Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Richness of Unanswerable Questions

"6.432 How things are in the world is a matter of complete indifference for what is higher. God does not reveal himself in the world...
6.44 It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that is exists.
6.45 To view the world sub specie aeterni [under the category of eternity] is to view it as a whole- a limited whole. Feeling the world as a limited whole- it is this that is mystical." -Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus , 149

"To believe in God means to understand the question about the meaning of life. To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning." -Wittgenstein, Notebooks 1914-16, 74e, entry for 8.7.16.

[Interjection: Here W. is reminding me of the Sabbath and of the knowledge we come to in conversion. By knowledge here is referenced, I think, what W. also says in these words: "Feeling the world as a limited whole- it is this that is mystical". I like Philip Rieff's term "the feeling intellect." The menuha, the positive rest of the Sabbath, is properly a resting embrace of this wholeness, of this larger meaning, of the eternity that God has placed in our hearts. Perhaps some may feel threatened by my linking knowledge to conversion, that is, special knowledge that sets the believer apart from others, in a more enviable position, having something the princely, self controlled Buddhist may not, while one is poor and of no account and still swayed by addictions, perhaps. Some Jesus freak loser. But there are, however you cut it, differences in the "wholes" acknowledged, either by secularity or Buddhists, to use these examples, with Christianity. For example, in secularity, the facts of the world are the end of the matter, but: "To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter." Buddhists deny that we have a self. They point to discontinuities and suggest from this that we are not we.... Christ, on the otherhand, says, only if you lose yourself will you find yourself. The Buddhists are also, apparently (from my limited knowledge) keen to avoid self-absorption and self-centeredness. They acknowledge the problem that Jesus is addressing. They just seem to disallow the solution that Jesus Christ's words speak about. So their wholeness is not the wholeness of the self surrendered to Christ. It is a different wholeness. But then one must admit that this is doubtless a highly surface level reading. Still, don't fear the synthesis. Its how you live! ]

Famous final words of Wittgenstein's Tractatus : "7. What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."

"My work consists of two parts: the one presented here plus all that I have not written. And it is precisely this second part that is the important one. My book draws limits on the sphere of the ethical from the inside as it were, and I am convinced that this is the ONLY rigorous way of drawing those limits. In short, I believe that where many others today are just gassing , I have managed in my book to put everything firmly into place by being silent about it." -Wittgenstein in a letter to the editor Ludwig von Ficker.

"Positivism holds- and this is its essence- that what we can speak about is all that matters in life. Whereas Wittgenstein passionately believes that all that really matters in human life is precisely what, in his view, we must be silent about." -Paul Engelmann, Letters from Ludwig Wittgenstein, with a Memoir (1987 trans.), p. 97.

"Life seriously led poses questions whose answers lie beyond language's reach, questions that can be answered only in the living. But Wittgenstein, like Kierkegaard and Levinas, realized how impoverished life would be absent such questions ." -William Placher, The Triune God: An Essay In Postliberal Theology , 2007, p. 36-37. [All quotes were also taken from the cullings presented in Placher's book).

Monday, November 19, 2007

There Is A God by Antony Flew

Antony Flew’s There Is A God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, 2007, Harper Collins.

http://www.amazon.com/There-God-Notorious-Atheist-Changed/dp/0061335290/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1195530032&sr=8-1

I found this book exceedingly interesting and absorbing though requiring careful attention to the elegant simplicity of the arguments in which few if any words were wasted.

Antony Flew was one of the most influential atheists of this century, helping to set the agenda for world atheism for a half century. His “Theology and Falsification”, a paper first presented at a 1950 meeting of the Oxford Socratic Club chaired by C. S. Lewis, became the most widely reprinted philosophical publication of the last century.

Roy Varghese writes in the introduction, “It is not too much to say that within the last hundred years no mainstream philosopher has developed the kind of systematic, comprehensive, original, and influential exposition of atheism that is to be found in Antony Flew’s fifty years of anti-theological writings.” In comparison, Bertrand Russell only produced a few polemical pamphlets on his skeptical views and his disdain for organized religion. There were other atheists in later years, but none of them have changed the agenda in the way that Flew did.

