Abraham Joshua Heschel

3. The World is an Allusion

A Cognitive Insight

It is not in a roundabout way, by analogy or inference, that
we become aware of the ineffable; we do not think about it
in abstentia. It is rather sensed as something immediately given
by way of an insight that is unending and undervivable, log-
cally and psychologically prior to judgement, to the assimila-
tion of subject matter to mental categories; a universal insight
into an objective aspect of reality, of which all people are at all
times capable; not the froth of ignorance but the climax of
thought,indegenous to the climate that prevails at the summit
of intellectual endeavor, where such works as the last quartets 
of Beethoven come into being. It is a cognitive insight, since
the awareness it evokes is a definite addition to the mind.

A Universal Perception

The sense of the ineffable is not an esoteric faculty but an
ability with which all humans are endowed; it is potentially as
common as sight or as the ability to form syllogisms. For just
as a person is endowed with the ability to know certain aspects
of reality, a person is endowed with the ability to know that there
is more than what they know. Their mind is concerned with the
ineffable as well as with the expressible, and the awareness of
their radical amazement is as universally valid as the principle
of contradiction or the principle of sufficient reason.
      Just as material things offer resistance to our spontaneous
impulses, and it is that feeling of resistance that make us be-
lieve that these things are real, not illusory, so does the ineffa-
ble offer resistance to our categories.
      What the sense of the ineffable perceives is something
objective which cannot be conceived by the mind nor cap-
tured by imagination or feeling, something real which, by its
very essence, is beyond the reach of thought and feeling.
What we are primarily aware of is not our self, our inner
mood, but a transubjective situation, in regard to which our
ability fails.  Subjective is the manner not the matter of our
perception. What we perceive is objective in the sense of
being independent of and corresponding to our perception.
Our radical amazement responds to mystery, but does not
produce it. Yo and I have not invented the grandeur of the
sky nor endowed a human with the mystery of birth and death.
We do not create the ineffable, we encounter it.
      Our awareness of it is potentially present in every percep-
tion, every act of thinking and every enjoyment or valuation
of reality. Since it is an incontestable fact, no theory of humanity
would be complete if it were left out. It is attested to by un-
daunted triumphant explorers, who when they have reached
the peak, are more humble than before.
      Subjective is the absence not the presence of radical amaze-
ment. Such lack or absence is a sign of a half-hearted, listless
mind, of an undeveloped sense for the depth of things.
      The ineffable, therefore, may be verified by every non-
sophisticated person who must come upon it in their own unmiti-
gated experience. This is why all words that hint at the
ineffable are understandable to everybody.
      Without the concept of the ineffable it would be impossible
to account for the diversity of a human's attempt to express or 
depict reality, for the diversity of philosophers, poetic visions
or artistic representations, for the consciousness that we are
still at the beginning of our effort to say what we see about us.
      We have characterize the perception of the ineffable as a
universal perception. But if its contents is not communicable,
how do we know that is the same for all humans.
      To this we may say that while we are unable either to de-
fine or to describe the ineffable, it is given to us to point to it.
By means of indicative rather than descriptive terms, we are
able to convey to others those features of our perception
which are know to all people.
      Perceptions of beauty are not expressed by definitions
either, and because that which we sense is not identical in all
regards, the descriptions offered are highly divergent. Yet we
assume they all mean essentially the same. This is because
the reader recognizes in the descriptions the essence of a
perception in which they share, although the descriptions them-
selves differ widely.

The Allusiveness of Being

The ineffable is not a synonym for the unknown or the non-
descript; its essence is not in its being an enigma, in its being
hidden behind a curtain.
      What we encounter in our perception of the sublime, in 
our radical amazement, is a spiritual suggestiveness of reality,
an allusiveness to transcendent meaning. The world in its
grandeur is full of spiritual radiance, for which we have
neither name nor concept. 
      We are struck with an awareness of the immense precious-
ness of being; a preciousness which is not an object of analysis
but a cause of wonder, it is inexplicable, nameless, and cannot
be specified or put in one of our categories. Yet, we have a cer-
tainty without knowledge: it is real without being expressible.
It cannot be communicated to others; every person has to find it
by themselves. In moments of sensing the ineffable we are as cer-
tain of the value of the world as we are of its existence. There
must be a value which was worth the world's coming into ex-
istence. We may be skeptical as to whether the world is per-
fect. Yet, even its imperfection admitted, the preciousness of
its grandeur is beyond question.
      Thus, while the ineffable is a term of negation indicating a
limitation of expression, its content is intensely affirmative, de-
noting an allusiveness to something meaningful, for which we
possess no means of expression. Usually we regard as meaning-
ful that which can be expressed, and as meaningless that which
cannot be expressed. Yet, the equation of the meaningful and
the expressible ignores a vast realm of human experience, and
is refuted by our sense of the ineffable which is an awareness
of an allusiveness to meaning without the ability to express it.
That the sense of the ineffable is an awareness of meaning is
indicated by the fact that the inner response it evokes is that of
awe or reverence.