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What Haitian Vodou Has to Teach Dissident Artists

What Haitian Vodou Has to Teach Dissident Artists

Konstantin Kulakov

Erzulie Freda   Yaël Talleyrand

Erzulie Freda
Yaël Talleyrand


    I came to Union Theological Seminary to study the relationship between science and religion. I was committed to the idea that history would give the proper context to understand this difficult relationship. After that, I wanted to pursue a PHD in psychology to continue William James's and Maslow's project: to describe religious experience in what I considered a "universal, scientific language." This conviction was rooted in my assumption that reason and natural science must be the universal, foundational arbiters of knowledge; all other ideas and experiences must be integrated into and through the language of reason and natural science.

    However, over the course of my first year in seminary, four events dramatically transformed my worldview. I moved from my certainty in Western epistemology to a much more contextual, embodied, and non-doctrinal worldview. I define Western epistemology as a framework that privileges certain modes of thought over others in the name of technoscientific control: reason over affect, quantity over quality, regular pattern over irregular pattern. The alternative contextual, embodied, and non-doctrinal worldview will be explored as the blog post is developed. The focus of this post is threefold: 1) to introduce my personal background as it relates to Haitian Vodou 2) present the interview, 3) and explore how visual art music demonstrate the socio-political resistance of the religion in the face of national crisis.  

    In this part, I will extensively introduce the experiences that brought me to study Haitian Vodou and its significance to my development. First, I experienced an existential crisis caused by my rationalist alienation from my body in the name of power and control. Second, through the physicist Thomas Kuhn, philosopher Michel Foucault, and physist Karen Barad, my historical study of science and religion led me to see the contingency or situatedness of science. Third, Toni Morrison's piece, "Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination" really shook my faith in liberal, scientifically-literate worldviews (i.e. Schleiermacher) and I viewed it as legitimization of a Eurocentric and instrumental rationalist ideology. And fourth, I began to date a Dominican-American Brooklynite; through music, dance, and spirituality, she helped transform my puritanical, repressive, and rationalist Protestant consciousness to one that was more embodied, holistic, and celebratory of the body and its intuitions.

    After my disillusionment with Western rationalism and natural science, I struggled to relate to a science that I still saw as indispensible to our society; from penicillin to vaccines, automobiles, heart transplants, and Internet technology, natural science has ushered in a reality unimaginable to medieval society. Thus, I struggled to articulate alternative modes of being because they clashed with hegemonic technoscientific practices and discourse of today. This led to an intellectual confusion and paralysis.

My Encounter with Haitian Vodou

My encounter with African Religions in the Americas began to reveal concrete, embodied modes of being that challenged Eurocentric beliefs and practices with Afrocentric ones. I felt that Santeria and Rasterianism challenged Western epistemology and domination by sustaining the Afrocentric embodied intuition of spirit. However, through their ties and political and religious coexistence with European Catholicism and Christian literalism (in the case of Rastefarianism), they seemed to lack socio-political subversion. This continued to be so until I studied Haitian Vodou.

    Through the work of Margarite Fernandez Olmos and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, I uncovered how the enslaved Africans of Haiti sacrificed a wild boar and made a sacred pact to overthrow their European masters. This war of independence was completed under the political and military control of Toussant L’Ouverture in 1803. Through Latin America and the Caribbean, it would become the first country to gain independence. As Fernandez Olmos and Paravisini-Gebert write, “The ceremony represented the consolidation of the connection between Vodou and the Haitian spirit of resistance which, together with the appropriation of Catholic ritual that became part of the rites of liberation, remains a powerful repository of subversion today.”

    Furthermore, Haitian Vodou was also powerful practical, concrete resource for socio-political revolution. As argued by Margarite Fernandez Olmos and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, “The revolution’s early leaders—Boukman and Makandal—were reputed to be powerful oungans whose knowledge of the powers and poisonous properties of herbs had helped mount a campaign of terror and death among French planters in Saint Domingue.” The nature and function of Haitian Vodou in society seemed to sustainably challenge and transform Haiti across the board. It allows the 1) embodied, 2) the ecological, 3) the socio-political, and the 4) cosmological to symbolically express themselves on their own terms as an ongoing conversation of various and powerful spirits: the lwa. These spirits are consolidated in private altars at home and communal rits of spiritual transformation. Not only did the religion maintain and celebrate the Afrocentric embodied, sexually liberated, and spiritually transformative elements of life, but it also insured that the most pervasive and vicious slave-run sugar industry in the Caribbean was destroyed. From this holistic subversion of reality, Haitian culture may flourish.

