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Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue by Maurice S. Friedman

Maurice S. Friedman is Professor Emeritus of religious studies, philosophy and comparative literature at San Diego State University. Martin Buber (1878-1965).was a Viennese Jewish philosopher and religious leader who translated the Old Tetament into German. He was a Zionist. He sought understainding between Jews and Arabs. Published by The University of Chicago Press, 1955 and reprinted in 1960 by Harpers, N.Y. as a First Harper Torchbook edition. This material prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

Chapter 27: Buber and Christianity

Martin Buber’s influence on religious thought has steadily grown and spread for more than three generations and has been equally great among Christian thinkers as among Jews. Among the prominent Christian religious thinkers whom Buber has significantly influenced are John Baillie, Karl Barth, Nicholas Berdyaev, Emil Brunner, Father M. C. D’Arcy, Herbert H. Farmer, J. E. Fison, Friedrich Gogarten, Karl Heim, Reuel Howe, Hermann von Keyserling, Ernst Michel, Reinhold Niebuhr, H. Richard Niebuhr, J. H. Oldham, Theodore Steinbüchel, and Paul Tillich. Mention should also be made of a number of Christian thinkers whose religious thought has significantly paralleled Buber’s without either influencing or being influenced by him. Of these the most important are Ferdinand Ebner, John Macmurray, Gabriel Marcel, and Eugene Rosenstock-Huessy.

The first of a series of Swiss pamphlets subtitled ‘Building Stones of a Coming Protestantism’ is devoted to ‘Martin Buber’s Way in Our Time.’ In this pamphlet, written in 1940, Walter Nigg says that Martin Buber ‘possesses a paradigmatic significance’ for the religious situation of modern man:

If he was not able to change the face of the present in a decisive way, his groping toward the mainsprings of human existence enables one not only to grasp more deeply the religious situation of our time but also to foresee the direction in which a new breakthrough must be sought. (Nigg, ‘Martin Bubers Weg in unserer Zeit,’ op. cit., p. 5 [my translation])

In 1947 J. H. Oldham, a leader of the ecumenical movement in the Christian Church, made a similar but even more forceful appraisal of Buber’s significance for Christianity:

I am convinced that it is by opening its mind, and conforming its practice, to the truth which Buber has perceived and so powerfully set forth that the Church can recover a fresh understanding of its own faith, and regain a real connection with the actual life of our time. (Joseph Houldsworth Oldham, Real Life Is Meeting [London: The Sheldon Press; New York:The Macmillan Co., 1947] pp. 13-16.)

In 1948 Paul Tillich, who has himself been greatly influenced by Buber, wrote of his significance for Protestant theology as lying in three main directions: his ‘existential interpretation of prophetic religion, his rediscovery of mysticism as an element within prophetic religion, and his understanding of the relation between prophetic religion and culture, especially in the social and political realms.’

Buber’s existential ‘I-Thou’ philosophy . . . should be a powerful help in reversing the victory of the ‘It’ over the ‘Thou’ and the ‘I’ in present civilization.... The ‘I-Thou’ philosophy ... challenging both orthodox and liberal theology, points a way beyond their alternatives. (Paul Tillich, ‘Martin Buber and Christian Thought,’ Commentary, Vol. V, No. 6 [June 1948], p. 397. For a further evaluation of Buber’s significance as an alternative to orthodox and liberal Protestantism see Tillich, ‘Jewish Influences on Contemporary Christian Theology,’ Cross Currents, Vol. II [1952], pp. 38-42.)

‘Professor Buber,’ writes J. Coert Rylaarsdam, ‘is in a unique way the agent through whom, in our day, Judaism and Christianity have met and enriched one another.’ The German Catholic theologian Karl Thieme sees Buber’s impact as coming principally through his position of ‘an outspoken "between,"’ the position that we have called ‘the narrow ridge.’ Although deeply identifying himself with Judaism, Buber cannot be classified as either Orthodox, Reform, or political Zionist, writes Thieme. At the same time, he has gone as far as a Jew could go in honouring Jesus of Nazareth. His insistence that God needs man’s help to complete creation brings him close to Catholicism but removes him from Protestant Christianity, while his enmity toward any fixed laws and rules brings him close to radical Protestantism while setting him apart from Catholicism. Such a ‘between-existence’ poses a question to Buber’s contemporaries -- whether they will make use of it as a bridge of understanding between camp and camp or lay it aside as indifferent to all camps because it can be exploited by none. The answer to this question, in Thieme’s opinion, does not depend so much on the influence of Buber’s Hasidic teaching or his existentialist philosophy as on whether Christian theologians will allow themselves in earnest to be fructified by Buber’s interpretation of the Bible. (Rylaarsdam, ‘The Prophetic Faith,’ op. cit., p. 399, Thieme, ‘Martin Buber als Interpret der Bibel,’ op. cit., p. 8 f.)

