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  • Randall Short 9:30 pm on April 30, 2010 Permalink | Reply  

    The Nature of Insight 

    While reading his introduction to The Prophets (my Amazon link), I came across this statement by Abraham J. Heschel (page x in the 1969 Harper & Row paperback edition):

    Rather than blame things for being obscure, we should blame ourselves for being biased and prisoners of self-induced repetitiveness. One must forget many clichés in order to behold a single image. Insight is the beginning of perceptions to come rather than the extension of perceptions gone by. Conventional seeing, operating as it does with patterns and coherences, is a way of seeing the present in the past tense. Insight is an attempt to think in the present.
            Insight is a breakthrough, requiring much intellectual dismantling and dislocation. It begins with a mental interim, with the cultivation of a feeling for the unfamiliar, unparalleled, incredible. It is in being involved with a phenomenon, being intimately engaged to it, courting it, as it were, that after much perplexity and embarrassment we come upon insight — upon a way of seeing the phenomenon from within. Insight is accompanied by a sense of surprise. What has been closed is suddenly disclosed. It entails genuine perception, seeing anew. He who thinks that we can see the same object twice has never seen. Paradoxically, insight is knowledge at first sight.

    There are Aha! moments that seem to come with no effort. But insight of the sort that Heschel describes here, I think, is generally hard won. Even if it comes suddenly and unexpectedly — seemingly without effort — it is the result of deep reflection and struggle.

    Here’s a question I have. What role can another person — a parent, teacher, or friend, for instance — play in one’s attainment of this sort of deep insight?


    Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (second from right) marching with Martin Luther King, Jr., from Selma to Montgomery, less than an hour from where I grew up. Heschel later said, “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.”

    • Adam Couturier 11:10 pm on April 30, 2010 Permalink | Reply

      Great quote. This semester I discovered Heschel, and I have really been enjoying him.

    • AMBurgess 5:04 am on May 1, 2010 Permalink | Reply

      Wonderful quotation, Randall. A lot to ponder there.

      Here are some of my reactions, for what they’re worth.

      It seems to me that as children we have a sort of natural skill at looking at things afresh, but our lack of experience limits deeper insights. Contact with family and friends helps, but even shared experiences are too difficult to process at a young age. We understandably seek out some stability and security, or routine, as we mature, but this presses against that originial skill. The trick against boredom and apathy and road to deeper appreciation, I guess, is combining a childlike sense of curiosity with the rich resources of our experiences, original and shared. To do this, we must maintain an openness to all this around us. But this takes a lot of hard work and determination!

      As we age, our capacity for wisdom and insight increases, but our tendency to the sort of somnambulant routine Heschel describes also strengthens. The hard work of remaining open and curious grows even harder, but the benefits of that hard work yield an ever greater increase. In other words, wisdom does come with more years, but only with a determined purpose to let it be so.

    • AMBurgess 5:20 am on May 1, 2010 Permalink | Reply

      I forgot to add that I obviously agree with you, Randall, that insight is hard won. And as for your question, I do think that the effects of shared experience on wisdom and insight are potentially exponential, provided again that let them be so.

    • AMBurgess 5:21 am on May 1, 2010 Permalink | Reply

      oops — last line: …that WE let them be so.

    • Randall Short 3:34 pm on May 1, 2010 Permalink | Reply

      Great thoughts, Alex! Quoteworthy even!

      As a dad and teacher, in particular, the burden to help my kids and students experience insightful breakthroughs weighs rather heavily on me. Especially in school/classroom situations, the default assumption is that the teacher is the primary dispenser of knowledge and wisdom, that insights come from the sage on the stage. Maybe this expectation is stronger in Japan, where I live and teach, than in the U.S., but I’ve seen it in both places.

      I try to resist the internal and external forces that would reduce my role to the scatterer of golden nuggets I’ve discovered. To stick with the same metaphor, I see my role more as that of foreman in the mines (you could add other roles, of course, like that of the surveyor who picks the right mine to begin with). But the latter is harder work for both teacher and student. It’s a lot easier — and maybe even more intellectually satisfying in the short run — for professors to display their own discoveries in lectures and whatnot than it is to help (force?) students to do the hard work of discovering new insights for themselves. (I’m not saying that discovery can’t happen in lectures; it certainly can for some people.) And when labor in the mines seems to yield only a few measly nuggets, or none at all, the temptation to rush back to the master gold-digger’s exhibit room is strong.

