Abraham Joshua Heschel on thinking, questions and answers in philosophy and religion

There are dead thoughts and there are living thoughts. A dead thought has been compared to a stone which one may plant in the soil.   Nothing will come out. A living thought is like a seed. In the process of thinking, an answer without a question is devoid of life.

It may enter the mind; it will not penetrate the soul. It may become a part of one’s knowledge; it will not come forth as a creative force….

In our quest for forgotten questions, the method and spirit of philosophical inquiry are of greater importance than theology, which is essentially descriptive, normative and historical. Philosophy may be defined as the art of asking the right questions. One of the marks of philosophical thinking is that, in contrast to poetry, for example, it is not a self-sufficing pouring forth of insight but rather the explicit statement of a problem and the attempt to offer an answer to a problem. Theology starts with dogmas; philosophy begins with problems. Philosophy sees the problem first; theology has the answer in advance. We must not, however, disregard another important difference. Not only are the problems of philosophy not identical with the problems of religion; their status is not the same. Philosophy is, in a sense, a kind of thinking that has a beginning but no end. In it, the awareness of the problem outlives all solutions. Its answers are questions in disguise; every new answer giving rise to new questions. In religion, on the other hand, the mystery of the answer hovers over all questions. Philosophy deals with universal issues; to religion the universal issues are personal problems. Philosophy, then stresses the primacy of the problem, religion stresses the primacy of the person.


Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, was the first white religious figure to respond to Martin Luther King jr ‘s call to join the march in Montgomery. He is described by Cornel West as one of the great prophetic figures of the 20th century.

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