Part of the learning I have derived from this book was of the first hand historical accounts. Antony Flew first really began his path of atheistic argumentation in the debate forum of the Oxford Socratic Club chaired by C.S. Lewis. He gives an account of one famous night when the atheist Elisabeth Anscombe debated Lewis and routed him, causing the revision of a chapter in his book Miracles. He tells of the Lewis’s surprise and describes his memory afterward of seeing the lone figure of Lewis retreating to hurriedly walking to his study in the distance and Anscombe and her friends directly ahead of Flew laughing and in high spirits. Lewis has been accused at times of chauvinism. Women I respect have detected it in his writings. It occurs to me that sometimes God humbles through objects of our scorn and in this case it may have been an atheist woman. Certainly for anyone who has read much of Lewis, though, especially for instance his reflections upon the death of his wife in A Grief Observed, the tenderness and humility and devotion he shows there seem to indicate that if he was chauvinist he progressed in his beliefs to greater wisdom, or at least showed at times an uncommon feeling connection to the opposite sex.

It was also at the Oxford Socratic Club that Flew made his first and only presentation, reading the paper “Theology and Falsification”, which would become the over the years the most widely reprinted philosophical publication of the last century and a regular staple for philosophy courses. Of the Oxford Socratic club, Flew notes: “This Socratic principle [“follow the argument wherever it leads.”] also formed the inspiration of the Socratic Club, a group that was really at the center of what intellectual life there was in wartime Oxford. The Socratic Club was a lively forum for debates between atheists and Christians, and I was a regular participant at its meetings. Its redoubtable president from 1942 to 1954 was the famous Christian writer C.S. Lewis. The club convened every Monday evening during term time in the underground Junior Common Room of St. Hilda’s College. In his preface to the first issue of the Socratic Digest, Lewis cited Socrates’ exhortation to ‘follow the argument wherever it leads.’ He noted that this ‘arena specially devoted to the conflict between Christianity and unbeliever was a novelty.’” (p. 22-23).

Obviously my attention is being caught especially by Lewis, a truly “beautiful mind”, in Flew’s accounts. However, there is something noteworthy about Flew from the beginning here that sets him apart from the “New Atheists”. Flews’ first work, while challenging theism is also considered by him to have been a driving of the nail into the coffin of logical positivism which as a cultural phenomenon and a philosophical tactic had had the effect of silencing conversation and toleration between the theists and atheists. Flew participated in and truly appreciated the open exchange of views and the dialogue between atheists like him and men like Lewis, who altered their views when confronted with logic regardless of who it came from. Part of what this book brings out in clarity and historical perspective is how intellectual communities are often guided by tactics and temporal vogues of approaches that frame their thinking and debates. Understanding this brings out in relief how the tactics being adopted by the New Atheists as a whole are similar to the Logical Positivists in not allowing for discussion or debate.

Flew defended the legitimacy of discussing theological claims against the logical positivist tactic and challenged philosophers of religion to elucidate their assertions. Oddly enough, his principled atheist argumentation facilitated the rebirth of rational theism in analytic philosophy. Before him the logical positivists of the Vienna Circle, popularized by A.J. Ayer in the English speaking world by his 1936 work, Language, Truth and Logic, held that only statements which could be verified through sense experience or which were true simply by the nature of their form and the meaning of the words used. At the heart was the claim called the “verification principle” that the meaning of a proposition lies in its verification. Flew considered his argument in “Theology and Falsification” a final nail in the coffin against this position. “Instead of the arrogant announcement,” he wrote, “that everything which any believer might choose to say be ruled out of consideration a priori as allegedly constituting a violation of the supposedly sacrosanct verification principle- here curiously maintained as a secular revelation- I preferred to offer a more restrained challenge. Let the believers speak for themselves, individually and severally.” Ayer himself agreed on the death of logical positivism and stated that he no longer thought much of Language, Truth and Logic was true, but that it had a cathartic effect at the time.

“In ‘Theology and Falsification’, God and Philosophy, and The Presumption of Atheism….he laid out a road map for subsequent philosophy of religion. In ‘Theology of Falsification” he raised the question of how religious statements can make meaningful claims (his much-quoted expression ‘death by a thousand qualifications’ captures this point memorably); in God and Philosophy he argued that no discussion on God’s existence can begin until the coherence of the concept of an omnipresent, omniscient spirit had been established; in the Presumption of Atheism he contended that the burden of proof rests with theism and that atheism should be the default position. Along the way, of course, he of course analyzed the traditional arguments for God’s existence. But it was his reinvention of the frameworks that changed the whole nature of the discussion.”


