Review: Thunder in the Soul

Thunder in the Soul (Plough Spiritual Guides), Abraham Joshua Heschel. (Edited by Robert Erlwine). Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2020.

Summary: A collection of the writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel concerning the life of knowing and being known by God.

The Plough Spiritual Guides are a great little series collecting the thoughts of some of the great spiritual thinkers of the last century. This latest is no exception. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was truly one of the great spiritual figures of the twentieth century. He escaped to London from Poland trying to get family members visas before the coming Holocaust. Before he could succeed, they died. He went on as a Conservative Jewish leader whose life and works transcended his own faith community. I was in a seminar just the other day where his book The Sabbath was extensively referenced. He wrote towering works bringing spiritual insight to Jew and Christian, believer and skeptic alike: Man is Not Alone, Man’s Quest for God, God in Search of Man, and The Prophets. After the assault on Blacks at Selma in March 1965, he joined Dr. King in the march to Montgomery, earning himself a place on an FBI watchlist. He was close friends with Reinhold Niebuhr and delivered the eulogy at his funeral in 1971, following him in death a year later.

This little book collects excerpts of his writing that read as a seamless whole, a tribute to Robert Erlwine’s editing. These come under twelve headings:

  1. Every Moment Touches Eternity
  2. The Only Life Worth Living
  3. In the Presence of Mystery
  4. The Prophets Show us God Cares
  5. God Demands Justice
  6. Modernity Has Forfeited the Spirit
  7. Prayer is Being Known by God
  8. A Pattern for Living
  9. The Deed is Wiser than the Heart
  10. Something is Asked of Us
  11. Faith is an Act of the Spirit
  12. Not Our Vision of God but God’s Vision of Us

Reading the headings alone offers material for extended reflection. Often I like to select a quote or two from a book. This was a book where nearly every sentence could be a quote pull, and occasion to stop and think before one moves on. One of the big ideas that run through this selection is that we search for God only to discover that God seeks us. Heschel writes:

“When self-assertion is no more; when realizing that wonder is not our own achievement; that it is not by our own power alone that we are shuddered with radical amazement, it is not with our power anymore to assume the role of an examiner of a subject in search of an object, such as we are in search of a cause when perceiving thunder. Ultimate wonder is not the same as curiosity. Curiosity is the state of a mind in search of knowledge, while ultimate wonder is the state of knowledge in search of a mind; it is the thought of God in search of a soul.

This search of God for us is the source of our worth. Heschel observes:

“We must continue to ask: What is man that God should care for him? And we must continue to remember that it is precisely God’s care for man that constitutes the greatness of man.”

Another key idea is that of faith as faithfulness, a response in every moment in how we live our life to the reality of God. Faith is not centered around the doctrine or dogmas of prior generations, which he considers “spiritual plagiarism.” Faith moves beyond our own reason and wisdom. “In faith, we do not seek to decipher, to articulate in our own terms, but to rise above our own wisdom, to think of the world in terms of God, to live in accord with what is relevant to God.” The life of faith is shaped by the law and the prophets. “The good is not an abstract idea but a commandment, and the ultimate meaning of its fulfillment is in its being an answer to God.”

Finally, Heschel talks about the paradigm shift of knowing God. We do not so much think about God as think within God. He explains:

“His is the call, ours the paraphrase; His is the creation, ours a reflection. He is not an object to be comprehended, a thesis to be endorsed, neither the sum of all that is (facts) nor a digest of all that ought to be (ideals). He is the ultimate subject.”

Some speak of God as Ultimate Reality. Often this sounds like an abstraction, but what I think Heschel would say is that God is the most Real, the really Real, by whom all else is understood.

This is a taste of what you will find here. Strong stuff. J. B. Phillips wrote a book titled Your God is too Small. I think Heschel would agree and this little book is a gateway to his thought. What is troubling to me is how rarely I encounter writing like this coming out of Christian publishing houses or in Christian media. This deceptively little book is, as the Wardrobe in C.S. Lewis, much bigger on the inside than the outside. Read slowly and be filled.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

3 thoughts on “Review: Thunder in the Soul

  1. Bob, as a young Christian in the 70s and 80s, I heard about and read at least a sampling of the more sublime writings of, say, Elliot, Chambers, Tozer, Lewis and others. Perhaps in reaction, things went more “practical.” These days, Christian literature seems splintered into all its tribal perspectives. I’m wondering who you might identify today as Christian writers who are more transcendent and who help us “think great thoughts” as does Heschel. Thanks.

  2. You ask a good question. One recent read was John Webster’s “Holiness.” Some writers on spiritual formation approach this: Ruth Haley Barton, Tish Warren, Henri Nouwen come to mind. That fact that I have a hard time calling people to mind as well is telling.

  3. Pingback: The Month In Reviews: February 2021 | Bob on Books

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