Haitian Vodou and My Own Development

In regards to my intellectual and spiritual life, Hatiain Vodou’s commitment to the inner spiritual as well as socio-political subversion demonstrated what Carl Jung described as the “evidence of inner, transcendent experience.” I felt that Haitian Vodou, by securing independence, demonstrated a mode of being that functioned without the impulse or demand to be interpolated or integrate itself into any outside structure or discourse. Again, as Carl Jung argues, only individual experience may provide the “extramundane principle capable of relativizing the overpowering influence of external factors.” Thus, for me, the history of Haitian Vodou helped me see that in order to sustain a more holistic, embodied mode of being, you need an epistemological framework that allows itself to function. This means that there is no need to work within the language and constraints of empirical evidence and logical argument.  

    However, each dimension must be able to free itself from the hegemonic grip of Western epistemology that limits what kind of questions may be asked of the universe and how they may be answered. Below, this post will present the  interview, visual art, and explore how Haitian Vodou still functions as medium of socio-political resistance in the face of crisis. The two crises I will explore are first the 2010 earthquake and the 1991 Haitian coup d'éta.

A Conversation with Dr. Nixon Shabalom Cleophat, professor and Asongwe, High Priest of Vodou

Nixon Shabalom Cleophat.    Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Asongwe, high priest of Vodou.

Nixon Shabalom Cleophat.
Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Asongwe, high priest of Vodou.

I spoke with Dr. Nixon Shabalom Cleophat, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and an Asongwe, high priest of Vodou. Cleophat was born in Port-au-Prince on June 18th, 1978. His grandmother as well as his mother practiced Haitian Vodou while Cleophat was a child. This experience involved her grandmother telling stories about Haitian Vodou at a bon fire and going to ceremonies where others were mounted by spirits. However, around the age of 16, Cleophat mother converted to Pentecostalism, rejected Haitian Vodou as evil, and required that he convert to Pentecostalism as well. Cleophat did not have a relationship with Haitian Vodou until his visit to Haiti in 2011. Here, Nixon reports his experience of Haitian Vodou on a public and personal level:

And that was very clear to me when I visited Haiti a year after the earth quake… It was July, 2011. Before my trip I was thinking “well, you know, Haiti was just devastated by this earthquake, you know, so Im going there and I will find a group of people who are miserable, who are destitute, in the worst situation. And then I went to Haiti and it was the complete opposite […]

I was like I don’t understand how these people can smile. I did not understand how people could wake in the morning and you know they would all gather in the morning, gathered in the community. And I’m like wow. And there were several happening at that time: there were Vodou ceremonies going on everywhere because they had to do special ceremonies for the dead, they had to pray, make offerings on behalf of the dead... the evangelical churches were busy condemning Vodou and in the meantime what was happening: Vodou was getting more and more attention as well as becoming more powerful.

So from that event on, I became very interested in what role Haitian Vodou played in my scholarship… and I realized it was not for me just an academic endeavor; it was very personal. I feel as if in my interaction with Vodou I was you know… that experience transformed my life completely, transformed my life to the point where I was able to receive the manifestation or the empowerment of Vodou deities…

Here, Cleophat explains the practical power of Haitian Vodou juxtaposed against the Evangelical impulse to condemn it as evil. Haitian Vodou took on mythical nature in the face of the what Hans Blumenberg called the “absolutism of reality;” in other words, Vodou provided order and meaning despite the destruction and death of the earthquake. This is something that Evangelicalism and even Pentecostalism cannot provide in the same manner because of the rationalist, hegemonizing nature of mono-centric, doctrinal, and other-worldly religion. Elsewhere in the interview, Cleophat compares the spirituality of Haitian Vodou against that Western-influenced religion where control is emphasized in the name of a monocentric faith. Below, he describes the experience of being mounted by the lwa, Damballa, the Sky father and primordial creator of all life.

