This post is third in a series, but it is more narrowly focused than the previous posts. I wanted to isolate a single issue that I presented in my first post:
“Many people have a nonchalant attitude about community. They just don’t understand its value or they don’t appreciate how difficult it is to create and maintain. This is particularly true among fiscal conservatives which is a distinction between them and more traditional conservatives.
“I spoke to a fiscal conservative who is a Christian (a combination I’ve always found odd, at times verging on the hypocritical with some views) and he demonstrated this difference. The church he attended had reached capacity and would require a new building for the church to grow. As a fiscal conservative, he assumed growth was better than maintaining the past. This fiscal conservative also had moved around a lot because of career and so had little investment in the community. He didn’t understand why many church members didn’t want to move. It took my liberal mindset (or, rather, my Midwestern liberal mindset) to explain it to him. The church wasn’t simply a physical structure. It was part of people’s sense of community and home. It was where people grew up, got married, and raised their kids.
“Fiscal conservatives, however, just see the economic and the physical aspects, and so they can’t see the difference between one building and another, between an old church and a new church, between a thriving neighborhood of beautiful old houses and a multi-use apartment building with no character. I understand what might be gained by building something new. I’m not against economic improvements if they are done with foresight and done with a goal of long-term benefits for the entire community. The problem isn’t that I don’t understand or value such faith in improvements through entrepreneurial investments. Rather, the problem is that fiscal conservatives and many capitalists don’t understand the view of those living in a community who want to defend their community.”
* * *
I’m not a religious person. So, it might seem odd that I would defend the value of churches against the criticisms of a church-going Christian. In another mood, I would gladly criticize Christians being overly attached to churches. But my present motivations aren’t about religion itself, rather about the more intangible (which one could label ‘spiritual’) aspects of human experience as it relates to the more tangible aspects of human community.
Even though I’m not a religious person, I am a spiritual person in my own way. I’m oddly going to make a ‘spiritual’ defense of churches and, more generally speaking, of “The Commons”. From this perspective, I will use ‘spiritual’ terminology to make my argument. (The second paragraph down, I make a distinction between ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’, but here I’m speaking of ‘spiritual’ in the sense of including both aspects.)
Before I begin my commentary, let me briefly clarify where I’m coming from when I speak of being spiritual in my own way. The idea I will focus on is that of an ensouled world which, at least in my mind, connects with: Carl Jung’s collective unconscious, David Abram’s sensuous world, Julian Jayne’s bicameral mind, Paul Shepard’s theory of social evolution, various authors writing about the imaginal/daimonic such as Patrick Harpur and Henry Corbin, Terrence McKenna’s philosophizing on psychedelics and nature, the Fortean views of Jacques Vallee and John Keel, and on and on. These form the background of my thinking, but none of these are directly important at the moment and so I won’t discuss any of the above authors and ideas.
However, I should explain the most important influence on my thinking in this context. Thomas Moore and James Hillman speak of ‘soul’ as different than ‘spirit’, something like the Taoist yang in relationship to yin. The ‘soul’ is worldly, personal, and messy. The ‘spirit’ is other-worldly, impersonal, and pure. Monotheistic religions tend to idealize the ‘spirit’ while demonizing the ‘soul’. I will, therefore, be defending the ‘soul’ against the typical monotheistic view of an authoritarian ‘spirit’.
* * *
I feel the need to add a caveat.
I’m not just criticizing the view of others that I disagree with. I’m ultimately speaking of a conflict within myself. I struggle with my relationship to the larger world. I haven’t come to terms with my sense of community and my sense of the spiritual. I’m far from being a conservative Christian and even further from being a fiscally conservative Christian, but I have some sympathetic understanding of the seeming conflict between the soul and the spirit.
So, my defense of soul doesn’t come from a superior vantage point. That is the point of soul, after all, in that it doesn’t proclaim the superiority of God-like certainty, rather it acknowledges the humility of being in the muck and the mud along with everyone else (‘humility’ being etymologically related to ‘humus’ and ‘human’). Many events and issues in my life such as depression have humbled me. I offer my humbled opinion, for whatever it is worth.
