Chapter 24: Symbol, Myth, and History

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

Chapter 24: Symbol, Myth, and History

One of the aspects of Buber’s thought on God which is most difficult to understand is his characterization of God as an ‘Absolute Person,’ as Being which becomes Person in order to know and be known, to love and be loved by man. This concept decisively sets Buber off from those mystics who look at the ground of being as impersonal Godhead and regard God as only the personal manifestation of this ground. It seems to the impersonalist and the mystic that Buber is limiting God, for they think of personality as limitation and the Eternal Thou as a designation for God as He is in Himself. What Buber really means is made unmistakably clear in ‘Religion and Philosophy,’ in which he speaks of Buddha’s relation to the ‘Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated’ as an I-Thou relation because Buddha stands essentially related to it with his whole being.

The personal manifestation of the divine is not decisive for the genuineness of religion. What is decisive is that I relate myself to the divine as to Being which is over against me, though not over against me alone. (Eclipse of God, op. cit., p. 39 f.)

Thus the ‘Eternal Thou’ is not a symbol of God but of our relation with God. What is more, no real symbol of God is possible for we do not know Him as He is in Himself!

It is indeed legitimate to speak of the person of God within the religious relation and in its language; but in so doing we are making no essential statement about the Absolute which reduces it to the personal. We are rather saying that it enters into the relationship as the Absolute Person whom we call God. One may understand the personality of God as His act -- it is, indeed, even permissible for the believer to believe that God became a person for love of him, because in our human mode of existence the only reciprocal relation with us that exists is a personal one. (Eclipse of God, ‘Religion and Ethics’ p. 126 f.)

Some critics, on the other hand, point to just such statements as the above to assert that Buber is really still a mystic postulating an impersonal, monistic ground of being. (Cf. E. La B. Cherbonnier, ‘The Theology of the Word of God,’ Journal of Religion, XXXIII, No. I [January 1953], 28 f.) That they do so is, in my opinion, because they misunderstand the meaning of personality to the extent of thinking of it as an objective description of a being taken for himself rather than as something that exists in relation and pre-eminently in the relation between God and man. Because, at least in part, they think of personality as objective, they hope to safeguard God’s personality, or His personal relations with man, by limiting His nature to the personal alone. The Biblical God, on whom they base this limitation, is actually the imageless God, the God who manifests Himself in nature and in history but cannot be limited to any of these manifestations.

It is not necessary to know something about God in order really to believe in Him: many true believers know how to talk to God but not about Him. If one dares to turn toward the unknown God, to go to meet Him, to call to Him, Reality is present. (Eclipse of God, ‘Religion and Philosophy,’ p. 40)

Thus Buber walks the narrow ridge between the mystic and the non-mystic, between one who asserts unity with the ground of being and the other who either removes God into the transcendence beyond direct relation or limits Him to objective ‘personal’ existence.

To the metaphysician, and particularly to the Whiteheadian metaphysician, it cannot be comprehensible that Buber speaks of God as an Absolute Person, for a person is in relation and therefore is limited and in that sense relative. Yet it is precisely on this paradox that Buber rests his thought. To speak of God as the Eternal Thou, as Being in relation to Becoming, is to express the same paradox. Whitehead is similar to Buber in his emphasis upon the concrete meeting between God and the world as opposed to the valuation of the abstract unity of God. Like Buber, too, he conceives of the redemption of evil as taking place through the relation and mutual love of God and the world. He differs from Buber, however, in that he is less concerned with our relation to God than with the generic relation of God to creatures, relation in the end is for him an objective matter -- I-It rather than I-Thou. Moreover, Whitehead does not emphasize, as does Buber, that God is transcendent as well as immanent, absolute as well as in relation. Though God and the world are, for Whitehead, opposites, they complete one another through a flowing dialectical interaction which lacks the marked polar tension of Buber’s ‘meeting’ or ‘over-againstness.’ (Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making [New York: The Macmillan Co., 1946], pp. 90-100, 150-160; Whitehead, Process and Reality, An Essay in Cosmology [New York: The Macmillan Co., 1929], pp. 521-532. For a further comparison of Buber and Whitehead cf. Hugo Bergmann, ‘Der Physiker Whitehead,’ Die Kreatur, Berlin, Vol. II [1927-28], pp. 356-362, especially p. 361 ff., and Maurice Friedman, Martin Buber: Mystic, Existentialist, Social Prophet. op. cit., pp. 326-331, 428. Cf. Charles Hartshorne, ‘Buber’s Metaphysics’’ The Philosophy of Martin Buber, loc. cit). Buber thus stands at a half-way point between Whitehead and Kierkegaard, having greater tension and paradox than Whitehead but less tension and more direct relation than Kierkegaard. He agrees with Kierkegaard in his rejection of the religion of immanence, but he does not consider the subjective relation to the transcendent a paradox or absurdity, as does Kierkegaard in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, for his I-Thou category includes both inwardness and relation. [For an extended comparison between Buber and Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript see again my dissertation, Martin Buber. op. cit., Appendix])

