My Faith—A Philosopher’s Look At Christianity, 34

The Ineffable

Heschel writes: “The ineffable inhabits the magnificent and the common, the grandiose and the tiny facts in reality alike.” David sings this song in Psalms 139:7-12:

“Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,’
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.”

The ineffable is God’s presence everywhere and how could it be otherwise? I love Georgie O’Keeffe’s paintings. I don’t need to see her name on it to know it’s an O’Keeffe, it’s her unique imprint. I got to see many of her originals when vacationing in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Right now I’m looking at a very large ficus tree in my back yard. It began as a small tree in a pot on the patio in my front yard just outside my large window so I could enjoy it. One day I noticed that a root from the bottom of the plant made its way into a crack in the patio so I transferred the ficus tree to a larger pot and the tree grew even larger. I wasn’t all that familiar with ficus trees, I just enjoyed its look. I moved from larger pot to a wooden half-barrel and the tree got even larger. So I moved barrel and tree into my back yard and planted both in the ground. That small tree is now a humongous tree taking up a very large section of my yard, reaching into my neighbors yards. The grass where I planted it now gone because no sun gets to the ground under the tree, but I love its fullness, it gives me such peace and enjoyment just looking at it. I’m not in the forest, I’m in my back yard. I’m not in the country I’m in the city. And yet when I just sit and enjoy that tree without any thoughts I’m in the presence of the ineffable.

Again Heschel writes:

“Part company with preconceived notions, suppress your learning to reiterate and to know in advance of you seeing, try to see the world for the first time with eyes not dimmed by memory or volition, and you will detect that you and the things that surround you—trees, birds, chairs—are like parallel lines that run close and never meet. Your pretense of being acquainted with the world is quickly abandoned.”

The ineffable doesn’t have to overwhelm us to be recognized, we just need to get quiet and stop asking questions and stop letting the familiar deter us from experiencing the ineffable. It’s there to see but sometimes we have to choose to see it. The ineffable isn’t just in things, it’s in people, too. I’ve come across people I didn’t meet, didn’t talk to, just had a glance of them, stopped and took a deeper look and I saw in them a presence that moved me, almost like I could see their very soul and I was feeling the ineffable nature of God in them.

“Thinking is fettered in words, in names, and names describe that which things have in common. The individual and unique in reality is not captured  by names. Yet our mind necessarily compromises with words, with names. This is an additional reason why we rarely find the entrance to the essence. We cannot even adequately say what it is that we miss. . . The awareness of the unknown is earlier than the awareness of the known. The tree of knowledge grows upon the soil of mystery.” (Man Is Not Alone, p. 7.)

Recall earlier that I wrote about the ancient world which had this idea that the name and the thing named were one and the same so that to say the name was to bring also the presence of the thing. Well, a vestige of that is still with us. We don’t know a thing or person until it or they have a name we know. My wife and I went through a list of names for our son and daughter before they were even born. Have you ever noticed when you are introduced to someone and given their name you’re thinking that name doesn’t fit what you are looking at? People have even changed their names because even they don’t feel it describes them. And other times you say to yourself, “That name fits such and such perfectly.” That’s why we moderns say a people can’t really know God until they know the name Yahweh or Jesus.

Don’t we read in Genesis 2:19-20: “So from the soil Yahweh God fashioned all the wild beasts and all the birds of heaven. These he brought to the man to see what he would call them; each one was to bear the name the man would give it.” (New Jerusalem Bible.) Names are important but they can get in our way. Two names stand out in the category of naming things; Aristotle, and the real classification of plants and animals beginning with Swedish physician and botanist Carolus Linnaeus. Heschel talks about names saying they tell us what things have in common, but the modern classification is as much about what things don’t have in common. Either way when we get lost in names we lose the essence of a thing that speaks of the ineffable.

“Citizens of two realms, we all must sustain a dual allegiance: we sense the ineffable in one realm, we name and exploit reality in another. Between the two we set up a system of references, but we can never fill the gap. They are as far and as close to each other as time and calendar, as violin and melody, as life and what lies beyond the last breath.” (p. 8-9.)

In Plato’s Forms, or Ideas was he sensing the ineffable in what he saw, that a thing was more than a thing, the concrete also the abstract? The abstract is never a “seen”, it’s always felt and it tells you there is more than the seen and that it’s as real, more real than the seen. We’ve all experienced this, we have always acknowledged it. Monasticism was our attempt to get away from the seen, and go directly to the unseen and on paper it sounded good but it never worked because the presupposition of denying the one over the other is false. The concrete (flesh) and the abstract (spirit) are not really separate but part of a whole. I don’t find God in mental constructs, I find God in the world I see and experience. What about those whose ability to see the ineffable (God) is hindered by their parents who trashed their soul and they go into the world defeated with hearts closed but there are enough testimonies from those breaking through this supposed barrier telling us it’s not an absolute barrier. We have excuses but it doesn’t have to be where it ends.