That said, I will not withhold my criticism of those who are overly certain of the truth of their own opinions, especially conservative Christians who claim to know the Mind of God. Conservatism is built on the premise that some issues can be known with certainty and that the conservative has a monopoly on such truth, this conservative position being seen in opposition to the more ‘relativistic’ (open-minded and humble) view of liberals that the world and human nature is too complex for simple moral judgments… and that Biblical studies is too rife with subjective biases of interpretation to make any claims about the Mind of God.
The fiscally conservative Christian ignores the fact that Jesus was far from being a fiscal conservative and that the Christian tradition for most of its history was highly critical of laissez-faire capitalism. Jesus even points out that such a focus on material wealth makes it more difficult to gain entrance into heaven (i.e., camels passing through the eye of the needle). I would love to see a fiscally conservative Christian who truly had a change of heart and followed Jesus’ commandment to “Give away all your riches to the poor and follow me.” Such a commandment helps explain why Jesus was so angry about moneylenders in the temple, moneylenders being laissez-faire capitalists of the Jewish world at that time. The fiscally conservative Christian forgets that Jesus declared Love to be the new commandment, rather than following the old laws of authoritarian submission and righteous judgment.
Because of this, I criticize the self-righteousness of some fiscally conservative Christians from a desire to make humble, to bring down to the equalizing level of earthly life where the rich man dies just the same as the poor, not to set myself above anyone else. A person enthralled by spirit becomes arrogant in their sense of being above it all or at least above others, a very unChristian attitude. I’m of course not arguing spirit is inherently wrong or immoral, but it can be unhealthy, ugly and dangerous even, when it becomes out of balance with and unanchored from soul. Only through soul can love manifest on the human level as empathy and compassion, a very Christian attitude.
I say this as a person who isn’t unfamiliar with the experience of being enthralled by spirit (by self-certainty) and who at times have felt arrogantly above others, although being humbled once again tends to quickly follow. That is a normal human experience. However, certain social philosophies and economic theories become encoded into theological certainties which can make for an almost unassailable stance of righteous self-certitude. Occasionally falling into the error of arrogance isn’t problematic in itself, but theologically defending that error is problematic to the utmost degree. That is always the danger of theology. Our self-rationalizations can become reality tunnels writ large to encompass the entire cosmos, our opinions seemingly declared by God Almighty. As such, fiscal conservatism as a theory is simply an opinion no more worthy than any other opinion, but fiscal conservatism as theology can become an oppressive ideological force that attempts to remake the world in its image. From its earliest development, capitalism was promoted by Christians and has always had behind it the force of evangelism spreading the Good Word (an issue already analyzed by many others such as Max Weber).
There is a safety mechanism in the worldview of soul. As balance to spirit, it sees the many in the one. Soul helps us to see our opinions as just opinions even as we aspire toward greater understanding.
* * *
So, what is ‘soul’?
Soul is life, is the vital essence of who we are, our being in and part of the world. When soul is denied, it goes dormant or is otherwise submerged giving the appearance of death like plants in winter. If soul is denied long enough, it can be irretrievably harmed and manifest in unhealthy ways.
When natural environments are treated as things, they become mere natural resources; trees become lumber; animals meat; rivers water. When communities are treated as legal constructs, they become mere physical locations filled with isolated things, interchangeable parts; homes become property; churches structures; neighborhoods opportunities for development. When people are treated as demographics, they become mere labels; humans become voters, consumers and target audiences; neighbors strangers; workers human resources, cogs in the machine.
The living breathing worldview of the soul undermines and protects against the worldview of isolated objects devoid of spiritual meaning, devoid of all value besides what is projected upon them. Humans and all other beings aren’t isolated objects, aren’t even isolated subjects. We all are meeting points of endless relationships. When we forget that, we become like billiard balls where the only relationships occur when we crash together in a series of events beyond our control and comprehension, meaningless causation of physical laws and forces.