It is I and Thou which has in particular received great attention, and many recent Continental and English works give evidence that it is already recognized as a classic. Walter Marshall Horton points it out as the most explicit example of the new sense of depth in Continental theology since 1914. J. H. Oldham says of it: ‘I question whether any book has been published in the present century the message of which, if it were understood and heeded, would have such far-reaching consequences for the life of our time.’ (Oldham, op. cit., p. 27 f.) Oldham expands this statement in another place:

The realization of the crucial significance of relations between persons, and of the fundamentally social nature of reality is the necessary, saving corrective of the dominance of our age by the scientific way of thinking, the results of which, as we know, may involve us in universal destruction, and by the technical mastery of things, which threatens man with the no less serious fate of dehumanization. (J. H. Oldham, ‘Life as Dialogue,’ The Christian News-Letter, Supplement to No. 281 [March 19, 1947], p. 7 f.)

Herbert H. Farmer speaks of the central concept of I and Thou as the most important contribution given to us of recent years toward the reflective grasp of our faith. ‘It has already entered deeply into the theological thought of our time, and is, I believe, destined to enter still more deeply.’ (H. H. Farmer, The Servant of the Word [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons 1942], p.25f.)


I and Thou occupies an important place in the Episcopal Church’s re-education of its clergy for its new wholesale, long-range education programme, and it has had a decisive influence on the ‘relational theology’ in terms of which this programme has been oriented. (According to the Rev. James Pike, Dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the Episcopal Church is now engaged in the development of a programme of education from the cradle to the grave, as a part of which its clergy is being systematically trained, at the College of Preachers in Washington, in ‘relational theology,’ an application of the l-Thou relation to sacrament, grace, and redemption, conceived in relational terms, primarily in the family. For one such application, and a particularly successful one, see R. L. Howe, Man’s Need and God’s Answer (Greenwich, Conn.: Seabury Press, 1952). One Anglo-Catholic theologian, J. E. Fison, uses Buber’s philosophy as the central element in his plea for a greater emphasis on the blessing of the Holy Spirit. ‘The whole conception of spirit,’ writes Fison, ‘as much in St. John 3 and in St. Augustine as in the Old Testament, points to that between-ness in which Buber sees the essential meaning of life.’ (J. E. Fison, The Blessing of the Holy Spirit [London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1950], pp. 28, 65, 126 f., 139, 143 f.)


The widespread influence of I and Thou on Christian thought does not mean, unfortunately, an equally widespread understanding of Buber’s I-Thou philosophy. Many have not followed Oldham’s warning that I and Thou is a book which must be reread again and again and allowed slowly to remould one’s thought. Not only has Buber’s I-Thou philosophy been applied in the most diverse ways, but it has also, at times, been seriously distorted in the application. Melville Channing-Pearce, for example, speaks of I and Thou as a ‘manifest justification of Christianity as . . . a "cosmic mystery play" of the fall, the redemption and resurrection of being.’ (Nicodemus (pseud.), Renaiscence, An Essay in Faith [London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1943], p. 73 ff.) This statement is incompatible both with Buber’s Jewishness and with the concreteness of the meeting with the Thou. Nicholas Berdyaev has taken over Buber’s I-Thou philosophy in Society and Solitude, but he has never really understood the ontological significance of the sphere of the ‘between.’ Though he recognizes that no I exists without a Thou, his real emphasis is on subjectivity and inwardness. At the same time, he criticizes Buber in a way that no careful reader of I and Thou could possibly do, suggesting that for Buber the I-Thou relation is uniquely between man and God and not between man and man and within the larger human community. (Berdyaev, Solitude and Society, op. cit., p. 79 ff. For a further illustration of Berdyaev’s misinterpretation of Buber, mixed with a strong appreciation, cf. Berdyaev’s review of Die chassidischen Bücher, Ich und Du, Zwiesprache, and Königtum Gottes in an article in the Russian religious journal Put’, Organ russkai reilgioznoi mysli [Paris], No. 38 [May 1933], pp. 87-91.)

