September 06

Creeds are the Ashes from the Fire of Religion

Joshua Liebman (and colleague)

While doing doctoral research, I came across this exchange of "Questions and Answers" from a 1929 edition of the Hebrew Union College Monthly, a magazine consisting primarily of students' essays and poetry. I couldn't find the original article, "Allegation Versus Aspiration," or find out the name of its author. Joshua Liebman, though, who posed the questions here, went on to become a famous theologian during World War II, penning the best-selling inspirational book Peace of Mind. Here, fifteen years earlier, Liebman is the voice of conservative theology, arguing that religion means to say something factual about the world, not merely express our amazement at it. Overall, what struck me in this conversation was how timely it still remains, dealing as it does with timeless questions such as whether religion is about fact or "aspiration," and which matters more: theology or the yearnings which give birth to it. - Jay Michaelson

The author of the article “Allegation Versus Aspiration” which appeared in the Hebrew Union College Monthly of April 1929 offers the following answers to questions propounded by Joshua Liebman.

QUESTION: You say that “the sphere of religion is not the sphere of facts.” Still may not the search of religion be for truth and is not truth bound up with certain facts?

Answer: All that I meant by the statement is that one supposition regarding events in the world is as compatible with religion as another. A fact is simply the object of a correct or valid or, we might say, successful supposition.

Truth likewise is not bound up with any particular supposition. Truth is a viewpoint, an attitude, a spirit in the handling of suppositions. It is the attitude of realism as opposed to that of dogmatism or chimera. Truth is as ready to reject evolution or relativity as it is to accept them. All that truth asks is the application of scientific tests. In this sense only can truth be said to be “bound up” with facts. It is bound up with a certain conscientiousness about deciding whether or not a given supposition is valid and thus communicative of fact.

Truth then is not the affirmation of any particular event. It is an ideal or an aim. Hence its close linkage with our conception of religion. Let us not confuse specific suppositions with an attitude for handling suppositions. Both religion and truth belong not to the former but to the latter.

Question: The aspirational phrases (e. g., “Du bist wie ein Blume”) would not have become so meaningful if wholly detached from any actual experience. Heine experienced the real beauty of flowers before he could have attempted his comparison. Does not the person who says, “O God, my Rock and my Redeemer,” believe in the referential existence of a heavenly being? The purpose of the phrases may be inspirational but the basis must, in some sense, be referential.

Answer: Did Heine have to believe in the botanical character of his cousin in order to call her a flower? In order to be thrilled by a dramatic performance, must I be deluded into thinking that it is not a performance but an actual happening? Must I believe in the historical reality of William Tell's apple or of the Erlking in order to profit by the poems on those subjects, or in the physical existence of the Flying Dutchman before I can be swayed by Wagner’s music?

The very essence of art is its non-referential character. Indeed the people most responsive to art are the intelligent people who know where fact ends and fiction begins; hardly the dolts who confuse the two.

Rocks exist and acts of redeeming exist—that much is referential in the Scriptural phrase. But the Psalmist is discussing neither lapidary specimens nor pawnbroking. He is voicing a deep rich experience. People take the Psalmist’s phrase referentially only when they theologize. The moment they stop theologizing and begin to worship, the phrase ceases to be referential and becomes artistically inspirational.

NOTE!—Absolutely no disparagement of Theology as an academic discipline is intended in the use of the world “theologize” to denote amateurish speculations about religion. A different word would have been used could it have been found. Theology as the Kulturgeschichte of religious ideas or as the philosophy of religion is still royal among intellectual pursuits.

Question: You say that “allegations can not collide with aims and aims cannot collide with allegations.” But can aim continue to exist indefinitely if the allegation which subverts it is valid?

Answer: Probably not. This is due to the fact that circumstances that render the subverting allegation valid may be potent enough to alter the aim.

Persistent financial reverses may cause me to abandon my ambition to own a yacht. It is not the mere statement “I cannot afford it” that makes my ambitions change. Were not circumstances overwhelming, I could arrive in my enterprise unto ultimate success. Aims do not conflict with allegations. Circumstances, rather, conflict with both.

