Spiritual Maturity (or A Colloquy about a Heschel Quote)

The other day I posted as my Facebook status a quote from Rabbi Abraham Heschel that I excerpted from an article I had been reading about a new collection of his writings. The quote read

‎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.

One of my Facebook friends commented yesterday that the quote represented as “deficient and defective understanding of Faith, worship and love in relation to creed, discipline and habit,” observing that “[f]or the spiritually mature, the interplay and interdependence between these necessities is manifest” and that it is spiritually narcissistic to think one can have faith, worship and love without creed, discipline and habit.

As I suggested to my friend, I think it misperceives Heschel to interpret him as suggesting one abandon the latter set of principles to the former. Instead, I think Heschel’s comment reflects a concern with the rampant spiritual immaturity (that can be found in both the lay and religious populations) that elevates the latter set of those terms without incorporating the former.

Ultimately, my Facebook friend and I agree that, in his words,

There are two poles of spiritual immaturity, if it can even be diginified with the term spiritual: the infantile ego centrism that elevates the individual’s personal whatever to the status of supreme “awareness,” and fundamentalism, which also elevates the individual’s personal whatever to the status of supreme “dogma”. Both ultimately destroy not only the soul but a just society, and both do it by placing the individual above all else….[W]e see far too much of this in Western society today.

I think our exchange offered a helpful clarification. I think it would be very easy for people to read Heschel as doing precisely what my friend warned against: justifying the abandoning of creed, discipline and habit, in favor of something that has the capacity to devolve into narcissism. It is equally very easy for those who sense such danger to overemphasize creed, discipline and habit to soulless dogma. It is one thing to talk about the interplay and interdependence, it is another to avoid falling to one extreme or another (depending on our starting point) – in talk and in deed.


One thought on “Spiritual Maturity (or A Colloquy about a Heschel Quote)

  1. By identifying both of the evil extremes with individualism, doesn’t your friend fall into the same dualistic trap s/he is decrying? Wouldn’t you say rather that the extreme of dependence on dogma, discipine, and convention is an excess of community? Without a balance between the value of the individual and the value of community there is no societal health. The Catholic tradition values both and, above all, the balance. I don’t deny that the postmodern age we live in emphasizes the individual, but I don’t think it creates balance for Church leadership to harp on “individualism” as it does. It would help to have more respect for individual freedom and equality within the Church and thus to model the balance the tradition preaches.

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