Abraham Joshua Heschel

8. The Ultimate Question

What a Person Does with their Ultimate Wonder

The speculative proofs are the result of what a person does with
their reason. But speculation, as we know, is not our only source
of certainty. However precious the helping hand, the vital
guidance and the sobering stress of reason, it does not ease the
pensive burden which the world is forcing us to bear, the
compulsion to care for things not convertible into mental ef-
figies. There is, indeed, another kind of evidence for what
God is and means. It is the result of what a person does with their
ultimate wonder, with their sense of the ineffable.
      Humanity could never have brought forth the endless stream
of its God-awareness out of the rock of finite facts by analyz-
ing the design of its geological layers. Indeed, when we go
beyond analysis, trying to see the rock as a rock and to ponder
on what it means to be,  it turns away its face from our scru-
tinies, and what remains is more unlikely, more unbelievable,
than the mysterious ground of being. Then it dawns upon us
that the world of the known is a world unknown, except in
its functional outposts; that to entertain the notion, as if life
were lucid and familiar, would be to welter in a fairy tale.
To a mind unwarped by intellectual habit, unbiased by what
it already knows; to unmitigated innate surprise, there are no
axioms, no dogmas; there is only wonder, the realization that
the world is too incredible, too meaningful for us. The exist-
ence of the world is the most unlikely, the most unbelievable
fact. Even our ability for surprise is beyond expectation. In
our unmitigated wonder, we are like spirits who have never
been conscious of outside reality, and to whom the knowledge
of the existence of the universe has been brought for the first
time. Who could believe it? Who could conceive it? We must
learn to overcome the sleek certainty and learn to understand
that the existence of the universe is contrary to all reasonable
expectations. The mystery is where we start from without
presuppositions, without allegations, without doctrines, with-
out dogmas.

Religion Begins with the Sense of the Ineffable

Thinking about God begins at the mind's rugged shore, where
the murmur breaks off abruptly, where we do not know any
more how to yearn, how to be in awe. Only those who know
how to live spiritually on edge will be able to go beyond the
shore without longing for the certainties established on the
artificial rock of our speculation.
      Not theoretical speculation but the sense of the ineffable
precipitates the problem of all problems. Not the apparent but
the hidden in the apparent; not the wisdom but the mystery of
the design of the universe; the questions we do not know how
to ask have always poured oil on the flames of man's anxiety.
Religion begins with the sense of the ineffable, with the aware-
ness of a reality that discredits our wisdom, that shatters our
concepts. It is, therefore, the ineffable with which we must
begin, since otherwise there is no problem; and it is its per-
ception to which we must return since otherwise no solution
will be relevant,

The Ultimate Question
There is a noxious error which often plays havoc with philo-
sophical endeavors in dealing with our problem. We seem to
forget that a legitimate question represents more than what it
says. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so does vacuity of
thought abhor problems. To be able to inquire, to look for an
answer, one must be in possession of some knowledge, one
must know what to look for. There must be a situation which
accounts for its coming in to being, a raison d'être for the
presence of the question in the mind. Our first task, therefore,
is to follow the trail to the origin of the question, to recover
the knowledge it left behind. Unless our hearts are open to
what is behind its verbal appearance, the question will pass
us with averted face.
      The realm of the ineffable rather than the speculation is the
climate in which the ultimate question comes into being, and
it is in its natural abode, where the mystery is within reach
of all thoughts, that the question must be studied. In its native
state the ultimate question is different in form from the logical
contour to which it is trimmed when brought to the abstract
level of speculation.
      There is a world where wonder is dead, where the ultimate
question is out of reach. The realm of speculation where we
usually debate the merit of our question is a far cry from its
native abode, from the realm of the ineffable. By the time the
question is placed before our critical eyes, it has withered like
a leaf in the breath of an oven.
      The growing sense of the ineffable that reaches and curves
toward the light of an ultimate reality can never be trans-
planted into the shallowness of mere reflection. Torn out of
its medium, it is usually metamorphosed like a rose pressed be-
tween the pages of a book. When reduced to terms and
definitions, it is little more than a desiccated remnant of a once
living reality.
      If, nevertheless, we attempt to ponder about the ultimate
question in its logical form, we should at least treat it like a
plant which is uprooted from its soil, removed from its native
winds, sunrays and terrestrial environment and can survive
only if kept in conditions that somewhat resemble its original
climate. This is why, even when our thinking about it takes
place on a discursive level, our memory must remain moored
to our perceptions of the ineffable, and our mind abide in a
state of awe without which we never acquire a common lan-
guage with the spirit of the question, without which the origi-
nal nature of the problem will not disclose itself to us.
      The issue at stake will be apprehended only by those who
are able to find categories that mix with the unalloyed and to
forge the imponderable into unique expression. It is not
enough to describe the given content of the consciousness of
the ineffable. We have to press the soul with questions, com-
pelling it to understand and unravel the meaning of what is
taking place as it stands at the ultimate horizon. While pene-
trating the consciousness of the ineffable, we may conceive the
reality behind it.