This problem of the immanence and transcendence of God is an especially vexatious one, and here too Buber walks the narrow ridge. That not many others walk with him on this ridge is suggested by the fact that Karl Heim and Melville Channing-Pearce make use of Buber’s thought to point to the unqualified transcendence of God, while J. B. Coates writes, ‘I find the experience of Buber’s "I-Thou" world a convincing demonstration of divine immanence’! Gogarten stresses the ‘otherness’ of the divine Thou, Marcel and Nedoncelle the togetherness, making the I-Thou relation into a ‘we.’ (Note A, pp. 539-543 Cf. also Maringer, p. 122, ‘Anmerkungen 12.’ VI. Heim, Glaube und Denken and God Transcendent: Nicodemus, Renascence: Coates, The Crisis of the Human Person, op. cit., p. 244 f.; Gogarten. Ich glaube an den dreieinigen Gott: Marcel, Journal Métaphysique, op. cit.. Part II. especially pp. 170, 293 f.; Nédoncelle, La Reciprocité des Consciences. op. cit.. especially Part I -- ‘La Communion des Consciences’ and chap. iii -- ‘La Découverte de l’Absolu Divin.’) Buber himself denies that God is either merely immanent or merely transcendent.

Of course God is the ‘wholly Other’; but He is also the wholly Same, the wholly Present. Of course He is the Mysterium Tremendum that appears and overthrows; but He is also the mystery of the self-evident, nearer to me than my I. (I and Thou, p.79)

Romano Guardini, very possibly under Buber’s influence, makes use of this same terminology of God as at once ‘the other’ and ‘the same,’ other than man but not hostile or alien, the same as man but not identical. (Guardini, Welt und Person, op. cit., chap. iii --‘Gott und "der Andere",’ pp. 23-29.) J. E. Fison, under Buber’s influence, also shows a clear grasp of the narrow ridge between transcendence and immanence:

The antithesis of either God objective and apart from us or else God subjective and a part of us needs to be overcome in the higher and deeper synthesis towards which Professor Buber points with his emphasis on the I-Thou relationship of meeting. (Fison, The Blessing of the Holy Spirit, op. cit., p. 23)

In the light of Buber’s clear statement of this middle position, it is strange to find John Baillie criticizing him for making God ‘Wholly Other’ and too simply Thou and not I. (Baillie, Our Knowledge of God, op. cit., pp. 233-229) Baillie’s criticism is perhaps based on the confusion of Buber’s Eternal Thou with a symbol of God as He is in Himself. Even though God is within us as well as outside us, we must still relate to him as Thou. His Thou-ness by no means implies simple transcendence, for if God were simply transcendent we could have no relation to Him at all. He would then be merely a hostile and terrifying ‘Other’ or some Gnostic divinity entirely cut off from our world and our life.

