Abraham Joshua Heschel

7. The God of Philosophers

 God as a Problem of Speculation

Traditionally the ultimate question is phrased in terms of
speculation. Taking as its point of departure the world or the
order of nature, we would ask: Do the facts of this world
suggest the presence or existence of a supreme intelligence?
      Science is based upon the assumption that there are intel-
ligible laws in nature which can be observed, conceived and
described by the human mind. The scientist did not invent
these intricate laws; they were there long before they set about
to explore them. In whatever way, then, we try to conceive
the reality of nature—as a mechanism or as an organic order
—it is given to us as a meaningful whole, the processes of
which are ruled by strict principles. These principles are not
only inherent in the actual relations between the components
of reality, they are also intrinsically rational if our minds are
capable of grasping them.
      But if rationality is at work in nature, there is no way to
account for it without reference to the activity of a supreme
      The probability therefore, that the universe came into being
without design is infinitesimally slight, while the probability
that intelligence is at the root of being is so strong that not even
the foundation of science enjoys a greater likelihood. The
coming about of the universal order by sheer accident—which
is an irrational category—appears far less plausible to our
minds than its coming about at the hand of a superational
      It is a matter of no great difficulty to discover some subtle
fallacies in the speculative proofs. It may be said, for example,
that the presence of order in the world does not prove the
existence of a divine mind which is above and apart from that
order. From order we may only infer the existence of a higher
cause, but not the existence of a being which transcends all
causality. Or, to put it logically, the universe as conceived by us
is a closed system of logical relations, and all we may infer from
it is an ultimate logical structure. By assuming the existence of
an ultimate mind or being beyond the universe, we pass from
the realm of logic to that of ontology. Logically, it may be
claimed, there is no justification for assuming the existence of
an ultimate being. What we may observe in nature is a me-
chanical order, not a living consciousness. Consequently, all the
human mind may assume is the existence of an ultimate me-
chanical force, a blind power of fate. As philosophers, there-
fore, we abstain from believing in the existence of a supreme
being endowed with will and intelligence.
      Such abstention is fully in keeping with our habits. We be-
have as if nature were like a tree lashing out of an unmarked
primordial grave and we, humanity, are alive by mistake, by chance
or by an oversight.
      The world is treated by us like a mighty oak, from which
children lop off twigs and boughs, while tourists carve their
names into its bark.
      The speculative arguments are either cosmocentric or an-
thropocentric. To the cosmological argument for the existence
of God, the design and reality of the universe are the point of
departure. Its question is: What is the ultimate cause of all
that exists? The principle of causality serves as the ladder on
which the mind climbs up to a supreme being; It is looked
for as an explanation for natural events, as a scientific solution
to a problem. Similarly, Kant's moral argument for the ex-
istence of God starts from moral premises. If morality is to be
more than an empty dream, the union of virtue and happiness
must be realized. Now, experience shows abundantly that in
the empirically known system of nature there is no dependence
of happiness on virtue. The union must therefore be effected
for us by a supreme power, not by us. Thus, it becomes a pos-
tulate of morality that there is an absolutely wise and holy su-
preme being.
      The essential weakness of these arguments lies in the fact
that their point of departure is not a religious but a cosmologi-
cal or anthropological problem. But there is also a unique
religious situation, in which the mind is primarily concerned
not with the problems of nature and man—urgent and impor-
tant as they are—but with God; not with the relation of the
world to our categories but with the relation of the world to

Is It Order That Matters Supremely?

Another deficiency of the speculative proofs for the existence
of God lies in the fact that even if their validity should be be-
yond dispute, they prove too little. What is the gist of these
proofs? It is the claim that given certain facts of experience,
such as the rational order of the universe, God is the necessary
hypothesis  to explain them. Since a conclusion cannot contain
more than what the premises imply, a god derived from specu-
lation is at best as much as our finite knowledge of the facts of
the universe would demand, namely a hypothesis. From a
rational justification of our creed, we may gain the idea that
the existence of God is as probable as ether in physics or phlo-
giston in chemistry, a hypothesis that can easily be refuted or
rendered superfluous by a change of premises. Furthermore,
granted that the existence of a being endowed with supreme
genius and wisdom has been demonstrated, the question re-
mains: Why should we, poor creatures, be concerned about
It, the most perfect? We may, indeed, accept the idea that
there is a supreme designer and still say: "So what?" As long
as a concept of God does not overpower us, as long as we can
say; "So what?"—it is not God that we talk about but some-
ting else.
      The idea of a supreme designer may serve as a source of in-
tellectual security in our search for the design, law and order
of the universe, giving us a guarantee for the validity of scien-
tific theory. However, the universe may be accepted as a stroke
of genius, the stars as brilliant with significance, and yet our
souls would not cease to be haunted by a fear of futility, a
fear that could not be overcome by a belief that, somewhere in
the infinite recesses of the Divinity, there is a well of wisdom.
Is it order that matters supremely? Is order the utmost that
divine wisdom could produce? We are more anxious to know
whether there is a God of justice than to learn whether there is a
God of order. Is there a God who collects the tears, who hon-
ors hope and rewards the ordeals of the guiltless? Or should
we assume that the empires of thought, the saintly goals, the
harmonies and sacrificial deeds of the honest and the meek are
nothing but images painted upon the surface of an ocean?

Philosophy of Religion

The issue which philosophy of religion has to discuss first is
not belief, ritual or the religious experience, but the source of
all these phenomena: the total situation of humanity; not what or
how a human experiences the supernatural, but why a human 
experiences and accepts it. The question is: What necessitates 
religion in my life and in yours?
      Philosophy of religion is not philosophy of a philosophy, the 
philosophy of a doctrine, the interpretations of a dogma, but
the philosophy of concrete events, acts, insights, of that which
is immediately given with the pious person. The dogmas are
merely a catalogue, an indispensable index. For religion is more
than a creed or an ideology and cannot be understood when
detached from actual living. It comes to light in moments in
which one's soul is shaken with unmitigated concern about
the meaning of all meaning, about one's ultimate commitment
which is part of a person's very existence; in moments, in which all
foregone conclusions, all life-stifling trivialities are suspended;
in which the soul is starved for an inkling of eternal reality;
in moments of discerning the indestructibly sudden within
the perishably constant.
      There is much we can achieve in out quest of God by ap-
plying rational methods, provided we remember that, in mat-
ters that concern the totality of life, all higher attainments of
our personality should be brought into play, particularly our
sense of the ineffable.