So I felt as if I was mounted by the holy spirit. And all of the sensation was the same. My feet started to lose ground and I felt like I was going in and out of myself. And I was trying to hold on to everything that was in the sanctuary. And I was like oh my god, I think I am casting the holy ghost at a Vodou ceremony. And I wasn’t the holy ghost; this time it wasn’t. And I realized that the difference between the manifestation of what most people would call the holy spirit in Vodou is not much of difference. But I can tell you, the energy was probably stronger and more palpable when it comes to Haitian Vodou spirits mounting. In that ceremony I lost consciousness, but what happened in the Pentecostal church: I feel it was as if the spirits were controlled that they could not take over completely. But in the Vodou ceremony, there was so much spiritual freedom that I was taken over by the essence of the spirit.

In this experience described by Cleophat above, I began to see exactly how Haitian Vodou is able to function without circumscribing experience the way Western religion often does in the name of rationalist power and control. Nor is there any scriptural or institutional authority that prevented Cleophat from understanding the spiritual source of the holy ghost and Damballa as essentially the same; there is no need to pit one against the other. Further in the interview, Cleophat illustrates the powerful, embodied, and intuitive nature of Haitian Vodou:

It’s not a secret that it’s a magnet. The more you are studying these religions, the more you realizing you are learning about yourself, your own spirit, your essense, you are learning about your history, even if you are not Haitian and even if you are not africian, if you invest enough energy, if you invest enough time… its almost like this feeling… it doesn’t overtake you, but it empowers you so much…

This description of the nature of Haitian Vodou was illustrative of the embodied and open-ended nature of Haitian Vodou. It further reinforced the limited, unfounded Western epistemology which rejects the witness of inner, qualitative experience as inferior to the reliability of the scientific method. Again, the work of Jung is relevant here as it illuminates exactly how the unique insight of individual spirituality serves a socio-political function. Jung writes, that “the evidence of inner, transcendent experience” can protect one from submersion in the mass.

    Further, Jung sees the danger of collective belief: “Anyone who has once leanred to submit absolutely to a collective belief and to renounce his eternal right to freedom and the equally eternal duty of individual responsibility will persist in this attitude, and will be able to set out with the same credulity and the same lack of criticism in the reverse direction, if another and manifestly ‘better’’ belief is foisted upon his alleged idealism.” Jung’s emphasis on individual experience seems to demonstrate exactly how Haitian Vodou resists the impulse for collective, doctrinal belief and why faiths like evangelicalism and Pentecostalism feel threatened by them: they are often arbitrary and driven by dualistic labels of “us” versus “them.” By affirming the unique, inner experience, Haitian Vodou is able to sustain a deeper, genuine culture of solidarity that may always survive and struggle against external claims of power.

    Finally, Cleophat spoke about the pervasiveness of Haitian Vodou throughout the fabric of Haitian society, particularly the arts:

You cannot be a Haitian, an authentic Haitian without being a Vodouist because you find Vodou in the arts, you find Vodou in the songs, and you even find Vodou in the church. So, Vodou is so pervasive. So for us Vodou is not just a religion; Vodou is a way of life. Um… and that’s way there is a saying a Haitian can be a Pentecostal by religious affiliation, but by culture that person is a Vodou-ist.

Given that Haitian Vodou has such an extensive role in Haitian society, it is necessary to explore visual art itself to see how they function on their own terms.

Visual Art

    In order to explore the socio-political resistance of Haitian Vodou art, I will turn to Karen McCarthy Brown’s article, Art and Resistance: Haiti's Political Murals. Before I begin to explore the nature and function of visual art in Haitian Vodou, I will turn to Historian of religious art, David Morgan. In his book, Visual Piety, Morgan summarizes the view of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:

According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, artifacts invest the human self with a degree of objectivity in three ways: by displaying power and social status; by securing the continuity of the self over time in terms of focal points in the present, traces of the past, and indications of future expectations; and by providing material evidence of our position in the web of social relations. In each case material things assert our identities and maintain them in the face of an ever-present flux of sensation and mental activity.

