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I and Thou

Martin Buber

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

Part III, aphorisms 1–4: Encountering the Eternal You

Part III, aphorisms 15–17: Revelation through Action

After describing absolute encounter to the best of his ability (again, encounter cannot really be described), Buber then goes on to tell us what absolute encounter does not involve. Relation with God, first of all, cannot be reduced down to a feeling of dependency. To say merely that we depend on God, as many religious conceptions do, does not capture absolute encounter. Encounter with God is accompanied by such feelings but is not itself that feeling. Any 'feeling' exists only in the I, and encounter exists between the You and the I. One dwells in the encounter, the encounter does not dwell in one. Further, while encounter with God does involve a feeling of complete dependence, but it also involves the opposite of that feeling: a feeling of complete creative power. In encounter we are partners with God, engaged in a conversation with Him. To claim that the relation is one of dependence is to ignore this fact, to make the conversation one-sided. God needs us as much as we need God. Prayer and sacrifice both acknowledge the mutual nature of this relationship. In true prayer we do not ask for anything, but merely commune with God, knowing that we are utterly dependent on Him, and, incomprehensibly, that He is dependent on us: knowing, in other words, that He wants to converse with us. In sacrifice the acknowledgement is acted out in a naïve but admirable way; when people sacrifice, they offer God not only conversation but actual earthly goods.

The other major idea of religious experience that is not a part of divine encounter is the idea of immersion, or of union between ourselves and God. There are two basic ways of seeing this union. One can claim that in the religious moment one strips oneself of all I-hood and merges with God or that we are never separate from God to begin with. Both conceptions make relation impossible, because they take away the possibility of an I confronting a separate You. Contrary to immersion views, Buber thinks we must retain our individual selves in the religious moment. In order to encounter we must not lose any of our selfhood, but lose only the aforementioned drive toward self-affirmation. Instead, we actually engage in the concentration of the soul, holding all parts of ourselves together. We enter encounter as more whole than ever, rather than as stripped down.

Absolute encounter is not logically coherent. Philosophers like Kant tried to escape the paradoxes of religious life (such as the conflict between freedom and necessity) by separating the world in two, into a world of appearances and a world of being. Absolute encounter, however, essentially involves logical conflicts. It involves paradoxes, and requires you to live these in these paradoxes.

Finally, religious relation is not idol worship of the right idol. Modern philosophers often claim that earthly "idols" such as the pursuit of knowledge, of power, of artistic beauty, of erotic love, have taken the place of God. If we would just turn away from these finite goods, they say, and turn this same attention toward God, then we would find salvation. But to claim that salvation is simply a matter of substitution, as if we could treat God just as we treat these idols and thereby enter into a religious moment, Buber contends, is ridiculous. We treat these finite goods as It's to be used, not as You's with which to relate. In fact, if we do treat any of these finite goods as You's then we are on our way to divine encounter. If in erotic love, for instance, our partner becomes the Universe to us then erotic love allows us to glimpse God. If, on the other hand, we pursue erotic love for the mere conquest and the physical pleasure associated with it, then turning the same energies toward God cannot get us any closer to the religious moment. In other words, is not the object of our attention that determines whether it is religious or profane, rather it is the nature of our attention.

Analysis

In this section of I and Thou, Buber responds to his predecessors. In the discussion of dependence, for instance, Buber addresses not only strands of mainstream Judeo-Christian thought, but also critics of religion, such as Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud. Religion, Buber here tells us, is not a crutch for the weak, something to which the passive can latch on. Instead, it requires incredible strength and willpower. It requires us to embrace the fact that we cannot predict, control, or understand the world in order to embrace also our full freedom and our full creative powers. In encounter we face the whole universe in all of its possibilities, and we are limited by nothing. This is clearly not a picture that the faint of heart would embrace. Limitless possibility, and unpredictability—this is a far cry from the calming, deluded religious world that Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud imagined.

In the discussion of immersion theories, Buber argues against some of his closer allies, such as the mystical Jewish sect of Hasidism. According to Hasidism, man does merge with God in the religious moment and does form a unity. This Buber, claims, is incompatible with encounter, which is supposed to be a dialogical relationship between two separate beings. We also receive a further indication of why Buber rejected the two pictures of the universe which he portrayed at the end of part II (the one in which man is not a separate individual but simply a part of nature and God, and the other in which man is not separate from nature because nature is somehow dependent on man's mind). These worldviews are pernicious because they assert that there is a union between man and God, making a relationship impossible.

Finally, in the discussion of the inherently paradoxical nature of religion, Buber makes an explicit break with Enlightenment philosophers, who sought to make religion wholly rational. Instead he embraces a view that is extremely close to that of Søren Kierkegaard, the father of existentialism, who also asserted that paradox is an essential component of the religious moment. For this reason, Buber is sometimes placed within the existentialist philosophical tradition.

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