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Portrait, drawing by Frances Tanzer

Meeting Martin Buber, in other words, means meeting the voice behind the words, a man who did not always know how to “recover from institutions.”

Meeting Martin Buber

Over half a century after his death, Martin Buber is still an iconic Jewish philosopher. His white-bearded face is immediately recognized as the face of modern Jewish thought, one that reconnects a post-1945 world with the world of prophets on the one hand, and with contemporary politics on the other. Alongside philosophers, theologians, and historians, pets, journalists, and song-writers continue to find in him as a major source of inspiration. A favorite example for this impact is a recent essay, titled “Meet Justin Bieber,” by the author Zadie Smith.  Reflecting about Martin Buber’s notion of “encounter” she adopts his model of love for “where life is lived and man recovers from institutions.” Smith, like other public intellectuals, is impressed by Buber’s ability to shape a language of affiliation without hierarchy and capital. Buber’s understanding of the I-Thou, that is, is the opposite to the I-it understanding of the Bieber, commercialism, and manipulation.

Martin Buber became an iconic figure already in the early 1900s. The historian Michael Brenner placed him in the start of “The Jewish Renaissance,” the title of Buber’s essay from 1900. Buber’s close relationship with the intellectual representatives of that generation became a repeating reference point to both supporters and critics of his work. Some, like Franz Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Gershom Scholem, and Hannah Arendt, responded with a degree of skepticism. Others, like the anarchist thinker Gustav Landauer, the philosophers Franz Rosenzweig and Hugo Bergmann, and the essayist Margarete Susman, responded warmly. The latter group, members of Buber’s closest circle, remained devoted to him for the rest of their lives. Both admirers and critics treated Buber’s interpretation of Jewish and Christian scripture  as the essence of his prophetic thought, what one might call a political-theological pathos.

Buber is known, for the most part, as the author of “I and Thou” (1923), a theological interpretation of relationship between self and other that suggested a radical inter-personal and inter-religious or inter-cultural stress on equality before and through the divine. In his exchanges with the Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig and the Protestant theologian Christian Rang, Buber emphasized the dialogical principle of the I-Thou relations. As he explained in a letter to Rosenzweig written on 13 July 1924, “God is not for me a lawgiver; only man can be a lawgiver. For that reason, for me the law is personal, not universal.” (Martin Buber to Franz Rosenzweig, 13 July 1924, in Martin Buber, Briefwechsel aus sieben Jahrzehnten, vol. 2 (Heidelberg: L. Schneider, 1972), 200.) 

Liberal theologians and advocates of democracy regarded I and Thou a key piece in a new, hopeful, dialogical culture; in a memorial speech Paul Tillich gave shortly after Buber’s death in 1965 he characterized him as a life-long “partner in a dialogue.” For half a century the work done by Buber’s biographer Maurice Friedman, the historian Paul Mendes-Flohr, the political scientist Dan Avnon, and the literary interpretation of Laurence Silberstein, among others, made Buber into the model of humanism, tolerance, and hope. More recently, a growing body of work sees his philosophy as a model of political theology, or religious and political anarchism. Martina Urban and Claire Sufrin stress the radical intellectual strands; Samuel Brody, Yaniv Feller, Christoph Schmidt, Sam Berrin Shonkoff and Miguel Vatter, to mention only a few from a growing crowd of interpreters, follow Gershom Scholem’s observation that Buber is a “religious anarchist,” at the heart of their own recent interpretations of Buber. While both groups supported Buber’s plea to “recover from institutions,” the first was inclined to stress Buber’s utopian tone, while the latter is disposed to emphasize radical critique. If the first read him in terms of I and Thou, before the rise of fascism, the second moves to the post-fascist period, after 1930. For example, Friedman’s monumental three-part biography is divided between pre-1945 and post-1945, while sidelining the apparent change of tone during the early 1930s. More recent scholarship, in contrast, read his earlier, affirmative work against the background of his later political-theological critique.

Recent scholarship, more attuned to the shocking resurfacing of populism and neofascism accentuates a Buber who became increasingly preoccupied with political failure, not political hope, and with a general crisis of the I-Thou relationship rather than its success. Buber’s theopolitics, a concept he started using during the early 1930s and that became the heart of his work in the 1940s, testifies to this growing critical tone. 

It is during this period, shortly after the death, in 1929, of his closest collaborator and co-translator of the Bible, Franz Rosenzweig, that Buber began mentioning “the crown jurist of the Third Reich,” Carl Schmitt, in private letters and in his writings. As I have argued elsewhere, Buber’s concentrated analysis of theopolitics sprouted from his engagement with Carl Schmitt’s political theology, beginning with Buber’s Kingship of God (1932) and Question of the Self (1936). He referred to Schmitt in the introduction to The Kingship of God and criticized him openly in the Question of the Self. From that point on, Buber’s critique of Schmitt was more or less consistent. 