This same misunderstanding has been expressed in connection with the problem of whether the reciprocity of man and God in the I-Thou relationship must necessarily imply an equality that denies man’s creatureliness and discourages the humility which man should have before God. Guardini, Maurice Nedoncelle, and H. H. Farmer have convincingly shown that reciprocity does not imply equality, as has Buber himself. Gogarten and Cullberg have taken the contrary view and have sought to protect the distance between man and God by positing God as the subject and man the object, God as always the I and man as always the Thou. This denial of reciprocity and this equation of the Thou with the object both constitute a fundamental distortion of the I-Thou relationship which takes from it much of its meaning. For Buber, in contrast, the mystery of creation implies that God gives man the independent existence and real spontaneity that enable him to recognize himself as an I and to say Thou to God. A genuinely reciprocal relationship demands that man regard himself not as an object of God’s thought but as a really free person -- a partner in dialogue. (Guardini, Welt und Person, pp. 23-29,111-114; Nedoncelle, pp. 86-109; Herbert H. Farmer, The World and God, op. cit., pp. 23-31, 60 66, 97 f., 201 f.; Eclipse of God, ‘Religion and Ethics,’ p. 138. Cf. my review of Abraham J. Heschel’s Man Is Not Alone in the Journal of Religion, October 1951.)

Our relation to the Eternal Thou is perhaps best understood from the nature of the demand which one person makes on another if the two of them really meet. The demand is not, as Gogarten would say, that the I choose between the I and the Thou and give up his own self for the other. Rather it is the demand of the relationship itself -- the demand that if you are to meet me, you must become as much of a person as I am. God places on man an unconditional demand. In order to remain open to God, he must change in his whole being. This demand makes more comprehensible God’s double aspect of love and justice: judgment is the individual’s judgment of himself when he cuts himself off from relationship with God. This ‘judgment of his non-existence,’ as Buber calls it, does not mean that God ceases to love him.

This emphasis on reciprocity in no way jeopardizes true humility before God, but an undue emphasis on humility does jeopardize reciprocity. True humility means that one sees oneself as addressed with one’s very life and one’s life task as that of responding to this address. False humility goes beyond this and denies the reality of the address and the response by denying the reality of the self and of man’s freedom to answer or remain silent. For this reason, an undue emphasis on humility actually becomes a form of not responding to God. It allows a man the illusion that he is escaping from the burden of freedom and responsibility, and it thus destroys true personal relationship. In the end these two must go together -- genuine reciprocity and utter humility. On the narrow ridge of their togetherness the man of faith walks, avoiding the abyss of self-affirmation on the one hand and self-denial on the other.

Everyone must have two pockets, so that he can reach into the one or the other, according to his needs. In his right pocket are to be the words: ‘For my sake was the world created,’ and in his left: ‘I am dust and ashes.’ (A Hasidic saying from Ten Rungs, op. cit., p.106)

The Symbol and the Concrete

Buber’s I-Thou philosophy implies a radical reversal of the idealist and mystical attitude toward symbolism which sees the symbol as the concrete manifestation of some universal if not directly knowable reality. For Buber the meaning of the symbol is found not in its universality but in the fact that it points to a concrete event which witnesses just as it is, in all its concreteness, transitoriness, and uniqueness, to the relation with the Absolute. The symbol does, of course, become abstract when it is detached from a concrete event. But this is a metamorphosis of the central content of the symbol, a metamorphosis which deprives the symbol of its real meaning just by giving it the all-meaning of the ‘universal’ and the ‘spiritual.’ This all-meaning is always only a substitute for the meaning apprehended in the concrete. It never really means a particular time, a particular place, and a particular event happening to individuals in all their uniqueness. Symbolic events are instead regarded as merely manifestations of the universal and hence as not having meaning in themselves but only to the extent that they have lost their particularity.

Here we have again the distinction between the I-It relation which leads back to the reality of I-Thou and that which obstructs the entrance into I-Thou, the distinction between religion which sees meaning as the bond between the Absolute and the concrete and philosophy which sees it as the bond between the Absolute and the universal. The true symbol, as Buber understands it, is that which derives from and points back to the concrete relationship.

