The Personalist Project

Without attempting any application to current politics (in contrast to my previous two posts on Martin Buber), I wish to draw out some of the further wisdom of this 20th-century personalist Jewish philosopher and author of Good and Evil concerning how to attain a deeper measure of wisdom through our experience, even when that experience is negative.  He says: 

For the most part we understand only gradually the decisive experiences which we have in our relation to the world.  First we accept what they seem to offer us, we express it, we weave it into a ‘view,’ and then think we are aware of our world.  But we come to see that what we look on in this view is only an appearance.  Not that our experiences have deceived us.  But we had turned them to our use, without penetrating to their heart.  What is it that teaches us to penetrate to their heart?  Deeper experience. 

Buber is here meditating on Psalm 73 (“How good God is to the upright…to those who are pure of heart. But, as for me, I almost lost my balance…because I was envious of the arrogant when I saw them prosper though they were wicked.”)  The problem is two-fold: 1) though God is good, even his faithful followers (e.g., Job) often seem to unduly suffer, while 2) the wicked go on their merry way (e.g., Jeremiah 12:1: “Why does the way of the wicked prosper?”).  

The implication is that only when we have the right inner attitude ourselves (i.e., pure of heart) will we notice and then experience God’s goodness, even in the midst of setbacks, catastrophes, evils, or crosses which we cannot rationally explain or fully make sense of.  Buber says, 

The state of the heart determines whether a man lives in the truth, in which God’s goodness is experienced, or in the semblance of truth, where the fact that it ‘goes ill’ with him is confused with the illusion that God is not good to him. 

The state of the heart determines.  That is why ‘heart’ is the dominant key-word in this psalm, which recurs six times. 

Then the psalmist begins to unfold the superficial levels or false interpretations of his experience of life, especially concerning the problem of evil.  This sequence of attitudes, attempts at understanding, followed by failure and frustration, and finally breakthrough are revealing of the path many of us walk—hopefully reaching the breakthrough. 

The psalmist’s first response is jealousy that “the wicked” seem to be preferred by God, since they get away with their evil; they don’t suffer the consequences that they ought to, rather they seem to be sheltered and protected from what ought to be their destiny.  More, they are even flippant and arrogant about it, yet they get away with it!  From the Psalm: 

For they are in no pain; their bodies are sound and sleek.  They are free from the burdens of mortals; and are not afflicted like the rest of men.  So pride adorns them as a necklace; as a robe violence enwraps them.  Out of their crassness comes iniquity; their fancies overflow their hearts.  They scoff and speak evil; outrage from on high they threaten.  They set their mouthings in place of heaven, and their pronouncements roam the earth…. And they say, “How does God know?” And, “Is their any knowledge in the Most High?” Such are the wicked; always carefree, while they increase in wealth. 

Then the psalmist tries to recover himself, to go to his depth and attain a better perspective: he remembers his own clean heart and innocent hands.  But, at this point in his unfolding argument with himself (and God), this is not enough for him.  He is still tormented by his own sufferings (“For I suffer affliction day after day and chastisement with each new dawn.”) compared to the easy and carefree life of the wicked.  He still does not have the proper perspective, in truth and goodness, of the pure of heart.  He is tempted to speak out in anger and resentment, and remains in conflict.  Buber interprets: 

And he proceeded to purify it [i.e., his heart].  In vain.  …[T]he torment continued, and now it was like a leprosy to him; and as leprosy is understood in the Bible as a punishment for the disturbed relation between heaven and earth, so each morning, after each pain-torn night, it came over the Psalmist—‘It is a chastisement—why am I chastised?’  And once again there arose the contrast between the horrible enigma of the happiness of the wicked and his suffering. 

At this point he was tempted to accuse God as Job did.  He was tempted to ‘tell how it is.’  But he fought and conquered the temptation. 

In the midst of his temptation to revile God, he recovers himself.  As Job is helped by an experience of the presence of God in His majesty and transcendent power and mystery, so the psalmist interrupts his argument against God and rather addresses Him personally, as Buber describes:

If I had followed my inner impulse, he says to Him, ‘I should have betrayed the generation of thy sons [or, the fellowship of thy children].’  Then [i.e., previously] he did not know that the pure in heart are the children of God, now he does know. He would have betrayed them if he had arisen and accused God.  For they continue in suffering and do not complain. [My brackets.] 

