Friday, February 10, 2006

Thought and Touch

"Thought is like touch, comprehending by being comprehended."
-Abraham Heschel

I put this up without comment earlier in the week. I was intimidated by it and didn't know if I could do it justice with commentary. I'm still not sure that I can, but I just can't pass it by. When I first read this, it puzzled me. I had no idea what it meant, but it was short and pithy enough to get a hook in my brain, so I thought about it.

For starters, how can "touch" be described as "comprehending by being comprehended"? In what way does what I touch comprehend me? On a personal level, I can't touch someone without alerting them to my presence. Touch can't be secret. And it's two-way communication. The one who touches is simultaneously touched. In the language of Martin Buber, who like Heschel was a Hasidic Jew, touch is an inherently "I-you" sense. Even as I touch a rock, the rock touches me.

And Heschel suggests that thought is like this also. I can have no direct contact with an idea. When it enters my mind, I perceive only by allowing it to interact with my mind. It must become a part of the fabric of my thought-world.

It is now a well-recognized fact that there is no such thing as an objective observer. All of my observations are colored and shaped by my prior biases and expectations. In scientific language, the observer modifies the outcome of any experiment. What is less commonly reflected upon is that the observer is affected by the experiment.

At this point, we as hearers have some degree of choice. We are able to decide, to some degree, how much we will allow what we hear to impact us and how much we will exert our own influence on the incoming idea. The more precisely I fit an idea into my existing mental framework, the less impact it will have upon that framework. Alternatively, I can choose to receive the word, to hear it as something new. I allow the word to address me. In so doing, I comprehend by being comprehended.

1 comment:

Thomas Adams said...

I really like this post. The idea of that we know by being known (as Paul says in 1 Cor 13) is one of the most profound matters in all of faith. Indeed, it is the foundation of all true revelation. Tillich calls this type of knowing "ecstatic reason", which remains reason but "transcends the basic condition of finite rationality, the subject-object structure.” As you correctly point-out, revelation can never be merely an object. Instead, it must dissolve the subject/object distinction, so that our “knowledge of God is the knowledge God has of Himself.”