Another word I will use for the art of Haitian Vodou is cultural fabric. However, while accepting the identity approach of Csikszentmihalyi, I will maintain that the art of Haitian Vodou does not only remedy the “an ever-present flux of sensation and mental activity,” but is a medium of perseverance and resistance in the face of national catastrophe. As Brown argues, “In the fall of 1994, art was a primary response to liberation. It mediated between terror, a powerful force that had shaped daily life in Haiti for three long years, and the sudden absence of terror. Art helped to restructure life toward normality…”

     In 1990, Haiti was celebrating the first democratic election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Catholic priest, liberation theologian, and social activist. However, Aristide served less than one year as President before being placed from office by a coup d'etat. During the three years that the coup leader, General Raoul Cedras, headed the government, Haitians lost freedom of expression. Not only so, but the Haitian people received nothing from the de facto leaders. They found that they were interested in nothing more than power. This was all until 1994 US invasion. In the image below, a Haitian artist has created a portrait of Aristide, one of many murals on National Route 3 outside Cap Hatian.

For many people in Haiti, this image, accompanied by the creole word “libete,” may serve as a more durable, visual place marker that claims Aristide as a symbol for liberation. This portrait is all the more meaningful because it is painted on a wall, asserting the power and meaning of human agency on a public space. This automatically holds socio-political implications. However, the power of the art of Haitian Vodou is that it is not static, but perceptively and powerfully responds to changing reality. After the military coup, the Haitian national consciousness was in terror and under government censure. In response to this terror, the work of art below was found on a fence in the city of Gonaives, a site of resistance against Haiti's many corrupt leaders.  

The image below is a veve, a creole word for Vodou symbol. This veve represents Ogou, a Vodou warrior lwa (or spirit) of the righteous use of aggression. According to Fernandez Olmos and Paravisini-Gebert, Ogou is a “tutelary god whose worship dates back to mythical African wars and the Haitian Revolution, an ‘old veteran from the time of bayonets’…” I argue that this symbol functions according to Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of art by “securing the continuity of the self over time in terms of focal points in the present, traces of the past, and indications of future expectations.” For Haitians, and the larger Afrocentric consciousness, this symbol transcends time and carries a much more longer view of history where they ultimately endure. For the repressive leaders of the coup, the image would not only discredit their legitimacy, but carry the threat that the righteous use of violence is looming. This does not necessarily translate into terrorism, but instead a visual sense of socio-political power.


Haitian Vodou, above all, works for its inclusiveness and holism of experience. It allows the 1) embodied, 2) the ecological, 3) the socio-political, and the 4) cosmological to symbolically express themselves on their own terms as an ongoing conversation of spirits: the lwa. This expresses itself through the culture: visual, musical, sexual, and political. This hybridizing and lack of Western monocentric epistemology is a sustainable movement that adapts. This fullness of reality is the greatest anti-dote to political domination for it opens space for artists as culture creators where there can be a move from disharmony and ignorace to awareness and harmony. 


Violin and Melody:  Heschel’s Poetry as “Initiation” of the Ineffable

Violin and Melody: Heschel’s Poetry as “Initiation” of the Ineffable

Violin and Melody:

Heschel’s Poetry as “Initiation” of the Ineffable, the Divine

Konstantin Kulakov
For The Philosophical Theology of Abraham Joshua Heschel
Dr. Cornel West

It is difficult to picture the character of Western civilization without the rationalism of Rene Descartes; from the cartesian coordinate graph of mathematics, to the famous "cogito ergo sum" (I think, therefore I am), Descartes looms large in our post-enlightenment thought. Still, from the Foucault’s book Madness and Civilization to Antonio Demasio’s Descartes’ Error, philosophers and neuroscientists have demonstrated the enduring influence and problematical nature of Descartes’s thought. Abraham Joshua Heschel’s philosophy-of-religion begins where Descartes left off, challenging Descartes’ rationalism. For Heschel, “philosophy that begins with radical doubt ends in radical despair.”[1] It is not a comprehensive and coherent system of philosophical propositions that affirm God’s attributes (i.e. Aquinas, Calvin); instead, Heschel argues that philosophy begins in wonder: for him, philosophy is “a retreat, giving up premises rather than adding one, going behind self-consciousness and questioning the self and all its cognitive pretensions.”[2]