The German theologian Karl Heim and the Swedish theologian John Cullberg have both systematized the I-Thou philosophy to the point where it bears unmistakable traces of that reliance on the reality of abstraction which characterizes I-It. This is particularly true of Heim’s recasting of the distinction between the I-Thou and the I-It relations in terms of a mathematical analogy of dimensions. (Heim, Glaube und Denken, op. cit., and God Transcendent, op. cit.; Cullberg, Das Du und die Wirklichkeit, op. cit., Systematic Part.) The greatest danger of this type of overconceptualization is that it may lead one to remain content with dialogical philosophizing in place of lived dialogue. The German Benedictine monk, Fr. Caesarius Lauer, has pointed to this danger with uncommon effectiveness in a letter written to Buber in 1951:

The ‘dialogue’ about dialogue is growing on all sides. That should make one glad, but it disquiets me. For -- if all the signs do not deceive -- the talk about dialogue takes from men the living experience of dialogical life.... In dialogic it is the realization that is decisive, since it is working reality, that means -- Life. Now, the word certainly belongs to this realization, as Ebner has well shown. But just the word, not words, not talk, logicizing dialectic.... It is just the ‘spiritual’ man of today who suffers in a frightful fashion the old temptation of the human spirit, that is to say, that of objectifying the living accomplishment.... These ‘dialogical’ dialecticians do not seem to notice that the dialogic is essentially a way. However, ‘the way is there that one may walk on it,’ as you once said. (Quoted with the permission of the author [my translation]. The quotation in Fr. Caesarius’ letter is from Buber’s Preface to his book Das verborgene Licht (Frankfurt am Main: Rütten & Loening, 1924).

Many of the Christian thinkers and theologians who have adopted the I-Thou philosophy have recast it in the form of a radical dualism between the I-Thou and the I-It relations entirely incompatible with Buber’s own thought. Writers like Friedrich Gogarten, Melville Channing-Pearce, Emil Brunner, and Karl Barth in varying degrees equate I-It with man’s sinful nature, and I-Thou with the grace and divine love which are only present in their purity in Christ. Even though Brunner and Barth both recognize that man’s existence as man is made possible only through the I-Thou relation, they both emphasize the limitations that man’s sinfulness places upon his ability to enter into this relationship. Karl Heim, in contrast, writes that both the movement of sacrifice for the other and that of closing oneself against him are possible within the I-Thou relation. By thus divorcing this relation from the clear ethical implications which both Buber and Ferdinand Ebner have given it, Heim makes possible a dualism on the basis of which he characterizes man’s relation with the eternal Thou as taking place in an altogether different dimension from his relation with his human Thou. Father M. C. D’Arcy mistakenly assumes that Heim is developing what was implicit in Buber and, as a result, ascribes to Buber the dualism which is present in Heim. (Gogarten, Ich Glaube an den dreieinigen Gott, op. cit., pp. 103-116, 142-152, 182-188, Brunner, Wahrheit als Begegnung, op. cit., pp 66 f., 77 f., Man in Revolt, op. cit., chap. vi; Heim, Glaube und Denken, pp. 258-261, 328 ff., 342-349, 370-374; God Transcendent, chap. vii; M. C. D’Arcy, The Mind and Heart of Love, Lion and Unicorn, A Study in Eros and Agape [New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1947], p. 204, cf. pp. 114-123, 218, 318-321.)

The ultimate ethical consequence of this radical split between I-Thou and I-It is a de-emphasis on the possibility and significance of ethical action and a tendency to reduce man to the role of passive recipient of grace. Thus Gogarten says that the I never initiates ethical action but only fulfills or denies the claim of the Thou. (Gogarten, op. cit., pp. 110-116) Another result is the tendency to place the ethical choice in terms of the choice between one’s own interest and that of others. This second result is seen most clearly in Gogarten’s reworking of Buber’s philosophy of I and Thou into a philosophy of I or Thou. One must choose between the I and the Thou, says Gogarten, and in this he is followed by John Cullberg and to a lesser degree by Heim. This same emphasis is found in the thought of Will Herberg, the modern Jewish thinker who, under the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr, has given a strongly Protestant coloration to the I-Thou philosophy which he has taken over from Buber. (Ibid., pp. 109-149; Cullberg, op. cit., pp. 201 ff., 222-226; Heim, Glaube und Denken, pp. 342-349; Will Herberg, Judaism and Modern Man [New York: Farrar, Straus & Young, 1951], pp. 63-66, 72-79, 96, 101 f. Herberg writes: ‘The dominion of sin can only be broken by a power not our own, the power of divine grace’ [p. 77], and ‘In the last analysis, the choice is only between love of God and love of self, between a God-centred and self-centred existence’ [p. 96]. I have devoted a whole section of my article, ‘Martin Buber and Christian Thought,’ to this aspect of Herberg’s thought [The Review of Religion, Vol. XVIII, No. 1/2 November 1953], p. 41 f. [sec. iv].) This position is unrealistic, for it forgets the participation of the I even in so-called ‘altruistic’ actions. It also shows that neither Gogarten nor Cullberg have understood the true basis of the I-Thou philosophy which they have adopted, for reality is not within each of the two individuals in a relationship, as they seem to think, but between them.

