Mortimer Adler’s Truth in Religion examines the western, Greek logic of non-contradiction which states that two opposing statements cannot both be true. For example, “A, cannot also be non-A.” Adler states that of the three Western religions claiming logical truth and supernatural revelation, only one can be entirely true-the others approximate it and contain mistakes or falsehoods.
I wanted to understand Adler’s views in light of Abraham Heschel’s idea of polarity. Heschel wrote, “The point is not either–or, but both–and. For example, the dichotomy between transcendence and immanence is an oversimplification. God remains transcendent in his immanence, and immanent in his transcendence.” Such words are termed “scissors words” because they can only cut together, like a pair of scissors and not singly, like a knife.
Heschel compares Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael, contemporaries who lived during the second half of the first century. The heaven-bound school of Akiva, with its emphasis on the Shekinah, or Holy Spirit, is in contrast to the more mundane school of Ishmael. The Akivan perspective was mystical, eschatological and often mysterious while the Ishmaelite perspective was critical, rationalistic and restrained. While Akiva focused on God’s immanence, Ishmael focuses on God’s transcendence. Together, according to Heschel, they form a dialectic, in the human encounter with the divine.
In Judaism, by contrasting two sides of an issue, the reader works through a debate rather than a doctrine. This is why the Jewish sages were rarely of one mind. While I understood Heschel’s approach in theory, I knew there were sets of ideas for which polarity would apply and those that were outright oppositional.
The issue came home to me in reading Jacob Neusner’s A Rabbi Talks with Jesus. An esteemed academic and observant Jew, Neusner conceded that Jesus indeed claimed to be the dwelling place of the divine.
William Lane Craig explains that the typical rabbinical style of teaching was to quote extensively from learned teachers, who provided the basis of authority for one’s teaching. But Jesus did exactly the opposite.“He began,‘You have heard that it said by the men of old … and quoted the Mosaic Law; then continued with, ‘But I say to you …’ and gave his own teaching.” Neusner explains that it is precisely on this basis why he, as a Jew, would not have followed Jesus had he lived in first-century Palestine.
Neusner corresponded with Pope Benedict about the concepts in his book. Despite their differences, the two subsequently became friends. The Pope wrote, “The issue that is really at the heart of the debate is thus finally laid bare. Jesus understands himself as the Torah—as the word of God in person.”
Neusner speaks admiringly of Jesus, even though he rejects his claim to be God. If Jesus claimed such a thing, how could Neusner have respect for him? C.S. Lewis points out the problem:
A man who said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a
lunatic— on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg–or else he would be the Devil of Hell.
You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something