Experimenting with Rosenzweig and spiritual discipline

I admit that I am experimenting.  And so I am also admitting that I do not know what I am doing.  But I am hopeful.  I am increasingly trying to integrate my general interests in philosophy and theory in my profession as a pastor.  Sometimes this works easily in cases of preaching.  Other times it works surprisingly as in the case of hospital visitation.  And sometimes it must just be experimented with.  This is what I will be doing this Sunday.

Over Lent we are having an adult education series on spiritual discipline (big surprise!).  I am leading the opening session which will hopefully give some ‘frame’ for what follows.  I was originally going to frame sessions in the context of ‘prayer’.  This of course could have been helpful but I did not know where I would go with this and also many of the other sessions deal directly and indirectly with prayer.  I have recently finished Franz Rosenzweig’s Understanding the Sick and the Healthy.  I decided that I would experiment with this work as a context for understanding the motivation and direction for spiritual disciplines.  I will in fact introduce this framework as a spiritual discipline in that I am confessing it for testing and examination.

Understanding the Sick and the Healthy is an attempted diagnosis of the illness of philosophy in its tendency to essentialize reality.  Essentialism for Rosenzweig is the isolating of aspects of reality for examination in a way that ends up distorting the manner in which reality is distinguishable but integrated (Rosenzwieg uses the image of ‘flow’ as the metaphor for engaging reality).  What is the world?  Who am I?  Who is God?  These are ultimately paralyzing questions in isolation that lead to a sickness and insulation from reality.  Rosenzweig calls then for a return to ‘common sense’ which is re-establishing an appropriate view of World, Humanity, and God.  These are pictured as distinct mountaintops in which it is impossible to have all three in view at all times though one must have a ‘base’ at the centre of the three if healing is to occur.  So what is a common sense view of the three mountaintops?

What is our world-view?  Rosenzweig warns against the notion that we can dip water out of the river to analyze as it as the world and believe that in so doing we understand it.  My reading of Rosenzweig on this is that we should not look for deeper meaning when it comes to the world.  Understanding the world means beginning precisely on the surface.  The world is not us and the world is not God.  The meaning of the world is in its relation to Humanity and God.  Therefore we enter each day “frankly confronting each thing as we encounter it; we look for nothing beyond, do not try to walk suspiciously around the object; nor do we peer into its depths, but accept it rather as it is, as it hastens towards us.  And then we leave it behind and wait for whatever is to come tomorrow.” (74)  Therefore we do not look for God in the World because the world is something and therefore not God.  This frees us to embrace a fully scientific model of engagement (as though this should still be a major question) and warns against viewing God’s ‘blessing’ in particular world events.  Because if God blesses in this way then wouldn’t God also curse in this way.  Let the world be the world in all its ferocious and unyielding consistency.

What is our life-view?  There is tendency towards trying to ‘pin-down’ our identity.  But again to isolate and abstract in this manner is to have things truly come unhinged and find ourselves in a crisis of identity.  You cannot set out to ‘find yourself’ except maybe in spite of that process.  Nevertheless we tend to situate ourselves in some form of ‘worm theology’ or act as though we are ‘like gods’.  Both instances are unhealthy thou both instances present themselves with a sort of ‘security’.  I sense again the Rosenzweig is interested in a simpler descriptive account that has no interest in a stable definition but understands the basic variability of humanity in its temporal orientation.  Here is a fabulous quote,

Let us seek not seek for anything beyond ourselves. Let us be ourselves and nothing more. Such a moment of existence may be nothing but delusion; we shall, however, choose to remain within the moment, deceived by it and deceiving it, rather than live in deception above or below the moment.  Let our personal experience, even though it change from instant to instant, be reality.  Let man become the bearer of these shifting images.  It is preferable that he change masks a hundred times a day (at least they do belong to him) rather than wear continually the mask of the divine ruler of the world (gained by thievery) or that of the world’s bondservant (forced upon him).  The hundred masks will serve in lieu of one countenance. (79)

The strength of humanity might not be in securing identity but in accepting the variability.  Let humanity be human in all its fabulous variability.

What is our view of God?  How can we speak of God?  But didn’t we also have trouble speaking of the World and of Humanity when we sought essences?  Why would we expect anything else when seek God in this way?  But the stakes do seem higher.  When we claim or secure our identity of God then what we may be doing is articulating our own highest value and therefore become more threatened and aggressive when opposed.  But God is not us and God is not world.

Throughout his work Rosenzweig gives attention to the way in which language, words, and names form the bridges between these three peaks; that allow for the flow of the river.  The same is true of God.  The world is named by humans.  Humans engage past and future through their names.  God does not need a name but a gives a two-fold name.

One the one hand He embraces sinners (Humanity); on the other, He proclaims law for the world. The root of all of man’s various heresies is to confound the two parts of His name with one another; God’s love encroaches upon His justice, His justice upon his love.  It is indeed God’s task both to maintain the two-fold character of His name as well as reconcile them.  So long as there is reason for such a division, so long as God is not God-in-Himself whom philosophers drivel about; if He remains God of man and the world, then it is He, who by means of His two-fold name transforms – and we use the word in its technical sense – human energies into the energies of the world. (92)

Have faith in God.

What does this have to say about spiritual discipline?  Spiritual disciplines are the acts by which reality is properly distinguished and properly joined.  We do not secure and reside ‘in the world’ creating life as cogs and law.  We do not secure and reside ‘in humanity’ allowing ourselves to think too highly or too lowly of ourselves and each other.  We do not secure and reside ‘in God’ retreating from the responsibilities of life and creating an idol that will not heal and redeem.  It could be argued that for Rosenzweig spiritual disciplines are those things orient life thus,

There is in addition to the world and himself, He who turns His face towards both.  He it is who summons man by name and bids him take his place in the congregation who calls upon Him.  He it is who orders things so that they may form a kingdom bearing His name.  Thus man may act unconcerned with the outcome; he may act according to the requirements of the world as it is today.  That day, the day when action is required, lets him understand what he must perform. . . . Truth waits for him; it stands before his eyes, it is ‘in thy heart and in thy mouth,’ within grasping distance; ‘that thou mayst do it.’  In the same way as he has achieved certainty concerning the reality of the world and has found courage to live, he must also have faith in God who brought him into existence. . . . The proper time then is the present – today. To avail himself of today, man must, for better or worse, put his trust in God. . . . The proper time has come [when need calls], and thus God assists you. (93)

If I have given any justice to this short work then it should be somewhat apparent that Rosensweig has indeed given us a ‘common sense’ account of things in which the world is allowed to be the world, humanity is called to be human, and God turns toward and takes responsibility for both.

I am not entirely sure what to think of this project let alone how the presentation on Sunday will go.  What I appreciate about this project in terms of spiritual discipline is its liberating and clarifying possibility.  There are many critiques out there that deal with our need to ‘let go’ of our need for control but rarely have as helpful a supplement for how to take responsibility.  Perhaps after the session I can articulate some of those possibilities.


One thought on “Experimenting with Rosenzweig and spiritual discipline

  1. Hey David, I was thinking about buying this by R but wanted to see if I could find the whole thing on line cause it’s so expensive and I found your blog post here instead. I very much like what you wrote here (and wish that you would write more!). I only have R’s Star of Redemption, and I can’t say I get the whole thing, but this work really intrigues me. Much obliged.


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