Karl Barth has rejected the dualism between eros and agape in his own Christianizing of the I-Thou relation. He has also followed Buber in emphasizing the quality of spontaneity and reciprocity in the I-Thou relation which must rule out any confusion of this relation with dominance or submission. (Karl Barth, Kirchliche Dogmatik, Vol. III, Part 2: Die Lehre von Schöpfung [Zurich: Evangelischer Verlag, A. G. Zollikon, 1948], pp. 318-329, 337-340.) Writing in 1948, Barth very possibly had in mind the effects that followed in Germany from a confusion of real relationship with what Erich Fromm would call authoritarian or sadomasochistic relationship. Two earlier German theologians who took over Buber’s I-Thou philosophy -- Friedrich Gogarten and Karl Heim -- both distorted it by reconciling it with an authoritarian attitude. In Gogarten’s case this means submission to the state and, in Heim’s, submission to another person. (For Buber’s criticism of Gogarten’s Political Ethics see Between Man and Man, ‘The Question to the Single One,’ p. 76 f.) Thus Heim writes:

I may submit to you as my authority or my guide. You may submit to me and recognize mine as the higher will. We may arrive at a voluntary agreement of comradeship and co-operation. But that this obedience and this fellowship always have the character of a ‘Thou’ relation, and can never be reduced to an ‘It’ relation, may be seen from the fact that the tension inherent in the ‘Thou’ relation cannot be happily resolved except by submission or fellowship. (God Transcendent, pp. 163-167.)

In the light of Buber’s clear and consistent emphasis on the independence and full freedom of the two partners to the I-Thou relationship, it is ironical to find Karl Barth suggesting that the main difference between his I-Thou philosophy and that of Buber is that he (Barth) makes ‘freedom of the heart between man and man the root and crown of the concept of humanity.’ This freedom implies for Barth just that rejection of the attempt to remove the distance between the I and the Thou through dominance or submission which has always been the simplest pre-supposition of Buber’s I-Thou relationship. (Barth, op. cit., p. 333 ff. That Barth should thus misinterpret Buber is indeed strange in the light of the clearly great influence, both direct and indirect, of Buber’s dialogical thought on Barth’s revision of his theology in the direction of the I-Thou relationship. Although Barth was undoubtedly also influenced by Ferdinand Ebner and Karl Lowith, most of his terminology [Ich und Du, Begegnung, Dialog, Monolog] is Buber’s. Testifying to this influence, Tillich writes: ‘Through the great Swiss theologians, Barth and Brunner, Buber’s basic idea has become a common good of Protestant theology.’ ‘Jewish Influences on Contemporary Theology,’ op. cit., p. 38. In his ‘Nachwort’ to Die Schriften über das dialogische Prinzip [p. 303 ff.] Buber replies at length to Barth’s statements concerning him. For Hasidism, Buber writes, freedom of the heart between man and man is ‘the innermost presupposition the ground of grounds.’) Buber’s emphasis on spontaneity is much stronger, in fact, than that of Barth himself and the other Christian theologians using the I-Thou terminology -- a difference probably caused by the Christian tendency to emphasize the gap between man’s fallen nature and Christian love. The Christian tendency from Augustine to the Reformation to see faith as a gift of God has tended, in Buber’s opinion, to obscure man’s spontaneity:

This sublime conception, with all that goes with it, resulted in the retreating into obscurity of the Israelite mystery of man as an independent partner of God. The dogma of original sin was not, indeed, adapted to further that especial connection of the ethical with the religious that true theonomy seeks to realize through the faithful autonomy of man. (Eclipse of God, ‘Religion and Ethics,’ p. 140 f.)