Some argue that they don’t value objects for the reason they value people, but they make all the world into objects as a stage for human action. This inevitably destroys meaning in human relationships, isolating people, inevitably making the subjective conform to the objective… or else see the subjective as trapped in the objective like a ghost in the machine. I don’t see how this is better. They precisely aren’t valuing life in all of its forms, human included, by projecting their lifeless vision onto a living universe. When the eye is dead to the life before it, what is beheld is seen as if dead and so is treated that way, a self-fulfilling prophecy of a lifeless universe. This is vision without heart, without soul. In place of God’s Creation or Nature’s Majesty, a tragic nightmare world of death takes form. A belief in an objective world of objects transforms life into death, an act of black magick, words denying life forcing reality to conform.
After creating this hell on earth, an escape is required. Humans become trapped in bodies hoping for divine salvation. The world is a place of ugly matter and base desires, a place of sin and corruption, a place at worst to be feared and at best kept at a distance. Our real home is elsewhere. We shouldn’t become too comfortable here in this world so far below God’s Heaven. As the Bible says, Satan is the “god of this world”. The result is that even humans become objects for the Eternal Spirit is trapped within human bodily forms that are easily corrupted and tempted by Original Sin, Eternal Spirit longing to escape into Heaven.
In my own way, I’m not unsympathetic to such a view for I have my Gnostic tendencies and I was raised a Christian in a Christian society. My psyche is enmeshed in the Christian worldview. As an American, I grew up watching apocalyptic movies tinged with Christian theology. More significantly, I grew up in New Thought Christianity and so I know the positive spin that can be overlaid upon this otherwise dark vision.
I’m purposely portraying this worldview in its most melodramatic form. There are many milder and more subtle forms of it, some with no overt religious elements at all. I don’t mean to attack anyone in particular in my portrayal. I don’t even mean to say anyone is wrong in holding such views, whether or not the ‘accused’ see my portrayal as accurate or fair. What I’m trying to get at is the essence of what it means for actual human beings in this world we find ourselves in, our shared lives held together by community institutions and social systems, by the complex ecosystems we live in, the environment and atmosphere we are enmeshed in, the air and water flowing freely from place to place acknowledging no mapped boundaries or legal constructs of property.
* * *
The problem I see is that the religious version of the ‘objective’ worldview doesn’t go far enough. Those advocating it continue to cling to the material world even as they deny it. Maybe the failure is in their conception and therefore perception of the material world. If they truly pushed into spiritual territory, they might discover their perception of the material world is transformed. In seeking the divine elsewhere, maybe they miss the divine all around them. Maybe the divine can only be known in specifics: specific relationships and connections, specific communities and churches, specific places and senses of place, etc. Maybe it is in holding back from the divine that they devalue certain manifestations of the divine.
Those advocating this ‘objective’ worldview don’t seem aware of the transaction being made. There is a sleight-of-hand going on that is built into the belief system at a level not easily discerned. An arbitrary distinction is being made about where the human ends and the world begins, where the divine ends and the earthly begins. This is an attempt to create a metaphysical trick or manipulation, an ideological lifting oneself up by the bootstraps… to keep one’s boots out of the mud by floating on a divine breath of air… to be in the world but not of the world. It is like trying to use the Holy Spirit as a barrier between oneself and the world so that it becomes an act of spiritually dividing instead of spiritually relating, spritually denying instead of spiritually affirming. There is a profound refusal at its core, an emphatic ‘No!’ declared to the world like an incantatory protection.
The belief system behind it necessitates most, if not all, of the world to be seen as lifeless (or even Godless) objects without fundamental value or inherent meaning. People holding this worldview put value in seeing the world without value. Despite the claims of some, they still value objects even if it is a negative value, a negating value, a soul-denying and soul-deadening value. Negative values aren’t just passively implied, rather are actively enforced within one’s worldview which includes the perceptions, choices and actions determined by the constraints of that worldview.