Flew in his introduction responded to the spurious claims by Dawkins and others hand waving a man of his accomplishment off by reference to his age at a distance, without listening to the man, no doubt. He responds to this and Roy Varghese responds too, much more blisteringly. Flew’s response is with the quiet lucid reasoning that characterizes the book as a whole. The wise, the few, will note that popular opponents, such as Richard Dawkins, of positions like Flew’s are indicating by their silencing tactics their willingness to be intolerant but not their capacity to answer the superior arguments that men like Flew quietly, elegantly, serenely give. Flew writes: “It has been said that fear concentrates the mind powerfully, and these critics had concluded that expectations of an impending entrance into the afterlife had triggered a deathbed conversion. Clearly these people were familiar with neither my writings on the nonexistence of the afterlife nor with my current views on the topic. For over fifty years I have not simply denied the existence of God, but also the existence of an afterlife. My Gifford Lectures published as The Logic of Mortality represent the culmination of this process of thought. This is one area in which I have not changed my mind. Absent special revelation, a possibility that is well represented in this book by N.T. Wright’s contribution, I do not think of myself “surviving” death. For the record, then, I want to lay to rest all those rumors that have me placing Pascalian bets.” After reading the book the vacuity of the dismissive remarks is amply apparent. There is no reason to belabor this point but I would like to remark that the vast majority including Dawkins are unable to write such a well reasoned book as the one Flew has provided.

I am not going to try to reconstruct the arguments of the book in detail. It recounts key issues and how positions he held and argued forcefully were met and answered in ways he had not at first seen. The story is one of an incremental change, a progress in philosophy, in following the argument where it led. Four key chapters address the following questions (chapter headings):

Who wrote the laws of nature?
Did the universe know we were coming?
Did something come from nothing?

In reading this book one of the things that were brought home to me was the work of philosopher and how beyond reading books there is the reading of arguments, exactly the thing Socrates was so keen on. The work of following an argument requires great labor at times and may lead to embarrassing overturning of ones hard fought positions. It is easier to cast aspersions and revel in prankish tongues, ‘innovative’ for their intolerance, but weak on reason. But there is a reward in love of the truth.

Flew is a quiet sign to searchers that beyond the silencing tactics of the “new atheists” and others voices in an increasingly intolerant secularism, there is the argument and the questions, and if one is brave enough in their soul to heed these instead of the cosmic diversions, a lucid and narrow way beckons.

Another thing that occurs to me is the nature of atheism in general. It becomes more vividly apparent that not all views are equal. Flew directly contrasts with much of what atheism stands for, which is often an evasion and silencing of deeper questions. Materialism after all from ancient times has had the notion that the cosmos always was and is and will be and that therefore we need not ask why is there anything and not nothing. Many atheists express their distaste for ultimate questions, their boredom, their repugnance, their pride in innocence from contemplation, their erstwhile avoidance of philosophy. Schopenhauer’s quip remains true: “…materialism is the philosophy of the subject who forgets to take account of himself.” I do not mean to say by this that there are not honest and truth loving atheists that are sincerely seeking the truth. I know at least one. But as for the repudiation of ultimate questions, that is more blameworthy than anti-science, which is quite blameworthy. It is avoidance of, well, one’s reason. There is always something lesser to lose yourself in, you cowards!

Especially interesting in the context of the present debates is Flew’s history with Richard Dawkins, most recently the author of The God Delusion, and his pointed criticism of some of Dawkins arguments. I see about recounting some of these in more detail, especially if there is expressed interest. One point is perhaps in a sense more minor but not too flattering of Dawkins. He points out that Dawkins is aware of and cites Max Jammer’s book Einstein and Religion, (Jammer was one of Einstein’s friends) but uses it very selectively in order to uphold the view Flew previously held that Einstein was an atheist. Dawkins tries to explain away Einstein's statements about God as metaphorical references to nature. Roy Varghese writes, "But this bit of Einsteinian exegesis is patently dishonest. Dawkins references only quotes that show Einstein's distaste for organized and revelational religion. He deliberately leaves out Einstein's belief in a 'superior mind' and a 'superior reasoning power' at work in the laws of nature, but also Einstein's specific denial that he is a pantheist or an atheist." Einstein even in one place cited by Jammer expresses anger at the attempts of atheists to misuse his statements to this end. Jammer also dispels notions that Einstein believed in Spinoza’s God, relating Einstein’s relation to Spinoza, which was not a deep conceptual one.

This book is worth getting a copy of even for the preface and first appendix alone by Roy Varghese in which he sets out an astute and withering critique of the New Atheists. Similarly, the final appendix by N.T. Wright stands on in its own right, where he sets out a powerful argument for belief in the resurrection of Christ, the most powerful that Flew says he has ever encountered.

Below touches on Varghese’s critiques:


Roy Varghese notes that oddly the recent books by the new atheists read like fundamentalist sermons with hell-fire and brimstone and asks how the new atheists fit into the philosophical discussion on God of the last several decades. He answers that they don’t, that basically they are a reversion to the refuted logical positivism of another age.