I will never forget a fellow classmate’s response to Heschel’s collection The Ineffable Name of God: Man: “I didn’t like it. I felt that there is something missing there; it does not compare to the fullness of his prose.” However, it is exactly this poetic economy, efficiency of language that defines Heschel’s philosophy of religion. “Music, poetry, religion— they all initiate in the soul’s encounter with an aspect of reality for which reason has no concepts and language has no names.”[3] Along with Heinrich Zimmer, I argue that it is the particularity of poetry that provides a medium where the embodied, complex, and ambiguous nature of reality may be engaged without the reductionist, descriptive impulse. Through poetry, we may encounter the experience of an “activist theology” on its own terms.  Thus, it is my assumption that Heschel’s philosophy of religion is inseparable from his poetry just as his theology is inseparable from his activism. Throughout this paper, I will explore three maxims of Heschel’s philosophy of religion and critically examine how his poetry is a reification of each maxim: 1) wonder as the beginning of philosophy, 2) science and spiritual insight as distinct, objective reality 3) and wonder as a call to action.

Wonder as the Beginning of Philosophy

Heschel’s philosophy makes a powerful case for wonder; however, it is only by relating his prose (philosophy of religion) to his poetry may we engage the experience of wonder on its own terms. Heschel writes: “the greatest hindrance to knowledge is our adjustment to conventional notions, to mental cliches.”[4] Heschel already witnessed what he believes to be the logical end of modernity: the instrumental reason of Zyklon B and the atom bomb. Thus, for him, the Cartesian maxim of radical doubt will only lead to radical despair. By affirming wonder, Heschel claims that he is returning to Plato’s conception of thaumatism and disturbing mental placidity. Thus, Heschel does not sever his tie to what he referred to the ineffable. One of the words used to describe the experience of wonder is reverence: “Reverence is an attitude as indigenous to human consciousness as fear when facing danger or pain when hurt. The scope of revered objects may vary, reverence itself is characteristic of man in all civilizations….”[5]

However, by claiming that the essential characteristic of wonder escapes language, Heschel encounters a new problem: the difficulty of all discourse, including poetry, of engaging the ineffable. Heschel addresses this problem through the concept of the indicative, often turning to embodied sensory language of love, beauty and nature: “…while we are unable either to define or to describe the ineffable, it is given to us to point to it. By means of indicative rather than descriptive terms, we are able to convey to others those features of our perception which are known to all men.”[6] Nevertheless, Heschel admits that indicative terms may diverge for different people, but it is the “essence of perception,” the universal capacity that is recognizable.

            In order to explore the characteristics of wonder, it is necessary to ground the nature of the experience in the philosophical language of Heschel: “often it appears as if the mind were a sieve in which we try to hold the flux of reality, and there are moments in which the mind is swept away by the tide of the unexplorable, a tide usually stemmed but never receding.”[7] One of the strongest illustrations of this experience is in Heschel’s poem “Need.”

As still as the growing of a hair on me,
A feeling ripens deep in me, truly of You

And feeling Alarm—
I must lead them to words, to screams.
Where can I ferret out Your name […]

I’ll disappear in the night, through the stars and forest—
I’ll be silent.
I’ll scream and wail an alarm:
Haw Aw! Haw Aw!

As still as the growing of a hair on me,
A fire ripens deep in me—

I know not from where, I know not at all.[8]

In this poem, there is no need to fit the demands of philosophical categories, premises and conclusions, and soundness of argument; instead, we witness the experience on its own terms. First, it is important to examine Heschel’s broader view of wonder and meaning. For Heschel, “What we encounter in our perception of the sublime, in our radical amazement, is a spiritual suggestiveness of reality, an allusiveness to transcendent meaning.”[9] The line “A feeling ripens deep in me, truly of You / And feeling Alarm—” is relevant: the metaphor of a feeling “ripening” does not fit the accepted abstract psychological terminology. Thus, words are selected based on their dramatic effect as opposed to the precision in regards to scientific standards of judgment. If the experience of the feeling is metaphorized as “ripening,” then the feeling itself has a spiritual, transcendence meaning: organic, life-affirming, spiritual growth. Lastly, the choice of enjambment of “You / And feeling alarm” facilitates a dramatic, evocative experience that is indicative of a transcendent meaning.