Even if allegations were to overthrow aims, they could not overthrow [reli]gion. An aim is discontinued only when there is the substitution of [aim for] aim. The later aim, being presumably “higher” or “better,” would then [determine] the substance of religion.

: When you say “that the conflict between science and [religion] is at bottom a conflict of aims” do you imply that science also is aspi[rational] rather than referential?

Answer: Science is not aspirational. The aims pursued by science, though worthy in a high degree, are not superlative. Science seeks to cure sick people, improve transportation, to enhance communication, to increase safety, to supply comforts, to solve mysteries. But, over and above these achievements there may be some higher unnamed good enticing the soul of scientific and non-scientific person alike. The laboratory, like the library, the factory and the market, is an abode not of goals but of instruments. And reference is one of of many forms of instrumentality. The outstanding thing about science is not so much its aims as the processes it employs to attain the aims.

Question: Does the question, “Is God real?” mean: “Is there some greater Being upon whom we may depend?

Answer: To the theologizer, it may mean that referentially but to the worshipper it means that inspirationally. What was served at the White House banquet? Ice. How true; ice really was served. The waiters put bits of it into the glasses of water -- yet, how untrue! In the sumptuous presidential menu, the ice was the least.

Similarly with “the Greater Being upon whom we may depend." The Greater Being (referentially taken) is only a shred—a relatively unimportant shred in a vast psychological and social situation. The significant thing is not the Greater Being but the huge complex of interests and strivings that have recourse to language about a Greater Being.

When Geology referentially eliminates a Greater Being it eliminates nothing that is of consequence. Life is just as throbbing and intense as it was before the geological performance. The president’s drinking water is chilled by nothing other than ice and the banquet goes on as magnificently as ever.

Question: Can the word “God” continue to satisfy if it remains a word without referential correspondence of some sort?

Answer: No. But who says that it remains merely a word without correspondence of some sort? “Non-referential” does not mean “without correspondence.” Inspirationally, the word can correspond with everything that is vital and sublime.

Question: Can “the hungry soul be satisfied” be sensible if there is no referential signification to the word “God?”

Answer: Why not? There is nothing referential about an organ solo and yet, given music of sufficient excellence, is there not pronounced satisfaction? An exquisite sunrise is intensely satisfying. Yet what can there be referential about a sunrise—barring the astronomical implications which need not in the remotest come into play. Rather ask the question: Can the hungry soul be satisfied if there is no inspirational significance to the word “God?”

Question: We do have experiences with alter-egos—such as father, friend, who help us and feed us and love us. There is a definitely mutual or reciprocal relationship here. When the worshipper ascribes such qualities to a divine being does he not implicitly believe in a similar reciprocal relationship?

Answer: If he merely “believes” he is not much of a worshipper. The devout worshipper experiences the relationship. Amicable human qualities are imputed to the Deity because of the inspiration conferred by those qualities. Experience in toto may, at times, impart an inspiration resembling that derived from contact with father or friend. Note the strictly inspirational and non-referential use of the terms. The worshipper need not “believe” anything. It suffices that life generally convey to him satisfactions resembling those with which father and friend once became associated.

Question: Empirical religions involve assertions of fact, which are crystallized into creeds or sets of dogmas. Does not science have an effect upon creeds?

Answer: Science does have an effect on creeds, usually destructive. But religion, in the sense of the term which provides its appeal for you and me, is not a matter of creed but a matter of aspiration. Creeds are, so to speak, the shavings from the workshop of religion, the ashes from the fire of religion.


Images: Joel Isaacson


Joel Isaacson has returned to painting after thirty-one years teaching art history at the University of Michigan. His art training began in the days of Abstract-Expressionism as a student at Brooklyn College. Upon retirement he spent some time doing small nature studies in watercolor but has now traveled back to his origins, working abstractly in oils on canvas.