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SIDIC Periodical II - 1969/3
Social Cooperation Between Jews and Christians (Pages 02 - 07)

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Hebrew Scripture and Social Action
Manfred Vogel


To understand theologically the basis of Hebrew Scripture for social involvement one must start by attempting to understand the fundamental structure and orientation of the biblical Weltanschauung. Namely, one must understand how Hebrew Scripture views man, where it locates his fundamental predicament and, commensurate to this, what kind of redemption it expects. Only in the light of the answers to these questions can we theologically ground the stance of Hebrew Scripture toward the task of social action and come to see this stance as an integral, organic and necessary component of the biblical Weltanschauung.

Hebrew Scripture views man as a unique being. His uniqueness lies in that in a way he is a being of nature, a creature, yet, at the same time, he transcends nature, standing over against it, a being of the spirit, a creator. He is an animal yet the bearer of the divine image. He comes from the earth and returns to the earth and yet he is but a little lower than the angels. His uniqueness lies in that he is neither of nature, pure and simple, nor exclusively of the divine but a being suspended between these two realms participating in both. To use Buberian terminology, his uniqueness lies in that he is an It-Thou being, a composite being belonging inextricably to both the It and the Thou dimensions, a physical entity, a collection of molecules yet a consciousness, a spirit; he is both a body and a soul. He is thus both a being-in-itself, a being per se, an expression of blind force subject to inexorable laws, a determined, passive being, in short, an It and at the same time a being-toward-another, a being pro se, a consciousness ever transcending itself toward another, an active, free and spontaneous being, in short, a Thou.

As such the inescapable destiny of man is to live his life in the continuous tension between the It and the Thou aspects of his being. However (and this is crucial for understanding the view of Hebrew Scripture presented here), this constitution of man, this tension between the It and the Thou aspects, is not viewed as his predicament. Indeed it is not only realistically accepted as inescapable but it is seen as the glory of man, as that which lends the dramatic dimension to his existence. The predicament of man, therefore, is seen to be constituted not by the very tension itself but rather in terms of the tension, namely, in the improper balance between the It and the Thou aspects. Thus the predicament is seen to lie in man's continuous "backsliding" to the It aspect, giving it improportionate preponderance and rule over his life. It lies in man conceiving of himself and acting as if he were but a being of power, living exclusively in this context, thus on the one hand being subject to its deterministic, blind processes while on the other hand being the manipulator and exploiter of its energy. (These two seemingly contradictory attitudes are in truth but the two sides of one and the same coin.) Itlies in man placing his ego as the sole, determining center of his life thus enslaving himself to its desires, inclinations and schemes. In short, the predicament lies in man forgetting and thus failing to realize his Thou dimension — his transcendence to the other as an equally determining center of his life (thus expressing his concern for and confirmation of the other), his being not only a being of power, a thing, a machine albeit a most sophisticated one, but also a being of spirit, a free, spontaneous creator, a person.

The view of redemption in Hebrew Scripture being commensurate to the view of the predicament (in as much as redemption is to be the answer to the predicament) envisions, therefore, the restoration of the proper balance between the It and the Thou aspects in man. It requires, therefore, not a qualitative transformation of the being of man but a quantitative change in the realization of his potentialities. (In view of this we should indeed refer to it as redemption rather than salvation.) Man in the view of Hebrew Scripture never loses his Thou dimension, he only fails to realize it adequately. As such, the realization of redemption, i.e., the adequate realization of the Thou dimension, is left in the hands of man. Indeed, it must be left to man. It cannot be wrought by another agency and then bestowed from the outside on man, for this would obviously turn man into a passive recipient depriving him of the spontaneity, freedom and initiative which are the essential hallmarks of the Thou dimension thus undermining and destroying the very gift that is supposed to be given to him. The realization of the Thou dimension in man is constituted by man's free response and this only man himself can do thus prescribing that only he can realize his redemption. (What can be bestowed from the outside is the ability to respond, the ability to realize the Thou dimension, but as we have noted above in the view of Hebrew Scripture, man is constitutionally endowed with this ability and has never lost it.)

However, what man does need from the outside in order to realize his redemption is a challenge, a call, an address from another Thou over against him. This is so since the very ontological constitution of the Thou is relational, interpersonal. A self-enclosed, isolated, single Thou is an impossibility. A Thou comes into being only when called into being by another Thou. Thus, in order for man to be able to realize his Thou he must first be addressed by another Thou.
This is precisely what the faith of Hebrew Scripture affords man. For it knows of an ever-present Thou, an Eternal Thou, YHWH, who confronts man with the continuous presence and challenge of the Thou over-against, continuously pursuing him, calling for him "where art Thou", pestering him to respond, to become a Thou. The necessary conditions for the realization of man's redemption are thus provided by biblical faith. And although biblical faith knows only too well how man has continuously failed to respond thus failing to actualize the conditions and realize redemption it nevertheless does not despair and lives in the ever-renewed trust and hope of its ultimate success.

