Heschel on Ecstasy, Poetry, and How Prophecy is like the Now but Not Yet Reign of God

In his well-known book, The Prophets, Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel defends the Hebrew prophets against claims of modern psychology (in the 1960s) which tried to explain the “enigma” of prophecy using the “theory of ecstasy.” Basically, “ecstasy” is an out of body experience in which the soul is united with divine being; sometimes ecstasy came in a wild, crazy, dancing form and sometimes its quiet, reserved, and sublime. Heschel goes to great lengths to show that the Hebrew prophets were not ecstatics.

Ecstasy requires a loss of consciousness; the Hebrew prophets always retained their ability to respond to God’s word. Ecstasy was associated with ANE religions which practiced alcoholic orgies, which were consistently opposed throughout the Biblical narrative. Ecstasy calls for union with God; the prophets knew that God was holy, transcendent, and should be feared. Ecstasy destroys genuine human personality; the prophets always retained a sense of self as they were empowered to dialogue with God. Ecstasy was a state willfully pursued by worshipers of orgiastic cults; the prophets were ones called by God against their wills.

Ecstasy takes the worshipper out of their consciousness into a state of detachment from the world; the prophets were profoundly concerned with the dealings of their world. Ecstasy leads to an experience which cannot be communicated; prophecy is not prophecy unless the word of God is spoken and heard. Ecstasy is a private affair; prophecy is fully public and designed to speak into the life of a people. Ecstasy has its end in itself; prophecy’s end is a people’s obedience to the will of God. Ecstasy is concerned only about spiritual, heavenly matters; the prophets were concerned about the everyday lives of people in the marketplaces, the courts, and the fields.

Ecstasy is based on a theology of “radical transcendence” which leads to a desire for complete “union” of humanity with God. However, the God of the prophets, the God of pathos, is not inaccessible and does not desire union. The God of pathos desires fellowship and community. The prophets have no need to strive for God’s presence because God is always and already approaching them. Yes, God is transcendent but God is not distant. This chapter was important for me because it reinforced God’s desire for me to become all that God has created me to be, to grow into more complete personhood so that I can fully participate with God – not simply be “used” by God like a shovel – in God’s mission of justice and righteousness. God desires personal wholeness and embodied integrity; not a fragmented, disembodied mind who must deny his “flesh” in order to be “holy.”

After dismantling the theory of ecstasy as an explanation for prophetic experience, Heschel changes his direction to take on yet another theory which attempts to solve the “enigma” of the biblical prophets: poetic inspiration. If the theory of ecstasy tried to limit the prophets to a totally transcendent, other-worldly sphere of existence, the theory of poetic inspiration takes the opposite approach by completely demythologizing the prophetic revelation and removing all traces of divine activity.

As poets, the prophets are merely exercising the power of their imaginations – albeit to a degree that set them apart from their peers. Heschel admits that the prophetic literature does at times take on the form and beauty of poetry, but he adamantly rejects the idea that the prophet’s message is simply poetic – originating within their own imaginations. The prophet’s spoke and acted because they had knowingly encountered the person of God; not because they were overwhelmed with a mysterious, faceless gust of creative energy. The prophets were not poets.

By examining both of these theories – ecstasy and poetry, Heschel brings up the “either-or” tendency in human thinking. In their attempts to explain prophecy, the theories of ecstasy and poetic inspiration reveal how difficult it can be to hold two seemingly opposite ideas in tension. The truth is that prophecy is simultaneously natural and divine; it has elements of the poetic and the ecstatic. As followers of Christ through the Spirit, the church’s existence is defined by this “either-or” tension as it lives in the “now but not yet” of God’s reign. Too often, I fail to hold this tension by losing track of the “not yet” of God’s new creation. I forget that neither I, nor anyone else, can “build” or “expand” God’s reign as if the saving of the world depended entirely on human effort and progress. The reign of God is a reality I am invited to “receive and enter” (Luke 18:17) — not “build.” On the other hand, it is one that I must “make every effort to enter” (Hebrews 4:11). Like prophecy, God’s reign is – for now – an enigma: not something to be solved, but a reality – a person (three persons actually!) – to be experienced and known in a community of pilgrims on the way.