In the fifth stanza, we encounter the complex nature of this experience and through its traditionally-non-sensical, paradoxical nature, further pointing to the experience of transcendence: “I’ll disappear in the night, through the stars and forest— “I’ll be silent. / I’ll scream and wail an alarm: / Haw Aw! Haw Aw!” Here, through the equally-affirmed statements of being silent and screaming, Heschel does not satisfy the principle of non-contradiction, but instead subverts it; nevertheless, Heschel is able to illustrate the character of the experience. In many ways, this stanza bears significance to Heschel’s pietism where the stream of consciousness and expletive “haw Aw!” enact the uninhibited drama of humanity’s vexed and transcending relationship to the ineffable God; for it is through this drama that humanity may approach some unexpected solution. In the Hasidism, the solution is in the problem: “There is a strange contradiction in man’s bringing charges in the name of Truth about the absence of Truth; such an argument can be meaningful only if it presupposes the presence of Truth. Is not our agony over the burial of Truth evidence of the life and power of Truth?”[10] 

The last stanza is the most clear illustration of the mind sieve that is swept away by the tide of the unexplorable: “As still as the growing of a hair on me, / A fire ripens deep in me— / I know not from where, I know not at all.” The last stanza begins with a repetition of the first stanza. However, there are two changes: 1) the feeling becomes a fire, 2) and the feeling loses its reference point completely. Thus, the experience ends in a strong affirmation of wonder and unintelligibility. Through the affirmation of unintelligibility, there is no immature ignorance, but instead, a wise humility. There is a much deeper phenomena at hand: “The most incomprehensible fact is the fact that we comprehend at all.”[11] This insight is not new to even the community of Anglo-American, analytic philosophers (i.e. philosophers Thomas Nagel and Frank Jackson contribute to the problem of consciousness, defending the qualitative nature of consciousness through qualia).

Science as Legitimate yet Limited

For Heschel, modernity, and natural science in particular, is extensively engaged. However, in his poetry, Heschel does not engage natural science in an explicit way. Nevertheless, by studying the nature of the poetry, one may see how the experiances relate to the philosophy of religion as well as Heschel’s rudimentary philosophy of science. From penicillin to vaccines, automobiles, heart transplants, and Internet technology, natural science has ushered in a reality unimaginable to medieval society. However, natural science also helped usher in 20th century horrors like the atom bomb and Zyklon B as well as contemporary menaces like industrial pollution and drone warfare.

With the towering advancements of Einstein and Watson and Crick, Heschel neither retreated into an anti-scientific literalism of fundamentalists, nor did he believe that science was the only arbiter of objective knowledge: “Science extends rather than limits the scope of the ineffable, and our radical amazement is enhanced rather than reduced by the advancement of knowledge.”[12] In many ways, his writing resonated with the questions opened by the quantum revolution: “Scientific research is an entry into the endless, not a blind alley; solving one problem, a greater one enters our sight…”[13] For example, through the apparatus of the electron tunneling microscope, it was discovered that the more fundamental structure of the universe behaved in laws that contradicted classical mechanics; this only complicated things. Furthermore, for Heschel, the turn to secularize religion in order to fit into the narrow box of positivism was a narrow assumption. For him, the encounter with the ineffable was not reduced to an internal, psychological reality a la Maslow.

Instead, reality possessed meaning, an objective meaning. He wrotes, “namely, that meaning is something which occurs outside the mind in objective things— independent of subjective awareness of it.”[14] Thus, Heschel resisted the epistemological privilege that white liberal Christians and secular humanists gave natural science. Implicitly, this had important implications in regards to power and the oppressed. Even if they were interested in social justice, in promoting their ideology, liberals and secular humanists robbed many minorities of the only spiritual authority they had and raised themselves as the ultimate arbiters of knowledge.