Buber adopted Schmitt’s critique of Liberal institutions and of secularization, but also harshly criticized Schmitt’s emphasis on granting sovereignty to a human “decider”—a consistent term in Buber’s texts used to denote those who ignore a higher ethical principle, whether divine or prophetic. As Buber repeatedly noted, Schmitt’s blind faith in political authority makes way for “the possibility of physical killing.” In his own political theology, the “theopolitical hour” or “theopolitical realism,” Buber made the decision a prerogative of the prophet (Prophetic Faith, originally published in Hebrew, 1942). 

Standing between God and man, the prophet is he who speaks in the voice of the divine without institutional mediation. In that sense, the prophet is standing against the very principle of authority, even the authority of the divine: “The world of prophetic faith is in fact historical realty, seen in the bold and penetrating glance of the man who dares to believe. What here prevails is indeed a special kind of politics, theopolitics, which is concerned to establish a certain people in a certain historical situation under the divine sovereignty, so that this people is brough nearer the fulfilment of its task, to become the beginning of the kingdom of God.” (Prophetic Faith, 167-8) 

Buber at the Cafe, drawing by Frances Tanzer, Rose Professor of Holocaust Studies and Modern Jewish History and Culture, Clark University

Buber did his best to apply his critical notion of sovereignty evenhandedly. Philosophically speaking, the only institution that answered his theopolitical realism was the Kibbutz, or the Socialist utopian collective undertaken by Socialist Zionists. Beginning in the 1930s, and especially in the wake of the dissolution/disbanding of the Brith Shalom [Covenant of Peace]––a movement of Socialist intellectuals dedicated to a federative and binational state– Buber became more and more critical about the failure of Zionism. His early warnings, to Herzl and later Ben-Gurion, that political Zionism could lead in the wrong direction were realized in the rise of nationalist institutions and a Zionist tendency to follow populist and authoritative models. In the Kingship of God Buber described the theopolitical as the epitome of Jewish politics, for “there is no political sphere except the theo-political, and all sons of Israel are directly related to JHWE, who chooses and rejects, gives an order and withdraws it.” (KG, 136) In 1947 he warned that Zionism itself was adopting the “possibility of physical killing.”

Buber scholars see in these theopolitics not only an anarchic worldview but a theocratic one, i.e. the rule of clergy, or the notion that there is no distinction between a religious and secular politics. As shown above, however, Buber reveres above all those prophets who object even to God in the name of equality. In other words, Buber takes another swing at authoritative politics, including theocracy, turning the theopolitical from a passive form of resistance (to human sovereign, a king) into an active hermeneutic system. 

Buber reception, whether early or late, was inclined to view him from the perspective of history of ideas or history of concepts. But focusing on ideas or concepts tends to ignore the context in which they were written, or the discourse and the power-relations in which ideas and concepts thrive. When Buber was writing about theopolitics, he was writing not only with and against Schmitt’s stress on the “secularization of theological concepts.” He was writing with and against his closest friends among the liberal theological institution; with and against his academic colleagues in Palestine (he emigrated to Palestine in 1938); with and against political and institutional authorities such as David Ben-Gurion, with whom he cooperated on a series of initiatives. But how loyal was Buber to his own theopolitical principle or his own discursive claims? When examining Buber’s activities at the Hebrew University during the 1940s, one cannot but realize he was working and speaking as a senior administrator, an official of the newly created university, the higher education system, and a variety of publishing houses. His correspondence shows him taking pride in his role as the shaper of the education system. If he spoke as a religious or even a secular anarchist, he acted more as a political authority. 

Meeting Martin Buber, in other words, means meeting the voice behind the words, a man who did not always know how to “recover from institutions.” Sh’muel Hugo Bergman—a deep admirer of Buber—offers a comment in a diary entry from 12 May 1949 that allows us to see to some degree the contrast of the man and the mission, the theopolitical principle and the institutional setting: “I feel a strong sense of estrangement. Heard Buber’s opening only partially, outside the hall, because I could not stand the pathos.”

Buber and his Disciples, drawing by Frances Tanzer

Annotated Bibliography

Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Walter Kaufman (New York: Touchstone, 1996)

Published in 1923. The core of Buber’s Dialogical approach. A theory of communication connecting I and Thou or self and other, contrasted with an instrumental I-It relation. The I-Thou relation is potentially equal and divine or eternal. 

