As I sit and look out the window of my study, a blue sky beckons beyond the trees, their naked branches reaching upward as if calling to a hidden God. The green moss glides halfway up the trunk of the tallest tree in my sight and extends beyond the roof and chimney of the house upon whose land it has rooted. A still breeze causes the evergreens below to bristle. I am momentarily filled with wonder, amazed that on such a small and insignificant plot of land – a third of an acre is visible through my study window – there exists such a complex ecological oasis of life, plants, trees, dirt and grass, insects and birds, small mammals, everything existing in perfect harmony with the natural universe. A quiet peace descends over me.
With each passing year, memories of life at a younger age drift further into the distance. Some come easily. I can remember still, as a seven year-old boy, walking with my sister to the public library up the steep hill on Parry Drive in Moorestown, New Jersey, with no understanding of where life would take me, but believing even then that the world was full of wonder and fascination. I remember at age nine throwing a rubber ball against the brick chimney on the side of our house, betraying my parents’ wishes as I practiced fielding ground balls, trying desperately not to throw wildly and risk fracturing a bordering shingle. I remember as a teenager playing touch football with neighborhood friends at the ballfields of the local middle school, experiencing the freedom of the sun and fresh air on my young face as I dodged defenders and intercepted opposing passes. They are memories of an ordinary life in an ordinary town. Never certain of my purpose in life, insecure about my place in the world, and yet living each day with a profound sense of gratitude and good fortune.
As I grew older, I began to value the gift of education and thought, absorbing books and newspapers to help me better understand the world around me, its history and trends, its people and places. I pursued a career in law, created a family and developed a life, always uncertain of my destiny and conscious of my insignificance. For I am but one person among billions, living on a small planet in a vast galaxy that is, in the end, but a tiny fragment among many existing galaxies, planetary constellations, and solid masses of matter that exist beyond our present capacity to imagine and know.
The world is at once beautiful and grand, frightening and scary, full of grace and wonder and acts of barbaric cruelty. As I continue on the journey of life, trying to do my best as a man fulfilling the roles of husband and father, citizen and co-worker, fellow traveler on the Spaceship Earth, I wonder still what it all means. And yet, I am constantly reminded of what a blessing it is to be alive, to have experienced the love I share with Andrea, to watch my children grow into kind, caring, thoughtful adults, and to be blessed with the gift of life and health in a world that does not always dispense fairly such gifts.
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Readers of this blog know that I have at times struggled with questions about God and faith and the meaning of our existence. These days, I have more questions than answers and doubt the certainty and exclusivity of much of what passes for religious doctrine. I believe the vast majority of self-identified religious people have misread, misinterpreted, and misapplied the Scriptural pretexts of their own faith traditions, or are otherwise simplistic and misguided in their unquestioning acceptance or rejection of religion. But I have always believed in a God, an ultimate Creator, however irrational that may seem to some. I realize that God’s presence is impossible to prove or discern, and that, if God does exist, he or she has bestowed humanity with free will, including the freedom to protect or destroy the planet, to act with love and compassion or to inflict indescribable cruelty on our fellow human beings. Anyone who takes time to read the daily papers knows that as a species we are not faring well.
It would be easy in modern times to reject completely the notion of God, or to conclude that God’s existence is irrelevant. Life will go on as we have always known it, and we will either save the world or destroy the world without God’s involvement. Still, I refuse to conclude that God, or some form of higher power, is completely absent from our lives. I continue to believe that which I wrote in October 2009 (In Defense of God: Faith in an Age of Unbelief):
. . . [W]hen I walk among the stars; when I stare at the moon on a warm summer evening; when I acknowledge the beautiful life presence of my two daughters, I experience God’s presence. When I observe the joy in a young child's heart over the embrace of a grandparent; when I watch the trees sway back and forth on a breezy fall day, and feel the moistness of the ocean at my feet; when I experience all of these things, and the multitude of ordinary everyday events, I see, first-hand, evidence of God’s existence.
Although I may not have realized it then, my notion of God’s presence as expressed above is not dissimilar from what had been expressed far more poetically and effectively by Abraham Joshua Heschel throughout the course of his life. It may be why Heschel’s writings continue to touch me, for his writings describe the ineffable and affirm the presence of God in a world in which God often appears absent.