First, he says, they refuse to address the central grounds for positing a divine reality. “Dennett spends seven pages on the arguments for God’s existence. Harris none… Dawkins talks of the origins of consciousness as ‘one-off’ events triggered by an initial stroke of luck.’ Wolpert writes: ‘I have purposely [!] avoided any discussion of consciousness, which remains mostly poorly understood.’ About the origin of consciousness, Dennett, a die-hard physicalist, once wrote, ‘and then a miracle happens.’

Dawkins talks of the origins of consciousness as ‘one-off’ events triggered by an initial stroke of luck.” Besides the rationality implicit in all our experience of the natural world, Varghese identifies autonomous agency, consciousness, conceptual thought and the self as unaccounted for by all of the new atheists. He develops his point about each of these in Appendix A of the book.

Secondly, the new atheists show no awareness of the raise and fall of arguments of logical positivism.

Third, they seem entirely unaware of the massive work in analytic philosophy of religion or of the sophisticated arguments within philosophical theism.

Varghese then notes in contrast to Dawkins how often Russell was known to change his mind and also the case of J.N. Findlay who argued that God's existence can be disproved but then reversed himself and argued for the existence of God in a series of subsequent books.

"Dawkins 'old-age' argument (if it can be called that) is a strange variation of the ad hominem fallacy that has no place in civilized discourse. True thinkers evaluate arguments and weigh evidence without regard to the proponent's race, sex, or age." p. xvii

““It would be fair to say that the ‘new atheism’ is nothing less than a regression to the logical positivist philosophy that was renounced by even the most ardent proponents. In fact, the ‘new atheists,’ it might be said, do not even rise to logical positivism. The positivists were never so na├»ve as to suggest that God could be a scientific hypothesis- they declared the concept of God to be meaningless precisely because it was not a scientific hypothesis. Dawkins, on the other hand, holds that ‘the presence or absence of creative super-intelligence is unequivocally a scientific question.’ This is the kind of comment of which we say it is not even wrong!” -Roy Varghese p. xviii.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Josef Pieper’s Only the Lover Sings

Summary of Josef Pieper’s Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation.

Ralph McInerry once said of the Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper that he “speaks out of the abundance of his heart and mind where knowledge has become wisdom.” I think that captures what I wanted to express about Pieper’s writing but couldn’t find the words for. Pieper is one of those writers whose work is full of choice phrases culled reflectively from the classical texts of philosophy with a practical and applicational soundness generally. He is an excellent communicator of the ideas of philosophy similar to C.S. Lewis. Only the Lover Sings is the second volume I have read by him. (The first was In Defense of Philosophy: The Power of the Mind for Good and Evil, Consists in Argumentation). He is most well-known for his book is Leisure: The Basis of Culture, which Br. Dunstan has recommended to me.

Only the Lover Sings is a short, 76 page collection of essays on art and contemplation, originally published in German in 1988. The first essay entitled “Work, Spare Time and Leisure” in which Pieper discusses the ancient conception of leisure held by those such as Aristotle, which is a substantially different concept than one might think of when hearing the term today. Pieper argues that avoiding idolization of labor today cannot be achieved except by an objection based on some ultimate truth about human nature (which is therefore to be taken as of lasting relevance, he assumes). He notes how there are still vague notions about the seventh day of the week being special and about holidays and quitting time (in Germany), but that we are ignorant of how the accumulated wisdom of our Western cultural and existential tradition “as expressed, say, by Plato, and Aristotle, or the great teachers of Christianity” viewed leisure.

“The most important element in this teaching declares: the ultimate fulfillment, the absolutely meaningful activity, the most perfect expression of being alive, the deepest satisfaction, and the fullest achievement of human existence must needs happen in an instance of beholding, namely in the contemplating awareness of the world’s ultimate and intrinsic foundations.” P. 22. He asks the question what constitutes here and now an activity that is meaningful in itself, in contrast to an activity that is meaningful for what it produces, and he answers that it is whenever in contemplation we touch, however remotely, the core of all things. As Matthew Arnold once wrote, “The touch of truth is the touch of life.”

He says that in feast days (he glancingly mentions the Sabbath, focused more on the Greek heritage rather than the Jewish) man has traditionally expressed his being in harmony and awareness of being surrounded by such fundamental realities, in nonordinary ways.

He says, indeed, that wherever there is lacking the attitude of heart and mind recognizing and seeking to live in harmony with this fundamental truth of human nature (“even if beheld through a veil of tears”), all endeavors to organize relaxation techniques turn hectic and, indeed, become an “outright desperate, form of work”.