* * *
The destruction of nature that has followed civilization where ever it goes, gaining momentum with modern industrialization, wouldn’t be possible without nature first being turned into objects to be used and abused, discarded and destroyed. Scientists used to cut the vocal cords of animals they were dissecting so that the screams of pain and terror wouldn’t interfere with their psychotic delusion that animals were objects. The very act affirmed what the scientists claimed to deny. This dynamic continues to play out in new forms of behavior we all participate in as part of modern society.
We continue to metaphorically cut the vocal cords of the living world surrounding us, the ensouled world enfolding us. When we see a church as just a building or a stream as just water, we cut the vocal cords of the living essence and the living beings that form them.
To focus just on the human component, it is obvious that a church is so much more than a mere building. A church is an expression of the devotion to God and the love of community. It is the shared creation of specific people living in a specific place and time, specific people sharing their loves and their lives, specific people in relationship to one another and to the world around them, an integral part of what makes a community tangibly real rather than an empty abstraction. A church is the embodiment of the divinity of human relationships, the Holy Spirit one might say, in the way that the human form is the emodiment of the human soul. A church consists of relationships of family, friends and neighbors, of newcomers looking for community, of travelers looking for solace, for the needy looking for compassion and assistance. Generations of people are raised in a church where babies are baptised, couples are married, and departed loved ones are given funeral services. The value of a church is beyond any monetary assessment. A church is an expression of the living memory and share space of a community of people. A shared soul forms out of such expressions of community for a piece of each person’s soul becomes part of the soul of that place, an anchoring not just of the human in the world but the divine as well.
Where people gather God is present. This isn’t to be taken lightly. A manifestation of the divine isn’t something to be taken for granted.
* * *
This doesn’t even need to be thought of in metaphysical terms. When I speak of the divine, you can replace it with your understanding of the more intangible parts of culture. When I speak of a shared soul, you can replace it with tangible experience of community. I’m not arguing about ultimate reality here for that is beyond the limits of rational debate. What I’m speaking of is the experience itself of humans as a social species. This is hard to understand and it inevitably takes on religious overtones for theological language was designed for describing such intersubjective territory.
History demonstrates that community is an endless challenge, hard to create well while easy to destroy. To annihalate a people, you don’t need to commit genocide. All you have to do is annihalate all outward forms of their culture. And at the heart of every culture is religion: traditions and practices, rituals and ritual objects, iconography and places of worship, etc. It’s easy to dismiss the value of outward forms for it is easy to take them for granted. Most people, especially in Western developed countries, don’t know the value of outward forms of community and culture because they’ve never experienced their absence.
Maybe ‘God’ can’t be killed, whatever one may think God is or isn’t. However, I would argue that specific manifestations of the divine (or cultural expressions thereof) can be essentially killed. When the outward forms that help invoke a God (or make a particular spiritual experience possible) are eliminated, the God (or spiritual experience) is also eliminated. New outward forms may take their place and people may not realize anything has changed, but new outward forms create a whole new sense of community and culture, a whole new relationship to the divine. Something once gone may be gone forever. When I observe the outward forms of many modern Christians, I feel certain that they aren’t worshipping the same thing that Christians worshipped in the first century. The outward forms of those early Christians have almost been entirely lost to us, only tattered fragments remain.
* * *
Let me respond to a Christian perspective, specifically that of a fiscally conservative Christian (in opposition to a traditional Christian).
Jesus taught first and foremost the value of love. He taught to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. There is nothing in such a teaching that denies or dismisses the outward forms of religious community. Jesus never suggests worshipping any place or thing, but neither does he suggest against worshipping any place or thing. As far as I know, Jesus says nothing at all on the matter. It’s like trying to read modern views of homosexuality into the Bible.
Anyway, the issue isn’t about worshipping a building for that entirely misses the point. It’s about have basic respect for humans and human nature. God doesn’t command you to disrespect and disregard the outward forms of community and the other values that God instilled in human nature, does he? Even the earliest Christians constructed buildings for communally living in and worshipping in. Jesus never argued that it was morally wrong or religiously irrelevant for there to be a Jewish place of worship, never argued that the temple was just a building without spiritual value or divine relevance. It was because the temple was a religiously important place that he cast out the moneylenders. If Jesus thought the temple was just an object without meaning, he wouldn’t have become so angry at it being desecrated by what he considered religiously unworthy activities.
