Literary Theology

April 1, 2011
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Howard Wettstein

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel construed religious language as fundamentally poetic. According to his daughter, Susannah, one of his colleagues once bemoaned, “According to you, it’s just poetry.” Heschel’s view was controversial. While the roots of his thinking are ancient, in the hands of the great medieval philosophical theologians — foremost in our tradition, Maimonides — religious language became the tool of philosophical theory. Indeed, Maimonides’s Guide to the Perplexed was in large measure an attempt to purify biblical and rabbinic religious language of its poetic character, specifically its anthropomorphic connotations. But religious language, purified of reference to divine feelings and values, does not appear as a likely vehicle for anything like prayer as we know it.

I speak of “prayer as we know it” since actual tefillah is infused with anthropomorphic language, filled with poetry and all manner of literary tropes. Both the poet Yehudah Halevi and the French Catholic thinker Blaise Pascal famously distinguish the God of the philosophers from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Tefillah calls out “from the depths” to someone who feels, cares, listens; our prayers call to someone with whom we stand in a relation of mutual caring and love — even, perhaps, some degree of mutual dependence. A very different attitude of worship is appropriate to the God of the philosophers. Indeed, the very term worship — adoration of perfection — seems perfectly appropriate to the philosophers’ God, but somewhat forced for our tefillah.

This is not to suggest that talk of God in human terms was unproblematic for rabbinic culture. But the rabbis’ problem was quite different from that of the philosophers. Only the philosophers (including Maimonides), had an in-principle problem — God could not have such human-like properties, full stop, as it were. The rabbis reveled in God’s anthropomorphic qualities: God as loving, generous, caring, angry, and the rest. But the same religious experience that made such properties vivid also suggested to them that somehow God was beyond all of this. They lived with the paradox and, strikingly, without the inclination to resolve it. Indeed, in the eyes of the rabbis the resolution of such paradoxes was something to which they were not privy.

Why was this attitude — the acceptance of an unresolvable paradox — not just a species of irrationalism? Indeed, why not see the philosophers as simply moving the discussion forward? The topic is large and important, and I’ve pursued it elsewhere.1 Here is a brief sketch of an answer, inspired at least indirectly by Heschel and Martin Buber,2 and quite directly by William James in his Varieties of Religious Experience. The answer involves a very different conception from the dominant picture of religion as an overarching theory of the world — “theory” being the important word here. In place of “religion as at base a system of theoretical beliefs,” think of it as a form of human responsiveness to life in all its fullness, to its exquisiteness and awfulness, to its extremes of pleasure and pain, to its radical incompleteness. Religion, seen in this way, has natural connections to the arts and literature and less close connections to science and philosophy. Maimonides would have been appalled.

Here are a few considerations about biblical literature that suggest a more literary, less philosophical orientation toward prayer. First is the glaring absence, emphasized by Heschel and Buber, of a native idiom in biblical Hebrew for our concept of belief. Talk of believing in God (and indeed in his servant Moses) is prominent, but the idea was not belief in the truth of propositions, but something closer to trust and loyalty, something pertaining to personal relationship as opposed to theoretical belief. Second is the glaring absence from the Bible of the omni-properties (omnipotence, omniscience, etc.) that play such a large role in later theorizing about God. Indeed, there are countless biblical passages that are at least on the surface inconsistent with such properties. In fact, the Tanakh tells us little about God’s properties and much about God’s roles: father, king, friend, lover, judge, teacher, and the rest. And when we do hear of God’s properties, they are often ethical ones, anthropomorphically characterized. To emphasize roles as opposed to properties is to engage in an enterprise that seems more literary.

Heschel and the philosophical theologian might agree that when we speak of God as good or loving or angry we engage in a literary trope, either metaphor or something close to metaphor. The way of medieval philosophy, as well as the way of Anglo-American analytic philosophy, is to take metaphorical language as a figurative way to draw attention to something that stands in need of clearer articulation. A metaphor, we teach our students, is an implied comparison; it represents an early stage of understanding, to be replaced by a literal statement of that to which the metaphor points. But perhaps the metaphor, God’s chesed, for example, is of value for its own sake. It identifies something important about our own religious experience and does not stand in need of a more literal articulation. To speak metaphorically in, say, physics, perhaps represents an early stage in theoretical thinking. To speak metaphorically about God may be the last word.

1 The Significance of Religious Experience, forthcoming 2011 (Oxford University Press).
See especially Heschel’s God in Search of Man, 1976 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); and Buber’s Two Types of Faith, 1951 (Macmillan).

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Howard Wettstein is a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside. He is an editor of Midwest Studies in Philosophy, and author of a number of works on the philosophy of language as well as the forthcoming The Significance of Religious Experience (2011, Oxford University Press). His website is

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