Pieper has in mind some of the Communist materialists’ notions of work and of the human. Although Communism has receded, materialism has not, and the erosion of the spiritual conceptions of man and work and rest still remains. Piepr mentions five-year plans which were apparently rigid impersonal plans by which the Communist countries attempted to idealistically pursue science in a scientific way. Michael Polanyi also mentions these plans in The Tacit Dimension and in Science, Faith and Society. Polanyi was a ground-breaking chemist who turned to philosophy in the later part of his life in order to defend science as he understood it against the materialist conceptions of science exemplified by the Communists at the time, of which the Five-Year plans were an example. Pieper and he seem to share the same impulse here. They are defending a view of man against a rival, materialist anthropology. This battle still rages in a different form today.

What Pieper is arguing is that we must acknowledge that man is created with a telos, with a purpose and a design which he does not operate well without conforming to, and that leisure that allows for contemplative wholeness is part of that design. However, acknowledgment of a telos is something disputed by the broader public. In some ways it seems that acknowledgment of a telos is systematically excluded by a secular milieu. I believe it was in Roe vs. Wade that there was a famous mystical paragraph asserting a kind of right of people to forge for themselves their own good and evil. Maybe I am parodying that a little. But the idea was certainly the rejection of a telos, of responsibility, of a right and a wrong to one’s actions. (This reminds me of the book of Amos where justice is disgraced in the courts. I hope Blackwater does not in the end end up being another such a disgrace in American courts! Let justice roll down like a river and don’t let legal loopholes prevent it!)

The great Medievalist scholar Etienne Gilson wrote a book entitled From Aristotle to Darwin and Back which by many accounts I have been coming across is an excellent treatment of telos and the view of human nature. Darwinism tends to convert human nature into a liquid thing, to create static for notions of telos. (Unfortunately the book is out of print and the only copy on Amazon sells for $300! Publishers of the world, what is wrong with you?)

The question Pieper raises is significant and touches on the question of Sabbath observance and similar wistful hopes of Christians today. Does such a high view of leisure, one which sees it as essential to fulfilling the existential purpose of man, have a basis only in a belief in there being a telos of man? Well, if I put it that way… But I mean to say, is there no securable place in our hearts for rest and contemplation which ascend to the highest of human experience without such a recognition of our nature? This may be a tricky question. How much did Pieper for instance consider the Buddhist positions which hold that there is no self. Without a self, what telos can there be? One can say that without regarding leisure of this contemplative kind as to be aimed for there can be no pursuit of it, and without a cogent reason for its pursuit the pursuit will deteriorate in half-heartedness or be a desperate asceticism for asceticism’s sake. But how is one to counter Darwin? How is one to extract telos from a supposed sea of chance and natural selection? It seems Pieper’s point is that there will be no leisure and no Sabbath without this understanding of human nature, or telos. The Jews rested on the seventh day because that is when God rested and they are created in God’s image. I think that is at least a theologically sound way of putting. Pagans had cultic feast days in which they recognized something more than is sold in the secularist bill of goods perhaps.

In the second essay, “Learning How To See Again”, Pieper asks the excellent question “How can we be saved from becoming a totally passive consumer of mass-produced goods and a subservient follower beholden to every slogan the managers may proclaim? The question really is: How can man preserve and safeguard the foundation of his spiritual dimension and an uncorrupted relationship to reality? He suggests that more and more we tend to see with less detailed grasp, to hear with less detail (in contrast for example to the Indians) and to remember with less capacity (he didn’t mention that but I was thinking of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death which cogently points out the loss of memory skills with the advent of writing).

He says that fasting and abstention from the “noise” is a valuable first step but hardly sufficient. “A better and more immediately effective remedy is this: to be active oneself in artistic creation, producing shapes and forms for the eye to see.

Nobody has to observe and study the visible mystery of the human face more than the one who sets out to sculpt in a tangible medium. And this holds true not only for the manually formed medium.”

I think his recommendation is excellent and true. There is a sense too in which familiarizing with works of art can also train the eye and awaken to reality. I think Emerson was not all wrong when he said works of art depicting people train the eye to look at actual people. A while ago I took a day off and spent half of it at the National Museum of Art, and it was for me very revivifying. The stimulation from contemplating the works of art I saw there noticeably to me opened my eye to the perception of the world around me after I had left. An afterglow lingered with me for a day or two. There was a kind of generative stimulation that suggested I do the same. (Note to myself an interesting parallel that occurs between the notion of generativity from the male side in The Skies of Babylon and from the feminine side in Elaine Scary’s On Beauty). If this could be incorporated in my life into a better rhythm of work and rest much could be accomplished! But on the other hand, let this not be strumming on David’s harp and improvisation of musical instruments while the poor are crushed (see Amos 6:5), aristocratic complacency at the expense of others.