Let me get even more specific. The Christian I was discussing with has incorporated a lot of New Thought style of theology. For example, we were discussing A Course in Miracles which is a very New Agey channeled text. It might seem odd that a highly conservative Christian would embrace what would appear as hyper-liberal theology, but in America this is actually rather common for America has never had a strong traditional culture especially not among Protestants. Even the average conservative Protestant in America is liberal compared to the average traditional conservative of Catholicism.
This was made poignantly clear in something I recalled from What’s the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank (Kindle Locations 2004-2013):
“One more thing about the backlash personality type: every single one of the bitter self-made men of my youth was a believer in the power of positive thinking. If you just had a sunny disposish and kept everlastingly at it, they thought, you were bound to succeed. The contradiction between their professed positiveness and their actual negativity about nearly everything never seemed to occur to them. On the contrary; they would oscillate from the one to the other as though the two naturally complemented each other, giving me advice on keeping a positive mental outlook even while raging against the environmentalist bumper stickers on other people’s cars or scoffing at Kansas City’s latest plan for improving its schools. The world’s failure to live up to the impossible promises of the positive-thinking credo did not convince these men of the credo’s impracticality, but rather that the world was in a sad state of decline, that it had forsaken the true and correct path.2 It was as though the fair-play lessons of Jack Armstrong, Frank Merriwell, and the other heroes of their prewar boyhood had congealed quite naturally into the world bitterness of their present-day heroes, Charles Bronson, Dirty Harry, Gordon Liddy, and the tax rebel Howard Jarvis.”
This cuts to the conflict I sense in the weird combination of fiscal conservatism and Christian conservatism. This is particularly made clear with New Thought Christianity or what, in Evangelical circles, goes by the label of Prosperity Gospel and other names as well. It’s a spiritual ‘positive’ idealism combined with a material criticalness, the latter even manifesting as cynicism or outright apocalyptic visions. In less extreme forms, the conflict is more subtle.
I will explain by returning to the Christian I’ve already mentioned above. He has a mix of enjoying the materially good life and being critical of those who spiritually value the shared aspects of community life such as a church for he sees a church as being essentially unreligious since it is a material structure (of the world instead of God, the two apparently perceived as being in oppositional conflict). It’s because his religion can be disconnected from economics in this manner that economics can become to varying degrees be disconnected from the moral aspects of community. From this perspective, the decision to keep or sell a church should be an entirely economic decision rather than a religious decision, a decision informed by individual personal opinions rather than the fellowship of a shared vision. His God (i.e., his projections onto an image of ‘God’) doesn’t necessarily care about the material world and so his religiosity has no necessary impact on economic decisions. This is why a fiscally conservative Christian could feel no hypocrisy in laying off thousands to increase profits no matter its impact on community (because corporations are legally required to base their decisions solely on profit) and then going to church to donate money that will go to help those in need. As such, the two worlds don’t necessarily have any relationship to one another.
To return to A Course in Miracles (ACIM), I’ll explain a little about it. It was a channeled text that was ‘channeled’ by a psychologist at a time when Eastern philosophy and Gnostic texts were gaining popularity, and so it contains many non-Christian elements (or what more traditional conservatives would consider non-Christian). ACIM promotes psychologicalized Eastern philosophy of cognitive detachment (“this item has no real meaning”, “the only value this item has is the value I give it”, etc), but combines this with Christian terminology through a more Valentinian Gnostic theology (a tradition considered heretical by both Catholics and Protestants). The detachment aspect conveninetly can be used to reinforce the fiscally conservative Christian worldview in that it can be interpreted as detaching the spiritual from the physical. However, I would counter by pointing out it also teaches acceptance of and not judgment of others (in their own attachments). The particular fiscally conservative Christian in question was surprised by how his fellow Christians were ‘attached’ to their church, a church that he felt no attachment to since he had only been attending it for a few years. In response, I was surprised by his being surprised by normal human behavior. It’s not clear that the spiritual value of the outward forms of a religious community have anything to do with what the ACIM teaches.
