Beliefs Opinion

COMMENTARY: Insights of these 3 religious thinkers may be antidote to ‘feel-good’ faith

Martin Buber was a philosopher known for his existentialist philosophy of dialogue.

(RNS) When people utter the mantra “I’m moving on,” it usually means they are leaving behind a crisis, conflict or controversy. But “moving on” sometimes results in abandoning valuable lessons of the past.

This is especially true in religion. When spiritual leaders don’t deliver instant inner fulfillment, people quickly “move on” and embrace new teachers or gurus who promise their followers blessedness. It is a depressing and disillusioning process that creates holy burnout.

I have a modest proposal for those who constantly “move on” in their quest for authentic faith: “Move back” and explore the insights of three major religious thinkers whose once “radical” teachings are receding into the mists of forgetfulness.

During the mid-20th century, Martin Buber (Jewish), Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (Roman Catholic) and Reinhold Niebuhr (Protestant) influenced the religious scene.

Martin Buber was a philosopher known for his existentialist philosophy of dialogue.

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Martin Buber was a philosopher known for his existentialist philosophy of dialogue.

Buber, a Vienna-born Jewish philosopher (1878-1965), was the “Father of Religious Dialogue.” Despite writing in a difficult German idiom, Buber achieved fame with his book “I-Thou.” One of Buber’s best-known teachings is “all real living is meeting.”

When we encounter another person, Buber taught, we must not perceive that person as simply “you,” an object, but rather as “thou,” a creation of the divine worthy of respect and not something to be manipulated for financial, sexual, political or egotistical reasons. Buber’s “I-Thou” relationship is the hallmark of authentic dialogue between different religious communities, and any use of psychological coercion or hidden conversion motives destroys the “Thou-ness” of other persons and different faith traditions. He maintained that God is the “Ultimate Thou” in human lives.

While Buber’s influence on religious thinking was extraordinary, his “I-Thou” concept also influenced psychology, physician-patient, parent-child and teacher-student relationships. It’s no surprise Buber’s teachings are either negated or neglected by the current “Me Generation,” whose symbol is the “selfie” photo.

In 1938, Buber, a committed Zionist, fled Nazism and spent the last 27 years of his life as a Hebrew University faculty member in Israel. Because significant religious teachings never die, Buber’s concepts of dialogue and authentic human encounters can provide spiritual strength in today’s chaotic world.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a French philosopher and Jesuit priest who developed the Omega Point concept.

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Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a French philosopher and Jesuit priest who developed the Omega Point concept.

De Chardin, a French Jesuit priest (1881-1955), was a scientist in the fields of geology and paleontology. After serving in the French army during World War I, de Chardin spent many years in China, India and Java studying evolution and the development of the human species.

In addition to his scientific career, de Chardin, a member of the French Academy of Sciences, wrote that secular work was equal in value to religious studies. All human activity fed into what he termed “the divine milieu,” and he taught that science and religion were not only compatible, but necessary components of God’s world.

However, the church banned de Chardin’s teachings, he was forbidden to teach in Catholic institutions and his writings were not available in Catholic bookstores. But beginning in the 1960s, a decade after his death, several Catholic leaders, including Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, publicly recognized de Chardin’s commitment to both faith and science. It marked the beginning of his rehabilitation within the church.

In one important way, de Chardin’s thinking paralleled Buber’s. The French priest wrote: “No evolutionary future awaits anyone except in association with everyone else.”

Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr authored the "Serenity Prayer."

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Reinhold Niebuhr authored the “Serenity Prayer.”

Niebuhr (1892-1971) was born in Missouri and in his early years as a Protestant minister he worked on behalf of the American trade union movement in Detroit, where he publicly battled the Ku Klux Klan and the hate group’s anti-Catholicism. In later years Niebuhr, a vigorous foe of anti-Semitism, renounced all Christian attempts to convert Jews. He actively opposed both Nazism and Communism and was a strong supporter of the state of Israel.

In 1928 he joined the Union Theological Seminary faculty, and his tough-minded view of the sinfulness of human nature was termed “Christian realism.” Niebuhr wrote: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” He influenced many leaders, including Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama and Martin Luther King Jr. Niebuhr believed justice was more important than love, and he scorned Christian pacifism as an insufficient response to systemic evil.

A spiritual injection of Buber, de Chardin and Niebuhr could represent a bracing antidote to the shallow optimism of today’s “feel-good” religions.

(Rabbi A. James Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser, is the author of the recently published “Cushing, Spellman, O’Connor: The Surprising Story of How Three American Cardinals Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations.”)



About the author

A. James Rudin


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  • The book “An Incomplete Education” actually lists the description of these three people according to their probable response to your revelation of God spelled backwards:

    -Buber would note that he considered it himself and laugh.

    -de Chardin would want you to study it further and work on a dissertation of it

    -Niebuhr would not find it amusing and scold you roughly for wasting his time.

  • I wonder what Bubers reaction to zionism would be today, considering the philosophy described above….

  • It depends.

    Whenever you see a lot of non-jews using the term “Zionism”, it is almost always an epithet and used in a way to further anti-Semitic tropes. Given your past postings, I take it that was your purpose as well. 🙂

  • No, I do not think much of zionism as a concept or the tools used in the current practice or protection thereof.

    That being said, nice try, but your conditioned reaction to label any disagreement as “anti-fill-in-the-blank” in order to silence criticism again shows your statist mindset.

    It won’t shut me up. And I’m not sorry if you are disappointed.

  • Wait! Aren’t you going to call me a sheeple or say I am blind to the vast Zionist conspiracy or “asleep”

    C’mon I have bingo squares to fill here!

    Whatever criticism you probably have, It was probably something really silly, ignorant and antisemitic. You give that impression.

  • Nobody is stopping israel tonight as it pulverizes the bodies of humans who only want the same peace israel had. Usually america is pretty fantastic about throwing it weight around, overthrowing regimes, setting up new ones, spending multi billions to stop individual terrorists.

    But tonight as another pali family dies, no politician in america is making any plans to intervene or help.


  • Because other a bunch of deluded far left wingers, Islamic fundamentalists and people on the Iranian payroll, nobody likes Hamas. Not even most Palestinians.

    They took Gaza in a gangland style massacre of fellow Palestinians. If they were not attacking Israel, you would be considering them another clueless armed band of Islamicists causing mayhem. You’re concern for the Palestinians, like most outsiders, only goes as far as their conflict with Israel. You don’t really seem concerned with the fact that they are ruled by foreign backed dictatorial extremist thugs.

    If Israel wanted to turn Gaza into a uninhabited wasteland, they would have done so in the 45 years they had it (and couldn’t give it back to Egypt, no matter how hard they tried). The fact that Israel have not done so in all of that time undermines much of the hysterical arguments for Hamas.

    Hamas has plenty of money coming its way from Iran and plenty of rockets to fire. No money for the welfare of fellow Palestinians. No regard for normal existence for fellow Palestinians. No desire to legitimately govern its people besides using fear and mob rule.

    Hamas’s paymasters have no desire for peaceful existence for Palestinians. Only a continued conflict with Israel and fellow Palestinians backed by the Arab League in the West Bank.
    [I bet you didn’t even know there was a civil war going on among Palestinian factions]

    These are the people you want to support? LOL.