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A Mystic-Warrior for Our Times
By Matthew Fox
New World LibraryCopyright © 2014 Matthew Fox
All rights reserved.
THE GOD OF AWE, WONDER, RADICAL AMAZEMENT, AND JUSTICE
Meister Eckhart Meets Rabbi Heschel
Awareness of the divine begins with wonder.
— Rabbi Heschel
All that exists rejoices in its existence.
— MEISTER ECKHART
This chapter puts Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Meister Eckhart in the room together and asks: What did they preach in common, this early-fourteenth-century Dominican of the Christian lineage and this twentieth-century rabbi of the Jewish Hasidic tradition? To begin at the beginning, we will look at the principal themes of wonder, awe, radical amazement, reverence, gratitude, and the divine presence as Shekinah. All these are responses to the God of Light and the God of creation, which is called classically the "Cataphatic Divinity."
Heschel wrote many books, and he called his work "depth theology," meaning a theology that digs "beneath the dogmas and traditional formulations of the Judeo-Christian traditions which so often have served as substitute for the root experiences of biblical faith." He has been called "the outstanding Jewish thinker of his generation" and "the most productive and by far the best theological mind in modern and contemporary Judaism." Protestant Reinhold Niebuhr called him "the most authentic prophet of religious life in our culture."
If Heschel and Eckhart were in a room together, what would they say to each other, and what do they both say to us today?
Rabbi Heschel: A Brand Plucked from the Fire
Born in Warsaw, Poland, on January 11, 1907, Abraham Joshua Heschel was a descendant in a long line of rabbis that can be traced back to the late fifteenth century. Over seven prior generations, all his male ancestors were Hasidic rabbis. His mother's side also contained historically significant rabbis. Thus, one person commented that Heschel was related "to almost every important Hasidic 'dynasty' in Europe." Understandably, Heschel grew up in a rich milieu of Jewish spiritual piety and practice, and all his life he managed to balance the experiential side of religion with the intellectual side, or in my language, spirituality with theology. As a child he was introduced to two very different Jewish thinkers. One was the eighteenth-century rabbi Reb Baal Shem Tov, who very much preached a God of the via positiva: He found God everywhere and rejoiced in God's presence. He taught people to find a trace of heaven on Earth and inspired joy and ecstasy with an emphasis on love.
The second influence on Heschel from an early age was the nineteenth-century Hasidic master Menahem Mendl of Kotzk, also known as Kotzker. He was very much a preacher of the via negativa who "stormed the heavens" and was, Heschel says, "dreadfully aware of God's absence. Instead of a heaven on earth, he talked about our living in a chamber of hell; instead of joy and ecstasy, he warned of fear and trembling. Instead of love, he taught truth." As Heschel tells us, these two thinkers played out in his soul and work his entire life:
Years later I realized that, in being guided by both the Baal Shem Tov and the Kotzker, I had allowed two forces to carry on a struggle within me.... In a very strange way, I found my soul at home with the Baal Shem but driven by the Kotzker. Was it good to live with one's heart torn between the joy of Mezbizh [the home of the Baal Shem] and the anxiety of Kotzk? To live in both awe and consternation, in fervor and horror, with my conscience on mercy and my eyes on Auschwitz, wavering between exaltation and dismay? Was this a life a man would choose to live? I had no choice: My heart was in Mezbizh, my mind in Kotzk. I was taught about inexhaustible mines of meaning by the Baal Shem; from the Kotzker I learned to detect immense mountains of absurdity standing in the way. The one taught me song, the other — silence. The one reminded me that there could be a Heaven on earth, the other shocked me into discovering Hell in the alleged Heavenly places in our world.
One senses in the poetry of Heschel's telling the deep dialectic or polarity we all feel between the joy of living and the pain of living. His was an authentic dance between the via positiva and the via negativa experiences of divinity, which Heschel never abandoned his entire lifetime.
As a young man Heschel left his home in Poland to attend the University of Berlin. The year was 1927, and he astutely enrolled both at the university and at a Jewish school, the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums. Here was another polarity that Heschel wrestled with all his life: how to engage modern non-Jewish society with his rich Jewish heritage. He was critical of his training in philosophy, as he wrote: "In the academic environment in which I spent my student years philosophy had become an isolated, self-subsisting, self-indulgent entity, a Ding an sich [thing in itself], encouraging suspicion instead of love of wisdom." After all, "love of wisdom" is the etymological meaning of the word "philosophy." He bemoaned the lack of "human solidarity," how "speculative prosperity is no answer to spiritual bankruptcy," and the "tragic failure of the modern mind, incapable of preventing its own destruction." He chose for his dissertation a study on the prophets, which allowed him to explore "how to think in a Jewish way of thinking." His thesis, published in 1936, became the basis of his classic work The Prophets, published in English in 1962 at the height of the civil rights movement in America.
The period between 1936 and 1962 was, of course, a significant chapter in world history. Appointed by Martin Buber to head Jewish Adult Education in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1937, Heschel was deported by the Nazi regime in October 1938. He taught in Warsaw for eight months at a rabbinical seminary, and just six weeks before the Nazis invaded Poland, he left to accept an invitation at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. He was thirty-three years old, and he lived in the United States until his death in 1972, five years in Cincinnati and twenty-seven years in New York.
