Home » Theology » I and Thou by Martin Buber Part III: The Thou That Cannot Become It

I and Thou by Martin Buber Part III: The Thou That Cannot Become It

buber 3I am continuing today with my week long summary and reflection on Martin Buber’s monumental work, I and Thou. If this confuses you, I recommend reading or re-reading my previous three posts on Buber’s work. I-thou represents the attitude of man in communion with God and his creation. I-It is the world of practical interaction, use and abuse. Both are necessary, but the one without the other warps into unseemly shapes. And so, we go on…

In this final section, Buber focuses on the Eternal Thou, which has been present of necessity in the two earlier parts, since it is based upon the existence of the one eternal Thou that man has the capacity to relate on an I-Thou level with nature and men. He says, “The extended lines of relations meet in the eternal Thou. It is consummated in the direct relation with the Thou that by nature cannot become It.”[1] Here, he discusses the importance of the distinction between the I and the Thou in I-Thou relations. It is an encounter with the holy, and, thus, melding mysticism fails, and idolatry cannot be tolerated. He also discusses the essence of revelation, and its connections to religious systems.

While a lot of Buber’s statements have the appearance of mystical statements about mystical union, it is plain that he finds the distinction between the I and the Thou an essential distinction that is wrongly undone in mystical traditions. The idea that the ultimate I-Thou meeting is an encounter with the holy is essential to his thinking. In the eternal Thou are all things, all things are not the eternal Thou.[2] Doctrines of absorption have no place in the meeting with the eternal Thou, whether the Thou is absorbed into the I, or the I is lost in the Thou.[3]

The second failure of mysticism is its dependence on means and methods to press for a meeting with the divine. One does not need to set aside the world of sense in order to meet with the world beyond, he need only breakdown the barrier between the two. There is no precept, method, knowledge or wielding power, no cultivation of a feeling that can produce the relation.[4] Buber pities the man who spends his days pursuing meeting, he does not appreciate this world, and does not find God for all his striving.

The use of solitude and contemplation have some value if they are designed to break one’s dependence on “experiencing and using,” but solitude from relation misses the mark. God lifts the man who is rejected by men, but not the man who rejects the world of men.[5] The Eternal Thou cannot be deduced from the things of this world. He cannot be expressed, only addressed. Here, prayer and sacrifice are servants in the matter. He who prays pours himself out wholly to God in unrestrained dependence, and he who sacrifices, though he do it in ignorance, knows that one ought to give to God.

When one uses such tools to achieve effect without relation, however, he purposes the manipulation of the divine by magic.[6] The truly godly man does not need to escape this world, rather his relation with God flows out into relation with nature and man. The truly godless man is not the atheist whose heart cries out to the unnamed Thou, but is, rather, the man who prays and still seeks profit from this world.[7]

The reason the Eternal Thou cannot become an It is because every fashioned image of God in the world is simply an idol to one degree or another, and one’s devotion to his idols is not of the same substance as another’s devotion to the Eternal Thou. They belong to two separate worlds, two separate aspects of man.

Idolatry is the stuff of the world of I-It, where men craft images of God and systems of worship, in order to draw God into space and time, in order to create something that can be reflected upon, and that can be used to achieve man’s own ends.[8] God cannot replace idols, men must turn from idols to God, from I-It concepts of religion to an I-Thou relation with the Eternal Thou. Men cannot say Thou to an idol, and how, Buber asks, can a man meet God if he does not know how to say Thou?[9] The Eternal Thou cannot become an It. We try to do it, but the best we can muster is idolatrous versions.

The final thrust of I and Thou concerns the role of revelation in the I-Thou relation.

For Buber, revelation from such a meeting means that one comes back into the world of It with something he did not have when he left it. This something is not content, precept, proposition or anything like it.[10] What man gains is the fullness of being raised and bound in real mutual relation. He gains an inexpressible confirmation of meaning, which is a meaning for here and now, a meaning for one’s life and life in general.[11] One comes and goes saying Thou and calls men upon his return toward the Thou encounter.

Content comes from man’s desire to find stability in space and time. This is the stuff of religious systems. Faith, at first, is the natural complement of the I-Thou relation, but the desire for security replaces relation with faith. The one who struggles and knows God is replaced by the one with certainty who loves guarantees.[12] The desire for security in space causes men to establish religious communities around faith. The community of faith also originally complements the I-Thou meeting, but eventually mutual use of the community replaces relation with the Eternal Thou. Personal prayer is replaced by community prayer and devotional exercises.[13] It is not that corresponding action in the world of It is a violation of the I-Thou encounter, but merely that it is a step removed from it, and inevitably leads away from relation.

Buber is emphatic that it is not the purpose of the I-Thou meeting that man spend his life in reflection upon God, but in order that he might find meaning in life. Its aim is mission, and earthly negligence is a violation of the I-Thou spirit. The vision cast by the man of revelation is a modified form and God is near to it, but one must leave community and temple domes to find him.[14]

[1] Buber, 75.

[2] Buber, 79-80.

[3] Buber, 84.

[4] Buber, 78, 81.

[5] Buber, 104.

[6] Buber, 83.

[7] Buber, 107-9.

[8] Buber, 115, 105.

[9] Buber, 106.

[10] Buber, 110-1.

[11] Buber, 111.

[12] Buber, 113.

[13] Buber, 114-5.

[14] Buber, 118.

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