It is not surprising that Christian theologians should have given a more dualistic cast to the I-Thou philosophy than Buber has. It is important that we be aware that this difference exists, however, for Buber’s attitude toward evil is an integral part of his philosophy of dialogue and cannot be divorced from that philosophy without radically transforming it. There are many Christian interpretations of the I-Thou philosophy. For Fison it implies that the significance of the sacrifice on the cross lies in a two-way and reciprocal action in which God on the cross gave and received all. For Friedrich Gogarten it implies that God must be worshipped in the form of Christ, for only this form makes God sufficiently real as a Thou. For Romano Guardini it implies that Christ, through his perfect I-Thou relation with God, shows us the way to God, and for Barth it implies that Christ, as the son of God, has a perfect I-Thou relation with men, while men, being sinners against God, unfold their existence in opposition and closedness to the Thou. (Fison, op. cit., pp. 196-202; Gogarten, op. cit., pp. 142-188; Guardini, Welt und Person, op. cit., pp. 114-126; Barth, op. cit., pp. 265-272.)

For Buber, in contrast, the I-Thou philosophy implies that God becomes an absolute person -- an imageless and sometimes hiding God who cannot be limited to any one manifestation and, hence, cannot be understood as having become incarnate in Christ. (Two Types of Faith, p. 38 f.) On the other hand, Buber has recognized and pointed to the tremendous religious significance of Jesus as possibly no Jew has heretofore done while remaining firmly planted on the soil of Judaism. Buber wrote of Jesus in 1950:

From my youth onwards I have found in Jesus my great brother. That Christianity has regarded and does regard him as God and Saviour has always appeared to me a fact of the highest importance which, for his sake and my own, I must endeavour to understand. . . . My own fraternally open relationship to him has grown ever stronger and clearer, and today I see him more strongly and clearly than ever before. I am more than ever certain that a great place belongs to him in Israel’s history of faith and that this place cannot be described by any of the usual categories. (Ibid., p. 12 f.)

Buber’s forty years of concern with Jesus and Jesus’ significance for Jewish Messianism have culminated in a study of Jesus and Paul, in Two Types of Faith, which cannot fail to be of great significance in both furthering and clarifying the relation between Judaism and Christianity. In this book he identifies faith as trust (emunah) with biblical and Pharisaic Judaism and with the teachings of Jesus; faith in the truth of a proposition (pistis) he identifies with Greek thought and Paulinism. (Ibid., pp. 7-12)

‘The life-history of Jesus cannot be understood, in my opinion,’ writes Buber, ‘if one does not recognize that he . . . stood in the shadow of the Deutero-Isaianic servant of the Lord.’ Reproached for altering the figure of the ‘holy Yehudi’ in For the Sake of Heaven according to a conscious or unconscious Christian tendency, Buber answers that there is not one single trait of this figure which is not already to be found in the tradition of the suffering servant. But Jesus stepped out of the concealment of the ‘quiver’ (Isa. xlix, 2) while the ‘holy Yehudi’ remained therein. (For the Sake of Heaven, 2nd Edition [New York: Harpers and Brothers, 1953], Foreward, p. xii f. [In Gog und Magog, the German original, this is a postlude.]) The Messianic mystery is based on a real hiddenness which penetrates to the innermost existence and is essential to the servant’s work of suffering. Although each successive servant may be the Promised One, in his consciousness of himself he dare not be anything other than a servant of the Lord. ‘The arrow in the quiver is not its own master; the moment at which it shall be drawn out is not for it to determine.’ If the servant should tear apart his hiddenness, not only would his work itself be destroyed but a counter-work would set in. It is in this light that we must understand the attitude of Judaism to the appearance of Jesus. The meaning of this appearance for the Gentiles ‘remains for me the real seriousness of western history,’ writes Buber. But from the point of view of Judaism, Jesus is the first of the series of men who acknowledged their Messiahship to themselves and the world. ‘That this first one . . . in the series was incomparably the purest, the most legitimate of them all, the one most endowed with real Messianic power, does not alter the fact of his firstness.’(Hasidism, ‘Spinoza,’ p. 113 f. The second and last quotations are my own translation from the original, Die chassidische Botschaft [Heidelberg: Verlag Lambert Schneider, 1952], p. 29. Two Types of Faith, p. 107.)