Plus, I would add two other criticisms of using ACIM to criticize the average Christian. First, if one wants to be nitpicky, there isn’t a perfect correlation between what Jesus teaches in the New Testament and what Jesus teaches in ACIM. The channeled ACIM Jesus, in fact, corrects some perceived mistakes made in the recorded sayings of the New Testament Jesus. Second, I see potentially dysfunctional aspects in the ACIM psycho-spiritual theology. It is a product of our culture with the same problems of disconnection from the world we are a part of. It’s just a book. Why would I value the abstract ideas in a book over the tangible realities of shared community life? I have much bigger issues with those who form idolatrous attachments to a holy book (few Christians know the original meaning of God’s Word/Logos, confusing it with the NT) than with those who may form idolatrous attachments to churches and other social institutions that help maintain a healthy sense of community in this world we share, this world which the generations following us will inherit. Even the ACIM advises against idolatrous attachment to ACIM or any practice or tradition, and it explains that there is no single right path.
I don’t mean that there is nothing of value in the view I’m criticizing. As the Christian I spoke with explained, “God cares about people, not objects, as should we.” The belief that God cares about people obviously isn’t a bad thing taken in isolation, but the larger view encompassing it is problematic. Besides, I have no interest in speaking for God as if I know the Divine Mind behind all of Creation. I perceive this as an arrogant certainty that many conservative Christians are prone to. Ignoring claims of knowing God’s Mind, I see no logical reason behind this stance. If God is unlimited, why would He be limited or limit Himself to only caring about humans. In this vast universe, humans are a tiny speck and yet the conservative God cares only about that tiny speck while actively denying any interest or concern, any compassion or love for the rest of His Own Creation. I can’t comprehend such a belief, can’t comprehend it in my mind or in my experience, certainly not in my heart.
That is precisely the problem from my perspective. To see humans as spiritually independent of and separate from the rest of the world is to try to make us into individual objects possessed by God, i.e., Godly objects temporarily lost in a Godless world. I would instead argue that people are relationships: people’s relationship to what is beyond the human (God that is the Creator of the world and the Holy Spirit that is the Breath of God in the world), people’s relationship to other people (made in the image of God), people’s relationship to the earth (God’s Creation), etc. To see something as mere object is to not see God in it. That is a choice you can make, but not one I would recommend. It seems sad to me that one would choose to see the world empty of the Divine. Most Christians acknowledge God isn’t limited to church, but Christianity does teach that God is present where those gather in His name and that includes churches. To say God doesn’t care about objects is to say God doesn’t care about God’s Creation which just doesn’t make sense to me.
Maybe God in a sense isn’t in objects, but if so I would also argue God isn’t in subjects either. If anything, God is the relationship between all things, subjects and objects. Anyway, the division between subject and object is a very modern human construct that has no clear relevance to divine reality or the teachings of Jesus.
* * *
I have one last aspect to consider. I realized that Cartesian dualism of subject/object has infiltrated very deeply into society and into our collective conscious, thus framing so many discussions that occur. Even though it was a product of Enlightenment thinking, Cartesian dualism has been embraced even by conservative Christians who have reinterpreted traditional theology accordingly.
The battle going on in our society right now isn’t between traditionalists and non-traditionalists for one could argue that there are no traditionalists left besides maybe some indigenous tribes that have managed to remain somewhat isolated from civilization. Even the Catholic Church has embraced so much that is modern such as no longer burning witches and including aliens as potentially being part of God’s Creation. We aren’t in Kansas anymore.
Cartesian dualism has led to Cartesian anxiety. Various groups have proposed different ways of dealing with Cartesian anxiety, some more successful or at least less dysfunctional than others.
Some Christians, especially fundamentalists, have declared a divinity that simply negates the issue or rather banishes the issue from the minds of said fundamentalists who then can pretend the issue doesn’t exist. God cares about subjects and so objects are irrelevant: Let Capitalism reign supreme! Or Bring on the Apocalypse! Let the world fend for itself as the Christians prepare for their Heavenly reward. I personally don’t consider that an optimal response to the predicament, but I can see the allure in the comforting confidence of blind faith.