It does not belong to the nature of symbols to hover timelessly over concrete actualities. Whenever the symbol appears, it owes its appearance always to the unforeseen, unique, occasion, to its having appeared the first time. The symbol derives its enduring character from a transitory event.... For the image of the unbroken meaning . . . serves always in the first instance our born, mortal body -- everything else is only repetition, simplification, imitation.... The covenant which the Absolute enters into with the concrete, not heeding the general, the ‘idea,’ . . . chooses movements made by the human figure.... And this sign endures. It may lose in immediate validity, in ‘evidential value,’ but it may also renew itself out of later human existence, which accomplishes anew. (Hasidism, op.cit., ‘Symbolical and Sacramental Existense in Judaism,’p.117 f.)

Because the symbol means the covenant between the Absolute and the concrete, its meaning is not independent of lived human life in all its concreteness. Not only does this lived concreteness originally produce the symbol, but only this can renew its meaning for those who have inherited it and save it from becoming merely spiritual and not truly existential.

All symbols are ever in danger of becoming spiritual, and not binding images, instead of remaining real signs sent into life; all sacraments are ever in danger of becoming plain experiences, leveled down to the ‘religious’ plane, instead of remaining the incarnate connection between what is above and what is below. Only through the man who devotes himself is the original power saved for further present existence. (Ibid., p. 118)

The highest manifestation of the symbol is, in fact, a human life lived in relation to the Absolute. The prophets were symbols in that sense, for God does not merely speak through their mouths, as through the Greek oracle or prophet, but the whole human being is for Him a mouth. Passivity and activity, possession and speech, go together here in ‘one single, inclusive function, and the undivided person is necessary to establish the indivisible function.’ (Ibid., pp. 118-123; The Prophetic Faith, op. cit., p. 112 f.)


The most concrete and dramatic form of the symbol is the myth. To such writers as C. G. Jung and Ananda K. Coomaraswamy the myth is an embodiment in different forms and cultures of a perennial reality, the spiritual process whereby the one becomes the many and the many returns unto the one or the psychological process whereby integration of the personality is achieved and the divine Self realized within the unconscious. (Cf. Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul [1933], Psychology and Religion [1938], The Integration of the Personality [1940]; Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Hinduism and Buddhism.) In his early thinking Buber also thought of myth as a particular manifestation of a universal mystical reality. Yet by 1907 he was already developing in a different direction by distinguishing between the ‘pure myth’ in which there is variety without differentiation and the ‘legend’ in which the subject is divided and God and the hero or saint stand opposed to one another as I and Thou. (Foreword to Die Legende des Baalschem, op. cit.) In 1921 he expanded and developed this concept into a distinction between myth, saga, and legend. Myth is the expression of a world in which the divine and the human live next to and in one another; saga is the expression of a world in which they are no longer intertwined and man already begins to sense with a shudder what is over against him; legend expresses a world in which the separation is completed, but now a dialogue and interchange takes place from sphere to sphere and it is of this that the myth tells. (Der grosse Maggid und seine Nachfolge, op. cit., ‘Vorwort ‘ p. v f.)

Since Ich und Du (1923) Buber’s dialogical understanding of myth has become increasingly clear. ‘Real myth,’ he wrote in 1950, ‘is the expression, not of an imaginative state of mind or of mere feeling, but of a real meeting of two Realities.’(Introductory note by Buber, written in 1950, to Martin Buber, ‘Myth in Judaism,’ trans. by Ralph Manheim, Commentary, Vol. IX ([June 1950], p. 565 f. For the original of this essay see’Der Mythos der Juden,’ in Vom Geist des Judentums op. cit., also reprinted in Reden über das Judentum, op. cit.) Myth is not a human narrative of a one-sided divine manifestation, as Buber once thought, but a ‘mythization’ of the memory of the meeting between God and man. Some myths contain within themselves the nexus of a concrete historical event experienced by a group or by an individual while many have lost their historical character and contain only the symbolic expression of a universal experience of man. To this latter class belong the Jewish and Zoroastrian myths of the origin of evil which Buber uses to illustrate his anthropological treatment of good and evil. He writes concerning them: ‘We are dealing here, as Plato already knew, with truths such as can be communicated adequately to the generality of mankind only in the form of myths.’ (Moses, op. cit., p. 17; Israel and the World, op. cit., ‘Biblical Leadership,’ p. 119 f.; Images of Good and Evil, op. cit., p. 12.) It is important to recognize, however, that even here countless concrete meetings of I and Thou have attained symbolic expression in the relatively abstract form. It is just this in fact which gives these myths their universality and profundity. Because these myths are products of actual human experience, they tell us something of the structure of human reality which nothing else can tell us. (Images of Good and Evil, op. cit., p. 12)

