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I and Thou: A Mind Altering Book by Martin Buber

buberI read a lot. I read a lot of lots of different stuff.

For my academic work I read large amounts of material on linguistics, history, theology, interpretive methodology, and biblical studies, (not to mention reading articles about politics and religion and psychology and the like all day long while working my social media platform) but that is just the start of my love of reading. I read philosophy, political theory and economics in the washroom (sorry if that too much information, but it’s true.) I read fiction while I drive… okay, that sounds bad. I listen to books on tape while I drive. For a few years in a row, during my PhD I was driving so much that I was taking down anywhere from 1500-2000 pages of material a week while driving… that’s 5 regular sized novels and 1 Stephen King book. Raising my kids, we read for at least an hour a night, taking down more than 1000 young adult books with them over the years.

This is not to boast (though I hope you are impressed and tell your children and your children’s children about me when I’ve passed on to glory.) but is intended rather to make a point. Of all the books I’ve read, (and that’s a lot) a handful stand out as worldview altering reads. One of those brain shifting books, a book that came to me at a moment of great need for its particular message, was I and Thou, by the Jewish scholar Martin Buber. Yes… you read that right… the Jewish scholar.

The book isn’t about Christianity, per se, nor about Judaism, exactly. It is written to address a fundamental concern about the nature of true and false religion, true encounters with a Holy God, and how true religious experience relates to the real world at its most basic level. Those looking to hear that their own sense of what it means to be a servant of God, as detailed by their own Sunday School teachers, pastors, and favorite books about systematic theology or living the victorious Christian life, may not care much for such a book, because it is not interested in validating the details of one form of worship or another. Buber is interested in answering a far more basic question than that.

The book is not an easy read, so I would like to give my take on this most important piece of religious philosophy, and would in turn welcome other takes on his work. I will consider the book over a five day period, including today, attempting to summarize each part in turn before I offer a more emotional reflection and response on Friday.

For now, here is a summary biography of Martin Buber.

Martin Buber was born in Vienna to a Jewish family in 1878. After his parents divorce, he was raised in Lemberg in the Ukraine by his Grandfather, Jewish tradition and literature scholar, Solomon Buber. At the age of 18, he went to study Philosophy, Art History, German Studies, and Philology in Vienna, where he joined the Zionist Movement for religious and cultural, not political, purposes.

He spent most of his life involved in various aspects of government, Zionist and Chassidic concerns, writing, editing, and lecturing on issues of religion and philosophy, including a translation of the Tanak into German. In 1922, he took a position teaching Jewish Studies at the University of Frankfurt, from which he was driven in 1938 by growing Nazi pressures.

Thereafter, he taught Anthropology and Sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he stayed until his death in 1965, working for a peaceful bi-national state through the group Ichud. He also took two lengthy lecture tours through Europe and the USA in the early 1950’s.

Buber was the recipient of the Goethe Award from the University of Hamburg, the Peace Prize of the German Booktrade, and the Erasmus Award in Amsterdam.[1]

Having spent many years cultivating an oscillating vision, Buber gained what he considered a moment of clarity in his perception of the essence of religion and human affairs, which being of a “Suprapersonal” nature, he sought to set down in print.[2] This work, Ich und Du (I and Thou), became his most famous work, and, according to Reinhold Niebuhr, “A great event in the religious life of the West.”[3]

In it, he traces the variations and implications of what he considers to be the two attitudes in man, the two primary words of the heart – I-It and I-Thou. His book moves in three parts. Part one contains Buber’s attempt to explain these primary words. Part two contains Buber’s application of these ideas to the world of nature and man, public and private. Part three contains Buber’s attention to the issue of true relation with God, and its counterparts in the world of I-It – idolatry, mysticism, and godlessness.

Stay tuned each day this week for another installment on I and Thou.

[1] Andreas Schmidt “Martin Buber Homepage” No Pages. Cited 11 March 2003. On line: http://www.buber.de/de/en/.

[2] Martin Buber I and Thou second edition (Trans. Ronald Gregor Smith; New York: Charles Scribner’s Son’s, 1958), 123.

[3] Reinhold Niebur. recommendation in Martin Buber’s I and Thou, cover.

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