How Can You Say “God”?
Eclipse of God: Studies in The Relation Between Religion and Philosophy.
by Martin Buber.
Harper. 192 pp. $2.50.
At the Turning: Three Addresses on Judaism.
by Martin Buber.
Farrar, Straus, and Young. 62 pp. $1.50.
The addresses delivered by Martin Buber at the campuses he visited in the course of his recent American tour constituted an event of major intellectual significance that will have its repercussions for a long time to come. A great number of those who flocked to hear him speak may not have understood everything he was saying, but they all knew that they were in the presence of authentic greatness and were participating in something altogether outside the bounds of academic routine. Something of this almost charismatic feeling is recaptured in these volumes, which contain Buber’s American lectures together with some earlier pieces. And in addition, these books make it possible to examine Buber’s views more carefully and to evaluate them more dispassionately than could easily be done in the immediate and overwhelming presence of his personality. To this reader at least, such examination and evaluation are sufficient to prove, if proof at this late date were needed, that Buber’s ideas have a power and relevance to human existence in many ways unique in contemporary thought.
The theme of the first volume, Eclipse of God, which includes Buber’s lectures at American universities with some additional pieces, is given in the memorable “Prelude: Report on Two Talks” (1932). Here Buber tells of two conversations which may be regarded as archetypal for our modern thinking. In the first, he recounts a discussion with a group of workingmen, in the course of which one of them challenged Buber with these words: “I do not need this hypothesis ‘God’ in order to be quite at home in the world.” The world-view of science was enough, this man felt, to give him an understanding of the “real reality” of the universe. It was not difficult for Buber to shatter the security of this man’s “scientific” Weltanschauung and to show how fragmentary and complex the findings of modern science really are, how far from yielding any comprehensive view of the “real reality” of things. Something beyond science was obviously necessary for a total Weltanschauung, Buber made clear. After a few moments thought, the man raised his head and said, slowly: “You are right.” Buber had convinced him. But convinced him of what? “What had I done?” Buber asked himself in dismay. “I had led the man to the threshold beyond which sat enthroned the majestic image which . . . Pascal called the God of the Philosophers. Had I wished for that? Had I not rather wished to lead him to the other, Him whom Pascal called the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Him to whom one can say Thou?”
The other conversation was with a distinguished old philosopher to whom Buber read the preface of one of his books, then in publication. “How can you bring yourself to say ‘God’ time after time?” the old philosopher had asked. “How can you expect that your readers will take the word in the sense in which you wish it to be taken? . . . What word of human speech is so misused, so defiled, so desecrated as this? . . . When I hear the highest called ‘God,’ it sometimes seems almost blasphemous.” “Yes,” Buber remembers replying, “yes, it is the most heavy-laden of all human words. None has become so soiled, so mutilated. Just for this reason I may not abandon it. . . . Where might I find a word like it to describe the highest? . . . I do indeed mean Him whom the hell-tormented and heaven-storming generations of men mean. Certainly, they draw caricatures and write ‘God’ underneath. . . . But when all madness and delusion fall to dust, when they no longer say ‘He, He,’ but rather sigh ‘Thou,’ shout ‘Thou,’ and when they add ‘God,’ is it not the real God whom they implore, the One Living God? . . . We may not give up [this word].”
In one form or another, in one context or another, these two themes—really one—run through Buber’s lectures. To proclaim the God whom one encounters in a living I-Thou relation in the fullness of concrete existence, and to distinguish this living God from the “images” and “ideas” of deity erected by the “philosophers,” is his purpose, and he pursues this purpose discerningly through the complexities and involutions of modern thought. His critique of Sartre, though restrained, is annihilating, and his comments on Heidegger, an infinitely more serious thinker, are most revealing. The former he finds caught in an act of empty self-postulation in which man is called upon to fill the throne of “God the Father,” who has been “suppressed,” and to “invent values” for life; the latter, Heidegger, is shown attempting to create “a concept of a rebirth of God out of the thought of truth which falls into the enticing nets of historical time” (i.e., the “revelation of truth” which is Hitler). Thereby, notes Buber acutely, “the path of this existentialism seems to vanish.”
The “atheistic” existentialism of Sartre and Heidegger (who, however, denies any atheistic implications of his thought) is one aspect of the “modern thinking” which Buber examines in its relation to religion; the other aspect is Jung’s psychology. His critique of Jung is most effective. In a few brief pages, he shows convincingly that Jung’s views on religion constitute essentially a psychologistic pseudo-metaphysic, a latter-day version of gnostic theosophy. The analysis is brilliant, and ought to be carefully studied by those who feel at all attracted, as so many do today, to Jungian “mysticism.”