Martin Buber, Kingship of God, trans. Richard Scheimann (New York: Harper, 1967)

The first part of a planned trilogy about Messianism, published in 1932. The book follows a Biblical and chronological order, moving from the judges, to kings, prophets, and finally the exile. It is critical of human sovereignty in general, and the kings in particular. 

Martin Buber, The Prophetic Faith, trans. Carlyle Witton-Davies (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016)

Published in Hebrew in 1942. Extending central aspects from Kingship of God, especially the critique of human sovereignty and the Prophet’s understanding of the “theopolitical hour.” In that “hour of need” the prophet mobilizes resistance to hierarchy and calls for social equality.

Kojin Karatani

A short overview of Kojin Karatani’s Marxist influenced focus on modes of exchange as revealing the Borromean ring of Capital-Nation-State, and the import of this ring for religion.

Silvia Federici

Federici provides a model for political theologians engaging with race, gender, and sexuality through the lens of capitalist oppression

Luce Irigaray

“Perhaps it is in precisely this ambivalent way that air (and Irigaray) reminds us of just how much we belong—to the air itself, to this emptiness that hovers and sings in lifedeath. We might forget air, we might forget that we breathe, or how to breathe. But air does not forget us. And air will never cease to carry us, to lift us up, to set us into flight, even when we no longer live in a body that tried (if unsuccessfully) to fly.”

Niklas Luhmann

David Kline introduces the systems theory of Niklas Luhmann for political theology and reflects on how it might think about its own limits of observation.

N. Katherine Hayles

A reflection on the political implications of N. Katherine Hayles’ critical aesthetic inquiry into the ecological relationships between the human and the technological, thought and cognition, and information and materiality.

Isabelle Stengers

Isabelle Stengers, continental philosopher of science, offers pragmatic resources for animating thinking with interest and passion, affirming heresy over conformity and undercutting the all-too-common binaries of religion/science and science/fiction.

François Laruelle

“[For] quantum gnostics, there has never been a creation of the world or in the world—it is the world that is ‘wicked’ or ‘evil’, and consequently also the God who claimed to have created it and yet hesitates to assume it.”

Enrique Dussel

Rafael Vizcaíno offers a biographical introduction to the philosophical work of Enrique Dussel, a major figure of the decolonial turn. Separate from his theology, Dussel’s philosophy of liberation offers crucial reflections for contemporary political theology.

Claude Lefort

It is as productive to think with as it is to think against Claude Lefort, a revolutionary-turned-philosopher who analyzed power and the political regimes to which it gives rise.

Fred Moten

Moten’s prophecy bespeaks aesthetic registers in ordinary (Black) life, but he denies that the aesthetic is redemptive.

Saba Mahmood

Saba Mahmood (1962-2018) was a pioneering anthropologist of Islam and secularism, a feminist theorist of gender and religion, and a critic of liberal certainties.

Paul Virilio

Paul Virilio, one of France’s foremost theorists of speed and technology, is a deep well for doing political theology in an apocalyptic time.

Stuart Hall

The late public intellectual Stuart Hall, with his concept of the conjuncture, assists political theology in analyzing our current moment and potential interventions.

Talal Asad

Rather than establishing structural analogies or historical filiations between “religion” and “politics” (terms he opens to question), Talal Asad urges attention to shifts in the grammar of concepts across different situations.

Quentin Meillassoux

Meillassoux’s thinking of post-Copernican cosmic immanence and cosmic delegitimation constitutes a challenge to political theology as still predominantly Ptolemaic in its assumptions and focus

Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt argued that interreligious difference and Christian theology are steady influences on political movements, action, and thought.

Catherine Malabou

To read Catherine Malabou is to embark upon an adventure of thought. Her writing demands change from her readers if they are to follow her on that adventure. It is a process of change that is sometimes joyful, sometimes painful.

Jean-François Lyotard

Lyotard’s thought as it appears in Le Différend describes a linguistic state that evades speech, and the ways in which justice could be done to it, or not. Bearing witness to unpronounceable utterances brings about the idea of faith.

Aime Césaire

This essay will uplift Césaire’s anticolonial consciousness, in hopes that new directions in political theology might emerge/surface

Jacob Taubes

Taubes’s thought revolves around two poles, philosophy of history and political theology, with the aim of inverting the Schmittian position and thinking a new form of community by means of an innovative return to Paul of Tarsus and Walter Benjamin.

Gloria Anzaldúa

Anzaldúa develops a theory of this borderlands consciousness through the experiential and embodied knowledges of Chicanx (and women of color) feminisms; or what she calls a ‘mestiza consciousness’.