Many other non-Christians have offered other responses, but let me stick closer to the Christian view since it directly relates to the topic of this discussion. The first thing that came to mind was Martin Buber’s philosophy of I-Thou vs I-It; although a Jew, he had major influence on 20th century Christianity. I was actually wondering if this might be behind the theology of fiscally conservative Christianity. That would be ironic if it were the case for Buber was a socialist Jew (the socialism he advocated was of a libertarian, although not anti-statist, variety that emphasized the importance of community, especially religious community, as part of a larger organization of commuity, “a community of communities”; but he warned against ideological dogma which is why he so strongly emphasized the importance of relationships over abstractions).
Here is Buber clarifying that there is something beyond the false dichotomy of subject vs object:
“Subjectivism is psychologization while objectivism is reification of God: One a false fixation, the other a false liberation; both departures from the way of actuality, both attempts to find a substitute for it.”
Buber’s Thou inhabits the space of betwixt-and-between, the interstitial and liminal… or rather it is the witness to and affirmation of that space.
Buber wanted to create a modern theology that could take into account modern human experience in a changing world, maybe in particular in context of industrialization as he was born in 1878 when all of society was being transformed by new technology and a new kind of economy, when the majority of humans were moving from farms into cities. He clarified his distinction because of his criticisms of how capitalism objectifies the world and how individualism distorts human relationships, although he also acknowledged the problems of statist communism (ideologies not being the specific problem and so exchanging one ideology for another wouldn’t solve the problem).
Buber was initially inspired by his experiences of and his relationships with non-human nature:
“The demanding silence of forms (of nature), the loving speech of human beings, the eloquent muteness of creatures — all of these are gateways into the presence of the word.”
As one person explained Buber’s theology:
“The eternal Thou is not an object of experience, and is not an object of thought. The eternal Thou is not something which can be investigated or examined. The eternal Thou is not a knowable object. However, the eternal Thou can be known as the absolute Person who gives unity to all being.”
Unity to all being, not just human beings. Unity rather than division. Not subject vs object. Not this ideology vs that ideology. Not any division of any kind, instead relationships that transcend false dichotomies.
I was reading an article that compares Buber with Winnicot. It gave me some insight into Buber’s ideas about relationships, fellowship and community, in particular in terms of worldly objects such as a building used as a church. Winnicot had two very important ideas: 1) tansitional object, and 2) holding environment. A transitional object such as a teddy bear allows for a healthy transition from dependency on mother to a more independent sense of individuated self. A holding environment is a space that can be safely explored as an extension of the experience of safety that the mother provides.
Religion potentially provides both. A church could act as a holding environment. It is easy as mature adults to look down upon those who need a holding environment, but we all at one point needed a holding environment (as we all once were children) and at various times in our life we will continue to need holding environments (the offices of ministers or psychotherapists create this for us when they assist us with our problems as adults). Transitional spaces and objects provide for an experience in between subject and object. It is this in-between aspect that creates the creative space for entry of the divine into this world.
Religion in particular along with culture and community in general wouldn’t be possible without such in-between spaces. Consider “The Commons” which includes everything from public libraries to public recreation centers to public parks, all the places that form the safe transitional spaces of childhood and which continue to to play a major role into adulthood. It is “The Commons” that creates a shared space between your space and my space. A church where even strangers are welcome also very similar to the experience found in “The Commons”.
Since Christianity has been the focus of this discussion, I’ll end with an interesting application of Buber’s thought to Christian theology:
“Communion leads to community through mutual surrender and reciprocity. Each person is open to the other,accepting the other unconditionally,giving the best one has to offer and receiving from the other in kind.25 The Trinity is one such community;within the Trinity we find three different entities or “persons”. Each one is distinct from the other,yet cannot be defined without the others. Each divine person is affirmed by affirming the others,and through surrendering to the others. Boff points out the richness in this unity which is not mere uniformity;here individuality is respected. Community emerges through communion and mutual self-surrender,26 a self-surrender which is the meaning of kenosis.