Does God Slay Us? A Call for Lament

A brief devotion I shared for my class on the prophets based on Abraham Joshua Heschel’s chapter on 2nd Isaiah (Isaiah 40-66) in The Prophets.

I want to begin by reading a portion of the lyrics to a worship song that the worship band at my church played a few weeks back that got me thinking about suffering and God’s relation to suffering. It’s called “Though You Slay Me” and its by Shane and Shane.

I come, God, I come
I return to the Lord
The one who’s broken
The one who’s torn me apart
You struck down to bind me up
You say You do it all in love
That I might know You in Your suffering
Though You slay me
Yet I will praise You
Though You take from me
I will bless Your name
Though You ruin me
Still I will worship

Sing a song to the one who’s all I need 

This song is based on Job 13:15 where Job says, “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him; I will surely defend my ways to his face.” It was written after one of the artists lost his dad to a sudden heart attack. He talks about the way God brought joy and praise in a time of great suffering for him and his family. But Is this song a cry of faith and trust in God’s sovereign will or is it harmful theology that makes God into an arbitrary tyrant who kills our parents to teach us a lesson?

Throughout Heschel’s work, the reality of suffering and God’s relation to suffering has come up often. As I’ve shared in our class discussions, this has created a struggle for me. In the chapter we read this week on 2nd Isaiah, we find that Israel is called to suffer as God’s servant on behalf of the nations, for the salvation of the nations. Think Isaiah 53. However, Heschel also makes what I think is a crucial distinction between different kinds of suffering. He says, “Not all the evils that befell Israel go back to the will of God” (p192). Yes, Israel was God’s chosen “Suffering Servant” but some of the suffering Israel experienced was pure evil at the hands of a wicked Babylonian empire. There’s a difference here: one kind of suffering comes from God; another kind comes from evil.

When I think about my life and future in ministry, I fully expect to face suffering as I try to be a faithful follower of Jesus. I’m learning to take Jesus seriously when he asks me to come and die. However, I’m also learning to recognize the powers and principalities, the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms, that are wholly aligned against the redemptive, healing, restoring reign of God. These are the forces on full display as Jesus is murdered on the cross;  these are the same forces that are shamed and disarmed as Jesus rises victorious from the grave. While they are utterly defeated, these same forces are the ones that steal, kill, and destroy our world today.

As we proclaim God’s reign of hope and justice in our world, we must recognize the difference between the suffering we are, on the one hand, bound to experience as we confront the powers and principalities that inhabit and empower evil, sinful structures and, on the other hand, the suffering meted out on the billions of poor, marginalized, and oppressed people by those same evil structures. In fact, all creation suffers and groans under sinful, evil structures inspired by the powers and principalities. The suffering we experience as we work for the salvation of others, as we follow the way of Christ as a community in a hostile world, is the only kind of suffering given by God; it is the only kind of suffering that can be called redemptive. I think we need to be careful, to seek discernment of the Spirit, so that we do not confuse this kind of suffering for the sake of others with the suffering caused by sinful structures or natural disasters or tragic accidents.

What we must remember is that God is always present and bringing comfort in all our suffering because God loves us with an eternal, unending love. God even suffers with us. However, God’s comfort in our suffering does not mean that God condones it or that God has caused it. When Job said, “Though he slay me, yet I will hope in him,” God was not happy. Why? Because Job got it wrong. God didn’t slay Job – the enemy did (Job 1:11-12). Here’s what God says back to Job: “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him!… Would you [Job] discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself?” (Job 40:2, 8). Job thought he was being pious but he had wrongfully accused God of being the source of the evil and suffering he experienced. By accepting this suffering as if it was ordained by God, he had called God’s justice into question.