Martin Buber

Meeting Martin Buber, in other words, means meeting the voice behind the words, a man who did not always know how to “recover from institutions.”

Han Byung-Chul

Psychopolitics is Han’s main contribution to political theory. It reflects Han’s rethinking of Bentham’s panopticon and Foucault’s biopower as disciplinary society transitioned into a digital achievement society that defines our contemporary neoliberal globalized world.

Jean-Luc Marion

[Marion’s] central concepts and phenomenological method offer an ambiguous resource for political theology: on the one hand, he articulates a rigorous method of doing phenomenology which is trained to remain open to phenomena historically ignored and marginalized, and on the other hand, his own conclusions can veer towards a Christian triumphalism which is in danger of betraying the primary aim of his philosophical project.

Kuan-Hsing Chen

Chen suggests that Western political theologians should incorporate more resources from local knowledge—such as popular culture, literature, films, and music—in order to notice resistance in daily life.

Judith Butler

Judith Butler’s work has altered the trajectories of multiple disciplines in the last thirty years; what can they teach scholars of political theology?

Anibal Quijano

Quijano reimagines the long-lasting and contemporary status of colonialism seen through the lenses of race, modernity/rationality, and economic exploitation, encouraging us to produce theological and political critiques from the ever-enduring nature of coloniality.

Michel Henry

What [Henry’s] oeuvre offers political theology is a reimagining of what constitutes life together—an attention to Life and thereby, spirituality.

Cedric Robinson

Vega focuses on three Robinsonian concepts that are useful for political theology: racial capitalism, Black radical tradition, and African metaphysics.

Marcella Althaus-Reid

Althaus-Reid’s work asks whether Political Theology is capable of accounting for the power of sex, a power that comes to the fore if the theologian focuses on queer bodies.

Julia Kristeva

Kristeva’s psychoanalytic approach and practice shed light on the unconscious, affective, and bodily formation(s) of religious and political discourses and systems.

Achille Mbembe

Achille Mbembe’s work excavates the legacies of colonial reason and violence shaping the powers of death in the world today.

Frank Wilderson III

Wilderson doesn’t use the term “zombies” in his work. But his afropessimist stance includes a set of concepts—social death, gratuitous violence, sentient (but not living) existence—that could be easily applied to any episode of The Walking Dead.

Adriana Cavarero

Cavarero’s feminist theory of nonviolence takes the biblical commandment of “Thou Shall Not Kill” as its starting point. This commandment is ethical (it is about one’s relationships with others) and religious (it is about one’s relationship with God), but it is also political (without it, political communities cannot exist).

Jean-Luc Nancy

The subtlety and poetry of Nancy’s language can mask the rigor and the urgency of his thinking. I hope to share that rigor and urgency here, particularly as it relates to global capitalism, Christianity, and ontology.

Roberto Esposito

In Esposito’s most explicit political theology work, he is concerned with re-working, or rather destabilizing, the essence of political theology.

Ernst Bloch

In many ways, Bloch’s work inverts the classic dictum of political theology advanced by Carl Schmitt, that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.” For Bloch, theological concepts are intimations of the freedom of the secular and revolutionary socialist society.

The Invisible Committee

The Invisible Committee may be productively, albeit counterintuitively, understood as Gnostic, a perspective that will put into question some of the assumptions behind the way the political and the theological are demarcated from and related to each other in contemporary debates.

Gil Anidjar

While Carl Schmitt claims that the enemy constitutes “the political,” his various writings largely ignore the historical and discursive evolution of the enemy. Anidjar’s major contribution to modern political theology lies in responding to this lacuna.

Sara Ahmed

Scholars and activists cannot rely on fact-checking or dry reason in this political climate. We have to feel our way toward change.

Hortense Spillers

What would it mean for scholarship in political theology to claim monstrosity? Perhaps it would mean focusing on underappreciated aspects of the Christian tradition, and other religious traditions, particularly those developed by women’s intellectual labor.

Lauren Berlant

Berlant is our preeminent contemporary theorist of how intimate practices bleed into and with national formations, and condition specific and powerful fantasies for what a good life or functional society would involve. To read their work is to become attuned to a set of dynamics that can be excavated in any given scene: the attachments being made and unmade, the forms of belonging that flash up and dissolve, the feeling-worlds that mediate everyday life, what remains unfinished.

Critical Theory for Political Theology: From Theorists to Keywords

We launched this series to make available theoretical resources that keep pace with the concerns raised by those working with political theology today, whose interests are increasingly tied not only to questions of genealogy, speculation, and political modernity, but also to questions of race, colonialism, gender, sexuality, disability, ecology, labor, finance capitalism, and economies of affect. 

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