      I guess my original question — What role can another person play in one’s attainment of this sort of deep insight? — is a general question that I struggle to answer in concrete situations all the time. I hope that my efforts sometimes lead to “genuine perception.” But together with my students, I experience plenty of “perplexity and embarrassment” along the way.

    • AMBurgess 6:28 am on May 2, 2010 Permalink | Reply

      So true, Randall. And the copious amounts of patience we need to be the kind of teacher or student you describe is a tough commodity in our fast-paced, results-oriented world. I think, too, of how the Holy Spirit leads us into all truth, as the Scripture says. How I’d like to know so much more, and yet I realize I am far, far too short of goodness or greatness to handle it. I need to change as I gain knowledge. How can one have wisdom without being wise? 🙂 God seems to regard the means of our discoveries as important as the ends.

      We moderns like our knowledge to be clear, categorized and comprehensive. Perhaps we want knowledge itself to be satisfactory and pleasing because we have a hard time deciding the meaning and purpose behind knowledge. So we tell ourselves and our children to color inside the lines. And we’re arrogant enough to suppose we always know where those lines even are. I think God graciously obscures our knowledge of many things so that we will faithful in our discovery of a few things, giving God thanks along the way. In other words, God doesn’t spoil us with knowledge, but lets us unwrap each gift in its due season. As parents and teachers, we should likewise try not to spoil. But you’re right. It’s hard not to.

    • AMBurgess 4:26 am on May 5, 2010 Permalink | Reply

      Hey Randall, at my teacher meeting today I quoted from your great comment on mining nuggets. They were really impressed with how you depicted the art of teaching. You articulated so well the discussion we were having. I proudly stated how brilliant you are, but I missed the chance to promote your book. Sorry for that missed opportunity. 🙂

    • Randall Short 1:19 pm on May 5, 2010 Permalink | Reply

      Thanks for sharing your reflections and encouraging feedback.

      It helps me, for some reason, to play around with analogies between teaching/learning and other things. I tend to do it a lot, and the little scenarios I imagine border on the absurd.

      For instance, I often humor myself by imagining a group of people approaching a sport like many approach their studies:

      Paying to play while praying they can make it through the year on the bench… Suited players watching the coach play for 55 minutes and themselves getting to play for 5… afraid/unwilling to kick hard or to block someone else’s shot… A sleeping goalie… Lack of interest or knowledge in the whereabouts of the goal in the first place…

      You get the point. Some day I want to put together some ridiculous skits using analogies like this to dramatize how we approach education.

  • Randall Short 12:00 pm on April 25, 2010 Permalink | Reply  

    The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies 

    This book offers a new account of the origins of biblical studies, illuminating the relation of the Bible to churchly readers, theological interpreters, academic critics, and people in between. It explains why, in an age of religious resurgence, modern biblical criticism may no longer be in a position to serve as the Bible’s disciplinary gatekeeper.

    This is how Oxford University Press describes The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies by Michael Legaspi (Assistant Professor of Theology at Creighton University). You can find the publisher’s full description of the book, as well as brief reviews by Gary Anderson (Notre Dame), Walter Moberly (Durham), and Jon D. Levenson (Harvard), at OUP’s website.

    I predict that Michael Legaspi’s book will quickly rise to the top of “must read” lists for people who have academic interests in the Bible. But I think it will also be highly relevant for anyone else who wonders about the many ways people approach the Bible in modern times (and postmodern times, if you like). I make these predictions not only based on the impressive endorsements Legaspi’s book is already receiving, but also based on discussions with, and presentations by, the author about parts of the book.

    And that’s why I strongly recommend this book. I’m about to place my own order here (my Amazon link).


    Johann David Michaelis’s Latin edition of Robert Lowth’s Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews (De sacra poesi Hebraeorum praelectiones; 1758, 1761). Among other discussions, Legaspi explains how this publication played an important role in scholars’ reconceiving “divinely inspired Scripture” as sublime literature that should be approached according to the same methods scholars used when studying classical texts from the ancient world.

    • AMBurgess 4:30 am on May 1, 2010 Permalink | Reply

      I’m so excited to get my hands on this book. The unresolved tension between religious faith and academia is in need of a push forward, and I have no doubt Mike Legaspi’s book is exactly what’s called for. I also think it’ll be a perfect template for understanding all sorts of issues surrounding faith and modernity. It would be great to see a lot of colleges making it required reading.

    • Delia Guevarra 1:09 pm on June 17, 2010 Permalink | Reply

      The best book on the subject , It uncovers the past , the origins of the bible , the controversy and how it applies now . Any Theology student in the Seminary or for anyone searching for historical truth this book is amazing

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