Jesus’s Messianic consciousness was probably influenced by the apocalyptic Book of Enoch, in which the form, but not the person, of the servant has pre-existence, and by the events of the end which may have led Jesus to step out of the concealment of the ‘quiver’ and imagine himself, after the vision of Daniel, as in his own person the one who will be removed and afterwards sent again to the office of fulfillment. Before the events of the end, Jesus undoubtedly did not see himself as anything other than the hidden servant. And even in the end, he did not hold himself divine in the sense in which he was later held. His Messianic consciousness may have been used by Paul and John as the beginning of the process of deification, but this process was only completed by the substitution of the resurrection for the removal of the servant and personal pre-existence for the pre-existence in form of the Jewish Apocalypses. It was only then that ‘the fundamental and persistent character of the Messiah, as of one rising from humanity and clothed with power, was displaced by . . . a heavenly being, who came down to the world, sojourned in it, left it, ascended to heaven and now enters upon the dominion of the world which originally belonged to him.’

Furthermore, whatever was the case with his ‘Messianic consciousness,’ Jesus, in so far as we know him from the Synoptic tradition, did not summon his disciples to have faith in Christ. The faith which he preached was not the Greek pistis -- faith in a proposition -- but the Jewish emunah -- ‘that unconditional trust in the grace which makes a person no longer afraid even of death because death is also of grace.’ Paul and John, in contrast, made faith in Christ (pistis) the one door to salvation. This meant the abolition of the immediacy between God and man which had been the essence of the Covenant and the kingship of God. "’I am the door" it now runs (John x, 9); it avails nothing, as Jesus thought, to knock where one stands (before the "narrow door"); it avails nothing, as the Pharisees thought, to step into the open door; entrance is only for those who believe in "the door."’ (Two Types of Faith, pp. 96f., 102-113, 160.)

The Jewish position regards the fulfillment of the divine command as valid when it takes place in conformity with the full capacity of the person, whereas Jesus demands that the person go beyond what would ordinarily be his full capacity in order to be ready to enter the kingdom of God which draws near. (Ibid., pp. 22 f., 56, 60 f., 79, 94.) Apart from this difference, Jesus’ attitude toward the fulfillment of the commandments is essentially the same as the Jewish position. Both agree that the heart of man is by nature without direction and that ‘there is no true direction except to God.’ They also agree in the belief that God has given man the Torah as instruction to teach him to direct his heart to Him. The Torah is not an objective law independent of man’s actual relationship to God: it bestows life only on those who receive it in association with its Giver, and for His sake.

For the actuality of the faith of Biblical and post-Biblical Judaism and also for the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount, fulfillment of the Torah means to extend the hearing of the Word to the whole dimension of human existence. (Ibid., pp. 56 ff., 63 ff., 136 f.)

Paul, in contrast to Jesus, represents a decided turning away from the Biblical conception of the kingship of God and the immediacy between God and man. He posits a dualism between faith and action based on a belief in the impossibility of the fulfillment of the law. Law as he here conceives it is necessarily external; it derives from the Greek conception of an objectivum and is foreign to the Jewish understanding of Torah as instruction. This external law makes all men sinners before God, but man can be saved from this dilemma by faith in Christ. This faith, however, is essentially the Greek pistis, faith in the truth of a proposition -- faith with a knowledge content. (Ibid., pp. 7 f., 11 f., 36-37, 79 f.)

Trust in the immediacy between man and God is further destroyed through Paul’s strong tendency to split off God’s wrath and His mercy into two separate powers. He regards the world as given over to the power of judgment until the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ brings mercy and redemption, and he regards man as by nature vile and as incapable of receiving pardon from God until the advent of Christ. For Paul, God’s will to harden is no longer a part of His direct relation with a particular person or generation. ‘For the sake of His plan of salvation God hardens all the generations of Israel, from that assembled on Sinai to that around Golgotha, with the exception of His chosen "Election" (Rom. xi, 7).’ Paul’s God has no regard for the people to whom He speaks but ‘uses them up for higher ends.’ (Two Types of Faith, pp. 47, 81 ff., 85-90, 131-134, 137-142, 146-150.)