The third essay, entitled “Thoughts About Music”, argues that music by its nature is very close to the fundamentals of human existence. He asks “What indeed do we perceive when we listen to music?” He quotes Schopenhauer in answering this question: Music “does not speak of things but tells of weal and woe”.

“To repeat: thus has the nature of music variously been understood in the Western philosophical tradition- as nonverbal articulation of weal and woe; as wordless expression of man's intrinsic dynamism of self-realization, a process understood as man's journey toward ethical personhood, as the manifestation of man's will in all aspects, as love. This, for instance, is the meaning of Plato's statement that 'music imitates the impulses of the soul', or as Aristotle puts it: music is similar to ethics and related to it. The same tradition continues in remarks by Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche when they say that music 'invariably is the expression of an immediacy as no interfering medium is involved'; or (Schopenhauer) that of all the arts it is music that represents the will itself; or (Nietzsche in his interpretation of Wagner) that music lets us hear 'nature transformed into love'.””

Pieper argues that since music is an expression of individual’s inner dynamic, and that, as the process of ethical growth is one faced with innumerable dangers and interferences, “a thousand different expressions of pretense error, and confusion can also appear. "

“Thus the musical articulation may include a shallow contentment with the facile availability of the cheapest 'goods', the rejection of any ordered structure, the despairing denial that man's existential becoming has a goal at all or that such a goal could be reached. There can also be, as in Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus, the music of nihilism, which lives on parody and comes about through the 'devil's help and hellish fire under the cauldron'.”

Pieper obviously accepts Plato’s and others of the Western traditions’ view that music can be a force for good or evil and that it is not wise to merely regard it as an indifferent matter. This is an open question for me. We are told to think about whatever is lovely, etc. but some argue that beauty is a purely subjective, an personal matter. Here is an expression of a counter view to Pieper’s which suggests the indifference of musical medium:

"The apostolic tradition is a tradition of words, not music. It’s the words that are important and not their method of delivery. In the few times where singing is specifically mentioned in the New Testament, I think it’s reasonable to think that if the music were important, some sort of musical instruction would have been preserved in the texts. This is particularly important when we consider the Greek “Doctrine of Ethos,” which held that certain musical devices influenced character. In regards to that widespread belief, if it had carried any weight in the circles in which the New Testament documents were formed it would be reasonable to see it reflected in those documents (“and when they had sung a hymn in the Dorian mode, they went out to the Mount of Olives” or something like that). There isn’t even a hint of that kind of notion in the New Testament. There isn’t even a hint because music, the business of high and low notes, half steps and whole steps (and how big the half steps are, because the size changes), loud and soft,—is a mater of adiaphora, or indifference. That doesn’t mean that music is unimportant, it just means that it’s not particularly privileged and the specifics of what is or isn’t appropriate decided on an ad hoc basis." from Michael Litton, http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/?p=858

If it is true that music is indifferent, then an arbitrary standard may simply cause divisions. But then one might ask whether knowledge of the beautiful and that which heeds the depths in musical composition versus that which is on a more incognizant level is really a baseless distinction. Perhaps there is difference and it rides on the nature of reality. But it doesn’t seem like something to fight about, but something to heed.

“Music and Silence” is a short contemplation of the middle place music occupies between noise and absolute silence. The two antipodes both destroy the any possibility of mutual understanding but

The final essay, “Three Talks in a Sculptor’s Studio” is reflection on memory in relation to the muses. This follows the other essays in perceiving the realist foundation of art. Memory of the actual the window on the foundations of existence. Contrast this with the point made in a Far Eastern proverb, “Those who only look at themselves do ever radiate nothing.” There is included a reflection also on a piece of art on t the conversation of those crucified beside Christ Jesus and a poem. An association is made between the arts and times of festivity, between dark times and heaven. Lastly there is the point made that art should neither be merely depiction of the real, like a photograph, nor ‘absolute’ art which is indifferent to the forms of the world.

The Sabbath by Abraham Heschel

Summary of The Sabbath by Abraham Heschel

Abraham Heschel is one of the most respected Jewish scholars of the 20th century and of an orthodox view friendly to Christian belief. He was an active participant in the Civil Rights movement and wrote a seminal study called The Prophets and a number of works of reflective and broad scholarship. (I will append a summary of Heschel’s life by Richard John Neuhaus at the end).

