“Some Mennonite theologians express a growing sentiment that…Mennonites should integrate their theology more fully with that of Christendom.” However, “perhaps there are other traditions which might be equally helpful theologically for a dissenting tradition, such as Judaism. It is urgent before going too far down the road the road of Christendom that other options and theological goals be tested.” Perry Yoder, Old Testament professor at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary wrote these words nearly twenty years ago. They are probably even more relevant today.
Yoder’s warning provides the context for my exploration of the insights of Martin Buber, a Jewish theologian who lived from 1878 to 1965, first in Austria and Germany, and then, after 1938, in Israel. Buber’s most famous book was called I and Thou [I will use the translation by Walter Kaufmann published by Scribners in 1970; page numbers from this book will be in parentheses in the text of this essay.]
I find I and Thou to be a difficult book and hope only to scratch the surface of Buber’s thought. What I want to offer is not so much an objective summary of Buber’s thinking, but what I could call “reflections stimulated by Martin Buber’s book I and Thou.”
I will organize my reflections around five general themes: one, that the heart of reality is relationships; two, that God is a You and not an It; three, that all of life is spiritual; four, that reality is trustworthy; and five, that life is to be lived in the present.
The heart of reality is relationships
Buber warned of problems in seeking to find God outside the present world. He saw such problems in the thought of one of the most influential twentieth-century mystics, Simone Weil, a birthright Jew who converted to Catholicism. “Even if Simone Weil had known the true God of Israel, she would not have been satisfied, for he turns toward nature, which he dominates, whereas Simone Weil sought flight from nature as well as from society: reality became intolerable to her, and for her, God was the power which led her away from it. But this is definitely not the way of the God of Israel; such a way would be the very opposite of his relation toward his creation and his creatures. He has placed man in the center of reality in order that he should face up to it.
“Simone Weil’s idea was to serve mankind, and so she again and again took to heavy manual labor on the land, but her soul was always put to flight by reality. And she began with her own reality: she contested the ‘I’; it was one’s duty, she thought, to slay the ‘I’ in oneself. ‘We possess nothing in this world,’ she wrote, ‘other than the power to say I. This is what we should yield up to God, and that is what we should destroy.’ Such a basic orientation is, indeed, diametrically opposed to Judaism; for the real relationship taught by Judaism is a bridge which spans across two firm pillars, man’s ‘I’ and the ‘I’ of man’s eternal partner. It is thus the relation between man and God, thus also the relation between man and man. Judaism rejects the ‘I’ that connotes selfishness and pride, but it welcomes and affirms the ‘I’ of the real realtionship, the ‘I’ of the partnership between I and Thou, the ‘I’ of love. Love does not invalidate the ‘I’; on the contrary, it binds the ‘I’ more closely to the ‘Thou.’ It does not say: ‘Thou art loved’ but ‘I love thee’.”
In Buber’s view, Simone Weil, as a mystic, wrongly sought to eradicate the “I.” She also wrongly sought to escape from concrete reality with the flight of her soul out of this physical world. Hence, she was a failure when it came to genuine, mutual human relationships. She seemed actually greatly to dislike actual people—they hindered her in her quest for God.
Instead of minimizing the importance of human relationships for authentic human existence, Buber actually makes them central. He spends the first part of I and Thou exclusively talking about people, about inter-human relationships. I was a little surprised by this because I thought he would be talking more directly about God. But for him, what matters most is relating with other people; although as the book goes on, it becomes clear that inter-human relationships also reveal a great deal about human beings relationships with God.
There are, for Buber, basically two forms of existence, what he calls the I-You and the I-It. The I-You is when we exist in relation to others, whom we know as You. That means we know them as beings with their own value, their own existence apart from us. An I-You relationship is one of mutual regard. Certainly this is what can characterize ongoing intimate relationships between family, friends, and lovers. However, I-You relationships can also happen more spontaneously, when you meet somebody briefly but meaningfully.
According to Buber, most of our involvement with other human beings is of an I-It nature. In fact, even with people we love in an I-You fashion, even our best relationships are most of the time of an I-It nature. Others are experienced as objects. We want them to do something for us, to behave well, to meet our needs, maybe just to stay out of our way. And this is okay.
For one thing, we cannot live in the I-You world for long at a time. It’s too dynamic, too intense. At best, it is something we visit from time to time. As well, most of time we are needing simply to get on with things. We should always be respectful of people, but we do need to keep our distance, to relate in a functional way and then move on. It is usually appropriate simply to say hello to the grocery store checker, buy our groceries, pay our money, and then say “You bet” and leave when the checker says, “Thanks, have a nice day.”
