Rabbi Heschel on the Via Positiva

Rabbi Heschel, one of the greatest religious and spiritual geniuses of the twentieth century, he who lived and walked his talk, scholar of The Prophets and a practitioner of the prophetic himself, exile from Hitler’s Germany, mystic and student of awe, had profound wisdom to share about all Four Paths of the Creation Spirituality journey. 

“Untitled” Photo by Mike Weber, Reshot

About the Via Positiva, he said simply: “Praise precedes faith.”  Doesn’t this change everything?  Doesn’t this take religion out of the realms of doctrines and dogmas–and inquisitions and wars to enforce doctrines and dogmas–into the realm of the mystical and experiential?  Isn’t he saying that the Via Positiva (which culminates in praise) always precedes faith? 

How significant is it that Heschel is of the spiritual tradition of Jesus himself?  I have often felt in studying Heschel that I was closest to studying Jesus who, after all, was not a Christian but a Jew.

An interracial crowd gathers in Cincinnati, April 2015, to demonstrate unity and solidarity in affirming that Black Lives Matter. Photo: 5chw4r7z, Flickr

After Heschel suffered a near fatal heart attack a few years before his death in 1972 he spoke of his feelings on coming to consciousness again.  Haltingly, because he was so weak, he said to a friend: “I felt only gratitude to God for my life, for every moment I had lived.  I was ready to depart.  ‘Take me, O Lord,’ I thought, ‘I have seen so many miracles in my lifetime.’”  Adding a sentence from a book he had written: “I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder.  And You gave it to me.”*

“Friends.” Photo by Adalia Botha on Unsplash

Wonder was the great gift of Heschel’s life.  It can be of all of our lives.  For miracles are everyday wonders (NOT what the modern era taught us, an interruption in the laws of nature!).  As Einstein (of the spiritual tradition of both Heschel and Jesus) put it: “There are two ways to live—as if nothing is a miracle or everything is a miracle.”  To live with wonder is to choose the latter.  It is to take the Via Positiva seriously. It is Eckhart saying, “Isness is God.”

Isn’t it logical then that “wonder is the beginning of wisdom?” If we care to move from Knowledge—which has been the dynamic engine of education and purpose in the West since the Enlightenment but is currently destroying the planet and many souls on it—to Wisdom, the first step is Wonder.  The Via Positiva.

*Samuel H. Dresner, ed., I Asked For Wonder: A Spiritual Anthology, Abraham Joshua Heschel (NY: Crossroad, 1987), vii.
For further study see: Matthew Fox, Passion For Creation: The Earth-Honoring Spirituality of Meister Eckhart, 8
Banner Image: “Monarch Butterfly 041” Photo by Ian, Flickr

Queries for Contemplation

Have you asked for the gift of wonder, the gift, the grace, of the Via Positiva?  It is not too late you know. 

Do we ask for the gift of wonder and the Via Positiva for others? For our children? Do we work for it also?

Have you seen “Many miracles in your lifetime?”  Remember: A miracle is a marvel, a wonder.  How many?  Count them.  Count yesterday’s alone.  Love them.

Recommended Reading

Matthew Fox’s comprehensive translation of Meister Eckhart’s sermons is a meeting of true prophets across centuries, resulting in a spirituality for the new millennium. The holiness of creation, the divine life in each person and the divine power of our creativity, our call to do justice and practice compassion–these are among Eckhart’s themes, brilliantly interpreted and explained for today’s reader.

Matthew Fox renders Thomas Aquinas accessible by interviewing him and thus descholasticizing him.  He also translated many of his works such as Biblical commentaries never before in English (or Italian or German of French).  He  gives Aquinas a forum so that he can be heard in our own time. He presents Thomas Aquinas entirely in his own words, but in a form designed to allow late 20th-century minds and hearts to hear him in a fresh way.  The result is exciting!

Matthew Fox calls on all the world traditions for their wisdom and their inspiration in a work that is far more than a list of theological position papers but a new way to pray—to meditate in a global spiritual context on the wisdom all our traditions share. Fox chooses 18 themes that are foundational to any spirituality and demonstrates how all the world spiritual traditions offer wisdom about each.

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5 thoughts on “Rabbi Heschel on the Via Positiva”

  1. Avatar

    I look forward to these daily meditations because they speak to our part as humans in creation, and our greatest praise is to just enjoy the beauty of nature and all the gifts we have been given . . . and too easily take for granted. Walking and just being outside has always been therapeutic for me. THANK YOU so much for these daily meditations, and I will be sending a donation for this wonderful mission to people.

    1. Gail Ransom

      Thank you for your words of appreciation. Somehow we have been brought to believe that living a spiritual life is complicated, taking years of study and practice to attain But, as you say, taking a walk and marveling at nature, taking the time to notice the gifts we have been given, bring us immediately into communion with the divine. Thank you for your donation, your support is much appreciated.
      Gail Sofia Ransom
      For the Daily Meditations Team

  2. Avatar

    As a convert to Judaism, I have often remarked that progressive neo-Hasidism embodied by people like Rabbi Heschel is the closest living spirituality to the spirituality of Jesus. Compare Rabbi Schacter Shalomi’s distillation of Lurianic Kabbalah, or Four Worlds Judaism, to the four paths of Creation Spirituality. As you wrote, there is one river and many wells. You rediscovered Creation spirituality within the context of Christianity, but I can tell you from personal experience- that well is far deeper than any of our traditions can possibly contain (gratefully so). Original belssing is “orthodox” Judaism- fundamental to all major branches of our faith, from the most liberal to the most conservative. Original sin is not an operative concept in any branch of Judaism.

    My tradition teaches the world is sustained by three things: Torah, the Temple service, and acts of loving kindness. A student once asked a Rabbi shortly after the Temple was destroyed: “What will we do now?” The Rabbi replied: “Our faith lives on, through acts of loving kindness.” The death of the temple cult nearly 2000 years ago gave birth to a new way of being Jewish. It’s is a little different in the Christian context, because you and others are actually returning to the living spirituality of Jesus of Nazareth after many centuries of being underground. Historical Christianity and the living Jesus tradition overlap only occasionally, but when you look carefully at history, as you most certainly have, it is always present.

    Know that it is obvious to me as a Jew, now on the outside of the Church looking in, that you and other Progressive Christians are the authentic voice of the Christian tradition. As a young(er) person I want to thank you for giving your life to this work and for your moral leadership and courage. It sustains the world, and it will not be forgotten.

    (Josh) 🙂

    1. Gail Ransom

      Thank you for all your comments. It is good to have the Jewish tradition articulated so clearly in relationship to the Christian side of Creation Spirituality. You remind me of the first time I realized that Christianity is rooted on Judaism and that Jesus was a Jew calling his own to a more authentic spirituality. I see that you have been given his name, Yehoshua. The name Jesus is Jeshu in Hebrew, or as my Israeli husband pronounced it, Yeshua.
      Gail Sofia Ransom
      For the DM Team

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