“God is of no importance, unless He is of supreme importance.” (Abraham Joshua Heschel)
Question to Ponder:
This great observation of Rav Heschel (one of the most important and influential Jewish philosophers of the 20th century) is not without its problems. Is God really of supreme importance? What does Rav Heschel mean when he claims that God is not important unless He is of supreme importance? Does it mean that there is nothing of greater importance than His existence?
Perhaps Rav Heschel claims that God is indeed of supreme importance but that there are other matters that are even more important? Perhaps he means that there is nothing more important than God’s standing in this world. Is this related to the question such that as far as our conduct in this world is concerned God is of supreme importance? That by denying this supremely important fact we, as human beings, lose out in the most horrific manner possible?
Could an atheist also agree with this statement? After all, with this observation Rav Heschel does not make any claims about the existence of God; he only claims that should God exist, this existence is of supreme importance. An atheist could certainly agree - he simply denies the very existence of God.
It reminds us of the famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s (1889-1951) observation that the problem with most people who believe in God is that they subconsciously add two more words to this belief: “So what?” Wittgenstein objected to this kind of reaction since it meant that people did not appreciate the consequences of their claim when saying that they believe that God exists. They do not believe that it is of supreme importance. Wittgenstein was of the opinion that once one has affirmed God’s existence, it means that wherever one may be, one lives in the presence of God. This affects the way one lives, behaves and perceives life. A believing person claims that he lives in the palace of the King of all Kings; if one lives in this palace one must behave as befits royalty, and it is religion’s task to give us the guidelines as to how to do this. In the words of Thomas Fuller: “He does not believe that does not live in according to his belief (Gnomologia, 1732).
Consequently, one can neither claim that God does not exist and say, “So what?”! After all, this claim, too, has far reaching consequences as to how one perceives and lives one’s life. As such, the denial of God’s existence is indeed of supreme importance.
If Rav Heschel and Wittgenstein indeed are of this opinion, they will have to admit that this matter of supreme importance cannot be proven or disproven, since the concept of God is something of such grandeur that it does not fall within the parameters of those things of which we may attain certainty; “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere” (Empedocles). As such, the word certainty as an expression of logical truth cannot be applied to Him.
When speaking about God’s (non)existence it is not like saying “my car exists” or “a human being with four heads does not exist.”
This means that God, Who is considered to be of supreme importance, is in fact Somebody of whose existence we are not certain. Absolute certainty of that which is supreme is often more dangerous than a lie.