“This perfect community of the Trinity is illustrated by the statement “God is love”(1 John 4:8). According to Himes this classic expression is the basis for the doctrine of the Trinity. To claim that God is love means that God is pure self-gift,God is revealed as the One who is perfectly self-giving. From this statement flows the commandment:“Love one another as I have loved you”(John 3:34). The Trinity depicts a relationship of mutual self-giving:the Father gives himself completely to the Son and the Son gives himself completely to the Father. The Spirit,proceeding from both,is the bond of the love between them:“God is the lover,the beloved,and the love between them.”27 Thus God is not a person,that is,one entity of the relationship,but the fullness of relatedness.
“This perfect community,moreover,is not restricted to the Godhead. Boff explains that the divine communion is a mystery of “inclusion”,with the Three opening the divine community to the outside and inviting human beings to share in their community and life. This message goes to the heart of Jesus’final discourse,part of which is quoted at the beginning of this essay. The incarnation of the Son of God,argues Boff,inserted the Trinitarian community into human history,making it possible to eliminate the barriers of distinction and to create a community of equals.
“I think that a renewed appreciation of Trinitarian theology will help expose the inherent individualism of the current consumer ideology,and foster a genuine means of belonging. The claim that the Trinity is the basis for human belonging makes a strong political statement,for it insists not only that human beings are social but that the ground of all being lies in belonging to one another. Moreover,the Trinity provides the deepest foundation possible within the Christian tradition for the rejection of the bias towards individualism. Within the Trinitarian model the individual and community are inter-related. And the means by which one enters into this relationship is through the exercise of self-giving. We could argue then,with Himes,for the right of a person to become a self-gift. To claim that God is Triune points to the perfect relationship within the Godhead exercised through a mutual giving and receiving. To maintain that the human being is made in the image and likeness of God is to claim that the human person is capable of becoming a self-gift.
“This argument seeks to expose the shortcoming of individualism. Those who champion individualism think of freedom as the absence of interference from outside forces. In contrast,those who advocate a communitarian society based on the divine Trinity think of freedom as the ability to make our lives a gift through which we deepen our relationship with the community. Human relationships are meant to mirror the divine communion. A person is a being-in-relationship,and to exist is to be in a relationship. According to Himes,human nature is characterized by the capacity to know and to will relatedness. To limit relatedness is to limit one’s very existence. To deny relationality is to hover on the brink of non-being. But the more we belong to one another–the more we are able to make ourselves a gift–the more fully we exist.
“There are three spheres,says Buber,in which the world of relation is built:
- our life with nature,
- our life with men,
- and our life with ‘intelligible essences.’
“Each of these gates leads into the presence of the Word,but when the full meeting takes place they ‘are united in one gateway of real life.’ Of the three spheres,our life with man ‘is the main portal into whose opening the two side-gates leads,and in which they are included.’ It is here alone that the moments of relation are bound together by speech,and here alone ‘as reality that cannot be lost’ are ‘knowing and being known,loving and being loved.’ The relation with man is thus ‘the real simile of the relation with God,’ for ‘in it true address receives true response.’ But in God’s response all the universe is made manifest as language. (I and Thou,op. cit.,p. 101 ff.)
“The fundamental beliefs of Buber’s “I-Thou” philosophy are the reality of the I-Thou relation into which no deception can penetrate,the reality of the meeting between God and man which transforms man’s being,and the reality of the turning which puts a limit to man’s movement away from God.
“On the basis of these beliefs Buber has defined evil as the predominance of the world of It to the exclusion of relation,and he has conceived of the redemption of evil as taking place in the primal movement of the turning which brings man back to God and back to solidarity of relation with man and the world. Relation is ‘good’ and alienation ‘evil.’ Yet the times of alienation may prepare the forces that will be directed,when the turning comes,not only to the earthly forms of relation but to the Eternal Thou.”