Chapter 7: Dialectic of Religion and Culture

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

Chapter 7: Dialectic of Religion and Culture

Closely related to Buber’s philosophy of realization, and like it an important element in the development of his I-Thou philosophy, is his dialectic of religion and culture. Influenced by Nietzsche, Wilhelm Dilthey, and Georg Simmel, (Cf. Nietzsche’s contrast between the Dionysian and the Apollonian in The Birth of Tragedy and The Will to Power, Dilthey’s contrast between Geisteswissenschaften and Naturwissenschaften, and Simmel’s contrast between ‘religiousness’ and ‘religion’ in Die Religion, Vol. II of Die Gesellschaft. Sammlung sozialpsychologischer Monographien, edited by Martin Buber [Frankfurt am Main: Rütten & Loening 1906], pp. 7-17. Dilthey and Simmel were both Buber’s teachers.) this dialectic combines a theory of religious symbolism with a philosophy of history. Culture and religiousness replace one another in the history of peoples, writes Buber. Culture is the stabilization of the life impulse and life forms between two religious upheavals. Religion is the renewal of the life impulse and life forms between two cultural developments. In the religious upheaval the powers become free. In culture they bind themselves again in new life forms, bind themselves ever faster and tighter, until they lie caught, dull and lifeless, in the forms. Then there comes again a moment when life revolts against the law that has ceased to contain the spirit which created it. In this moment the form is broken and life is summoned to new creation out of the chaos. But this shattering is no simple turning-point. It is much more a fearful crisis that is often decisive not for renewal but for death. And yet there is no other way not only to a new religiousness but also to a new culture. This upheaval can at first find no other expression than the religious, for before man creates new life forms, he creates a new relation to life itself, a new meaning of life. But this renewal must be accompanied by the inner strength to withstand the crisis. Power of the storming spirit to stir up the conflagration, security of the constructing soul to hold itself in the purifying fire: these are the forces which guide a people to rejuvenated life. (Die jüdische Bewegung, Vol. I, op. cit., ‘Zwiefache Zukunft’ [1912], pp. 216-220.)

This dialectic recognizes a conservative and retaining influence as a necessary accompaniment of the dynamic and creative, if stable life is to result. Yet it also recognizes the process by which the forms encroach on the life that created them until that life must destroy the forms in order to continue its existence. Evil in this scheme is not a separate principle but an undue predominance of one force over the other, especially an imbalance so great that it can no longer be corrected through a religious renewal.

This dialectic is further clarified by Buber’s distinction between ‘religion’ and ‘religiousness.’ ‘Religiousness’ is the astonished and worshipful feeling of man that above his conditionality there stands an Unconditioned whose desire is to form a living community with him and whose will he may realize in the world of men. ‘Religion’ is the sum of customs and teachings in which the religiousness of a certain epoch of a people has been expressed and formed, crystallized in precepts and dogma, and handed down to all future generations as inalterably binding. Religion is true only as long as it is fruitful, and it is fruitful only as long as religiousness is able to fill precept and dogma with new meaning and inwardly transform them to meet the need of each new generation. Religiousness means activity -- an elementary setting oneself in relation to the Absolute; religion means passivity -- taking upon oneself inherited laws. (Reden über das Judentum, op. cit., ‘Jüdische Religiosität’ [1916], pp. 103-105.)

Dogmas and precepts are only the changing products of the attempts of the human spirit to fix the working of the Absolute which it experiences in a symbolic order of the knowable and the do-able. The primary reality is the action of the Absolute on the human spirit. Man experiences the Absolute as the great presence that is over against him, as ‘Thou’ in itself. He grasps the ineffable through the creation of symbols, in signs and speech which reveal God to men for this age. But in the course of ages these symbols are outgrown and new ones bloom in their place until no symbol performs what is needful and life itself in the wonder of its togetherness becomes a symbol.

Religious truth is vital rather than conceptual. It can only be intimated in words and can first be satisfactorily proclaimed only by being confirmed in the life of a man, in the life of a community. The word of the teaching loses its religious character as soon as it is cut loose from its connection with the life of the founder and his disciples and recast into an independently knowable and thoroughly impersonal principle. Each religiously creative age is only a stage of religious truth, for, in distinction from philosophic truth, it is no tenet but a way, no thesis but a process. It is a powerful process of spiritual creation, a creative answer to the Absolute. (Ibid., ‘Cheruth. Ein Rede über Jugend und Religion’ [1919], pp. 202-209, 217-224.)

Theophany happens to man, and he has his part in it as God has His. Forms and ideas result from it; but what is revealed in it is not form or idea but God. Religious reality means this, for it is the undiminished relation to God Himself. Man does not possess God; he meets Him.

That through which all religion lives, religious reality, goes in advance of the morphology of the age and exercises a decisive effect upon it; it endures in the essence of the religion which is morphologically determined by culture and its phases, so that this religion stands in a double influence, a cultural, limited one from without and an original and unlimited one from within. This inner reality, from the moment that it is incorporated in religion, no longer works directly, but through religion it affects all spheres of life. Thus theophany begets history. (Reden über das Judentum, op. cit., ‘Vorwort’ [1923], pp. ix-xii (my translation).

Religion is thus influenced from the side of religious experience on the one hand and culture on the other. The Absolute enters into the forms of religion and through religion influences culture and history. From this point of view history cannot be understood as a purely immanent development, for it is partially a product of an encounter with a primary reality which transcends culture and gives rise to it. Each of the cultures of history originated in an original relation event, and each must return to such an event before it can find renewal. Similarly, religious forms and symbols arise out of elemental religious experience and must be renewed and transformed by such experience if they are to retain their living reality.