Buber presents his proclamation of the living God. in contrast to the pseudo-gods of the philosophers and psychologists not merely in the context of recent thinking but also against the background of the development of thought from Descartes to Heidegger; for certain purposes, indeed, he goes back to Plato and Greco Oriental antiquity. His insights are profound and expressed with unusual simplicity and clarity. Among the seven papers that form the body of the book it is hard to choose, but it seems to me that the lectures on “Religion and Philosophy” and “Religion and Modem Thinking” (Sartre, Heidegger, Jung)—along with the older paper, “The Love of God and the Idea of Deity,” in which Buber shows how Hermann Cohen’s authentic love of God carried him, almost against his will and certainly against his philosophic conscience, to a God who is no longer an “idea”—are of peculiar excellence.
This is not to say, of course, that Buber’s thinking as exhibited in this volume is beyond criticism. It seems to me, for example, that while he is quite devastating in his critique of the pseudo-gods of philosophy, he rather withholds his fire against the pseudo-religion of mysticism, in which there is the same replacement of the living God who enters into jiersonal (I-Thou) relations by an impersonal “divineness” which one may contemplate and ultimately perhaps “unite” with. Indeed, in the last analysis, as the examples of Plato, Plotinus, Spinoza, and many Hindu thinkers show, there is no distinguishing between philosophy and mysticism: the discursive thinking of the former leads to, and is swallowed up in, the “unitive knowledge” of the latter. Buber, it seems to me, is too ready to discover signs of an implicit personal encounter in the mystical experience and of an implicit personal Thou in the utterly impersonal deity of the mystics. From another direction, I think, Buber seriously misapprehends (in the paper, “Religion and Ethics”) the nature of normative Christian ethics, because in spite of everything he thinks of Christianity as the kind of “individualistic” faith which 19thcentury Protestantism and (in part) Catholicism conceived it to be. The authentic Christian doctrine of the Church as a “people of God,” so strongly emphasized in contemporary Christian thinking, seems to escape him, perhaps because, with his German “romantic” background, he cannot think of a people except as a folk or nation. In any case, however, these points on which I find myself in disagreement are altogether secondary and do not in the least affect the quite extraordinary power and significance of the work.
At the turning consists of three addresses on Judaism delivered last year in New York under the auspices of the Jewish Theological Seminary. The same purpose dominates these lectures: to proclaim the living God who is the God of Israel in contrast to the distortions, caricatures, and pseudo-gods with which He is so often confused. Only this time Buber carries forward his purpose in a specifically Jewish framework of thought.
Again Buber attempts to define his thinking in the context of significant phases of contemporary spirituality. In the second paper, “The Silent Question,” Buber notes the striking fact that whereas “in the springtime of modern society, spiritually significant Jews turned to Christianity not for the sake of Christian religion but for the sake of Christian culture . . . today the sympathies worth noting that spiritual Jews feel for Christianity are rooted in a sense of religious lack and a feeling of religious longing.” He takes as examples Henri Bergson and Simone Weil, both Jews who turned to Christianity for the religious truth they were seeking. Buber shows very clearly that the two cases are not at all the same: Bergson turned away from Judaism because he did not really understand it and took a distorted form for the reality; Simone Weil, on the other hand, without knowing very much about it, understood the life-affirming spirit of Judaism and hated it all the more in the intensity of her life-denying, self-dissolving mystical spirituality. What she hated in Judaism, in Israel, she found also in Christianity, and therefore, for all the attraction that Christian mysticism held out for her, she could not prevail upon herself to join the Church; the Church was still “far too Jewish” for her taste.
In the course of this “controversy” with Bergson and Weil, Buber is able to develop some basic themes of Jewish faith: the living God; Israel as “people of God” understood as a “religious category” and not to be simply identified with the “actual people”; the transcendence of justice in love; the organic interrelation of universalism and particularism (“Within this universalism, however, there is a particularization of vocation”), of love of God and love of fellow man, of the present actuality and the Messianic future of consummation, of being and doing. Had Bergson known Jewish faith in its fullness and inwardness, he might perhaps have found in it what he was seeking. Why did he not know it as such? Why does the world not know it as such? Why does contemporary Jewry not know it as such? “Will Jewry itself,” Buber asks, “perceive that its very existence depends upon the revival of its religious existence? The Jewish State may assure the future of a nation of Jews . . .; Judaism will live only if it brings to life again the primeval Jewish relationship to God, the world, and mankind.”
