Religion and Revolution (5)

This is the fifth and final post in a series under the same title.

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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*


 Martin Buber was one of the greatest and most influential 20th century religious thinkers, and one of the foremost scholars of Judaism. The passage above functions as an excellent summation of the connections between religion, return, renewal, and revolution.  As for reliance, that lies at the very heart of what Buber calls “the religion element” or, most often, just “religion” as such.

Thus, later in the same book, Buber at one point writes that “what is meant by religion is not the massive fullness of statements, concepts, and activities that one customarily describes by this name.” The latter, he points out, actually constitute those very “non-religious elements” against which, as he says in the passage above, religion itself must constantly struggle, in order not to lose itself to and in them. Religion, Buber writes, is in truth not at all what “one customarily describes by this name,” which is really not religion at all, but is, rather, those “non-religious elements [. . .] that we sometimes long for more than for God”—and thereby fall into idolatry. “Religion is essentially the act of holding fast to God,” he continues. “And that does not mean holding fast to an image that one has made of God, nor even holding fast to the faith in God that one has conceived.”**

Religion, the truly “religious element” in human existence, is just such “holding fast to God”—such reliance on God—and not on any of those idols of belief and conception that we “sometimes long for more than for God,” and therefore try to substitute for God.

What, however, can possibly substitute for God?

Nothing. No thing.

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God might well be defined—at least in one of God’s “aspects” or ways of being present to us—precisely as “that for which there can be no substitute.” And isn’t that, God so defined, really what any idol-worshipers who genuinely worship their idols are aiming at in their worshiping? If it is true worship, then God is really that which the idol-worshiper is worshiping, not some bit or stone or mix of paints on canvas (or system of dogmas and doctrines: some “metaphysics, gnosis, magic, politics, etc.”) as such.  Kierkegaard reminds us of this in a famous passage that ends with this line: “The one [the idol-worshiper who truly worships an idol] prays in truth to God although he is worshiping an idol; the other prays in untruth to the true God and is therefore in truth worshiping an idol.” ***

Religion is the persistent re-volution, the “turning emphatically back again and again,” to God, that for which there is no substitute, re-allying ourselves once more anew to God, re-lying on God alone. As such, it can tolerate no re-lapse, no “falling anew again,” into the pseudo-worship, a mere pretense at worship that lacks any genuine worshipfulness, which so often parades itself under the banner of one or another of such non-religious elements as dogmas, doctrines, or habitual belief-systems.   

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Having relied upon the words of Martin Buber, that great 20th century Jewish thinker of religion, for most of this post, I would now like to end it with a passage that echoes what Buber says about the perpetual struggle of religion against its own degeneration into idolatry, but that comes from a different religious tradition, namely, the Christian, specifically Roman Catholic, one.

Romano Guardini, a very important and influential 20th century Catholic thinker and leader, wrote his Letters from Lake Como: Explorations on Technology and the Human Race (Cambridge, MA, and Oxford, England: William B. Erdmans, 1944) during the first half of the 1920s, when making a trip through the Lake Como region of northern Italy, returning from Germany, where he had spent all of his life from the age of one, to the Italian land of his birth. The passage that follows is from his “Seventh Letter: The Masses.”

Take religious drama, the ordinary mysteries. Just a few more of them, a few more years of legends and religious lyrics, and our life of faith will no longer be healthy. What is the Christmas event when it is reduced to sweet nothings in a hundred nativity plays? How we tear apart all the mysteries of our faith in hymns and legends! Perhaps someone will say that they must be weak then; we should not be able to destroy such things. But I see and hear, and trash is as sticky as flypaper. It clings to the brain, and endless pains are needed to be rid of it. Think only of the frightful religious pictures in churches, on calendars, and in pious books of all kinds. How the figure of Christ is distorted so that decades are needed to break free from the clinging artificiality!

What we sorely need is not to “put Christ back in Christmas.” We need, rather, to bring Christmas back to Christ.


* Martin Buber, The Eclipse of God: Studies in the Relationship Between Religion and Philosophy, translated by Maurice S. Friedman (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, 1996), pages 34-35.  

** Eclipse of God, page 123.

***  Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript (to his earlier and, with intense and intentional irony, far shorter Philosophical Fragments), Volume 1, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton University Press, 1992), page 201.