As a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, Heschel gave this testimony of his journey and that of his people:
I speak as a person who was able to leave Warsaw, the city in which I was born, just six weeks before the disaster began. My destination was New York, it would have been Auschwitz or Treblinka. I am a brand plucked from the fire, in which my people was burned to death. I am a brand plucked from the fire of an altar of Satan on which millions of human lives were exterminated to evil's greater glory, and on which so much else was consumed: the divine image of so many human beings, many people's faith in the God of justice and compassion, and much of the secret and power of attachment to the Bible bred and cherished in the heart of men for nearly two thousand years.
Heschel joined the civil rights movement and marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Selma and elsewhere. He was not content to theologize about the prophets from the comfort of academic protection but joined the struggle for justice in the streets — and he endured much abuse even from his own Jewish circles for showing such leadership. Like Eckhart, who also fought against educational and religious stagnation as well as against the social injustices of his day, Heschel insisted on renewing religion by putting experience first. "Faith is not a stagnant pool," he said. "It is rather a fountain that rises with the influx of personal experience. Personal faith flows out of an experience and a pledge." He insisted that antecedents of faith, or sources of faith, are needed "because it is useless to offer conclusions of faith to those who do not possess the prerequisites of faith." In other words, one renews religion by way of spirituality. In doing so, as Jewish scholar Fritz Rothschild put it, "Heschel has propounded a truly revolutionary doctrine challenging the whole venerable tradition of Jewish and Christian metaphysical theology."
When Heschel and Eckhart get together, do they both challenge the whole venerable tradition of Jewish and Christian theology still?
Awe, Wonder, and Radical Amazement
"Everything praises God," says Meister Eckhart, and Heschel declares that "what we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder." Rabbi Heschel says we ought to "stand still and behold!" Why? "Behold not only in order to explain, to fit what we see into our notions; behold in order to stand face to face with the beauty and grandeur of the universe." He calls us not to take for granted the beauty of our cosmos, the miracle of our existence.
Eckhart also calls us to behold, and he even defines what is behind our power of beholding: "The word 'behold' implies three things: something great, something marvelous, or something rare." What is great and marvelous and rare calls out to us. It is God's word, God's communication to us to pay attention and open our hearts up. The great, the marvelous, and the rare is something Heschel senses, too, when he speaks of "radical amazement" and our need to cultivate a sense of the sublime. For him, the sublime is "the silent allusion of things to a meaning greater than themselves." We are carried to an encounter with transcendence and meaning, an awareness that "the world in its grandeur is full of a spiritual radiance."
Heschel calls for "standing still" as a requisite in order to behold, and Eckhart calls for us to be empty in order to be fully present and fully mindful to the glory of existence. Being still brings with it a deep listening, which is required, according to Eckhart, if we are to receive the revelation that glory intends for us. A kind of unknowing precedes the knowing. Eckhart writes, "Wherever this word is to be heard, it must occur in stillness and in silence. We cannot be of greater service to this Word than through stillness and silence. There we can hear it and understand it correctly, in that state of unknowing. Where we know nothing, it becomes apparent and reveals itself." And again, we journey deep into the very ground of hearing to hear the Divine Word, which "lies hidden in the soul in such a way that one does not know it or hear it. Unless room is made in the ground of hearing, it cannot be heard; indeed, all voices and sounds must go out, and there must be absolute silence there and stillness."
We have to develop a "sense for the inexpedient," Heschel teaches, if we are to stand still to be touched by beauty and grandeur. Eckhart says the same thing when he talks about living and working "without a why or wherefore." Eckhart repeats this theme of inexpediency often:
Whoever dwells in the goodness of God's nature dwells in God's love. Love, however, has no why. If I had a friend and loved him because all the good I wished came to me through him, I would not love my friend but myself. I ought to love my friend for his own goodness and for his own virtue and for everything that he is in himself.... This is exactly the way it is with people who are in God's love and who do not seek their own interest either in God or in themselves or in things of any kind. They must love God alone for his goodness and for the goodness of his nature and all the things he has in himself. This is the right kind of love.
Eckhart contrasts that inexpedient love to expedient love this way: Some people "want to love God in the same way as they love a cow. You love it for the milk and the cheese and for your own profit. So do all people who love God for the sake of outward riches or inward consolation. But they do not love God correctly, for they merely love their own advantage." Eckhart criticizes such "expediency" when he says: "Every single person who seeks anything or even something with his or her works is working for a why and is a servant and a mercenary. Therefore, if you wish to be conformed and transformed into justice, do not intend anything in your work and strive for no why, either in time or in eternity. Do not aim at reward or blessedness, neither this nor that. For such works are truly fully dead."
In reflecting on Psalm 8, Eckhart celebrates our sacred response to sublimity and grandeur. The psalm reads:
Yahweh, our Lord,
how great your name throughout the earth! ...
I look up at your heavens, made by your fingers,
at the moon and stars you set in place —
Ah, what is man that you should spare a thought for him,
the son of man that you should care for him?
Yet you have made him little less than a god.
