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I and Thou

Martin Buber

Part III, aphorisms 15–17: Revelation through Action

Part III, aphorisms 5–14: What Religion is Not

Important Quotations

Summary

Buber does not believe that reaching absolute encounter is the end of our religious journey. Instead, it is the center which grounds religious life. The actual moment of encounter is nothing worth noting; all that we experience from absolute encounter is the effects: we know that we have been met by God because of how we have been changed by that meeting. We come out of encounter able to say "You" to the entire world.

This transformation that we undergo is God's revelation to us. It is God's answer in our dialogue, his part of the conversation. When we say "You" to human beings, they respond with words; when we say "You" to God He responds by transforming us. (Relation with man is seen as the portal into relation with God and as the proper metaphor for this relation because response is crucially important in the religious moment. Only in relation to man, and not in relation to nature, do we expect a response.)

Once we are transformed in this way, we lose all duty and obligation. Duty and obligation are things one has to do according to morality, secular law, or religious law. These categories become unimportant for us after absolute encounter because we find ourselves filled with a loving responsibility for the whole course of the world. We do all that we can to help everyone and everything, not because we have to, but because we want to. We also move beyond ethical judgments: we no longer deem any man evil, but simply deem him in greater need of love, and as more of a responsibility.

Based on our loving responsibility for the whole world, we are then to build a new community peopled by others who are also capable of saying "You" to the entire world. The community is based on two kinds of relation: the relation between each of the members of the community and the relation of each of the members to God. The building of this community is the actualization of God on earth. Through building a community based on loving responsibility, we hallow the mundane. The truly religious man, then, is not a theomaniac who only contemplates his own personal relationship to the divine. Instead, the religious man turns toward the world, and builds community.

Buber believes that such communities have existed in history. In fact, he is quite sure that all great cultures began as these sorts of communities. Each of these communities, though, slowly became degraded by the human need for continuity in space and time. The self-affirming desire for continuity in time led man to arrive at faith. Faith originally appeared to fill the temporal gaps between moments of encounter (to fill the latency periods, in other words). Eventually, though, it became a substitute for these moments. Instead of relating to God as a You, the community slowly began to simply trust in Him as an It. God was turned from a being into an abstract assurance that nothing can go wrong. The human desire for continuity in space, on the other hand, led man to turn God into a cult object, thereby supplanting the individual relationship to God by communal activities, and the essential religious deeds of loving responsibility (which admit of no hard and fast rules) with simple laws and rituals. The cult too, originated as a way to supplement moments of encounter, but eventually ended up pushing aside these moments. In order to ensure that community does not once again degrade, we must realize that both spatial and temporal continuity can be achieved through divine encounter only once divine encounter is involved in every act of daily life. The need for temporal continuity would thus be satisfied because each of our acts would become a part of divine encounter; the need for spatial continuity would be satisfied because the members of the community would all be connected through their common relation to God.

Analysis

Buber's vision of a religion grounded in loving human relations is certainly attractive. But what makes it superior as a conception of religion per se (rather than as just, say, a nice way the world could be), and what makes Buber believe that his theory of religious meaning is any better than all those he has rejected? Buber seems to believe that his view of religion superior to all others because in his conception, everyday life becomes holy. Under his conception of religion, the religious man actualizes God in the world and thereby transforms the entire world for the better. By contrast, the views that he discards claim that either man must leave the everyday world in order to reach God, or else that God simply is the everyday.

Under some other religious conceptions, entire parts of life are not touched by religion. Traditional Christianity and Judaism often separate everyday life, such as business transactions, from praise of God. Also, in mystical movements that claim that man merges with God in the religious moment, man must separate from God once the moment is over. He must return from the holy to the mundane, which can only be a terrible disappointment. Even if he himself is somehow better off for having been unified with God (for instance, we can probably assume that a man who has merged with God no longer feels alienated or oppressed by the meaninglessness of life), he is left with no way to translate his benefits into a cure for societal ills and no way to bring all of his actions into relation with his religious experience. The conception of religion as a feeling of ultimate dependence is similarly limited. We might feel better off believing that there is an ultimate caretaker who will love and support us, but we cannot really translate this relief into a healthier society or into a belief that all our actions are essentially religious in nature. Only Buber's vision, a vision of religion that brings the holy into everyday life through the building of community, allows man to save both himself and his society though a relationship with God.

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