Posted by: HAT | November 6, 2014

Against Spirituality

image of Martin Buber teaching a class

Teaching is a good example of a necessarily communal activity

Hi, Gang!

Here is Soelle’s commentary on what she sees as the first stage of Martin Buber’s journey from an early Hassidic mysticism to the dialogical understanding of I and Thou:

She quotes Buber:
“What help is it to my soul that it can be transported again from this world into that unity (Einheit), when this world has, of necessity no share whatever in that unity – what does all ‘enjoyment of God’ profit a life rent in two? [1] If this is merely an “immersion” that “wants to preserve only what is ‘pure’, essential, and enduring, while stripping away everything else …” [2] it becomes in some sense a flight from, rather than a flight towards, God.

Soelle comments:

If mysticism means fleeing from this world, leaving history, society and community behind, then Buber is no longer a mystic since his move towards dialogical thinking. When life’s fulfillment is sought in experiences that exclude every form of community … then the individual renounces the ‘commonality’ that is given to us in language, dialogue, word, response, and responsibility. In such forms of mysticism, language and creation are negated. … But it is precisely in the this-worldliness wherein God encounters us in unpredictable ways that the purpose-free God of mysticism lives. In the emphasis of the very now, wherein God desires nothing but pure attention to the now, lies the mystical understanding of time as present. Buber never believed in the orthodox ideas of God’s revelation in Scripture and tradition alone. He knew that no symbol is adequate for God and that the life between one human being and another can itself become a symbol for God. He was critical of any mysticism that finds God wherever people leave behind the world with its temptation to hoard possessions. He saw a bigger mystical task in remaining in the world and resisting within the world the urge to possess both things and power. [3]

Soelle’s commentary points to and clarifies what is objectionable in the term “spirituality” as it is so often used today. “Spirituality” in contemporary usage most often seems to connote an elevated, refined “transcendence” of community and its daily demands – in and with all their “pettiness,” “irritation,” stupidity and meanness – for the sake of a more satisfactory personal experience. “Spirituality” in that sense is entirely consistent with the experience and the satisfaction of the urge to possess both things and power; it may even be an expression of that urge. That connotation is what makes it nearly impossible to use the word “spirituality” honestly in anything but a pejorative sense these days.

[1] Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Scribner’s, 1970), 134-35, quoted in Dorothee Soelle, The Silent Cry, trans. by Barbara and Martin Rumscheidt (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 189 Nook edition.
[2] Ibid., 134.
[3] Soelle, 189.


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