Heschel does not explicitly write of or engage natural science in his poetry. However, I argue that it is precisely Heschel’s philosophy of religion that undergirds such artistic decisions. For Heschel, “reason cannot go beyond the shore, and the sense of the ineffable is out of place where we measure, where we weigh.”[15] Nevertheless, poetry, among other practices, is fit for the encounter: “Music, poetry, religion— they all initiate in the soul’s encounter with an aspect of reality for which reason has no concepts and language has no names.” In other words, it can be said that reason and natural science, which are quantitative, do not engage qualitative reality; and they do not engage this reality because only metaphor, with its evocative qualities, may lead to qualitative dimensions (i.e. transcendence). Heschel’s poem, “The Right to Wonder,” allows us to examine the nature of religious experience and how it may enhance the human situation by encountering the spiritual dimension of erotic love.

Your face—God’s crest—
His scepter—your hands.
It’s your beauty, I know—
gives poets proof of God […]

When I first touched
your endlessly-tender shoulder,
like Heaven itself—
you sweetly sealed
my right to wonder.

Since then I carry you in my ear,
The distant pull of your voice,
and am as if by a thousand holy festivals

In these two stanzas, Heschel begins to show the correlational nature of physical reality and spiritual reality; again, this is because, for Heschel, reality possessed meaning, an objective meaning. The woman’s face takes on the objective meaning of divinity. Heschel, as a Jewish humanist, asserts that humans are God’s image on earth. The second half of the stanza, “It’s your beauty, I know— / gives poets proof of God” is a more explicit, even abstractly framed, illustration of the metaphorization of the previous line. The balance between imagery and the speaker’s narration makes a connection to the rational, practical, and empirical world. It could be argued that the word choice “poets” implies that the proof of God is beyond the limits of ordinary empirical science; it is another qualitative dimension: “beauty.”

In the second stanza, we encounter a different empirical reality; here, it is the “endlessly-tender shoulder” that is allusive to the meaning of “heaven itself.” This demonstrates that even the metaphors are correlational as argued in his philosophy of religion; in other words, Heschel asserts that metaphors or “indicative” words may be different, but the “essence of perception” is the same. Thus, it could be argued that for another poet, the face of the woman may become God’s light. Although the metaphor differs, the essential meaning is the same: transcendence.

Finally, the line “you sweetly sealed / my right to wonder” is the counter-point to the imagery and metaphorization before. Again, a more explicit, abstract noun “wonder” and “right” is employed as Heschel connects the imagery to the voice of the speaker. Furthermore, the title and line “right to wonder” is the legitimatization of spiritual “insight.” This is because for Heschel: “Insights are the roots of art, philosophy and religion, and must be acknowledged as common and fundamental facts of mental life.”[17] Lastly, it is important to address exactly how Heschel resisted the anti-scientific literalism of fundamentalists. The answer can be found in the context of his philosophy of religion. As opposed to employing scientific claims in his poetry, Heschel demonstrated that practices that “initiate the soul’s encounter with the sublime” are not even empirical claims. They are qualitative claims. In a time when scriptural texts were interpreted in literal, anachronistic methods, Heschel resisted this by reading scripture as spiritual insight and making claims that did not trespass unto the field of science, but opened one to the spiritual significance of reality.

Wonder as a Call to Action

For Heschel, wonder did not lead to complacency or asceticism, but to obligation and action. This theme is powerfully illustrated by Heschel’s poetry. First, in the section, What to do With Wonder, he writes: “The world consists, not of things, but of tasks. Wonder is the state of our being asked. The ineffable is a question addressed to us.”[18] In Moral Granduar and Spiritual Audacity, Heschel writes: “This is no time for neutrality. We Jews cannot remain aloof or indifferent. We, too, are either ministers of the sacred or slaves of evil…” We may ask how wonder may lead to a sense of responsibility, but we are missing something: For Heschel, the entire universe had a spiritual significance. As he wrote, “To be implies to stand for, because every being is representative of something that is more than itself; because the seen, the known, stands for the unseen, the unknown.” In the following poem, I and You, Heschel presents the most direct image of human-divine inseparability:

I and You

Transmissions flow from your heart to Mine,
trading, twining My pain with yours.
Am I not—You? Are you not—I?