He was still blinded, he says, “Until I came into the sanctuaries of God.”  Here is his breakthrough or turnaround according to Buber: 

The man who is pure in heart, I said, experiences that God is good to him.  He does not experience it as a consequence of the purification of his heart, but because only as one who is pure in heart is he able to come to the sanctuaries…the sphere of God’s holiness, the holy mysteries of God.  Only to him who draws near to these is the true meaning of the conflict revealed. 

However, Buber is careful to note that the true resolution of the psalmist’s problem lies not in the idea that even if the wicked get away with evil in time, they will surely be punished in eternity.  Rather the breakthrough recognition is that the wicked are here and now constricting, reducing, betraying, and destroying themselves through living only in terms of their power and pleasure.  They are eviscerating their own being.  They are not to be envied in the least, neither in eternity (in their final state) nor here and now in time. 

This reminds me, philosophically, of Socrates’ dialogue with Polus in the Gorgias, wherein Plato argues that the real evil of injustice lies in the immediate twisting, debasing, and uglifying of one’s own soul with each wicked act.  Thus he tells Polus that the evil of committing an injustice does not lie, as Polus opines, in getting caught and punished (which can actually be a corrective good), but in the evil deed itself.  The wicked are acting in a self-destructive way rather than a self-fulfilling way; focusing on power and pleasure, rather than reverence, goodness, wisdom, and happiness.  So again, despite deceiving appearances, the evil are by no means to be envied.  Their life is not to be dreamed of or sought after at all.  In addition to Plato as a classical parallel to the Psalmist, in our own day C. S. Lewis in his defense of goodness in The Abolition of Man makes many similar points, as the title implies.

So the truth is that evil tends toward nothingness. It tempts you to waste your life. And the worst moment in the life of a wicked man is when he realizes that he has wasted his life on relative nothings, on little things, on superficial frivolities, passing pleasures, momentary “triumphs” of pride, vanity, cruelty, etc.  Buber says: 

…they now inescapably experience their non-existence, the suspicion of which they had again and again succeeded in dispelling. Their life was ‘set [on a slippery slope];’ it was so arranged as to slide into the knowledge of their own nothingness; and when this happens, ‘in a moment,’ the great terror falls upon them and they are consumed with terror.  [Brackets using a slightly different translation of the Psalm from Buber’s.] 

The psalmist now fully recovers himself and, notes Buber, “in the same address he confesses, with harsh self-criticism, …the state of error in which he had lived….”  As the psalm says: 

When my heart was embittered and my soul was pierced, I was stupid and understood not.  I was like a brute beast in your presence.  Yet with you I shall always be; you have hold of my right hand. 

So, as the last sentence reveals, God does not count it against us that we have at times risen up against Him.  Buber says, “Certainly even the erring and struggling man was ‘with Him,’ for the man who struggles for God is near Him even when he imagines that he is driven far from God…. The Psalmist has learned that God and he are continually with one another.” This is recognized as an objective fact on God's side, not just a feeling on man's side.  Buber notes, "[The Psalmist] no longer says 'Thou art with me,' but 'I am continually with Thee.' It is not, however, from his own consciousness and feeling that he can say this, for no man is able to be continually turned to the presence of God: he can say it only in the strength of the revelation that God is continually with him."  Moreover, this is expressed as a personal relationship rather than just as a rational conclusion.  Buber clarifies:

The Psalmist no longer dares to express the central experience as a word of God; but he expresses it by a gesture of God.  God has taken his right hand—as a father, so we may add, in harmony with that expression ‘the generation of thy children,’ takes his little son by the hand in order to lead him.  More precisely, as in the dark a father takes his little son by the hand, certainly in order to lead him, but primarily in order to make present to him, in the warm touch of his coursing blood, the fact the he, the father, is continually with him…. 

The guiding counsel of God seems to me to be simply the divine Presence communicating itself direct to the pure of heart.  He who is aware of this Presence acts in the changing situations of his life differently from him who does not perceive this Presence.  This Presence acts as a counsel: God counsels by making known that He is present.  He has led his son out of darkness into the light, and now he can walk in the light.  He is not relieved of taking and directing his own steps.

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