Thursday, February 3, 2011

Elusive Word: Love

I’ve been rereading an old Harper Torchbooks edition of Martin Buber’s Eclipse of God, nine lectures Buber gave at universities in 1951. The book appeared a year later and, as I’ve just discovered, is till available from Amazon but now from Humanity Books. The lectures centered on a critique of modern philosophies, most centrally on existentialism (Heidegger, Sartre) and Jungian psychology. These “eclipse” God in the sense of a person—and for Buber, most famed for his writing about the “I and Thou” relationship, always between persons, the eclipse really means turning a personal God into either “the God of the philosophers” (Pascal’s phrase), thus into a transcending idea, or into a human self, namely one’s own, a word that Jung liked to render always with a leading cap. The central essay in this book is titled “The Love of God and the Idea of Deity”—a very revealing lecture in that it attempts give some reality to the nature of the love that humanity can feel for God.

Back in the 1950s—and my scribbled comments are still there in the margin—I had already learned to shake my head at the self-centered and the abstract treatments of the subject. The elevation of the self, individuated or not, into a kind of private deity never agreed with me, seeming to be a kind of cul de sac. At the same time, an abstraction cannot love or be loved. For this reason Deuteronomy 6:5, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” either lacks all meaning in any real human context—or I was missing some hidden meaning in the word love itself.

In Buber’s personalistic thought it is the presence of God, always and everywhere, that is an underlying intuitive foundation of the sort of love Deuteronomy points to—very poorly. Buber says that the actual words in Exodus 3:14, usually translated as “I am that I am” actually are “I shall be there”—therefore presence. “I am with you always,” as in Matthew 28:20. “There is no spot where God is not” is a favorite phrase of ours here—and has the same totally personalistic connotation, intentionality, and aura that the I-Thou relationship holds in Buber’s thought. Those we love are always present to us—no matter how many miles may separate us. This feeling is a matter of experience.

There is a Sufi story about a master who gave each of his disciples a live pigeon and told them to wring its neck somewhere where nobody could see the act. All the disciples, except one, came back with dead pigeons. One came back with the pigeon still alive. Asked why he had failed, the disciple said: “There is no place where God can’t see me.”

Contrast this sort of thing with the usually abstract discussions of God—and gradually the notion of what loving God might actually mean emerges, however faintly. Love is the most elusive of words. Yes, we do know its manifestations at the sensory levels—but it is as we leave that level behind that it becomes oddly translucent so that, eventually, even the love of God becomes gradually accessible. But, Lord, it’s a steep mountain—and the simple commands of Just Do It, and with all your heart and soul and might, is not a ski-lift.

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