In “The Dialogue between Heaven and Earth,” the third address, Buber formulates more strikingly perhaps than ever before the divine-human encounter of call and response that is at the heart of Israel’s faith and that forms the basic texture of Israel’s Scriptures. He asks: does this dialogue still continue? Both believers and unbelievers tend to deny it—the former asserting that while God surely did speak at one time, He is now silent and has left a book in His place; the latter, not merely the atheistic unbelievers but the “philosophic theists” as well, simply cannot admit that the “Divine” (by whatever name) can speak or be spoken to. Yet God does speak: “In the infinite language of events and situations, eternally changing, but plain to the truly attentive, transcendence speaks to our hearts at the essential moments of personal life. And there is a language in which we can answer it; it is the language of our actions and attitudes, our reactions and abstentions; the totality of these answers is what we may call our answering-forourselves. . . .” Both the individual and the community are addressed by God; both must respond.
God speaks; but the God who speaks sometimes “hideth His face from the house of Jacob” (Isa. 28:21); there are times when we are unable to recognize God’s word in history, and in nature too (although Buber tends to overlook that), “so uncanny and ‘barbarous’ do [His deeds] seem to us.” These are the “mute times, when everything that occurs in the human world and pretends to historical significance appears to us as empty of God. . . . For one who believes in the living God, who knows about Him, and is fated to spend his life in a time of His hiddenness, it is very difficult to live.” Such a “mute time” is ours: our life is the life of Job, the forsaken of God. For that very reason, the only answer to our lament is the answer Job received: “the true answer that Job receives is God’s appearance only, only this that distance turns into nearness, that ‘his eye sees Him’ (42:5), that he knows Him again.” No explanation, no justification, no theodicy: “nothing [is] adjusted, wrong has not become right, nor cruelty kindness; nothing has happened but that man again hears God’s address.” Are we able, even in this “muteness,” even in this dreadful time of “hiddenness,” to maintain our side in the dialogue? “Do we stand overcome before the hidden face of God as the tragic hero of the Greeks before faceless fate? No; rather even now, we contend, we too, with God, even with Him, the Lord of Being, whom we once, we here, chose for our Lord. We do not put up with earthly being; we struggle for its redemption, and struggling we appeal to the help of our Lord, who is again and still a hiding one. In such a state, we await His voice. . . .” In these unforgettable words, Buber has defined both the despair and the hope of the Jew in the contemporary world.
The first essay, “Judaism and Civilization,” seems to me the weakest in the book. The strains of utopianism and folk-romanticism that impaired some of Buber’s earlier writings come to the fore here as nowhere else in this volume. Distinctions are blurred, particularly the radical distinction between the Biblical faiths and the pagan “religions of the world”; the rise of civilizations is unequivocally attributed to a “religious,” or theonomous, principle, despite the testimony of Scripture, tradition, and experience; the prophets are said to have “staked their lives to save civilization”; Messianism is robbed of its transcendent dimension and the kingdom of God is presented as something quite “natural,” virtually continuous with ordinary historical existence, though as Baron has pointed out, the Messianic vision of Israel, the “new heaven and new earth,” is a vision of an age in which, through divine action, “‘history’ will finally vanquish ‘nature,’ even changing its very course, for in that day ‘the wolf shall dwell with the lamb’ (Isa. 11:6).” Buber disavows the “culture-optimism” of recent “liberal” theology, but this first essay is altogether too much permeated with it. There is little sense of the ambivalence of all human culture, of the ambiguity of all human civilizations, of the way in which even the best and highest of man’s creations violate as well as implement the theonomous principle. “It is the belief,” says Buber, explaining his view, “that just as every sinner can find forgiveness by ‘turning’ to God, so can a sinful civilization.” To which it must be added: yes, civilizations can repent—in a way and up to a point; but just as the repentant sinner remains a sinner though repentant, so, even more so, does the culture remain sinful, ambiguous, and contradictory for all its repentance—infinitely far from the kingdom of God.
Interpreting Hoelderlin, Buber notes, Heidegger has said: “Our time is the time of gods who have fled and of the God who is coming”; “we live in the no-longer of the departed gods and the not-yet of the Coming One.” But is not this true, more or less, of all times, of all human existence? Faith cannot become operative in human existence except in tension with unfaith. We who today, amidst the collapse of the idols, stand “waiting for God,” will find in these two books of Buber’s, as in his entire magnificent work of decades, an articulation of the profoundest truth of our being.