Buber’s characterization of myth as a product of the I-Thou relation finds significant support in the thought of two important modern writers on myth, Ernst Cassirer and Henri Frankfort. Buber’s distinction between the I-It and the I-Thou relations is closely similar to Cassirer’s distinction between ‘discursive’ and ‘mythical’ thinking. Discursive thinking, writes Cassirer, denotes what has already been noticed. It classifies into groups and synthesizes parts into a whole. It does not contemplate a particular case but instead gives it a fixed intellectual ‘meaning’ and definite character through linking it with other cases into a general framework of knowledge. The particular is never important in itself but only in terms of its relation to this framework. Mythical thought, on the contrary, is not concerned with relating data but with a sudden intuition, an immediate experience in which it comes to rest. ‘The immediate content . . . so fills his consciousness that nothing else can exist beside and apart from it.’ This content ‘is not merely viewed and contemplated, but overcomes a man in sheer immediacy.’ (Ernst Cassirer, Language and Myth, trans. by Suzanne Langer [New York: Harper & Brothers, 1946], pp. 11, 18, 27.)

This similarity between mythical thinking and the I-Thou relation is made explicit through Professor (and Mrs.) Frankfort’s use of Buber’s distinction between I-It and I-Thou, their identification of myth with the dynamically reciprocal I-Thou relation in which every faculty of man is involved, and their recognition of the unique and unpredictable character of the Thou -- ‘a presence known only in so far as it reveals itself.’

‘Thou’ is not contemplated with intellectual detachment; it is experienced as life confronting life.... The whole man confronts a living ‘Thou’ in nature; and the whole man--motional and imaginative as well as intellectual). -- gives expression to the experience. (H. and H. A. Frankfort, et. al., The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, An Essay on Speculative Thought in the Ancient Near East [Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1946], p. 4 ff.)


Buber goes significantly beyond Cassirer and even Frankfort, however, in his understanding of the relation between history and myth. Identifying history with discursive thinking, Cassirer speaks of the historical fact as meaningful only as a member of a course of events or a teleological nexus and not in its particularity and uniqueness. Frankfort recognizes that myth arises not only in connection with man’s relation to nature, the cosmos, and the change of the seasons, but also in his relation to a transcendent God in the course of history. But when he speaks of the will of God, the chosen people, and the Kingdom of God as ‘myths,’ he tends to remove from history that concreteness which is of its very essence.

The doctrine of a single, unconditioned, transcendent God . . . postulated a metaphysical significance for history and for man’s actions.... In transcending the Near Eastern myths of immanent godhead, they [the Hebrews] created . . . the new myth of the will of God. It remained for the Greeks, with their peculiar intellectual courage, to discover a form of speculative thought in which myth was entirely overcome. (Ibid., concluding chapter, ‘The Emancipation of Thought from Myth’; also found in H. and H. A. Frankfort, et al., Before Philosophy [Pelican Books A 198], chap. viii, pp. 241-248.)

