Idol Worship, Idle Worship (3): God in Community

This is the third in a series of four posts.

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            When we look at the history of a historical religion, we see the reoccurrence in different periods and phases of an inner battle which remains essentially the same. It is the struggle of the religious element against the non-religious elements which invade it from all sides—metaphysics, gnosis, magic, politics, etc. This medley seeks to take the place of the flowing life of faith which is renewed in the flux. It finds helpers in myth and cult, both of which originally served only as expression of the religious relationship. In order to preserve its purity the religious element must combat the tendency of this conglomerate to become autonomous and to make itself independent of the religious life of the person. This battle is consummated in prophetic protest, heretical revolt, reformational retrenchment, and a new founding which arises through the desire to return to the original religious element.

                                                                                    —Martin Buber, Eclipse of God

Without constant renewal, worship decays into idolatry. To be kept flowing with life-giving waters, worship needs regularly and recurrently to return to its sources, to be replenished. In that sense, we might well say that living, life-giving worship is a matter of “permanent revolution” (in exactly the sense I try to give that notion in the last of my preceding series of posts on “Waiting for Politics to Begin Again”: When they are authentic, religious rites and rituals are just such repetitive, routine, regular recurrences to the sources from which the waters of life flow. As such, for a community to practice those rites and rituals faithfully is for it to practice exactly that: permanent revolution.

The word revolution comes from Latin re-, meaning “back, again,” plus volvere, meaning “to roll.” In turn, that Latin term, volvere, is itself derived from the presumed Indo-European root wel-, “to turn, to revolve,” as when water “wells up,” roiling and bubbling, when troubled. When rights and rituals retain what Buber, in the quote above, calls their genuine “religious element,” they are the constantly recurring return to the bubbling waters from which the very life of faith flows forth ever anew, as he says, to sustain the community of all those who must drink from such waters to stay alive.

Unless they are themselves kept alive by such permanent revolution through “prophetic protest, heretical revolt, reformational retrenchment, and a new founding which arises through the desire to return to the original religious element,” those same rites and rituals are deprived of access to their genuine “religious element.” Then they decay into no more than means by which the “conglomerate,” as Buber aptly calls it, of cognitive and practical interests seeks “to become autonomous and to make itself independent of the religious life of the person.”

In turn, that inevitably splits the community itself apart, fragmenting it into sections, factions, and, finally, a mere collection of atomized individuals, each one pursuing that one’s own interest as that one conceives it. It is from such decay that the most repressive and reactionary forms of “identitarian” politics emerge—the appeal to “Make America great again,” for example.  Essentially fascistic, such politics, as Alain Badiou put it in a seminar session he held on June 20, 2012, “pretends that we must restore some [national] identity, the purported loss of which due to foreigners, Jews, revolutionaries, etc. [e.g., “illegal aliens”] is claimed to be the cause of all evils.”*

That decay of genuine worship, of what Buber calls the genuinely “religious element”—that element of true faith that emerges from and then itself continually restores and refreshes the flowing life of the community—destroys the very polis as such. That is, it destroys that singular place in which alone, as Aristotle taught long ago, and as taught the entire tradition that flows through and around him, and from which emerged the very term and notion of “politics,” human beings can live truly, fully human life together with one another: the only way real human life can be lived.

Thus does the decay of the worship of God into the worship of idols dam up the waters of life, no longer letting them flow freely. Henceforth, those waters are only circulated interminably, carrying ever less life as they go round and round endlessly, becoming ever more drained of life and open to ever more pollution. In the end, what once were the flowing waters of life become no more than continually re-cycled sewage, carrying nothing save death.

Worship flows. It flows with the waters that carry life--life without end, life that serves no purpose, but is just to be lived.

Worship, true worship, is always idle. It belongs to the sheer idleness of life simply to be lived, and given to us that it might be lived abundantly: life to be celebrated, not circulated. When we worship truly, which means when we worship God and not some idol, we take ourselves out of circulation.

It is worth recalling that ancient libations were drink-offerings made in worship by pouring wine from a chalice onto the ground, completely “wasting” it by all standard measures.  

Nietzsche says that life neither has nor lacks a meaning, and he is right: it is beyond all measure. Genuine worship—the worship of God, and not of some idol—is just the celebration of such neither meaningful nor meaningless life, utterly wasteful, without any value.

In contrast, whatever blocks the flow of worship transforms it into no more than the circulation of idols. Such circulation is never idle. It always has value, a value that can always be measured.

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The bulk of Martin Buber’s Eclipse of God consists of talks he gave in the United States when he visited this country in 1951. First, however, he presents a “Prelude” in the form of a “Report on Two Talks” that he wrote two decades earlier, in 1932, just before the Nazis came to power in Germany. This is his “report” on the first of the two talks:

On three successive evenings I spoke at the adult folk-school of a German industrial city on the subject “Religion as Reality.” What I meant by that was the simple thesis that “faith” is not a feeling in the soul of man but an entrance into reality, an entrance into the whole reality without reduction and curtailment. This thesis is simple but it contradicts the usual way of thinking. And so three evenings were necessary to make it clear, and not merely three lectures but also three discussions which followed the lectures.

At those discussions following his lectures the “workers” who were present kept silence. That bothered Buber. After the third lecture and discussion, however, one of them approached him, and said that the workers would like to meet with him and talk (remember that this is in 1932, just before the Nazis came to power, but when their presence was already having a definitely dampening effect on open public discourse). When Buber did meet with them as requested, one of the workers especially caught his attention, as he describes in this passage:

Among the workers was one, a man no longer young, whom I was drawn to look at again and again because he listened as one who really wished to hear. Real listening has become rare in our time. It is found most often among workers, who are not indeed concerned about the person speaking, as is so often the case with the bourgeois public, but about what he has to say.

Such listening is worship.

The second talk on which Buber reports is a private one, between him and an elderly, respected academic with whom he was staying for a few nights in order to participate in an event to which he’d been invited to contribute. Buber entered into a bit of pre-dawn conflict with his host on the morning after his arrival, about what the older man thought was Buber’s overuse of, and thereby weakening of the power of, the word God. After voicing his objection, the older man listened patiently to Buber’s long-winded and emphatic self-defense. By that point, as Buber describes it: "It had become very light in the room. It was no longer dawning, it was light. The old man stood up, came over to me, laid his hand on my shoulder and spoke: 'Let us be friends.' The conversation was completed. For where two or three are truly together, they are together in the name of God."


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To be continued.


* My own free translation from the French. The monthly seminar ran from 2010-1012 under the title Que signifie “changer le mond”?  (“What does it mean ‘to change the world’?”), recently released in published form (Paris: Fayard, 2017). The lines quoted come from page 277 of that published version.