Note: I am presently participating in a seminary class re: Judaism. Thankfully, it is a class actually taught by a Rabbi, rather than the more familiar academic and experiential fiasco that is a Christian prof. attempting to teach Judaism. There is an authentic difference. This class is one of my semester highlights, to say the least. Jesus of Nazareth, my Lord and Savior, was Jewish, after all. Right? At any rate, onward toward conversation …
A theological comparison of selected theologies from Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme’s Finding God: Selected Responses reveals the variety of thought inherent to Judaism. This theological variety only becomes more complex as I consider my own theology as well, which is obviously Christian. As I reflect, I appreciate deeply the idea that none of us have God perfectly boxed up, and/or figured out. God hates our boxes, I’m sure. God is God … and that is enough for God, it seems. It should be enough for us too!
Consider the philosophical thought of Martin Buber, for example. Buber is unarguably one of the most influential religious thinkers of our time. He is definitely one of the most widely recognized Jewish theologians. Buber’s theology was constructed around the idea of “perfect knowledge” as obtainable only “by means of a dialogue, possible only through a real encounter” (Sonsino and Syme 88). This foundational belief led to Buber’s identification of two approaches to authentic dialogue, which he famously summarized as “I-It” and “I-Thou,” with “I-Thou” inherently the superior, as a result of the utter lack of mutuality available in “I-It” exchanges. Buber, from here, went on to establish a theology dedicated to this dialogue potential. God’s nature exists as the inexpressible “Eternal Thou,” of the “I-Thou” relationship. Humanity’s goal is a genuine “I-Thou” encounter with God, which occurs in authentic dialogue with others. “I-Thou” dialogue is the will and desire of God. So much so, in fact, “I-It” exchanges are evil in contrast. This is basically Buber’s theological understanding of God, in brief.
Erich Fromm’s understanding and articulation of God is far removed from the theistic and mystical expression of Buber. Fromm’s theology is informed by an obvious post-enlightenment humanism. His humanism not only stands irreconcilable to Buber’s Chasidic-laden encounter with “God-The Eternal Thou,” but it is also quite incompatible with his own background and upbringing within Orthodox Judaism. Fromm dedicated himself to rational solutions to the world’s political predicaments. Perhaps this dedication to rationality was a result of his Jewish experience(s) of the irrationality of humanity leading up to and during WWII? Perhaps. At any rate, “one of his major concerns was how to deal with human isolation, feelings of insignificance, and doubt about the meaning of life” (ibid 119). Fromm, in other words, was very dedicated to the articulation of and the provision for human needs. Religion, according to Fromm, fulfilled specific human needs. He did differentiate, however, between what he referred to as two types of religion: “authoritarian” and “humanistic”. A humanistic religion, obviously, was the superior in Fromm’s understanding. God, in a humanistic expression, is mere symbol, or an idea constructed upon humanity’s greatest ideal, if God is anything at all. Consequently, God is not reality apart from humanity’s cognitive symbolism. God, in other words, does not exist apart from humanity’s thought of it. Logically, therefore, God does not share a relationship with/to the world or its inhabitants, save the ideal formed in the mind. There are none chosen, or saved, by this God. God is merely that which pushes humanity toward self-improvement, justice, and authentic relationship.
My own theology diverges from both Buber and Fromm. I do have a deep, deep appreciation for Buber’s articulation of the authenticity of the “I-Thou” experience. In fact, I would say my faith-practice is founded upon this very articulation. My attraction to intentional incarnational missions has more to do with authentic relationships with people who do not know Christ than it does anything else. I agree with Buber: God is authentically experienced in relationships shared with those who are not frivolously objectified. God is not an object, as are not people. So, I agree that God cannot be defined, but met. So, I do find a bit of theological convergence between myself and Buber; now, as concerns Fromm: I find zero convergence. Fromm’s humanism is a dead end for me. I have tried to find something of value in post-enlightenment humanism, but have not. I say this as one who has found in Christianity all that post-enlightenment humanism beneficially offers humanity, as concerns social and political needs. Christianity does not, however, stop at social and political needs. It indeed satisfies these needs, as well as any humanism ever could, and then moves beyond the limited scope of such satisfaction by addressing and satisfying many other needs too. So, I am forced to question this post-enlightenment humanism at every occasion, as a result of its willing imposition of detrimental limit and the subsequent discarding of the God-Who-Is-There. I can’t embrace such obvious limitations. My own theological position can be summarized in a short sentence: I believe in God as He was revealed by Jesus of Nazareth. Obviously, this is an expressed departure from Buber and Fromm’s Jewish theologies. I suppose this characteristic is what makes them Jewish and me Christian. The point, however, is not blind agreement, but open and willing dialogue with the “other.” So, I suppose that makes Buber the winner!
I wonder what it would be like if humanity would/could begin to actually see God in divergent dialogue shared with “un-like others?” I wonder … I mean, we wont agree all the time, but is God somewhere there … in the discussion? I’m willing to say yes. It’s all about the conversation. The question then becomes one of direction and progress. In other words, we have to ask, “Is this conversation going anywhere?” If God is in it, it will be going somewhere.
Work Cited: Rifat Sonsino, and Syme, Daniel. “Finding God: Selected Responses.” New York: UAHC Press, 2002.