Thus myth to Frankfort is primarily important as a form of thought rather than as an embodiment of concrete events. For Buber, as we have seen, the emphasis is the other way around. For this reason the meeting with God in history is even more important to him than the meeting with God in nature. True history, in consequence, must include just that concreteness and uniqueness which Cassirer attributes to mythical thinking. Much of history is, of course, universal and abstract; yet real history also contains at its core the memory of the concrete and particular meeting between I and Thou. ‘I hold myth to be indispensable,’ writes Buber, ‘but I do not hold it to be central.... Myth must verify itself in man and not man in myth.... What is wrong is not the mythization of reality which brings the inexpressible to speech, but the gnosticizing of myth which tears it out of the ground of history and biography in which it took root.’ (Origin and Meaning of Hasidism, op. cit., ‘Christ, Hasidism, Gnosis.’)

This attitude toward the relation between history and myth is developed by Buber in his books of biblical commentary, Königtum Gottes, Moses, and The Prophetic Faith, and it is this which constitutes one of the most significant contributions of these remarkable works. Emil Brunner has written of the first of these, Königtum Gottes, that it is ‘a book which shows what history is better than any philosophy of history.’ (Emil Brunner, Man in Revolt (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1947, London: Lutterworth, 1948), p. 448, n. 2.) In these studies Buber leads us on a narrow ridge between the traditionalist’s insistence on the literal truth of the biblical narrative and the modern critic’s tendency to regard this narrative as of merely literary or symbolic significance. The former tend to regard the events of the Bible as supernatural miracles and the quest for any reality comparable to our own experiences as illicit. The latter see them as impressive fantasies or fictions, interesting from a purely immanent and human point of view. Between these two approaches Buber sets down a third:

We must adopt the critical approach and seek reality, here as well, by asking ourselves what human relation to real events this could have been which led gradually, along many by-paths and by way of many metamorphoses, from mouth to ear, from one memory to another, and from dream to dream, until it grew into the written account we have read. (Israel and the World, ‘The Man of Today and the Jewish Bible,’ pp. 97-100; Moses, p. 61 f.)

This third way is one which refuses the alternatives of factual history or universal and timeless myth and proclaims the history which gives rise to myth, the myth which remembers history:

What is preserved for us here is to be regarded not as the ‘historization’ of a myth or a cult drama, nor is it to be explained as the transposition of something originally beyond time into historical time: a great history-faith does not come into the world through interpretation of the extra-historical as historical, but by receiving an occurrence experienced as a ‘wonder,’ that is as an event which cannot be grasped except as an act of God. (The Prophetic Faith, p. 46.)

The saga is the direct and unique expression of the reporter’s ‘knowledge’ of an event. Rather, this knowledge is itself a legendary one, representing through the organic work of mythicizing memory the believed-in action of God on His people. It is not fantasy which is active here but memory, that believing memory of the souls and generations of early times which works unarbitrarily out of the impulse of an extraordinary event. Even the myth which seems most fantastic of all is creation around the kernel of the organically shaping memory. ‘Here, unlike the concept familiar in the science of religion, myth means nothing other than the report by ardent enthusiasts of that which has befallen them.’

Here history cannot be dissevered from the historical wonder; but the experience which has been transmitted to us, the experience of event as wonder, is itself great history and must be understood out of the element of history. (Moses, pp. 14-17; Israel and the World, ‘Biblical Leadership,’ p. 119 ff., Königtum Gottes, op. cit., p. 9 f.)

Buber’s third way does not mean a dismissal of the comparative aspects of the history of religions but it guards against the blurring of the historical figure which is caused by the now widespread shifting into the primitive. It recognizes the connections of historical celebrations with ancient nature rites but also points out the essential transformation of those rites which took place when they were given a historical character. (Königium Gottes, p. 120 ff.; Moses, pp. 56 f., 81, 128, 158.) Moreover, in addition to understanding an event comparatively and in terms of the stages of religious development, it leaves room for the criterion of uniqueness.