The I-You moment always takes all of our being. The I-It never does. Again, it is necessary for us to have mostly I-It types of encounters or we would be exhausted. However, the I-You times are necessary, as well, for the well-being of our soul. We need to be known as a You by others; we need to know others as Yous.
When Buber talks about relationships as the crux of human existence he has something specific in mind. He means a relationship with another whom we know as a You. We never possess a You. A You is someone we listen to, someone we see as a person in his or her own right, not merely an object to experience. A You is not simply a projection of our own desires. When we look through a window toward someone we know as You, the glass is two-way; we’re not simply looking into a mirror.
Ultimately, we need to know at least some others as You, because that is how we find our identity. Human beings are created to be in I-You relationships. The breath of life comes from encountering a You, being a You to someone else; knowing the You-world as genuine and vital.
For physical life to continue, we need the It-world. We need objectivity, we need technology, we need impersonal activity; we even need to be free to encounter other people superficially at times. However, living only in an It-world renders us less than human.
Buber asserts that spirituality has everything to do with knowing other people as Yous. Spirituality is social, relational, connecting with people. It is a delusion to think that spirit occurs within the individual. This becomes “a human spirit bent back into itself” (141). Instead, genuine spirit occurs between the individual and someone other, between us and that which we are not. The individual bent back into itself renounces the centrality of relationships with others.
However, in Buber’s view, the realm of the spirit is the space between me and You. It is not centered in the I. “It is not like the blood that circulates in you,” writes Buber, “but like the air in which you breathe” (89). Our capability of living in the spirit, then, our capability of growing toward authentic spirituality, this is dependent upon our ability to relate to others, to know others as You. Only in that way may we discover the realm of spirit.
Buber also emphasizes, in opposition to what he understands mysticism to seek, that to discover the realm of spirit, actually, to encounter God, we must remain ourselves. We don’t lose our self in merging with the spiritual realm. In discovering the realm of spirit, we best become ourselves. That is because the highest spiritual existence is that of encountering another person (and ultimately, God) as a You. And, by definition, all I-You relationships (including, even especially including, that with God), are based on each person remaining an “I.” It is only in finding relationships with those who are different from us that we find ourselves—and find God.
God is a You and not an It
In I and Thou Buber spends the first part of the book talking only about people. He doesn’t mention God for many pages. He does this, in part at least, as a means of making his point that it is through our social relationships that we access God. We don’t start with God, in isolation from human beings.
For Buber’s understanding of God, it is important not to be misled by the title of the English translation of his book—I and Thou. The German original is Ich und Du. The German Du corresponds with our informal “you,” not the formal “thou.” When Buber speaks of God, he means God as a close-at-hand You, not God as a distant Thou.
When I encounter another person as You, that is where God is present. When I disregard the other person, I am actually disregarding and ignoring God. Simply to use another person is to deny God. We can not live in two realms, one of impersonality with all other human beings and the other of closeness with God. Buber would say that the intensely pious person, with the intense devotional life, who in actuality disdains actual human beings, such a person only knows God as It, an object, a projection.
On the other hand, all people who address their whole being to the You of their life, in other human beings, in nature, such people are addressing Buber’s God. That is true even if they understand themselves to be Godless or espouse an intellectually cock-eyed theology.
Buber writes that “whoever knows the world as something to be utilized knows God in the same way. [Such people’s] prayers…fall into the ears of the void. [Those people]—and not the [so-called] ‘atheists’ who from the night and longing of [their] garret windows address the nameless—[are the actual] godless [ones]” (155-56).
So, we cannot live compartmentalized lives and hope to be spiritually alive. We cannot devote ourselves to impersonal success, manipulation, and disregard of others with part of our lives and with the other part worship God. God then is only an It, only a projection.
Buber also asserts that it is all parts of who we are which enter the You-world. Some approaches to faith seek for something “pure, essential, and enduring [in our inner soul], while stripping away everything else.” However, genuinely to participate in You-ness, he writes, one need “not consider our instincts as too impure, the sensuous as too peripheral, or our emotions as too fleeting—everything must be included and integrated.” The whole person participates, not only an “abstracted self” (137-38).