In this slender and reknowned volume, Heschel sets forth an explanation of the Sabbath tradition among the Jews. In my faulty way I would like to recall here to mind some of the things that I have learned, the questions that it raised and the contingent reflections I have had in relation to it, in hopes of fulfilling the injunction in Philippians 4 prescribing the contemplation of the lovely and true, etc.

One thing that stands out is the cogency of Heschel’s explanation of the Sabbath as a spiritual fitting rhythm of life. He speaks of the rest, the menuha, of the Sabbath not in the negative sense of merely ceasing labor.

“Menuha which we usually render with ‘rest’ means here much more than withdrawal from labor and exertion, more than freedom from toil and strain or activity of any kind. Menuha is not a negative concept but something real and intrinsically positive.” p.. 22-23

Like Aristotle and other ancient Greeks’ conception of leisure, the conception of the Sabbath rest is positive in nature, and is viewed as the purpose and culmination of labor. Work in the mundane realities is to culminate in rest and contemplation from which we may cease from the hustle and bustle and attend in quietness and rest to the Lord. As it is says in Isaiah, “In quietness and rest is your strength…” "Labor without dignity is the cause of misery; rest without the spirit the source of depravity." (p. 18. of The Sabbath.)

It seems to me that perhaps a great enduring strength in the religious culture of the Jewish people lies centrally in the keeping of the Sabbath. In so doing, they fulfill that of which the verse I quoted above speaks. I counterpoise this in my mind with the ambition to control and conquer space in Descartes’ schematic. This brings me to a major point of the book. Heschel finds a distinction between the Jewish religion and other religions in that in others’ religions, grand temples and cathedrals are built as sacred space, but that in the Jewish religion a cathedral in time is built to God, the cathedral of the Sabbath. He notes the distinction between this and for instance Spinoza’s propensity for supposing the geometrico sufficient for explanation of all, an extension of Descartes, and in some sense the paradigm of the modern, and especially of science.

“The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments”, Heschel writes. This reminds me of the experiences related of Jacob in the Bible. There is one in particular, perhaps a more obscure one, but one which struck me by its nature as conveying indeed a real historical experience, a sacred moment, which moved Jacob to purify his household. Judaism, and Christianity after it, are distinct in being irreducibly historical in their accounts which are punctuated by pivotal sacred moments, and which also imply sacred moments in the life of every believer. If these sacred moments in the Bible are mythologized in their entirety, as for instance, it seems to me, the philosopher Eric Voegelin does, then they are completely devalued. They are no longer the Faith.

Part of the cogency of Sabbath-keeping seems to me to lie in the nature of the self and our relation to God. We live a fractured and distracted existence. The fractured paintings of Picasso for instance seem to capture some of the fractured-ness of self in the modern world. Resting and ceasing allows us to remember what it is all for, to renew our bearing and orientation to the ultimate and in so doing helps to fulfill the ultimate of our being or existence. The shalom, the peaceful fullness of living, is attained only in this beholding relationship. But it is not all about self and certainly not about “self-help”. I think of the over-extendedness of Descartes who made the leap to supposing mathematics valid for all realms of human inquiry, and the motivated definition of the self that is inherited markedly from him which leaves no place of honor and recognition to the infinite and the to the I and Thou. Contrast this with the Sabbath which recognizes a limitedness to man, but not merely a limitedness but a purpose and a directedness of man’s aspirations, which establishes an end to man’s grasping control and allows for a beholding and a composition of the self to the whole.

This reminds me of Martin Buber in that the Sabbath is such that it is to help us to rise beyond the I-and-It to the wholeness of our being in the I and Thou. When this is learnt through living wisely, then even in the “chrysalis state of the It,” the I and Thou is still intact. In the same way the Sabbath principle of orientating toward the eternity in our hearts, when kept wisely, becomes something that persists through the days of labor.

It seems to me too that the Sabbath is very much related to the Jewish tradition of universality in the doctrine of the Imago Dei which became in modern times the basis of human rights thought. The humaneness seems to me related to the anthropology/ view of the self and of relation to God and man manifested in the practice. Through the quietness and rest and contemplation, the human soul is equipped to help others, the helpless, the homeless, the outcast and the needy. There needs to be sought and grown a wholeness out of which kindness and ministry is deepened.