You have crowned him with glory and splendor,
made him lord over the work of your hands....
Yahweh, our Lord,
how great your name throughout the earth!
Eckhart comments on this psalm:
The prophet [or psalmist] marveled at two things — first, what God did with the stars, the moon and the sun. The second marvel concerns the soul, that God has done and does such great things with it and for its sake: ... He has made it ... like his essence ... and like the ground wherein he subsists in himself, where he is always bearing his only-begotten Son, there where the Holy Spirit blossoms forth. This work [of forming the soul] is a pouring out yet a staying within.
Exegeting the wisdom literature that the Psalms represent, Eckhart calls our attention first to nature and the cosmos as a source of marveling but also to the human person. He himself marvels in amazement at the wonders of creation and creativity when he says: "It is an amazing thing that something flows forth and nonetheless remains within. Words flow forth and yet remain within — that is certainly amazing! All creatures flow outward and nonetheless remain within — that is extremely amazing. What God has given and what God promises to give — that is amazing, inconceivable, and unbelievable. And that is as it should be, for if it were comprehensible and believable, things would not be right." Notice his gradations of amazement: First, things are "amazing," then "certainly amazing," then "extremely amazing," and finally "amazing, inconceivable, and unbelievable." Yes, Eckhart tasted amazement.
So did Rabbi Heschel. He says that "the world is not just here. It shocks us into amazement." It certainly shocks — and rocks — Meister Eckhart. John Merkle, a Roman Catholic lay theologian, wrote a brilliant book summarizing Heschel's work called The Genesis of Faith: The Depth Theology of Abraham Joshua Heschel. He writes: "Heschel begins his depth theology or philosophy of religion where religion itself begins — with the sense of the sublime or with what he also calls the awareness of grandeur." Heschel teaches that "grandeur fills him [humans] with awe," but that modern society, with its emphasis on exploiting nature, barely gives time or notice to appreciating the sublimity and grandeur of our world. Heschel writes:
The obsession with power has completely transformed the life of man and dangerously stunted his concern for beauty and grandeur. We have achieved plenty, but lost quality; we have easy access to pleasure, we forget the meaning of joy. But what is more serious is the fact that man's worship of power has resurrected the demon of power.... When man looks only at that which is useful, he eventually becomes useless to himself.
One experiences the sublime, one tastes it, as in the psalmist's song, "Taste and see the goodness of God." The word "taste" in both Hebrew and Latin comes from the word for wisdom. Eckhart tells this story: "I was once asked why good people feel so happy with God and are so eager to serve Him. I replied by saying it was because they had tasted God, and it would be strange indeed if the soul that had once tasted and tried God could taste anything else." We begin the spiritual life with tasting, which is where wisdom begins also. Thus we can say that "awe is the beginning of wisdom," and a life of wisdom is predicated on a tasting of awe and a celebrating of awe as our primary spiritual experience. A culture of wisdom would hold awe up as a primary value. Knowledge alone does not suffice, and inherited knowledge (yes, dogmas) can be especially dangerous. Heschel warns us: "It is impossible to be at ease and to repose on ideas which have turned into habits, on 'canned' theories in which our own or other people's insights are preserved. We can never leave behind our concerns in the safe-deposit of opinions, nor delegate its force to others and so attain vicarious insights. We must keep our own amazement, our own eagerness alive." We do not want to reduce our alive minds to a mere "series of cliches."
Excerpted from Meister Eckhart by Matthew Fox. Copyright © 2014 Matthew Fox. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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Table of ContentsIntroduction
1. The God of Awe, Wonder, and Radical Amazement: Meister Eckhart Meets Rabbi Heschel
2. The Christ of the Earth and Cosmos: Meister Eckhart Meets Teilhard de Chardin and Thomas Berry
3. The Apophatic Divinity: Meister Eckhart meets Buddhism via Thich Nhat Hahn and the Dalai Lama
4.The Divine Feminine: Meister Eckhart Meets Adrienne Rich
5. Liberated and Liberating Sisters: Meister Eckhart Meets Dorothee Soelle, the Beguines Mechtild of Magdeburg and Marguerite Porret, and Julian of Norwich
6. The Historical Jesus: Meister Eckhart Meets Marcus Borg, Bruce Chilton and John Dominic Crossan
7. Depth Psychology: Meister Eckhart Meets Carl Jung
8. Creativity as Psychotherapy: Meister Eckhart Meets Otto Rank
9. Wisdom of Hinduism: Meister Eckhart Meets the Upanishads and the Vedas via Ananda Coomaraswamy and Father Bede Griffiths
10. Eckhart as Sufi: Meister Eckhart Meets Rumi, Hafiz and Ibn Arabi
11. Indigenous Wisdom and Shamanism: Meister Eckhart Meets the Dreamtime, Black Elk, Mircea Eliade, Bill Everson and Robinson Jeffers
12. Warriors for Economic Justice: Meister Eckhart Meets David Korten and Anita Roddick
13. Warriors for a Deeper Education: Meister Eckhart Meets M.C. Richards, Yellawe, Lily Yeh and Theodore Richards
Conclusion: Where Might Eckhart Take Us?