathan!

    I’ve come to the conclusion that I judge the truthfulness of a belief system/philosophy/religion by the impact it has on healing and restoring human relationships and human relationship with the rest of creation. Today, not tomorrow, not a thousand years…

    Why not judge the truthfulness of something by its actual truthfulness? Isn’t that a safer option? By substituting something else in the place of “truth”, we leave ourselves open to many kinds of deception.

    Can you think of something that unifies people? Well, that must be good, right? Check again: the picture of a world united in Revelation is accompanied by the universal embrace of a beautiful-sounding but convincing lie. The same was true, at times, of ancient Israel: everybody, the king, and the many false prophets got along fine. It was that one jerk who never had anything nice to say, who sowed division, who we now revere as the only “true prophet” in their number. And let’s not forget the lovely unity we all experienced with the tower of Babel. God doesn’t seem to have been too hot on unity and progress in that situation, either.

    Yes, truly, Jesus tells us to judge by fruit. But fruit often isn’t visible “today” (hence “fruit” is usually as shorthand for things which appear in the long term). Truth, actual truth I mean, doesn’t usually win out or unify people in the short term. If you judge by short term outcomes, you’ll end up embracing many more fads and lies than truths. Only by looking to the eternal and non-contingent can we even hope to avoid such errors.

    A larger problem with this litmus test, for us anyway, would be that biblical Christianity, that is the Christianity of Jesus, would fail it miserably. Yes, there is a sense in which Jesus comes to make us whole, restore us to God, and eventually restore the world, but in the short term what did he promise his followers? That he would be a scandal, that he would sew division, that embracing his message would lead to persecution.

    This isn’t a message I particularly like. You don’t know me, but I’m a people-pleaser by nature, and this kind of thing is hard for me. But we have to be honest about Jesus’s teachings, even, or perhaps especially, at the point they present a scandal or stumbling block.

    … the religion most caustic, most opposed to radical healing and restoration of God’s creation that I’ve come into contact with is modern Christianity. There are many reasons why I say this, but the primary one that struck me today is modern Christianity’s world-nial and primary focus on questions of heaven and hell at the exclusion of real, physical life today.

    I certainly agree with you that American Christianity struggles against, and has been compromised by our “individualism” (which is more a product, I think of electronic culture than US culture, given that front porches were popular, much-used features of homes until TV and air conditioning), but I completely disagree with your words above.

    I respectfully submit that the main problem with modern Christianity is not that it is too spiritual or too other-worldly but that it is too materialistic, and too worldly. People don’t fail to get involved with feeding the poor (etc) because they’re too spiritual, but because they (including myself) don’t really believe, enough anyway, Jesus’s teachings about the next world and final judgment. Instead, the problem is that they believe it far too little!

    You’d agree that most people put a lot of effort (and concern, from what I’ve seen) into saving for their retirement, no? Or trying to get a nice home, yes? But what does Jesus say:

    “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.” He follows this with promises of a huge multiplication of reward, that no stock or bond could touch. (Matthew 6)

    If people *really* believed this, they would be putting a lot less into retirement, and fancy electronic gadgets for their ‘mansions’ here, and more toward their mansions in eternity. But people, including Christians, are easily refocused on the here and now, which leads to more selfish behavior, not less.

    There is, by the way, an opposite manifestation of this problem: people who are so obsessed with “social justice” (which is, in itself, another form of materialism) and the demand to create a utopia here and now, that they forget to stand up for matters of heaven and hell, and are tempted abandon actual biblical or logical truth for a “truth” which is judged more by subjective feelings and the appearance of short-term success.

    We might say, stereotypically, that the right struggles with personal materialism (that is, wanting their own heavenly mansions and comfort now), while the left struggles with wanting the larger heavenly kingdom for everyone else now. (Though, in fact, I’ve noticed my friends on the left are often every bit as materialistic, in addition to their utopian demands.)

    And as far as “modern Christianity” being one of the most corrosive belief systems in the world, have you actually looked at the evidence? Every study I’ve looked into implies regular church and synagogue attenders are far happier, healthier, more tolerant, and more charitable than any comparable group in Western society. And the US certainly has more of them than any other country in the West. If Christians are so bad, which real and numerous group, struggling against a similar context, would you point to as a model for improvement? If being more materialistic (world-focused) is the answer, then why are secularists so personally stingy, unhealthy, and unhappy?

    I’m come to realize how how absurdly out of touch that belief is with the Bible, how it destroys the desire and the motivation in people to work for bettering this world. If God’s just going to start all over again anyways, why invest in a world that’s just “a-passin” away? When we believe this, our Christianity becomes irrelevant, insipid, evil, and empty.

    Well, the first question to ask is whether the belief the current world is “passing away” actually is some sort of modern heresy, or whether the bible itself is largely responsible for instilling such a belief. Given the tremendous number of words both the prophets, Jesus and Paul spent promoting this outlook, it’s hard to say this originates from some modern movement, televangelist, or megachurch.