Buber asserts that human beings have two forms of existence—the I-You and the I-It. We all reside in the It-world most of the time, which is appropriate, even necessary. But we all also have potential for being part of the You-world. And that is where we become most fully ourselves, spiritually vital and alive.
These are moments of genuine relating with others—human beings, God, (in some sense at least) nature. They are the moments which are definitive of our faith. We cultivate these moments not by clinging to them, not by seeking by power to create them, not by manipulating God and people to find ecstasy. Rather, we cultivate the You-moments by living with openness to other people and God, ready to know them, separate beings from us, ready to know them as You when the opportunity arises. We cultivate the You-moments by learning better to know and respect ourselves as who we are and by learning better to know and respect others as who they are. These two areas of knowledge—ourselves as “I’s” and others as “You’s” depend upon each other.
All of life is spiritual
Buber argues that the sacred, the realm of spirit, exists everywhere. The sabbath, what might be called holy time, is everyday. It is not limited, he writes, to “a house of God, nor to a church or synagogue, or seminary, nor to one day out of seven” (30).”
For Buber, the possibility of knowing God as present, which is one way he talks about faith; the possibility of encounter—with people, creation, God—with another as You and not It; this access to the spirit is constant, at all times, at all places. Thinking in terms of “a house of God” or “one day out of seven” as special places or special times is not an aid to spirituality but indeed quite possibly a hindrance. Narrowing and restricting the Spirit in this way can keep us from experiencing each present moment as special.
“What is decisive,” Buber writes, “is whether the spirit—the You-saying, responding spirit—remains alive and active” (99). This will never happen if life is experienced as compartmentalized; partly sacred, partly secular. To have only certain slots for the life of the spirit—say, church on Sunday, our quiet devotional time, or even in more Buberian terms, certain relationships and enounters—to think of these as the “spirituality” compartments and other times as “secular” or “mundane” will have the effect of relegating the “secular” compartments to nothing but the It-world, in Buber’s words, “abandoned forever to this despotism, while the spirit would [also] lose all actuality” (100).
When we compartmentalize our lives, living part of life closed off from the You-world, then that resistance to the You-world will spread to the rest of our lives. In trying to protect the sacred in its own little cubby, we actually are acting in such a way which will drive the sacred out altogether. It’s either everywhere a possibility for us, or it becomes no possibility at all.
I think we can see this, perhaps, in the way power struggles tend to creep almost unawares into religious communities. You live part of your life as a hard-guy in the dog-eat-dog world, expecting in church to be nice. But by being hardened during the week, you lose your sensitivity to genuinely encountering other people as You, rather than It. You might think you are being nice, but this can end up being a facade for still living in the It-world. When tensions arise, we might be nice on the service but because we don’t actually know each other as Yous, we rely more on power struggles than open listening and honest speaking.
For so many people, in Buber’s view, life has become a struggle for empowerment and vitality. This has led to what he calls a continual invention of various prescriptions, preparations, exercises, and meditations” for empowerment. But none of these “disciplines” in reality have anything “to do with the primarily simple fact of encounter.” The various spiritual disciplines and activities people struggle over, Buber believes, have their “place in the It-world and do not take us one step out of it.” Moving from the It-world to the You-world, from the world of using to the world of encounter, such a move cannot be taught “in the sense of prescriptions” (125-26).
Life is to be lived in the present
What we need are not more sophisticated techniques or more rigorous will-power. What we need are not more insightful gurus. What we need instead is something very simple. However, its simplicity is not to be mistaken for it being easy. What we need, Buber asserts, for spiritual vitality is simply “the total acceptance of the present” (126). What we need is an awareness that God as our foundational You, our fellow-human beings as Yous, are here right now. We will not find anything more profound, pure and holy, or life transforming than simply learning to say You in the present, wherever we are, whomever we are with, however we feel.
Buber also argues that “what has to be given up is not the I, as most mystics suppose. [No,] the I is indispensable for any relationship, including the highest [with God,] which always presupposes an I and [a] You. What has to be given up is not the I but that false drive for self-assertion which impels [people] to flee from the unreliable, unsold, unlasting, unpredictable, dangerous world of relation into the world of having of things” (126). What has to be given up is fleeing from the fluid You-world into the stable It-world.
What Buber calls the “false drive for self-assertion” stems, I believe, from a fear of the present, from a fear of reality, from a fear of the “world of relation.” This world of relation is scarey. Actual relationships—with people or with God—of mutual give and take, of openness, without control over are unpredictable, unstable, fluid, have their ups and downs. In our fear, we avoid that kind of uncertainty. So we do seek to flee—to solitude, to strictly It-relationships with people, to a dream of otherworldly flights of the soul. Any hope for finding the You-world by fleeing from the present will be in vain.