My nerves are clustered with Yours.
Your dreams have met with mine.
Are we not one in the bodies of millions?

Often I glimpse Myself in everyone’ form,
hear My own speech—a distant, quiet voice—in people’s weeping,
as if under millions of masks My face would lie hidden.                       

I live in Me and in you.
Through your lips goes a word from Me to Me,                         
From your eyes drips a tear—its source in Me.                      

When a need pains You, alarm me!                        
When You miss a human being
tear open my door!
You live in Yourself, You live me.[19]


One of the most striking features of this poem is the unexpected shifts in speaker. The shifts are suggested by the capitalization of “You” and “Me.” In the first stanza, the speaker appears to be God because “Mine” is capitalized; however, in the last line of the stanza, suddenly “You” becomes capitalized indicating that the speaker is human. This interchangebility is punctuated by the statement “Am I not—You? Are you not—I?” In the second stanza, this interchangeability is expanded from the micro individual/God relationship to the macro humanity/God relationship: “Are we not one in the bodies of millions?” In the stanzas following, the texture of this is reified in the imagery of tears: “Through your lips goes a word from Me to Me, / From your eyes drips a tear—its source in Me.”        

The interchangeability and inseparability is not only a spiritual meditation, but a call to action. As Heschel asserts, “The world consists, not of things, but of tasks.” In light of the inseparability of God and humanity, liberalist individualism is impossible: love thy neighbor as yourself is reified, flesh and bone. First, if a tear drop falls from the cheek of any “disparate” human being, that tear drop is God’s. Second, if a tear-drop falls from the cheek of any “disparate” human being, it is also “the bodies of millions.”

Given poetry’s qualitative dimension, we are not only compelled to treat each other with respect by logical necessity. In other words, it is not only the ontological connection which is presented, but the experiential, evocative connection. The embodied imagery of a tear compels one to feel the suffering of others and such an emotional sensibility and worldview makes demands on humanity. This is why the last stanza includes these exclamatory lines: “When a need pains You, alarm me! / When You miss a human being / tear open my door!”

Today, the US holds military presence in a 150 countries with 172,966 active-duty personnel.[20] By strongly supporting tyrannical states like the Saudi Royal family, it robs Saudi citizens of basic freedom and refuses to participate in the international criminal court. Israel is now the closest alley to United States, supporting every invasion and expanding settlements against international law. Domestically, as documented in Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, the United States holds the highest incarceration rate: 2.3 million prisoners with blacks and Hispanics accounting for 60% of the inmates. To struggle for justice during Heschel’s time was to choose life, to oppose explicit laws rejecting the humanity of others. But American racism has changed from explicit to hidden, an ugly systemic rejection of black lives.

During his life, Heschel confronted the injustices of his day head-on at their root from prose to poetry. As thinking and feeling creatures with a capacity for beauty, the fulllness of life's  picture, the question is how will we address these injustices of today and does our philosophy of religion, religious body, and culture (poetry, visual, film) urgently demand it.

[1] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition), Kindle Location 289.

[2] Ibid, Kindle Locations 1068-1070.

[3] Ibid, Kindle Locations 537-538.

[4] Ibid, Kindle Location 265.

[5] Ibid, Kindle Location 401.

[6] Ibid, Kindle Location 377.

[7] Ibid, Kindle 232.

[8] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Ineffable Name of God: Man, (New York: Continuum Books, 2007), 63.

[9] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition), Kindle Location 385.

[10] Abraham Joshua Heschel, A Passion for Truth, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973), Kindle Locations 3796-3797.

[11] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition), Kindle Location 305.

[12] Ibid, Kindle Location 305.

[13] Ibid, Kindle Location 437.

[14] Ibid, Kindle Location 439.

[15] Ibid, Kindle Location 252.

[16] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Ineffable Name of God: Man, (New York: Continuum Books, 2007), 107.

[17]. Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition), Kindle Location 341.

[18] Ibid, Kindle Location 884.

[19] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Ineffable Name of God: Man, (New York: Continuum Books, 2007), 31.

[20] "Total Military Personnel and Dependent End Strength By Service, Regional Area, and Country". Defense Manpower Data Center. September 30, 2014.