    “Lift up your eyes to the heavens, look at the earth beneath;
    the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment
    and its inhabitants die like flies. But my salvation will last forever…” (Isaiah 51:6)

    “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear… seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matt 6)

    “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matt 10:28)

    “What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on those who… buy something, [should act] as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.” (1 Cor 7)

    And on and on and on. How can you almost quote Paul’s teachings verbatim and call it a heretical modern idea? And how can you believe the people socking all their money into IRA and 401Ks are guilty of believing Jesus or Paul too much regarding heaven and hell?

    And how could this focus result in an “empty” Christianity? Jesus and Paul must have been very “empty” Christians, given their tremendous emphasis on heaven. I read James, and he says that works will accompany actual spiritual faith. I read your words, and you seem to put them at odds. I read Jesus’s parable of the bridgegroom, and he teaches the it was the brides who believed the groom is coming soon who actually got ready (i.e. with acts (clothes) of righteousness). I read your words, and you seem to imply they’d be sitting around watching TV instead. No offense, but I tend to trust the former: as I get closer to the end of my life, I myself become more aware of how little I’ve accomplished and feel the urgency of improving. “The gallows doth wonderfully concentrate the mind,” I think they say. 🙂

    Because the God of the Bible is much less focused on my individual life, and much more focused on recruiting people to join him in His project of setting things right in His world again.

    God’s not playing a numbers game, or promoting a multi-level marketing program. He could make sons of Abraham out of rocks, if he wished. Instead, he would rather have a few people with a deep relationships with him than a zillion who say they’d signed up for some program which is only concerned with changing outward appearances. Jesus was the opposite of a guy trying to “recruit people” for a project “setting things right” in this present world. In fact, when Jesus was confronted by people who wanted him to set up a socialized program guaranteeing free bread for the poor (more here), he opposed the idea, and rebuked them for disbelief. His kingdom was NOT gonna be of this world, however much we might improve it.

    Now, I’d certainly agree with you that we need to also be concerned about systemic material problems. Of course! (That’s why I’m talking to you, actually.) But I’d gently remind you, that unless the Lord builds the house, the workers labor in vain. If there’s a guy in the town square hawking “wonder drugs”, and you think you’re a doctor, it might be tempting to rush up to the podium, buy them, and start injecting them into all your patients.

    But there’s a good reason the Hippocratic oath tells doctors to “first, do no harm.” Because zeal without knowledge has resulted in a lot of dead bodies — and most of those haven’t come from some churchgoer who went to potluck dinners but gave only 3% to the poor. The odd paradox is that the biggest harm has been done by people demand we “fix the world, now!” — but don’t pay enough attention to the impacts on individuals, and don’t bother with little things like avoiding logical errors and deceptive evidence.

    Listen to the interview here. I promise you, if you have a soul that even mildly cares about the world around you, you will be inspired by Heschel to be a more active, more honest, more hopeful presence in the world.

    I listened to almost all of it, so understand, I’ve put several hours of thought and research before writing to you. (So I hope you’ll be as serious with your reply.) And yes, there are some nice bits in it, such as the need for mystery, for wonder, for working with those of other faiths, and the need for humility.

    But there also several things which struck me as disproportionate. I sometimes suspect everybody likes talking about MLK and race because that’s a case where there was, even at the time, a clear-cut biblical-delineated right and wrong; where the political left and right were even largely united. But when they mentioned Vietnam, they noted that many of his fellow Rabbis had differing positions, and yet, when Heschel finally made his own decision, he “spoke in the name of God and scripture” about the need to end the war as soon as possible.

    How very odd. When it comes to religious matters, on which our holy texts are fairly clear, we are constantly enjoined remember “no one has a monopoly on truth.” And yet on these far vaguer and more complicated policy issues, Heschel spoke as though God himself surely endorsed his exact partisan position! And indeed, Sojourners and others seem to follow this exact model today: vagueness where the bible is clear, absolute lack of humility, and partisan conscription of its authority, on specific matters where it is ambiguous or even silent.

    What’s wrong with this picture?

    I’m sure there’s must more to say, but that’s enough for now. I wish you the best regardless! Iron sharpens iron.

    Sincerely,
    – Tim

  2. Hi Yenifer,Thank you so much for your interest. You can very eailsy be involved in any of our activities just come. You can come to our church services on Sunday. We now have two services or meetings one at 9:30am and the other at 11:30am. You can attend Our Wednesday night service at 7pm. We simply teach through the Bible in our church services and Worship God in song. Of course it is all in English. You can also attend our English conversation clubs that meet on Wednesday mornings at 10:30 till noon and on Friday 2:30 till 4:30. You also might be interested in out Coffee Shop Nights. They are a time to come hang out, meet new people, and practice your English. We have music in English, table games, and conversation questions. We have these events on the last Friday night of each month. All of this is free and there is no need to sign up just come.I look forward to meeting you soon.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s