The Situation that Accounts for the Question

Our point of departure is not the sight of the shrouded and
inscrutable; from the endless mist of the unknown we would,
indeed, be unable to derive an understanding of the known.
It is the tension of the known and the unknown, of the com-
mon and the holy, of the nimble and the ineffable, that fills
the moments of our insights.
      We do not owe our ultimate question to stumbling in a
mist of ignorance upon a wall of inscrutable riddles. We do
not ask because of our being poor in spirit and bereft of knowl-
edge; we ask because we sense a spirit which surpasses our
ability to comprehend it. We owe our question not to some-
thing less but to something which is more than the known.
We ask because the world is too much for us, because the
known is crammed with marvel, because the world is replete
with what is more than the world as we understand it.
      The question about God is not a question about all things,
but a question of all things; not an inquiry into the unknown
but an inquiry into that which all things stand for; a question
we ask for all things. It is phrased not in categories of reason
but in acts in which we are astir beyond words. The mind
does not know how to phrase it, yet the soul sighs it, sings it,
pleads it.

Beyond Things

In trying to solve a rational problem, we must first test what
is given to our mind and what the mind's categories are able
to convey. In our case, too, we must apply all we know about
what is given to man's higher incomprehension, to his naked
wonder, and what the intuition of the ineffable conveys to
our consciousness. Let us remember the fundamental fact of a
universal nondiscursive perception of the ineffable which is a
sense of a transcendent meaning, of an awareness that some-
thing is meant by the universe which surpasses our power of
      Rational knowledge always involves alogical elements,  such
as an initial trust in the veracity of our faculties and a con-
tinual trust, a kind of faith, in the most reasonable hypothesis.
In the perception of the ineffable we are forced into a faith
in undisclosed meaning and are deprived of the power to dis-
regard the unregarded. The question arises whether here, too,
it is a reasonable hypothesis to which the mind is naturally
drawn or for which it is craving.
      True, it is the reasonable as such for which the mind craves
and to which it is drawn. But the pleasure and essence of the
reasonable or meaningful lie in its consistency with our minds.
When we say something is reasonable, we imply that it is rea-
sonable to us and can be integrated in our system of concepts.
The ineffable, however, is meaningful without being reason-
able; it neither bends to analysis nor conforms to our cate-
gories, as if it were out of place in our brains. It is, moreover,
not an idea gained through abstractions, but one apprehended
in the concrete and with immediacy; one, furthermore, not
applied like a general law to particular phenomena, but some-
thing unembodied, a relatedness, surpassing the facts rather
than being within the facts.
      And yet the reality of ineffable meaning is, as we have
shown, beyond dispute. The imperative of awe is its certificate
of evidence, a universal certificate which we all witness and
seal with tremor and spasm, not because we desire to, but be-
cause we are stunned and cannot brave it. There is so much
more meaning in reality than my soul can take in! And when
I begin to spell the infinite sentence of my amazement and to
say what I perceive, I realize that all perception is an external-
ization, that the essence begins where perception ends. The
perception of its surpassing my power of perception is too
consistent, staggering and universal to be illusory.
      The ultimate question, therefore, is not the mind's creatio ex
nihilo but a reiteration in the mind of what is given to the
soul. The indication of what transcends all things is given to us
with the same immediacy as the things themselves. Its presence
is as much a fact as any other; it is, indeed, much more—it is
a fact within all facts. For while it is true that the conceivable
aspects of reality are next to our experience; within experience
it is the mystery upon which we come. While our minds are
upon things, our souls are carried away beyond them.

A Spiritual Presence

Awareness of a mystery is shared by all people. Yet, as we have
seen, they usually mistake what they sense as being apart from
their own existence, as if there were only wonder in what they
see, not in the very act of seeing, as if the mystery were merely
an object of observation. Unsparing, unqualified thinking
opens our minds to the fact, that the mystery is not apart from
ourselves, not a far-off thing like a rainbow in the sky; the
mystery is out of doors, in all things to be seen, not only
where there is more than what the senses can grasp. Those to
whom awareness of the ineffable is a constant state of mind
know that the mystery is not an exception but an air that lies
about all being, a spiritual setting of reality; not something
apart but a dimension of all existence.
      They learn to sense that all existence is embraced by a
spiritual presence; that life is not a property of the self; that
the world is an open house in which the presence of the owner
is so well concealed that we usually mistake God's discretion for
      There is a holiness that hovers over all things, that makes
them look to us in some moments like objects of transcendent
meditation, as if to be meant to be thought of by God, as
if all external life were embraced by an inner life, by a process
within a mind, pensive, intentional. Numbers, abstract rela-
tions, express its essence as little as the number of the members
of a family tell the unique story of their drama. (Inner life,
being thought of, is, of course, a simile, but it is only in
similes that we can communicate when speaking of the ulti-
      To the religious person it is as if things stood with  their back
to him, their faces turned to God, as if the ineffable quality
of things consisted in their being an object of divine thought.
Just as in touching a tree we know that the tree is not the end
of the world, that the tree stands in space, so we know that
the ineffable—what is holy in justice, compassion and truth-
fulness—is not the end of spirit; that the ultimate values sur-
vive our misjudgements, deflations and repudiations; that mean-
ing is meaningful not because of our minds; that beauty is
beautiful not by the grace of humankind.
      The soul is introduced to a reality which is not only other
than itself, as it is the case in the ordinary acts of perception;
it is introduced to a reality which is higher than the universe.
Our soul compares with its glory as a breath with all the
world's air. We are introduced to a reality, the mere awareness
of which is more precious to us than our own existence. The
thought of it is too powerful to be ignored and too holy to
be absorbed by us. It is a thought in which we share. It is as
if the human mind were not alone in thinking it, but the whole
universe were full of it. We do not wonder at things any
more; we wonder with all things. We do not think about
things; we think for all things.