Back in 1976, Heschel wrote a book called “God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism.” Even 38 years ago, it seems, the handwriting was on the wall about future generations’ lack of enthusiasm for religion, and Heschel’s book still speaks volumes.
“It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society,” he wrote. “It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.
“When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion – its message becomes meaningless.”
Like all human endeavors, religion can become irrelevant, oppressive, insipid and meaningless. The questions is, is it the religion itself – its principles, beliefs and practices – that is the problem or the people at any given time who lead or influence it? They’re not the same. Do the doping scandals in major league baseball mean that the sport is bad, or that some people who play it are bad? I believe many people adopt the caricatures of religion to be able to easily knock them down.
Many religions, including my own Catholic faith, believe that the church is human but also divine because God had a hand it its birth. Religion’s purpose is to help us in the search for God, and to the extent that we find him/her, help us in our subsequent relationship to God. I believe Catholicism, and most religions, fulfill that function and more.
But how do you, really, search for a being who is invisible and unknowable? And an even harder question, how does he/she search for you? Many people have found the way through religion and religious leaders like Rabbi Heschel.
The title of his book, says the America article, “expresses what is perhaps Rabbi Heschel’s most distinctive or signature idea: It is not so much we who seek God, but God who seeks us.”
For Heschel, “God is always present to us. But because we are not always, or perhaps even usually present to God, Rabbi Heschel suggests that God must ‘reach out’ to us (from around us and from within us) to elicit our presence, our responsiveness. We dwell within the sphere of God’s presence, yet God must strive to get us to appreciate that presence. God dwells within us, yet God must awaken us to the divine indwelling.”
|Pope Frances and Rabbi Skorka|
Abraham Skorka, the Argentinian rabbi, also wrote a book. His co-author was his friend, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis. Written in 2010, it is called “On Heaven and Earth,” and is a transcription of the conversations about faith, life and the future of religion the two had over an extended period. Bergoglio has suggestions about where to start in the search for God.
“What every person must be told is to look inside himself,” Bergoglio wrote. “Distraction is an interior fracture. It will never lead the person to encounter himself for it impedes him from looking into the mirror of his heart. Collecting oneself is the beginning.
“…I would tell the people of today to seek the experience of entering into the intimacy of their hearts, to know the experience, the face of God.”
To me, this means that people need to be thoughtful, which I believe may be more difficult than at any time in human history. When have there been more distractions? When have people had “less time” to think? When has there been less support for thoughtfulness?
Returning to the theme of the problem with religion, Rabbi Skorka bemoans the smugness involved in the habit of some religious people who apply dogma to practically any human problem. This is nothing new. To illustrate, he uses the story of Job from the Hebrew Bible.
Job, “a just, upright man, wanted to know why he had lost everything, even his health. His friends told him that God had punished him for his sins.” Job is comforted when he has a conversation with God; in other words, when he prays. God doesn’t answer Job’s many questions, the rabbi says, but “the touch of God’s presence stays with him.”
Stories from the Bible may seem unlikely to move us. Like all things “religious,” the Bible has for many become throwbacks to childhood and childishness. So commonplace, it may have become trite and stereotypical. What could it possibly have to say to us today?
Looking inside oneself, as suggested by the future Pope, is just the beginning. Eventually, the searcher for God must look seriously at what the Bible has to say, and consider other timeless sources, including the experience of generations of religious people and their institutions. To ignore them is to invite aimlessness and continual detours on the path to God.
Like reading a book that has an inviting title and cover but vacuous content, it’s hard to be spiritual without religion.