A difficult problem arises, however, in this scheme, a problem whose solution leads us directly to the heart of our theme showing the essential and profound religious significance of social involvement in the context of biblical faith. The problem is:
— how is communication possible between the Eternal Thou and man
— how can the Eternal Thou address and challenge man and
— how can man respond to the Eternal Thou?

For the Eternal Thou by his very essence is a pure Thou which means that he is a being outside space and time, the correlates of the It dimension. Vis-a-vis man, however, all communication must be mediated through space and time, namely, through the It dimension (though the meaning of the communication may very well indeed belong to the Thou dimension). This means that communication between the Eternal Thou and man — both the presence of the Eternal Thou and the response to him — must be mediated through the It dimension. We might choose to leave this problem as the ultimate, unfathomable mystery of religious discourse, a theological procedure which is certainly legitimate. However, the attempt to solve it must per force lead us to the relationship of man to his fellow-man. For it is precisely in the uniqueness of man's being, namely, in its inextricable union of the Thou and It dimensions, that the possibility of mediating the Thou dimension through the It dimension presents itself. (Of course, here we are confronted with yet another ultimate, radical mystery, i.e., that of the union of the Thou and the It dimensions in one indivisible being; still, though its grasp remains as radically unfathomable as the above radical mystery, the truth of its reality is available to our experience in a way which the above is not.) As such, in our fellowman, who by virtue of his It dimension is present and communicating to us, we encounter the Thou dimension. True, this Thou confronted in our fellow-man presents itself to us as contingent and limited in as much as it is bound to the It dimension. Yet, its very Thouness allows us to glimpse the presence of the unlimited, non-contingent Thou, the Thou who is not bound to the It, thus addressing us in the fulness of the pure Thou. In short — in the Thou of our fellow-man we can encounter the Eternal Thou. In this way we can perhaps grasp the possibility of communication between the Eternal Thou and man both in terms of the address, i.e., challenge, of the Eternal Thou to man (though this aspect may further present considerable problems into which we cannot enter here) and, impinging on our theme more directly, in terms of man's response to the Eternal Thou.

What is of fundamental importance for us to note is that according to this scheme the fundamental religious reality, i.e., the vertical relation between man and God, is mediated through the social dimension, i.e., the horizontal relation between man and his fellow-man. As such, the relation between man and his fellow-man, i.e., the social dimension, is invested in a most fundamental sense with profound religious significance. It is the primary means for articulating the primary religious reality.

In this all-encompassing social dimension the specific aspect of social action constitutes man's response to the Eternal Thou — man responds to the address of the Eternal Thou by his acts towards his fellow-man. But since, as said above, in the response man realizes his Thou dimension and this in turn constitutes the realization of his redemption, it follows that social action is here invested with the fundamental religious significance of being the road to man's redemption —the workings of redemption is the workings of social action.

In view of this it is not surprising to find the burden of biblical concern center on the horizontal dimension of the interpersonal relationship between man and his fellow-man in all its manifold aspects — social, economic and political (both internal and international). Thus, it expresses itself in the biblical legal corpora in its extensive legislation of the civil, criminal and political domains, domains which dearly impinge on the relationship between man and his fellow-man. Similarly it expresses itself in the theology of history which the biblical historical narrative articulates and where the thrust of history is understood in the light of the horizontal interpersonal norm as it impinges both on the internal inter-human relations within the nation and the external international relations between nations; namely, the goal and task of history and thus also the criterion by which it receives both meaning and judgment are taken to be the establishment of the authentic community both internally in terms of the single nation and externally in terms of the universal community of nations. Lastly, it expresses itself in biblical prophecy where it no doubt receives its most striking articulation. For the very essence of the prophetic message, in its challenge, judgment and consolation, is the concern for the establishment of the It-Thou relation on the individual basis between man and hisfellow-man, on the collective basis between nation and nation, and as a direct result of these two on the cosmological basis between creation and creator.

This fundamental, all-encompassing, horizontal social concern does not signify, however, the secularization of faith by Hebrew Scripture; rather, it signifies the sanctification of all concrete, this-worldly inter-personal relations. Man's response to his fellow-man, i.e., the horizontal relation, becomes the fundamental act of religious witnessing, the primary act of testifying to God, i.e., the vertical relation. Indeed, in as much as Hebrew Scripture exemplifies a religious structure which confirms this concrete world in an ultimate, final sense and has no intention to qualitatively transcend it, it cannot but deal with and confirm the It dimension. Consequently it can have no de jure, water-tight division between the sacred and the profane, the vertical and the horizontal.