“What the sense of the ineffable perceives is something objective which cannot be conceived by the mind nor captured by imagination or feeling, something real which, by its very essence, is beyond the reach of thought and feeling. . . Subjective is the manner not the matter of our perception. What we perceive is objective in the sense of being independent of and corresponding to our perception. Our radical amazement responds to the mystery, but does not produce it. You and I have not invented the grandeur of the sky nor endowed man with the mystery of birth and death. We do not create the ineffable, we encounter it. . . Without the concept of the ineffable it would be impossible to account for the diversity of man’s attempts to express or depict reality, for the diversity of philosophies, poetic visions or artistic representations, for the consciousness that we are still at the beginning of our effort to say what we see about us. . . . By means of indicative rather than descriptive terms, we are able to convey to others those features of our perception which are known to all men.” (p. 20-21.)

Do you see what we are missing when we in our minds limit everything to a material-only? We feel the ineffable, why do we keep denying it? We can ignore the ineffable. We can pretend it isn’t there. We know better. Like with Apology For Wonder, I’ve practically underlined every sentence in Man Is Not Alone. Both books are still in print if you are interested in reading them. I’m going to conclude with Heschel by jumping to Chapter 19, “The Meaning of Existence.”

“Our theories will go awry, will all throw dust into our eyes, unless we dare to confront not only the world but the soul as well, and begin to be amazed at our lack of amazement in being alive, at our taking life for granted. 

“Confronting the soul is an intellectual exposure that tears open the mind to incalculable questions, the answers to which are not easily earned. Modern man therefore, believes that his security lies in refraining from raising such issues. Ultimate questions have become the object of his favorite unawareness. Since the dedication to tangible matters is highly rewarded, he does not care to pay attention to imponderable issues and prefers to erect a tower of Babel on the narrow basis of deeper unawareness.” (p. 191.)

I love what he said: “Ultimate questions have become the object of his favorite unawareness.” We don’t like questions without answers. We don’t want to think about an unseen behind the seen. And yet we live in a world where answers are far less than the questions. Too many Christians have sold out their faith because the secular world challenges it when it contradicts their faith. Our American government that was founded on “nature’s laws”—otherwise known as God’s laws—and “nature’s God”—otherwise known as Yahweh, has in modern times, thanks to progressivism which is also nothing but a light version of Marxism, jettisoned God as having any meaning. Worse, God now is the devil, worse than meaningless and Nietzsche was right to kill him in favor of the Übermensch, which Hegle came along and told us the progress of history finalized in the merging of citizen and government into the total control of government because we will all accept that it knows better. We prefer, as Heschel says, “to erect a tower of Babel on the narrow basis of deeper unawareness.”

“Imbedded in the mind is a certainty that the state of existence and the state of meaning stand in relation to each other, that life is assessable in terms of meaning. The will to meaning and the certainty of the legitimacy of our striving to ascertain it are as intrinsically human as the will to live and the certainty of being alive.

“It is a most significant fact that man is not sufficient to himself, that life is not meaningful to him unless it is serving an end beyond itself, unless it is of value to someone else. The self may have the highest rate of exchange, yet men do not live by currency alone, but by the good attainable in expending it. . . . The only way to avoid despair is to be a need rather than an end. Happiness, in fact, may be defined as the certainty of being needed. But who is in need of man?” (Heschel.)

Do you remember the 1972 film, Jeremiah Johnson? It was about a Mexican-American War veteran, Jeremiah Johnson (Robert Redford), who heads to the mountains to live in isolation. He began by answering the question “who is in need of man?” with the answer “I don’t need to be needed.” It was that rugged individualism that defined so many Americans in the formation of our nation, to include men like Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett, among so many. But even Jeremiah Johnson found a need for others when he is fortunate to come across a seasoned mountain man (Will Geer) willing to teach him the necessary survival tactics.

We all rebel when we feel ourselves being treated as an end of somebody else’s need, when we become an object not a person. Let me conclude with these words from Heschel:

“Human existence cannot derive its ultimate meaning from society,  because society itself is in need of meaning. . . We do not think that a human  being is valuable because he is a member of the race; it is rather the opposite; the human race is valuable because it is composed of human beings.”

We are not alone because the ineffable shows us we’re not. We know because the tree, the birds in the tree, the cat and dog we love, the lion we would like to love up close and personal, the mountains, the stars all tell us there is more than what we see. We experience it because our God nature (and we’ll come back to this later) confirms it.