When I was working as a journalist, I had the privilege of interviewing a Georgetown University scholar who had recently completed a 600-page tome of a book on the history of Jewish art from antiquity to the twenty-first century. More than a year later, I keep thinking back to that interview.
As I mentioned in my eventual Washington Jewish Week article, the scholar told me that his life’s work is to ask questions. He said that when he first read Socrates in college, the endless questioning of the Greek philosopher initially left him feeling dissatisfied. But gradually, as he matured, he learned to accept what he called a “sensibility” of questioning. Now his mission as a teacher and a scholar is to ask questions without seeking definitive answers.
As I listened on the phone, I felt a strong reaction against what the scholar was saying. My gut feeling is that endless questioning amounts to something like an epistemological ponzi scheme; if our goal is to endlessly ask questions, do we ever get anywhere? How do we find meaning when one question simply leads to another, and so on?
When looking into matters like these, the correct response, naturally, is to turn to Heschel. Reading over Heschel’s God In Search of Man, I realized that I am coming up against a distinction Heschel makes between religion and philosophy. “Philosophy,” Heschel writes, “is a kind of thinking that has a beginning and no end. In it, an awareness of the problem outlives all solutions. Its answers are questions in disguise; every new answer giving rise to new questions.”
As the 600-page book the scholar produced demonstrates, this type of inquiry can be useful. By asking again and again “What is Jewish art?” he produced a lot of thought provoking information and analysis.
It seems then that the philosophical approach is useful certainly for philosophy, and also for certain modes of scholarship like this one. But if we use only the philosophical mode of inquiry, I believe we will be fundamentally unsatisfied. And very often, it seems like intellectuals in the secular world are content to keep questioning without ever arriving at answers.
Recently, while reading a New Yorker article on Paul Simon, I stumbled on a description that applies what the scholar called the “sensibility of questioning” to life more generally. In an article on Paul Simon’s most recent album, critic Kelefa Sanneh concluded that in asking questions, Paul Simon “doesn’t sound as if he expects an answer. In fact, he seems to feel that if he keeps asking questions, following his curiosity wherever it leads, he may never have to find out.”
Heschel contrasts philosophy — and this endless questioning — with religion. “Religion,” he writes “is an answer to man’s ultimate questions.” For me at least, there is something very appealing in how religion provides answers. But it is important to say from the outset that robust contemporary religion doesn’t provide easy answers. As Heschel writes, “The fundamentalists claim that all ultimate questions have been answered; the logical positivists maintain that all ultimate questions are meaningless.”
So what then are the answers that robust, modernity-embracing religions provide?
It seems that the most important step in coming to answers is acknowledging that one is personally implicated in those answers. “Philosophy deals with problems as universal issues,” Heschel writes, “to religion the universal issues are personal problems.”
Life’s most important questions don’t just belong in the domain of abstract and impersonal reasoning; instead, these are questions that matter deeply to us all. Questions of how to live and how to derive meaning in the world are concrete, and asking these questions from the point of view of someone who has to decide how to live opens up answers. If we personally implicate ourselves in the question of how to live meaningful lives, values like family, self-actualization and ethical responsibility come into focus.
Judaism also offers us answers to these great questions through action. To paraphrase Heschel, Judaism is not something that can be understood from a detached and abstract perspective; it is something that has to be lived. In a sense then the mitzvot (or commandments) and halacha (the Jewish way of living in the world) offer us a concrete answer to life’s big questions.
To dig a little deeper into Heschel’s thought, religion can also answer deep questions by acknowledging how much we know that can’t be put into words. Heschel describes God as “ineffable” — God cannot be described in words. In a similar vein, Rabbi Bradley Artson in his book God of Becoming and Relationship writes about how sometimes our intuition is ahead of what we can articulate in words.
Judaism and other religious traditions also enable us to come to answers to big questions through stories. As I have studied the Hebrew Bible in greater detail (and, as I recall, when I participated in a bible study of the gospel of Mark) I have often been struck by how these stories derive meaning and staying power because of their ambiguity. What exactly happened when Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac? What is the meaning of this story? In the past year, I’ve come to appreciate the extent to which these great biblical stories enable us to fill in meaning for ourselves. Stories can also speak to us in ways that an explicit and fixed doctrine could not.
Still, a cynic (or perhaps someone Heschel would derisively call a “logical positivist”), would argue that these responses have skirted the question of how to arrive at answers. Answering life’s deep questions through experience, acknowledging how much can’t be expressed in words and storytelling are valuable, but doing so ultimately doesn’t answer deep questions of meaning in a way that can be stated explicitly.
Ultimately, then, clearly articulated answers to these questions do seem important; it is useful to do theology. Of course, when we engage in theology we shouldn’t surrender our abilities to think critically, and we should recognize how much lies beyond what we can explain.
But provisional answers to questions are critical, and I believe that our current society needs solid ground to stand on. These two books I’ve mentioned in this post (Artson’s and Heschel’s) are just two examples of theology that provides answers to deep questions without retreating to superficial man-in-the-sky God concepts.
In fact, it seems that choosing endless questioning above trying to arrive at answers means turning away from Heschel’s belief that we are personally implicated. Surrendering to endless questioning seems to be a symptom of detachment, of saying that there is a distance between myself and all that matters to me. Saying answers don’t exist seems to reject the fundamental truth that our existence is relational and immediate. Our answers allow us to better live according to what we already know, that we matter.