First, let me say why theology is important to me. If I want to say something about the Bible, worship, or spirituality; I must speak about God. Theology’s Greek components, theos and logos, are about God and words or God and discourse.
On the other hand, I do not take theology as seriously as people who think God will reject you for heresy, that you will go to hell. The friends of Job are my model here. They had not spoken “what was right” about God. God was not happy (Job. 42:7). But the remedy for this was a sacrifice and for Job to pray that God not deal with them according to their folly. According to verse 9, God responded favorably to Job’s prayer.
So I do not believe that God will deal with me, or some of my friends, who to my mind are clearly heretics, according to our folly. Yet it is important to be as accurate as possible when speaking of God.
Now to Micheal Fishbane and his Jewish theology in Sacred Attunement.
He says that theology has often dealt in abstractions and has forced mysteries to fit into a logic that is not appropriate to mystery. He says that the contemporary mind demands a different kind of theology. The goal of theology should not be to build a system but to live theologically.
He has already pointed to art as an attempt to capture those charged moments that reveal something “elemental” underlying our everyday world. He says that theology goes beyond this and tries to “transform this perception of elementariness into a sustained way of life and thought”. It is an attempt to attune the heart to “the source of all things”, the “primal Depth, or the “Font of Being”. He speaks of God, but shows a very Jewish reluctance to say the name. He can do so only “haltingly”.
He uses the biblical metaphor of Jacob’s ladder. We do not end up in some other world. No. The point is to experience with Jacob that God is in this place and that this place is the house of God and the gate of heaven (Genesis 28:16-17)–his earthly place.
Then Fishbane talks about Azriel of Gerona, a Jewish mystic of the 12th and 13th centuries. Azriel tried to talk about the borderline between God as total mystery and God as knowable. He called it the line between Naught and Aught. We might say this is the line between the unknowable and the disclosed. But the borderline itself is tricky. It does not really belong to one or the other. Fishbane does not follow Azriel in some of his speculation about divine emanations. However, he credits Azriel with grasping the great truth that the ultimate reality remains unknowable even while our everyday reality is founded upon it.
Especially founded upon the elemental mystery is human consciousness. Each individual has the calling to become a fit channel for the impulses that emerge from our grounding in God. The project of theology is to use thought and tradition to guide and promote the discovery of the God-given tasks for people and communities.
Theology has often done this poorly. That is why it needs to be done again with renewed insight and vigor.
There are two Hebrew phrases in Isaiah 25:1 which the KJV has translated as “counsels of old” and “faithfulness and truth” Counsels of old can represent the unknowable Divine purposes. But faithfulness and truth can represent the task of theology in showing that human life and value are based upon the mystery of God. In Martin Buber’s terms, theology seeks to make this world “God-real” and God-actual”.
More practically, theology has the task of answering questions like what we should consider sacred and what we should deem ethical. Words, persons, and happenings can all be vehicles by which the God presents himself in the world. But to which words, persons, and happenings must we pay attention?
With these questions Fishbane prepares to move from theology in general to Jewish theology.
I am put off a little by the existential language Fishbane uses. Paul Tillich also talked about God as the Ground of Being. Tillich’s concept of God was so impersonal and tenuous that he has been accused of functional atheism. However, Fishbane is more phenomenological. He wants us to pay attention to words, people and events and not just use philosophical abstractions. One of the most valuable challenges Fishbane repeats often in different words is the the challenge not to go through life on automatic pilot. For him believing in God is the result of just being aware.
As varied as are the perspectives of people I read and write about here, I try to tie it together with the notion of an outward directed spirituality. Fishbane talks about divine impulses in people’s consciousness and I worry that this tends toward New Age or Pentecostal subjectivity (I think there are Jewish equivalents). But he mostly talks about the world around us and paying attention to that. So it seems to me that most of his approach is healthy and what I would call outward.