In God in Search of Man (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1955), Heschel wrote that “awareness of the divine begins with wonder” and is “a prerequisite for an authentic awareness of that which is.” Heschel believed that a world without wonder is a world closed off to the presence of God. For it is this sense of wonder that allows us to recognize we are not alone. “You and I have not invented the grandeur of the sky nor endowed man with the mystery of birth and death,” wrote Heschel. “We do not create the ineffable, we encounter it.”
Heschel took the Bible seriously but not literally. He believed, as do I, that religion and science are entirely compatible, that scientific knowledge “extends rather than limits the scope of the ineffable, and our radical amazement is enhanced rather than reduced by the advancement of knowledge.” Heschel welcomed the interplay between science and faith and acknowledged that “the sense of wonder and transcendence . . . must not be a substitute for analysis where analysis is possible; it must not stifle doubt where doubt is legitimate.”
As an observant Jew, Heschel believed with certainty in the existence of God. But he acknowledged that, for most of humanity and throughout most of history, God’s presence has been hidden and actively concealed. He believed, however, that if we are open to the majestic splendor of the universe and the mystery of creation, and if we are willing to look beyond our sense of self, we are capable of experiencing the reality of a transcendent God.
I recently finished reading a wonderful and insightful book by Rabbi Shai Held, Co-Founder of Mechon Hadar, a Jewish educational institution in New York, where he also directs the Center for Jewish Leadership and Ideas. In Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence (Indiana University Press, 2013), Held explains that Heschel sought “to remind his readers that buried deep within them was the possibility of a wholly different orientation to the world, one rooted in wonder and amazement rather than callousness and indifference.” A sense of wonder, Held notes, was for Heschel:
…the very antithesis of “taking things for granted.” A sense of perpetual surprise yields the realization that the world as a whole, and my life within it, did not have to be. They are not brute facts but rather gifts bestowed. To cultivate a sense of wonder, then, is to instill in myself the knowledge, at once cognitive and experiential, that I am not the author of my own life or of the world that I inhabit. I am, most fundamentally, not a creator of life, but a recipient thereof.
The question for Heschel was what to do with the sense of wonder, awe, and mystery that so defines our lives. Underlying his theology was the belief that God had entered into a covenant with humanity and that, as a result, something was asked of us. As human beings, we are naturally driven to focus on our individual needs, to acquire, to enjoy, and to possess. But the spiritual side of humanity provides a “will to serve higher ends” that transcends our needs. “The grand purpose of religion,” Heschel contended, is that “man is able to surpass himself.”
Heschel feared that the collapse of wonder, from self-centeredness, greed, cynicism, or indifference, has perilous consequences for the world and for humanity. Having witnessed in his lifetime the cruelty of Auschwitz and tragedy of Hiroshima, Heschel believed that only through a moral and spiritual reawakening could the world overcome its indifference to human suffering. One need only look at what is happening in the world today, with countless acts of violence and terrorism, millions of refugees fleeing their homelands, much of the world’s population living in squalor, and a mostly indifferent world turning away in apathy, to conclude that much of the world has lost its sense of wonder and the grace that accompanies it.
As Rabbi Held notes, Heschel sought to remind the world that “we matter not because of how much we can acquire, but because of how deeply we are able to give.” Real freedom, according to Heschel, is found not in the power of self-assertion, but in the power to rise above it. To respond to God is to bring an end to callousness and indifference. It is why Heschel in his time spoke so powerfully against the Vietnam War, fought for the rights of Soviet Jews, opposed bigotry and prejudice, and marched arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King in favor of civil rights.
If Heschel were alive today, I have no doubt he would raise his voice in opposition to the world’s indifference to Syrian refugees and the destruction of Aleppo; against the rising influence of xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment in Western countries; and against the callousness of the world’s institutions toward the suffering of our most vulnerable populations.
As another year comes to an end and a new year is upon us, my hope for the world is that we open ourselves to the wonder of the universe, the mystery of life, and the possibility of a God that seeks human partners to spread love and compassion and defeat hatred and indifference. We must acknowledge that only humanity can pursue peace, protect the environment, and save us from ourselves. Only humanity can make a better world.