There are in the history of religion events, situations, figures, expressions, deeds, the uniqueness of which cannot be regarded as the fruit of thought or song, or as a mere fabrication, but simply and solely as a matter of fact.... (The Prophetic Faith, p. 6)

This criterion of uniqueness must be used with ‘scientific intuition,’ and it cannot be applied to all events but only to unusual ones. One such unusual event is that which Buber calls a ‘historical mystery.’ ‘A historical mystery always means a relation between a super-personal fate and a person, and particularly that which is atypical in a person; that by which the person does not belong to his type.’ Buber’s criterion of the uniqueness of the fact is of especial importance because, as in the concept of the historical mystery, it goes beyond the phenomenological approach which at present dominates the study of the history of religions. ‘Irrespective of the importance of the typological view of phenomena in the history of the spirit, the latter, just because it is history, also contains the atypical, the unique in the most precise sense.’ This concern with uniqueness is a natural corollary of Buber’s belief that the absolute is bound to the concrete and not to the universal and his corresponding valuation of the particular over the general. This valuation of the particular provides Buber with another criterion, that of the ‘historically possible’ which leaves room for the unique: ‘It is a basic law of methodology not to permit the "firm letter" to be broken down by any general hypothesis based on the comparative history of culture; as long as what is said in that text is historically possible.’ By the ‘historically possible’ Buber does not mean that which is merely not impossible but rather that which accords with the historical conditions of the epoch. (Moses, pp. 35, 64, 136, 158; Königtum Gottes, p. 11)

Buber calls his treatment of Biblical history ‘tradition criticism’ as distinct from ‘source criticism.’ This tradition criticism seeks to penetrate beneath the layers of different redactions of tradition to a central unity already present in the first redaction and developed, restored, or distorted in the later ones. It is important in this connection to distinguish very clearly within each tradition between its fundamental unity and the unity of harmonization, fruit of the ‘Biblical’ spirit, ‘between saga produced near the historical occurrences, the character of which is enthusiastic report, and saga which is further away from the historical event, and which derives from the tendency to complete and round off what is already given.’ Even in the work of harmonization, however, there may be found the influence of a primitive unity, preserved in the memory of generations in spite of different editorial tendencies. (The Prophetic Faith, p.6 f.; Moses, p. 18 f.)

Tradition is by its nature an uninterrupted change in form; change and preservation function in the identical current. Even while the hand makes its alterations, the ear hearkens to the deeps of the past; not only for the reader but also for the writer himself does the old serve to legitimize the new. (Moses, p. 18)

The mythical element may, of course, become so strong that the kernel of historical memory tends to be obscured. Where event and memory cease to rule, myth replaces them by a timeless image. This weakening of the bond with history tends, in particular, to be the case with eschatology, which misses the special, concrete, historical core. This retreat from the historical itself tends to be expressed in myth. ‘In so far as faith expresses more and other than its actual relation to the divine, in so far as it wishes to report and describe and not merely call and address, to that extent it must mythicize its object.’ (Königtum Gottes, p. 120 ff. [my translations]. Cf. The Prophetic Faith, pp. 142, 153; Moses, p. 109.)

The Bible as ‘literal truth’ and the Bible as ‘living literature’ are thus supplanted in Buber’s thought by the Bible as a record of the concrete meetings in the course of history between a group of people and the divine. The Bible is not primarily devotional literature, nor is it a symbolic theology which tells us of the nature of God as He is in Himself. It is ‘anthropogeny,’ the historical account of God’s relation to man seen through man’s eyes. (Israel and the World, ‘The Man of Today and the Jewish Bible,’ pp. 89, 92 f.; The Prophetic Faith, p. 89.)

Buber does not regard his concept of history as applying only to Biblical history but merely as most clearly in evidence there.

What we are accustomed to call history is from the Biblical stand point only the façade of reality. It is the great failure, the refusal to enter into the dialogue, not the failure in the dialogue, as exemplified by Biblical man. (Ibid., ‘Biblical Leadership,’ p. 133; cf. ibid., ‘The Man of Today and the Jewish Bible,’ p. 94 f., ‘False Prophets,’ p. 114.)

