263. "A God that is More than Loving," Tikkun, Vol. 14, No. 1, January/February 1999, pp. 19-20.
Everybody seems to love a spirit that fills us with joy, raises us to a higher level of consciousness, and inspires us. But such a spirit has a touch of self-centeredness. We need a spirit that will make us nobler than we would be otherwise--whether or not this fills us with cheer.
Recently, I have been re-reading the most often quoted work of my first sociology teacher, Martin Buber--I and Thou. Buber depicts God as a super I and Thou, a source of great light and enjoyment, a sea into which all the rivers of smaller, diadic human I and Thou flow. It is a God of "metaphysical love" but not one who lays claims on us.
Buber's God is not the angry deity of the Old Testament, whose true prophets keep admonishing the people to refrain from doing that which offends the Lord. Neither is it the God of the New Testament, who sacrificed His son, to bring His love to the people, to redeem humanity from its sins. According to Buber, one's relation to God is first and foremost, an expression of the I and Thou relationship. Ego needs God to form the essential relationship, but--in Buber's words, writing in the I and Thou--"don't you also know that God needs you?"
At other points, Buber describes the I-God as a sort of super I-Thou, the ultimate I-Thou, while all other I-Thous have a touch of Godliness. As he writes: "[e]xtended, the lines of relationships intersect in the eternal Thou. Every single Thou is a glimpse of that." More poetically, Buber writes that the relation between man and God "is not one relation among others; it is the universal relation into which all rivers pour without drying up for that reason."
Most relevant to my communitarian concerns is that Buber's super-Thou lays no claims on us, demands no charity for the poor, nor beseeches us to love our enemies. God relates to us as we relate to Him (or Her).
True, at one point Buber refers to our relationship with God (and to one another) as one of metaphysical love which entails responsibility for the other, and of other--for the I. Some have read into this a closeness of Buber to Christian ideals of love or "agape." It is important to note, though, that Buber stresses that one cannot endeavor or labor to achieve an I-Thou relationship. He writes, "The Thou encounters me by grace--it cannot be found by seeking." Discussing God, he notes that "One does not find God if one remains in the world; one does not find God if one leaves the world. Whoever goes forth to his You with his whole being and carries to it all the beings of the world, finds him whom one cannot seek." Malcolm Diamond, in his book Martin Buber: Jewish Existentialist, writes "One cannot plan to experience an I-Thou encounter any more than one can plan to fall in love."
This issue is a familiar to students and followers of other religions, in which there is often a tension between the notion that we may rely on God's grace to shine upon us, and the notion that we will be ready to be embraced by God once we have worked to become more virtuous. Many religions combine both concepts although they differ sharply in terms of which element they emphasize. In terms of this continuum, from the passive to the active, Buber's treatment of God clearly falls somewhere near the rather passive pole. Buber uses very few "should" statements; no "love others the way you wish others to love you" or some other powerful prescriptions. In this sense Buber is closer to the Protestant then to the Catholic interpretation of virtue: we can find out if we are the chosen ones but we cannot become so by working to be good.
While Buber does briefly mention responsibility for the other in I and Thou and he dedicates a particularly opaque passage to it in Between Man and Man, it provides rather little moral guidance. Above all, he lines up here with the old communitarians, in that his has no concept of individual rights to balance the call of social responsibilities, a litmus test for new or responsive communitarians. Here, Buber seems to be influenced by the Jewish tradition, which like Islam, stresses that responsibility for others, say the poor among us, but basically has no concept of rights, of others to lay claims on us. Buber also refers, uncharacteristically, at one point, to "sacrifice." But it is found in the instrumental realm of economics and politics, in the realm of the It, and not the elevated, cherished realm of the Thou.
Buber adds that relations to God, around which we may form a true We, must not be institutionalized. Institutionalized religion can become a barrier, while a "true" prayer is personal. While in the world of persons, the It-world has a legitimate, indeed essential role, God is a pure Thou. But just as the smaller, human I-Thou is pulled toward the I-It and must constantly be nourished, so we must recognize our tendency to "... reduce the eternal Thou ever again to an It, to something, turning God into a thing, in accordance with our nature." But when we are successful in finding this super-connection, what we have is a mysterious hyper-experience of an indescribable joy, but one that provides no external guidance or affirmation of our own values. Values, let alone the stronger term "virtues," are not part of Buber's basic vocabulary as laid out in the I and Thou.
This is not merely a limitation I find in Buber. It reflects the reluctance of an age we are leaving behind, to merely accentuate and celebrate achievements and the good we find but not to pass judgment, not to lay claims.
I wish a social world could be composed that would function that way. Maybe one day it will. But in this day and age, and in the foreseeable future, such benign spirit will not heal the wounded, feed the poor, establish a just social order or ensure peace.
Our weakness invites a spirit that is not merely joyous and enlightening, but also one that calls on us to be better than we would be otherwise.
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at George Washington University and the author of The New Golden Rule: Community and Morality in a Democratic Society, Perseus Basic Books paperback 1998.
1. I and Thou, 155.
2. I and Thou, 66.
3. Between Man and Man, 65-71, 82.