Planting Stones


The following excerpt comes from the opening of Abraham J. Heschel’s book, God in Search of Man: a Philosophy of Judaism (published 1955), in the first section of chapter 1, called, “To Recover the Questions”:

It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion — its message becomes meaningless.

Religion is an answer to man’s ultimate questions. The moment it becomes oblivious to ultimate questions, religion becomes irrelevant, and its crisis sets in.
. . .

There are dead thoughts and there are living thoughts. A dead thought has been compared to a stone which one may plant in the soil. Nothing will come out. A living thought is like a seed. In the process of thinking, an answer without a question is devoid of life. It may enter the mind; it will not penetrate the soul. It may become a part of one’s knowledge; it will not come forth as a creative force.

These days it seems that the popular thing for religious partisans to do with stones is not plant them but throw them (burn copies of the Qur’an “for Christ”). Maybe before Christianity, for example, becomes completely the realm of the enraged partisans in their ginned up culture wars, we can hear and heed Heschel’s warning: “An answer without a question is devoid of life.”

A recent New York Times piece suggests “worshipers” are attending churches only to be soothed and entertained. Maybe so in some places, but I doubt it will help much to offer them, instead of easy assurances and feel-good stories, doctrinally correct answers to questions they are not asking and don’t care to hear raised. If we truly respect people and are not just (1) preaching pre-packaged truths at them for their unconsidered assent or (2) trying to manipulate them into mindless support for some political cause or (3) selling them snake-oil promises of blessings to take their money, then maybe we need to seek ways to elicit the deeper questions they have not dared to ask or even searched themselves to discover.

Having the answers set down, formalized, and ready to hand, we have feared questions and have defended our truths against them. The problem is that most people fear their own questions about meaning in life and death. So, when the singing stops, we have silence. Mental silence. Spiritual silence. Dead silence. Stone dead.

How do we recover the questions? How do we help people find the courage to ask them? Maybe we first need to find that courage in ourselves and start asking the questions long buried beneath accepted answers. Maybe if we recover the ability to listen to ourselves we can risk listening to others.