Abraham Joshua Heschel

10. Doubt

Afterwards, when a person's sense of the ineffable is at its ebb
and the coercion of invasive insights is vanishing, the eternal
question appears to be out of tune in the din of acquisitive-
ness and commonplace thinking. The mind in its honesty tolls
its doubts. Is the encounter with the ineffable, in which one
learns about the existence of a being beyond the ineffable, to
be considered a reliable source of insight? That encounter may
be nothing but a soliloquy, the insight acquired therein a fig-
ment of the mind, an outgrowth of the will.
      There are, indeed, no credentials in our possession by
which we could demonstrate to others that the endless con-
cern in which we were initiated is not the outpouring of our
own heart. Even responsiveness to the ineffable cannot be
demonstrated, how much less can we kindle that to which we
respond, as if to set the bush alive with God for all people to see.
      No one can be a witness to the nonexistence of God with-
out laying perjury upon their soul, for those who abscond, those
who are always absent when God is present, have only the
right to establish their alibi for their not being able to bear
      The ultimate question in its logical form is an ever-present
challenge which we encounter wherever we turn, and there
is no way of ignoring it. A person cannot afford to be noncom-
mittal about a reality upon which the meaning and manner
of their existence depend. They are driven toward some sort of
affirmation. In whatever decision they make, they implicitly ac-
cept either the presence of God or the absurdity of denying
it. The nonsense of denial is too monstrous to be conceivable,
since it implies that the universe is all alone except for the
company of humanity, that the mind of humanity surpasses everything
within and beyond the universe. Unless we forget what hap-
pens to us in the unimpaired state of sensing the ineffable,
in our speechless amazement, when most of our concepts are
discarded as self-mindedness and conceits are on the wane,
we cannot maintain that humanity has the monopoly of mind and
soul, that they are the only being alive and conscious within and
beyond the universe, that there is no spirit except the spirit
of humanity. Those who are open to the ineffable will beware of
spiritual schizophrenia; namely, the loss of contact with the
mystery of living that surrounds us everywhere and at all
times. On the other hand, a person who affirms the existence of
God, though they may not be able to defend the epistemologi-
cal consistency of their judgement, remain consistent with their
living awareness of the ineffable.
      The sense of the ineffable is earlier and stronger than
doubts. Logical proofs for the existence of God come as an
anticlimax to those who have been set astir by that which
concepts are trying to ascertain.
     In trying to prove or disprove the existence of God, we
are like dancing puppets which, incapable of knowing for
what end and how they are capable of dancing, presume to
judge about whether or not anyone is pulling the strings. 
Those who find it impossible to subsist on the rational diet
of the rational soul will not be able to perform the solemn
ceremony of extending de jure recognition to God after God's
existence has been conclusively demonstrated and duly con-
      When the soul is not aflame, no light of speculation will
illumine the darkness of indifference. No masterly logical
demonstration of God's existence or any analysis of the in-
tricacies of the traditional God-concepts will succeed in dis-
persing that darkness. Humanity has almost unlearned the art of
being convinced by means of abstractions about ultimate real-
ity, and the austere dignity of abstract logical evidence seldom
prevails over the misgivings of intellectual inertia. It is naive
to assume that it was because of Kant's refutation of the clas-
sical proofs for the existence of God that modern humanity has
forfeited their faith. Their faith was lost long before his skepti-
cism began.
      Proofs may aid in protecting, but not in initiating cer-
tainty; essentially they are explications of what is already in-
tuitively clear to us.
      A person who seeks God to suit their doubts, to appease their skepti-
cism or to satisfy their curiosity, fails to find the whereabouts
of the issue. Search for God begins with the realization that
it is a human who is the problem; that more than God is a prob-
lem to humanity, humanity is a problem to God.
      If the divine were a complex notion, then we might have
suspected it to be a product of fancy, a combination of char-
acteristics found separately in the world and which are imag-
ined to exist together in one being. But the divine as a first
insight is a reality, transcending both the power of mind and
the order of the world rather than a compound of charac-
teristics found within the world.
      The divine is too ineffable to be a product of the human
mind, too grave, demanding and all-surpassing to be postu-
lated by wishful thinking. Where would such an awareness of
the all-surpassing being come from, if not from an underiv-
able insight into God's all-surpassingness? The question, how-
ever, may be asked: Don't we often cherish beliefs which are
afterwards exposed as delusions? Yes: we may believe that
we see a house when driving through the desert and upon
trying to reach it, it may turn out to be a mirage. But we can-
not think that a picture represents a house if there is no such 
thing as a house.
      The most basic objection to the belief in the existence of
God is the argument that such a belief passes from the mind's
data to something that surpasses the scope of the mind. What
gives us the assurance that an idea which we may find our-
selves obliged to think may hold true of a reality that lies be-
yond the reach of the mind? Such an objection is valid when
applied to the speculative approach. Yet, as we have seen, the
certainty of the existence of God does not come about as a
corollary of logical premises, as a leap from the realm of logic
to the realm of ontology, from an assumption to a fact. It is,
on the contrary, a transition from an immediate apprehension
to a thought, from being overwhelmed by the presence of
God to an awareness of God's essence.
      In sensing the spiritual dimension of all being, we become
aware of the absolute reality of the divine. In formulating a
creed, in asserting: God exists, we merely bring down over-
powering reality to the level of thought. Our belief is but an
      In other words, our belief in the reality of God is not a
case of first possessing an idea and then postulating the 
counterpart to it; or, to use a Kantian phrase, of first having
the idea of a hundred dollars and then claiming to possess
them on the basis of the idea. What obtains here is first the
actual possession of the dollars and then the attempt to count
the sum. There are possibilities of error in counting the notes,
but the notes themselves are here.
      The decisive phase, the transition from obliviousness to an
awareness of God, is not a leap over a missing link in a syl-
logism but a retreat, giving up premises rather than adding one,
going behind self-consciousness and questioning the self and
all its cognitive pretensions.
      We have no power to reach the climax of thought, no
wings upon which to rise and to leave all dangers of distor-
tion behind. But we are at times ablaze against and beyond
our own power, and unless human existence is dismissed as
an insane asylum, the spectrum analysis of that ray is evidence
for those who look for it.