This grounding of social action in the structure of biblical faith lends it, however, not only a fundamental religious significance but, in turn, also prescribes and delineates its status and content. We shall briefly mention here three aspects.

First, social action in this context is not the expression of charity. It is per force the expression of righteousness. This is to say that the demand for man's involvement and concern for his fellow-man need not appeal here to man's generosity, good heart and his going, so to speak, beyond the call of duty. The demand is grounded in the very essence of man's authentic nature thus making it an essential right (in religious language a God-given right), a demand of that which is only due him.

Secondly, the social concern which is grounded in biblical faith is in no way dependent for its justification on any utilitarian calculus. Its justification is grounded ontologically in the very being of man regardless of whether or not it benefits him economically, psychologically or socially.

It is the third aspect, however, which is by far the most significant in as much as it impinges upon the very content of biblical social concern. According to this aspect social concern is to be directed to man in the fulness of his concrete being which means that it is to be directed here tc both the Thou and the It dimensions in as much as in the context of the biblical Weltanschauung man is and always remains a Thou-It being. True, social concern is grounded in the structure of biblical faith by virtue of the Thou dimension, as the necessary means for realizing this dimension. But, as was seen above, this realization necessarily implicates the It dimension also in as much as it holds the sine qua non condition for communicating the response. Thus, the function of social concern in the biblical context as the necessary means for the realization of the Thou dimension demands of it also that it confirm the It dimension. The authentic realization of man through social concern in no way compromises his being a Thou-It being thus requiring that concern to be directed to both his Thou and It dimensions.

As such the biblical understanding of social concern provides an important corrective to two other formulations which have been and are widely prevalent. These two formulations split the inextricable union of the Thou and the It dimensions in man thus resolving the tension and polarity and allowing them to conceive of man vis-a-vis the question of social concern in terms of one pole or the other.

Thus, one widely prevalent formulation in our day represented by both the communistic and the capitalistic worlds views man exclusively as an It. (Here lies therefore in the last analysis a fundamental similarity between these two opposing worlds making them in reality but two sides of one and the same coin and thus indeed accounting for their radical antagonism.) Even more significantly, this view of man as exclusively an It is represented by the social sciences and through them it impinges most forcefully on our civilization. In the context of this view it is only naturalthat social concern will be limited to man's material needs, e.g., nutrition, health, housing. From the biblical perspective meeting these needs is not only legitimate but absolutely required. The evil of this formulation lies in its making these needs the end withal of man's concern, when it dulls man's sensitivity to yet other needs in yet another dimension, the spiritual Thou dimension. But even more seriously, this formulation becomes positively vicious when in the process of attempting to alleviate man's material needs it actually contributes through its methods and approach to further tightening the bonds of the It dimension around man by further reducing him to a cypher of statistics, to a cog in a machine, to an anonymous "thing" devoid of his unique individuality. Here the biblical perspective becomes of utmost importance in helping us restore the proper balance. For, more than the ability to exercize power, to enjoy material comfort and to satisfy bodily needs and desires, man needs to be confirmed by his fellow-man as a Thou, as the unique irreplaceable person that he is. In the last analysis the Thou dimension and the meaningfulness it bestows are more fundamental to man than the It dimension and the benefits it extends.

The other formulation, which, although not as numerically prevalent today as the former, is nevertheless qualitatively most significant, goes to the other extreme pole viewing man as essentially a Thou and consequently apprehending the question of social concern exclusively in the context of the Thou dimension. Thus man's concern for his fellow-man here excludes the concern for his material, bodily welfare and the physical benefits of this world. The hardships, injustices and oppressions within the It dimension of this world are to be endured for the duration. They are viewed as unessential, transitory and as something ultimately to be transcended. The concern manifested here is purely spiritual. The community striven for is the fellowship of the saints, of the pure Thous. In short, the concern is directed to an other-worldly sphere. Here too, the biblical perspective is sorely needed to provide a necessary corrective and restore proper balance. It is needed to affirm our authentic and inescapable reality as creatures of this world which manifests not only the Thou but equally the It dimension and where consequently man's concern must be directed not only to the Thou but equally to the It dimension.

Only the perspective of Hebrew Scripture can provide us with the chart by which to navigate the desired course between these two alternatives thus allowing us to do justice to the dual dimensions of man's authentic nature. Only the kind of social concern which is based on the viewpoint of Hebrew Scripture can lend itself fully and without compromise to meeting the requirements of the It dimension without sacrificing the requirements of the Thou dimension and vice versa. Here, in this capacity, lies the profound relevance of Hebrew Scripture to man's destiny and vocation particularly at the present critical and problematic juncture in its history.


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