Friday, December 08, 2006

Martin Buber's "Thou"

I have struggled for many years with the word "God," trying to determine if it has a meaning for me. Most atheists, like their contemporary spokesmen Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins, want to argue that the word "God," like "unicorn," refers only to a figment of cultural imagination. Most of the People of the Book (Jews, Christians and Muslims) believe that the word points to something real, as real as an atom, a rock or the sun; indeed, it stands for the supreme reality. I stand in the middle, between a rock and no place, wanting to know God but doubting the existence of that being described in a word.

For several years I have gathered periodically with a group of people to study the writings of Jewish philosopher Martin Buber with Ken Kramer, a retired professor who taught religious studies at San Jose State University. Kramer studied with Maurice Friedman, Buber's former student and biographer, and he wrote down some of his
insights from a lifetime of reading Buber in Martin Buber's I and Thou: Practicing Living Dialogue, in 2003.

Buber, who was a scholar of Hasidic mysticism as well as a professor (and considered a founder) of existentialism, experienced what has been called "God" as the "eternal Thou." In his book "I and Thou," published in 1923, he contrasted the dialogue of I and Thou with the monologue of I and It. Any connection between creation, humanity and the divine, was a dialogue, an encounter, a meeting, and it could not be idealized or objectified. God can not be a thing, a point of reference for a word coined by humans. "Real faith," he writes, "begins when the dictionary is put down." (Buber quotes from The Way of Response, 1966).

I find the thought that God, or ultimate meaning, cannot be captured in words to be liberating. It is what attracts me to apophatic theology which argues that God is ineffable and can only be referred to be negative statements, i.e. God is not an object, etc. Thomas Merton, in one of my favorite quotes, speaks of the encounter with God through contemplative prayer, or meditation, as an earth (and word) shattering experience:
Contemplation is no pain-killer. What a holocaust takes place in this steady burning to ashes of old worn-out words, clich├ęs, slogans, rationalizations! The worst of it is that even apparently holy conceptions are consumed along with all the rest. It is a terrible breaking and burning of idols, a purification of the sanctuary, so that no graven thing may occupy the place that God has commanded to be left empty: the center of the existential altar which simply “is.” In the end the contemplative suffers the anguish of realizing that he no longer knows what God is. He may or may not mercifully realize that, after all, this is a great gain, because God is not a “what,” not a “thing.” That is precisely one of the essential characteristics of contemplative experience. It sees that there is no “what” that can be called God. There is “no such thing” as God because God is neither a “what” nor a “thing” but a pure “Who.” (New Seeds of Contemplation, 1962, 13).
I'm sure Buber would agree with this, and no doubt Merton was familiar with Buber's writings.

Much religion and spirituality is other-worldly, focusing on the spirit or soul and the afterlife or the cycle of rebirth. There is a depreciation of the body and the world, whether it be in aesceticism or celibacy. This ignores the counter-idea that creation is good, all of it. Refreshingly, Martin Buber argues that we encounter God only in and through the world and our neighbor.
...the God of the universe, the God who loves His world, only in the measure in which he himself learns to love the world.
God speaks to man in the things and beings that He sends him in life; man answers through his action in relation to just those things and beings.
God speaks to every man through the life which He gives him again and again. Therefore man can only answer God with the whole of life – with the way in which he lives this given life.
Buber wrote in German and the translations of his thought into English can be dense and often difficult to understand without multiple readings. In this respect, he resembles his fellow German philosopher Heideggger. Buber died in the mid-1960s, before inclusive language became more common, and so there is a persistent "he" in his work that is distracting to today's ear. But I find his grounded and embedded descriptions of God to be worth the trouble of interpreting his prose.

"God," Buber writes, "does not want to be believed in, to be debated and defended by us, but simply to be realized through us.” We meet God in the minutae of daily life, when we bring our whole self into dialogue with the other, a neighbor or even with nature. In this way we "hallow" life, make it holy, and God comes to be in the process.
Everything is waiting to be hallowed by you…Meet the world with the fullness of your being and you shall meet Him…He who loves brings God and the world together.

This nonobjectified God is a far cry from what we find in a literalist reading of religious texts. I realized this last week when I went to see "The Nativity Story," Catherine Hardwicke's new film of the birth of Jesus. I had high hopes for a new rendering of the timeless story of the incarnation of the divine on earth. Hardwicke directed the gritty "Thirteen" which portrayed the stress and anguish of teens growing up in contemporary culture, and she chose Keisha Castle-Hughes, the girl from "Whale Rider," to portray Mary. Scenes were filmed in Morocco and she used dark-skinned local actors to portray the Semitic people of Jesus's time. The Christmas story has always moved me, ever since I listened to it among the other Biblical stories on the radio show "The Greatest Story Ever Told" when I was a child in North Carolina. Mary is the perfect example of someone open to the will of God, open to the divine within. Surely this story can be told in many ways. Jean-Luc Godard made a valiant attempt with his film, "Hail Mary, " in 1985, which was highly criticized by religious conservatives.

But it was not to be. Hardwicke's film is a cartoon, a cheesy attempt to bring a King James version of the event to the screen with tacky effects more common to movies made in the 1950s or earlier. The angels, with their white robes and curled hair, backlit to emphasize holiness, are laughable. Likewise the star, a made-in-Hollywood creation. Castle-Hughes either cannot act after all (her facial expression seems frozen into a grimace) or she received poor direction from Hardwicke. Only the three wise men are vaguely interesting. Writer Mike Rich, a Native American who has written a number of family-oriented films, makes one half-hearted attempt at humor. When Mary, whose premature pregnancy has upset their village, leaves on a donkey with Joseph for Bethlehem, Joseph says, "I bet they're glad to get rid of us." Surely there were other ways to make these eternal characters believable.

This is what happens when you try to turn myth (in the highest sense of the word) into literal reality. For the same reason, many novels come out flat and one-dimensional when transfered to the screen. Martin Buber alerts us to the dangers of turning God (and her manifestations) into an object. The divine can only be described obliquely in stories and parables, in prayers and song. Not in factual history. All attempts to represent God are designed to fail (perhaps this is why Islam prohibits it). And if we cut off the spirit from the flesh, both wither.

Tomorrow is the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception, a piece of dogma that escapes my attempts at understanding. It seems to me a mistake to make Mary special; her importance for us humans is in her ordinariness. (And maybe this could be said of Jesus as well.) Next Tuesday is the more plebian Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a day very dear to Latinos. A film version of her story, "Guadalupe: The Miracle Revealed," is opening at the Nick. Tomorrow I will try and say something about Mary's significance for women, the poor, and especially for Latinos.

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