Among my many books, and settled on my many shelves, are a number of writers whose work is a balm in Gilead – a tonic for the creeping weariness of spirits jaded by a world too much in our faces.
Isaiah wrote some of his greatest poetry to a people in exile, religiously dislocated, culturally deprived, making the best of alienation and hoping against all odds that one day there might be home for them or their children, maybe even their grandchildren.
So Isaiah, the great prophet poet, used words like an artist and painted pictures of a desert in blossom, a wilderness and parched land ablaze with color and verdant with foliage, and no mere oasis but springs of living water, streams in the desert, rivers of life flowing freely and irrigating the soul and the spirit and the heart and the mind.
Isaiah is one of those writers who is a balm in Gilead, at least for me.
So are several others whose writing and whose thoughts are like the waters that do not fail the thirsty soul, like the fire that purifies the troubled conscience, the bread that nourishes the stumbling spirit.
And among those great writers and thinkers whose words and ideas refresh and renew my view of life when I’ve become jaded by the noise and greed of our culture, or angry at the complacency and selfishness that invade our public and political life, or troubled and unsettled by the divisive rhetoric of power games and image makers and breakers is Abraham Joshua Heschel.
Even the titles of his books help diagnose our condition in our own country, and wider afield in a Western civilization that is disintegrating and corroding beneath us: “The Insecurity of Freedom: Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity,” “Man’s Quest for God,” “God in Search of Man,” “Man is Not Alone,” “The Sabbath,” “Who is Man?”
One of the ironies of our times is that we are unaware of our own lostness – so certain of our cleverness we are blind to our foolishness, so selfish and greedy to possess and consume that we have learned to ignore the destructive impact on the very planet that sustains the life of ourselves and the creatures who share the earth.
Recently, I have taken refuge once more in that small collection of wisdom and wonder that is Heschel’s writing.
Our contemporary dilemmas aren’t so different from the defining issues of the 30 years from the end of World War II until Heschel died in 1972.
Dishonesty in public discourse, distrust of politics and politicians, war conducted by proxy overseas, the inordinate power of business conglomerates and concentrated finance over the lives of whole populations, the struggle for freedom, civil and human rights and the need to call out injustice and oppression and to call into question the machinery of capital when it is allowed to crush the poor and the vulnerable.
In a bold and unflinching article published in Jewish Heritage in 1971, a year before he died, Heschel addressed the immorality of the Vietnam War.
It is a searing critique of modern warfare and our ability to wage war on others from a distance, with no real sense of the agony, anguish and brutality inflicted on others in our name.
And he has no patience with the religiously distorting question, “Where is God in such suffering?” He turns that particular rhetorical subterfuge inside out and declares like the prophet he absolutely was, “God confronts us with the question, ‘Where are you? Is there no compassion in the world?'”
The allusion to Genesis is obvious, and the Fall, the hiding away from God in the Garden, and the divinely articulated question that finds out the moral peril of every attempt to avoid God, hide from God, break free from God are distilled into this brief essay.
Near the end, Heschel moves from essay writing to prayer, and in doing so provides us with a clue as to how people of faith are to confront, resist and seek to overthrow the powers of injustice and all that they unleash on the world.
It is these words of Heschel, two brief paragraphs, that once again helped to realign my own sense of what is important, what my life is about.
Reading them I hear gurgling springs in the desert, sense the stirring of new seeds germinating, believe again in the God of hope who enables us to be defiant of despair.
“O Lord, we confess our sins, we are ashamed of the inadequacy of our anguish, of how faint and slight is our mercy. We are a generation that has lost the capacity for outrage. We must continue to remind ourselves that in a free society all are involved in what some are doing. Some are guilty, but all are responsible,” Heschel wrote in “Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity.”
“Prayer is our greatest privilege,” he added. “To pray is to stake our very existence, our right to live, on the truth and on the supreme importance of that which we pray for. Prayer, then, is radical commitment, a dangerous involvement in the life of God. In such awareness we pray.”
James Gordon is part-time minister of Montrose Baptist Church in Angus, Scotland, and the former principal of the Scottish Baptist College. He is on the advisory board of the Centre for Ministry Studies, University of Aberdeen, and is honorary lecturer in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Living Wittily, and is used with permission.