Paul answers the problem of evil by creating, in effect, two separate Gods, one good and one bad. In Paul’s view it is God alone who makes man unfree and deserving of wrath while in the work of deliverance God almost disappears behind Christ. ‘The Highest Beings stand out from one another as dark omnipotence and shining goodness, not as later with Marcion in dogma and creed, but in the actual experience of the poor soul of man.’ Although the Christian Paulinism of our time softens the demonocracy of the world, it too sees existence as divided into ‘an unrestricted rule of wrath’ and ‘a sphere of reconciliation.’ It raises energetically the claim for the establishment of a Christian order of life, ‘but de facto the redeemed Christian soul stands over against an unredeemed world of men in lofty impotence.’ This dualistic conception of God and his relation to the world is utterly unacceptable to Buber: ‘In the immediacy we experience His anger and His tenderness in one,’ he writes. ‘No assertion can detach one from the other and make Him into a God of wrath Who requires a mediator. ‘In this connection Buber contrasts the modern Paulinism of Emil Brunner with Franz Kafka’s ‘Paulinism of the unredeemed.’ Kafka knows God’s hiddenness, and he describes most exactly from inner awareness ‘the rule of the foul devilry which fills the foreground.’ But Kafka, the Jew, also knows that God’s hiding Himself does not diminish the immediacy: ‘In the immediacy He remains the Saviour and the contradiction of existence becomes for us a theophany.’ (Ibid., pp. 138-142, 162 ff., 168 f.)


Our awareness of the differences between Buber’s thought and that of the Christian thinkers who have adopted the I-Thou philosophy need in no way imply a minimization of the very great similarities that exist between these religious leaders of different faiths. On the contrary, we presuppose this similarity, and we begin with the situation in which the resemblances are so great that the differences are often overlooked or obscured. Even where there are important differences, moreover, they have contributed much to the fruitfulness of Buber’s dialogue and friendship with such eminent Christian thinkers as Paul Tillich, Rudolf Bultmann, Albert Schweitzer, Rudolph Otto, and Leonhard Ragaz. The spirit in which Buber has carried on this dialogue is made clear in his reply to Rudolph Pannwitz’s criticism that Buber’s contrast between Judaism and Christianity has been unfavourable toward the latter: ‘Religions,’ writes Buber, ‘are receptacles into which the spirit of man is fitted. Each of them has its origin in a separate revelation and its goal in the suspension of all separateness. Each represents the universality of its mystery in myth and rite and thus reserves it for those who live in it.’ To compare one religion with another, valuing the one which is seen from within and devaluing the one which is seen from without, is always, therefore, a senseless undertaking. One can only compare the corresponding parts of the buildings according to structure, function, and connection with one another. (Origin and Meaning of Hasidism, op. cit., ‘Christ, Hasidism, Gnosis.’) In an address in Jerusalem commemorating his great Christian socialist friend Ragaz, Buber made perhaps his most concise and impassioned statement on the place of Jesus in the Jewish community, a statement which shows at once the sympathy and the ‘otherness’ which have marked his dialogue with his Christian friends:

I firmly believe that the Jewish community, in the course of its renaissance, will recognize Jesus; and not merely as a great figure in its religious history, but also in the organic context of a Messianic development extending over millennia, whose final goal is the Redemption of Israel and of the world. But I believe equally firmly that we will never recognize Jesus as the Messiah Come, for this would contradict the deepest meaning of our Messianic passion.... There are no knots in the mighty cable of our Messianic belief, which, fastened to a rock on Sinai, stretches to a still invisible peg anchored in the foundations of the world. In our view, redemption occurs forever, and none has yet occurred. Standing, bound and shackled, in the pillory of mankind, we demonstrate with the bloody body of our people the unredeemedness of the world. For us there is no cause of Jesus; only the cause of God exists for us. (Quoted in Ernst Simon, ‘Martin Buber: His Way between Thought and Deed’ [on Buber’s 70th anniversary], Jewish Frontier, XV [February 1948], p. 26.)

The faith of Judaism and that of Christianity will remain separate until the coming of the Kingdom, writes Buber. The Christian sees the Jew as the incomprehensibly obdurate man who declines to see what has happened, and the Jew sees the Christian as the incomprehensibly daring man who affirms redemption in an unredeemed world. Nevertheless, each can acknowledge the other’s relation to truth when each cares more for God than for his image of God. ‘An Israel striving after the renewal of its faith through the rebirth of the person and a Christianity striving for the renewal of its faith through the rebirth of nations would have something as yet unsaid to say to each other and a help to give to one another hardly to be conceived at the present time.’ (Israel and the World, ‘The Two Foci of the Jewish Soul,’ p. 39 f., Two Types of Faith, p. 173 f.)

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