Before we glorify in your sufferings, or tell someone to praise God for the suffering “God is putting them through,” let’s be very sure that we’re not accusing God of injustice. Instead of accepting this suffering, God may be calling us to oppose it, to cry out for God’s justice and mercy. Maybe the praise God is calling us to is the praise of lament: “lamentation is not the opposite of praise but a form of praise in which God is rightfully held accountable to God’s promises: to comfort the widow, heal the afflicted… lament is expressed not as an accusation but as… a call back to fidelity to the terms of the original covenant, and includes an appropriate expectation or longing, not a demand, the very possibility of which was created when love and covenant were first enacted” (Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God For Us, 341, 342). We lament because God loves us with an everlasting, covenant-keeping love. When we suffer – whether it comes from God or not – God does not require us to simply accept the suffering and act as though it were good a priori, as though God were “slaying us” so that we would “know God”; I think God calls us to lament.
UPDATE: In light of this post, see my thoughts concerning Vincent Donovan’s quote on the Christian Solution to evil.

We are Not Alone: Heschel’s God of Pathos

In his chapter on “The Theology of Pathos,” Abraham Heschel describes God’s “passionate summons” to the world which “basically defines the prophetic consciousness of God.”[1] Heshcel names this “dynamic relation between God and [humanity]” as pathos; it is the prophetic kind of “knowledge of God” attained not “by syllogism, analysis, or induction” but by fellowship with God, “by living together.”[2] God’s pathos is God’s intimate involvement in the history of creation whereby God is actually affected by and responds to the events and happenings of the world.

God freely decides to participate in human history because “the predicament of [humanity] is a predicament of God Who has a stake in the human situation.”[3] The pathos of God changes everything; history can no longer be seen as some autonomous drama moved and shaped by the independent actions of “free” human persons because humanity is not alone. The One in whose image humanity is created has chosen to make it “a consort, a partner, a factor in the life of God.”[4]

God’s pathos, the “living care” of creation, is the fundamental “dynamic modality” of all living things – not alienation from God due to sin or brokenness.[5] God’s pathos reveals how God’s loving desire for just, personal, reciprocal relationships between, among, within, and throughout God’s creation and Godself makes possible a “living encounter between God and [God’s] people.”[6]

As I read this chapter, I felt God tearing away my deeply embedded images of God as the “Wholly Other”: the One who is remote, uninvolved, and unconcerned. I was surprised to discover that my theology still contained Deistic tendencies which could not prepare me to truly know the God Heschel portrays as One who acts so powerfully in human history in order to create intimate relationships of love and justice with and among all people, myself included. As my embedded theology crumbled, I felt the peace of God’s abiding presence and a sense of wonder and awe in a God who can be so ultimate, almighty, and awesome, yet still able to come so close. The pathos of God captured me in a new and more complete way; God is more real now than ever before.

[1] Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets, 289.

[2] Ibid., 288.

[3] Ibid., 291.

[4] Ibid., 292.

[5] Ibid., 289, 296.

[6] Ibid., 296.

Poison & Wine: Heschel’s Hosea

tumblr_mq65ayjwyg1rj588zo1_500In a song made popular by the folk duo The Civil Wars, “Poison & Wine,” the anguished love of a married couple cries out: “I don’t love you/but I always will.”[1] These are the honest words of two lovers whose commitment to one another has endured a severe test. Surrendering, they confess: “I don’t have a choice/but I’d still choose you.”[2]

This song of suffering love between husband and wife is the one that came to mind as I considered Abraham Heschel’s account of the prophet Hosea in The Prophets. “It is as if there were a dramatic tension in God,” says Heschel as he reflects on the intense harmony of divine anger and compassion revealed in the prophet Hosea’s words.[3] Yet, in a way reflected by the words of The Civil Wars, this harmony cannot last. The tension breaks as Hosea “flashes a glimpse into the inner life of God” where we discover that suffering love – and not anger – is the “decisive motive behind God’s strategy in history.”[4]

