Friday, September 11, 2009

The Ménage à Trois

For many people “God” is an abstraction, something to be analyzed logically and debated philosophically, something we make arguments about and whose existence we try to prove. But to conceive God as a problem to be solved, the Jewish existentialist thinker Martin Buber (1878-1965) thinks, is to misconceive Him. Like other thinkers before him, Buber stresses that religious belief is to be grounded not in philosophy but in some form of direct experience; but unlike his contemporary, the German thinker Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), he finds what Otto calls the "numinous," the “wholly other,” to be too remote and impersonal to be the proper object of that experience. Rather it is in our most personal relationships with others that we develop our most personal of relationships directly with God.

To be a human being is to be in relationships. But there are two different sorts of relationships, Buber suggests, which we may designate by the phrases “I-You” and “I-It.”

The I-You relationship is characterized by intimacy, mutuality, dialogue, exchange; it is a two-way relationship in which we treat the other as a genuine person with needs and interests to be explored and respected. We are thus directly engaged with that other as those needs and interests are directly present to us.

The I-It relationship to the contrary is one-way: the other is a mere object with no intrinsic ends of its own, something which we may simply use or exploit or dismiss. Here there is no direct engagement: we may think of the other any way we like, mediated by our own concepts and ideas, however it suits us.

Our typical I-You relationships are with other persons, naturally, and I-It relationships with “things,” but they are not restricted in this way: we may also have I-You relationships with a pet, or a tree, or even with inanimate objects, and we may similarly have I-It relationships even with people--as we do, for example, when we think of others as mere objects to be used for our own ends.

There is nothing wrong with I-It relationships, at least when they involve mere objects. But we become fully human only through the I-You relationship with other human beings. When we treat other people as objects, as “It”s, we lose something of our own humanity.

What does this have to do with God?

For many people “God” is an abstraction to be analyzed logically and debated philosophically. But to conceive God in this way is to conceive of Him as an object, an object of thought, and so it is to have an I-It relationship with Him. To the contrary we must aim for an I-You relationship with God: one where God is directly present to our experience and not mediated in any conceptual way.

And indeed that relationship in fact is always present to us--to be found in every genuine I-You relationship we enjoy! God is not merely Otto’s “wholly other” but in fact is also wholly present in all our I-You relationships. It is thus no accident that we speak of God as being a “person” since it is in our relationships with persons that we discover God--at least when we put aside our reasoning and language and concepts, our arguments and debates.

And so God is neither a principle nor an idea nor an object; nor is He the conclusion of some philosophical argument. Rather God is something to be experienced within our proper relationships with other beings. We speak with God, in effect, whenever we speak with another genuine You.

Thus every particular You affords us a glimpse through to the eternal You.

Source: Martin Buber, I and Thou (1923). Transl. Walter Kaufmann (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970).