An image that I found particularly poignant was in a rabbinic tale that Heschel related and drew morales from. Honestly, the tale was largely outlandish and comic-bookish to my ears, but at the end there was the beautiful story of an old man who ran by holding bundles of myrtles to honor the Sabbath. Myrtles are fragrant flowers that are ubiquitous in the traditional Jewish wedding ceremonies. The old man running at twilight to welcome the Sabbath represented Israel. The Sabbath is seen as a bride based on the injunction in the Old Testament to keep the Sabbath, which uses a word which has the association of a wedding in it:

“When the people of Israel stood before the mountain of Sinai, the Lord said to them: ‘Remember that I said to the Sabbath: The Community of Israel is your mate.’ Hence: “Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it” Exodus 20:8) The Hebrew word le-kadesh, to sanctify, means in the language of the Talmud, to consecrate a woman, to betroth. Thus the meaning of the word on Sinai was to impress upon Israel the fact that their destiny is to be the groom of the sacred day, the commandment to espouse the seventh day.” P. 51-52.

The image strikes me as beautiful and conveys the positive nature of the Sabbath in the Jewish thought and imagination. Traditionally averse to personification, in this case they personify the Sabbath as a bride. Heschel elaborates on this wonderfully.

In closing, although I still have questions about the relation of Christianity to the Sabbath and the keeping of special days, I am convinced of the cogency of the principle (and of the value of exploring the relation further), so that it is incumbent upon me to give careful thought about how I might order my life in such a way that conforms to this knowledge wholly, and that I might encourage the community of Christ to do likewise, not legalistically but in order to live.




Richard John Neuhaus on Heschel:

Abraham Joshua Heschel
I first met Abraham Joshua Heschel in 1965, when he was fifty-eight and I a kid of twenty-nine. The occasion had to do with defending protestors against the Vietnam war, which led to the formation of Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam (CALCAV). We hit it off in a big way, and ours became an intense intellectual and spiritual friendship until his death in December 1972. We both loved to argue, and mainly we argued about the connections and conflicts between the Jewish and Christian ways of being children of Abraham. I thought he was too enamored of what I viewed as an excessively easy pluralism. He thought I was too insistent in my Christian particularism. For hours beyond number we went back and forth, often in his book-crammed office high in the tower of Jewish Theological Seminary, he smoking his cannon-sized cigars and I puffing on my pipe until the air was so thick we had to open the window even in the dead of winter. (He quit the cigars after a minor heart attack a few years before he died.) Of course I learned much more than he did from these exchanges. Heschel was a very learned man, and a great soul.
His books are still in print (e.g., The Earth is the Lord’s, The Sabbath, Man is Not Alone, God in Search of Man) and I warmly recommend them. Since his death twenty-six years ago, something of a Heschel cult has sprung up. In fact, it had already sprung during his lifetime. On the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death, the first volume of the biography by Edward Kaplan and Samuel Dresner appeared, Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness (Yale University Press). It has been admirably and admiringly reviewed by Rabbi David Novak, one of Heschel’s star students, in these pages (October 1998). It is also reviewed in Commentary by Jon Levenson of Harvard, a frequent contributor to this journal, under the title "The Contradictions of A. J. Heschel." While Levenson, too, admires Heschel, he has some big problems.
Heschel came from a dynasty of hasidic rabbis in Poland, took his doctorate at the University of Berlin, succeeded Martin Buber as head of the Lehrhaus in Frankfurt, and, after escaping Nazism to America, became the most read and most influential Jewish theologian of his time. He was a devoutly observant Jew who believed there are many ways to the truth. Kaplan and Dresner say it is a wonder that he was able to "reconcile" the different worlds of which he was part. Levenson is not sure that he did. "The question of the authority of halakhah, traditional rabbinic law in all its specificity, is the most obvious point of division between the traditionalist world of Heschel’s origins and Jewish secular modernity. But it is, or should be, a no less troubling point of division between the world he grew up in, and whose basic religious dictates he continued to follow, and the world of religious but non-Orthodox Judaism in which he spent his entire professional life both in Germany and later in the United States." Levenson’s conclusion is that "it was not out of the reconciliation but out of the collision of the several worlds in which he traveled that his most profound reflections on Jewish theology and spirituality were born."
It is for others to figure out the "contradictions" in Heschel’s way of being Jewish. I am interested here in another question about Heschel’s thought that Levenson raises, a question that was at the heart of our friendly but intense disagreement. He notes that at the University of Berlin Heschel immersed himself in the emerging fields of aesthetics, phenomenology, and psychology (a combination in which another Polish thinker of the time was also deeply immersed-Karol Wojtyla, later to be Pope John Paul II). From this he developed his crucial understanding that God is always the Subject and man the object of divine action; the initiative is always with God. In Heschel’s case this was combined with the dominant liberal Protestantism of Berlin that pitted the prophetic against the priestly, and the authentically spiritual against the religiously institutionalized. As Levenson observes, this "very dubious dichotomy . . . was a staple of Protestant biblical studies and was, moreover, often linked to anti-Jewish (and anti-Catholic) polemics."