Outer history sees only success. Inner history knows that ‘the way, the real way, from the Creation to the Kingdom is trod not on the surface of success but in the deep of failure.’ It is the unrecorded and anonymous work of the secret leadership, the work which leads to the final, Messianic overcoming of history in which outer history and inner history will fuse. Since world history is the advance of the peoples toward the goal of making real the kingship of God, it is essentially holy history. Every great civilization is founded on an original relational event, writes Buber, a concrete religious and normative relation with the Absolute. Man rebels against this relation: ‘he wills and wills not to translate the heavenly truth into earthly reality.’ It is here in this struggle of man with the spirit that great civilizations rise, and it is this which determines all their wisdom and their art. (Ibid., ‘Biblical Leadership,’ pp. 124-133, ‘In the Midst of History,’ p. 78 ff.; At the Turning, op. cit., ‘Judaism and Civilization,’ p. 11 f., ‘The Dialogue between Heaven and Earth,’ p. 51. Cf. Eclipse of God, ‘Religion and Ethics.’ The American theologian H. Richard Niebuhr takes an attitude toward history closely similar to that of Buber, and he identifies his distinction between ‘objective, external history’ and the personal, or ‘internal,’ history of revelation with Buber’s distinction between I-It and I-Thou. H. Richard Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation [New York: The Macmillan Co., 1941], pp. 59, 64 f., 145 ff.)

History is customarily understood as an interrelation of events none of which are significant in themselves but only in terms of their connection with the past from which they spring and the future to which they give rise. Even when a great emphasis is placed upon the richness of historical fact, these facts are usually felt to be significant only as expressions of historical trends or of periods of culture. As a result ‘meaning’ in history tends to be associated with the universal and the general to the exclusion of the particular and the unique. The modern historian, as Friedrich Gogarten has pointed out, sees history as a linear process of evolution, comparable to the flow of experience reflected in the consciousness of the unrelated I. This historical evolutionism is a distortion of reality whether it leans toward the idealist side and emphasizes the suprahistorical meaning which is revealed in history or toward the empirical side and emphasizes the never-ceasing flow and relativity of all events. In both cases it takes no account of the prior reality of the I-Thou relation -- the dialogue between man and man and between man and God. Hence it can never know the event in its uniqueness and particularity, nor can it really know the extent to which the future is determined by man’s genuine response and his failure to respond to what meets him. (Gogarten, Ich glaube an den dreieinigen Gott, pp. 5, 9, 19-38. In his ‘Nachwort’ to Die Schriften über das dialogische Prinzip Buber points out that although Gogarten understands history as ‘the meeting of Thou and I,’ he holds at the same time the undialectical thesis, ‘History is God’s work,’ and thus must ultimately fail to grasp the character of history as meeting.)

Subject-object history cannot adequately understand events because the I of the historian is that of the disinterested spectator while the persons whom he describes are usually treated as Its rather than as Thous. I-It history, moreover, takes only the human, immanent side of events into consideration. No room is left for the ‘wonder’ which arises when the encounter with the Thou in the world is perceived to be not only an event within a causal nexus but a meeting with God. The worship of historical process, the identification of history with success, is a part of that shell of impersonality which enables men to remain unaware of ‘the signs’ which address them through history as well as through the other parts of their lives. True history, in contrast, can only be understood through our participation in it -- through its becoming alive for us as Thou. ‘If history is a dialogue between Deity and mankind,’ writes Buber, ‘we can understand its meaning only when we are the ones who are addressed, and only to the degree to which we render ourselves receptive.’

We are, then, flatly denied the capacity to judge current history and arrive at the conclusion that ‘This or that is its true meaning’ . . . What we are permitted to know of history comes to this: ‘This, in one way or another, is history’s challenge to me; this is its claim on me; and so this is its meaning as far as I am concerned.’ This meaning, however, is not ‘subjective.’ . . . It is the meaning I perceive, experience, and hear in reality.... It is only with my personal life that I am able to catch the meaning of history, for it is a dialogical meaning. (Israel and the World, ‘In the Midst of History,’ pp. 78-82. 238)