As scandalous as it seems, God is bound to Israel by an “ineradicable”[5] love: “I will not execute my fierce anger… for I am God and no mortal.”[6] Hosea does not merely feel God’s momentary, incidental reaction to Israel’s disloyalty; he is drawn into “the fundamental emotion… [existing within] the constitutive relationship between God and Israel.”[7] Hosea proclaims the very being of God as supreme love “expressed first in the bitterness of disillusionment” which “finds its climax in the hope of reconciliation.”[8]

However, Hosea does not merely proclaim this message – he lives it. The anguish in God’s voice belongs to Hosea as well. He has been educated in daath elohim – “the knowledge of God” – which plunges Hosea into the depths of “suffering together” with God where “both persons share the same feeling.”[9] Through Hosea, God calls Israel along with all those who would call upon God to “know” the emotions, concerns, and inwardness of God in a relationship of “constant solidarity.”[10] This is love like no other; this is hope beyond all hope.

Like Israel, I “forget” God and turn to idols. God looks and sings, “You think your dreams are the same as mine.”[11] Unlike Hosea, I have yet to feel the intensity of God’s burning anger towards the idolatry of my heart. Is it possible to “know” the God of profound love apart from “knowing” this rage? While I am overwhelmed by God’s faithful acts of love and compassion towards me, Hosea calls me into the deep, wild, raging currents of triune Love by the way of suffering, of self-emptying, the way of Christ in the power of the Spirit.

[1] John Paul White, Joy Williams, and Chris Lindsey, Poison & Wine, The Civil Wars, 2011 by Sensibility Recordings LLC, Compact Disc.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets, 57.

[4] Heschel, 58.

[5] Heschel, 52.

[6] Hosea 11:9, NRSV.

[7] Heschel., 59.

[8] Heschel, 63.

[9] Heschel, 73.

[10] Heschel, 74.

[11] Poison & Wine, The Civil Wars.

Jesus Is My Homeboy: Reflections on Heschel’s “Amos”

Several years ago a hip, new image of Jesus rose to popularity among a certain stream of American Christian sub-culture in which I was familiar. The meme went like this: “Jesus is my homeboy.” It showed up on T-shirts, bumper stickers, and even plastic bobble-head dolls. This Jesus had a big, reassuring smile on his face as he gave his faithful homeboys two thumbs-up. If Jesus was your “homeboy”, you never had to worry, never had to fear, because Jesus would always be there, always just a “prayer” away, and he would always have your back.

This was the image that came to mind as I reflected on the situation in which the voice of the Lord reverberated through the voice of Amos. The people of Israel seem to have taken their chosen status for granted; their holiness had become an end in itself and that end was might, prosperity, and pride. They were God’s people – YHWH was their homeboy. According to Abraham Joshua Heschel, Amos was different. As a shepherd and “dresser of sycamore trees,”[1] Amos was not a member of Israel’s club of wealthy and powerful. YHWH was not his homeboy – YHWH was a roaring lion who demanded justice and righteousness from all nations. Amos knew the Lord more intimately than his people but, unlike his smug, over-confident peers, he was under no allusion of privileged status: “intimacy… never becomes familiarity. God is the Lord, and the prophets are His [sic] servants.”[2]

Amos was an iconoclast. He shattered the sacred traditions of Israel’s identity on the rock of God’s sovereign freedom and justice because they had become an escape from God’s righteous demands, a source of privileged detachment, and the ground of haughty self-reliance. I like this side of Amos; I too want to destroy the idols of popular American Christian subculture.

It is the compassion of Amos that troubles me the most. He announced a message of doom, but he also appealed to God’s mercy and hoped for Israel’s repentance which would make possible their restoration. Heschel concludes his chapter on Amos by describing “the burden of a prophet”: “compassion for man [sic] and sympathy for God.”[3] Too often, I fail to uphold this burden and live in this tension; I too easily turn my back to my “sinful” brothers and sisters and set myself up as God’s “real” homeboy. It is the witness of Amos the shepherd, the one who is familiar with the task of patient, longsuffering, and loving care among his sheep, who calls me to hold prophetic denouncement together with compassionate, pastoral service.

[1] Amos 7:14, RSV.

[2] Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets, 46.

[3] Heschel, 46.