I and Thou by Martin Buber

I and Thou by Martin Buber

A German Jew, Martin Buber was a writer, a scholar, an activist and, perhaps, a mystic, and in 1923 he published Ich and Du, usually translated as I and Thou. I and Thou may be his most well known and influential book, but a close friend once remarked, “You have to read it three times. The first time you won’t understand it, the second time you will hate it, and the third time you will love it.”

I’ve actually read it twice now and he was certainly right about the first reading. I did not understand it. On this second reading I cannot profess to understand it fully, but I do think I understand it mostly, and I definitely don’t hate it. It is however, dense and imperfect. It requires the reader to slow down and think about both the text and the world in which we live.

In the book Buber defines two “primary words,” the first being “I-It” and the second being “I-Thou.” Yes, there are more than two words there and if you’re stumbling you’re already seeing the opacity of much of Buber’s writing. In each case the primary word is a means of identifying the way in which we relate to another. The I-It is the relationship with another where we experience the other, but in Buber’s view it is the experience that you might have when using a tool. It is the experience of use or maybe consumption of another. I-It is what makes racism, pornography, oppression, genocide, and every other form of hate and abuse possible because through the I-It you can see others as less than yourself. You can see them as disposable or even as less than human.

Hate is by nature blind. Only a part of a being can be hated.

Only a part of a being can be hated, but the I-It only sees part of another.

I-Thou on the other hand, is the complete relationship with another…fully in relation to them. It is a relationship in which you see the other as whole. There is no judgment, use, or consumption of the other, but instead there is acceptance of the other as is. In fact, Buber cites the ultimate I-Thou as our relationship with God and, in fact, it is only that relationship that makes the I-Thou with another human possible. It is the model for the relationship. It is the original relationship. When we rightly interact with God, we must accept Him fully and completely, as He is. If we don’t then we aren’t really in relationship with Him. We’ve attempted to move God into the I-It relation and accept Him as we might like Him to be, not as He is.

To be fair to Buber and to us, we are however, human. No relationship, not even that with God, is completely I-Thou and in only the most extreme of cases can they be fully I-It. Instead our relationships exist on a spectrum with some better than others, some days better than others. So how do we move toward the I-Thou? Buber writes,

…the development of the ability to experience (I-It) and use comes mostly through the decrease of man’s power to enter into relation (I-Thou) – the power in virtue of which alone man can live the life of the spirit.

It is our relationship, our connection with God that enhances our I-Thou with other people. It is a life of the spirit that deepens our ability to see and understand another. Buber is fairly critical, if not subtly so, of many of us who try to live spiritual lives. He writes,

…”spiritual life” is for the most part the obstacle to a life lived in the spirit.

For Buber, trying to live a spiritual life can often be counterproductive to a life lived in the spirit, but it’s a typically American approach. How do I deepen my relationship with my Creator? Why…but working at it, of course! More books, more classes, more effort, more crappy Christian pop music! This is not the life of the spirit of which Buber writes.

Man lives in the spirit, if he is able to respond to his Thou. He is able to, if he enters into relation with his whole being. Only in virtue of his power to enter into relation is he able to live in the spirit.

Don’t miss this point. Buber is arguing that living in the spirit requires you to relate to yourself as I-Thou. Is requires self-acceptance of your whole self. It requires acknowledging, if not embracing, those parts of your body and soul that you wish were different. You have to be able to see and accept yourself for who you are, as you were created, before you can see another in that way and its also a necessary precondition for life in the spirit.

I cannot stress how important and paradigm shifting this concept is. Our life in the spirit, our life with God, is dependent upon seeing ourselves wholly; fully. And like ripples on a pond, our self-acceptance makes possible a nearer I-Thou with God, which in turn makes possible a nearer I-Thou with everyone around us, and this condition builds on itself like a never-ending feedback loop. The way in which we interact with the world and with ourselves informs the way in which we interact with God. The way in which we interact with God informs the way in which we interact with ourselves and with the world.

Life cannot be divided between a real relation with God and an unreal relation of I and It with the world. – You cannot both truly pray to God and profit by the world. He who knows the world as something by which he is to profit knows God also in the same way.

It is the last point that I have spent the most time thinking about one in which I feel Buber in some ways glossed over.

For every relationship with another, we are their It or Thou, just as they are ours. That means that in some cases, we are seen fully and completely by another. This, in and of itself, is refreshing and encouraging to me. Most importantly though, our relationship with God, our original and ultimate I-Thou, is also Thou-I. That is, from God’s perspective, He sees us completely and wholly, without reservation or remorse. He sees us as we were created and meant to be seen. He does not wish we were thinner, taller, richer, or whiter. He does not wish. He knows. He knows that we were perfectly and wonderfully made. He knows that we have infinite worth just as we truly and authentically are. It is this knowledge that, for me, allows greater self-acceptance and provides a discernable movement of my life deeper into the spirit.

He who knows God knows also very well remoteness from God, and the anguish of barrenness in the tormented heart; but he does not know the absence of God: it is we only who are not always there.

I and Thou by Martin Buber is not a “beach book” or a book that should be read with a baseball game on in the background. It is a book that will require your fully attention, body, mind, and soul. But even if you have to read it three times, I believe you will profit from it. Your life will enter deeper into the spirit, even if just a little, and your relationship with the world, yourself, and your God will be better for it.



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