Perhaps sometimes we do find ourselves in a “present” where it is impossible to find any kind of You. In that case, which I would imagine Buber would see as pretty rare, we should move along—permanently. Most of the time, though, we simply aren’t open to be accepting of the present, not because it is impossible for us to find a You there, but because we are unwilling, afraid, too self-absorbed to live in the now.
Buber asserts that “I know nothing of a ‘world’ and of ‘worldly life’ that separate us from God. What is designated that way is life with an alenated It-world, the life of experience and use. Whoever goes forth in truth to the world, goes forth to God” (143). God is everywhere to be found; what Buber calls “encounter,” “association,” genuine relationship,” are everywhere to be found. There is no place called “world” where God and other Yous are unavailable. Only when we flee, when we block ourselves off, when we use others, project onto others, deny the present, exist only with objects, are we separated from God. And that separation is our doing. God is the always present You, waiting only for our response, only for our receptivity.
“No prescription can lead us to the encounter….Only the acceptance of the presence is required to come to it” (159). There is no formula, no set of techniques. Buber’s one key to spiritual empowerment is what he calls “acceptance of the presence.” In part, at least, what he means by that, I think, is presence in two senses. One sense is acceptance of God’s continual presence. God is always here, always present. The other sense is accepting our need to be present, our need to live in the here and now.
This living in the present is very difficult—at least I know it is for me and I perceive that it is for most people. I suppose it’s good to remember the past, and to think of the future. But these can be temptations to wallow, in effect, in dissatisfaction about the present. Some dissatisfaction might be healthy, it might help us to keep moving, to seek to learn and grow and change. However, too much, without question, will keep us from knowing the You-world. Buber’s point is that the You-world is only known in the present. God is available for us only in the present. Another person as You is available for us only in the present.
Reality is trustworthy
A final main theme of Buber’s I will mention is that reality is trustworthy. This theme actually is closely related to the idea that life is to be lived in the present. We can have courage to live life in the present because reality is trustworthy. To use Buber’s terms, we can enter the You-world, which is temporary; we can know others as You with all the dynamism and unpredictability of genuine I-You relationships; and then we can let the You-moment pass by. We can allow ourselves to do that because we know that entry to the You-world is always possible. We can trust reality always to allow access to the You-world.
The You is known only in the present. We can let it go as time passes because is will be knowable again in a new present. Reality is trustworthy because the You-world is always accessible. A trust in reality; that is, a trust in the nature of how human life works can help us be comfortable with a closeness/distance rhythm. The possibility of a I-You connection will always be there. We don’t have to worry about being overwhelmed by the distance. We know the closeness will return.
I would also say this about trusting in the continual possibility of new I-You relationships, too. This is both in the sense of making new friends, but also of having spontaneous I-You encounters, where we don’t really have an on-going connection but something clicks in a more spontaneous, one-time kind of way. The presence of God as what one might call the “You-facilitator”, the nature of how human beings are—these indicate to me that spontaneous I-You moments will arise for me again.
According to Buber, the largest threat to our genuine fulfillment is simply a lack of trust. Instead of trust, or faith, in the ongoing possibility of encounter, of association, of entering the You-world, of genuinely connecting with God and people—this is one kind of faith. Its deadly opposite is what he calls “faith in doom,” faith in inevitable, overwhelming, always increasing It-ness.
Buber’s contemporary, the German sociologist Max Weber, wrote in utter despair of the ever-encroaching “iron-cage” encompassing all of human reality, leaving us enslaved to totalitarian technology and what Weber called rationalization, the objectifying of all of life.
Buber see this “faith in doom” as more pervasive than ever before. “It is no longer the power of karma nor the power of the stars that rules [humankind’s] lot ineluctably; many different forces claim this dominion.” He names several—“the ‘law of life—a universal struggle in which everybody must either join the fight or renounce life;…the ‘psychological law’ according to which innate drives constitute the entire human soul;…the “social law” of an inevitable social process that is merely accompanied by will and consiousness; [and] the ‘cultural law’ of an unalterably uniform genesis and decline of historical forms.…The point is always that [humankind] is yoked into an inescapable process that [people] cannot resist, though [they] may be deluded enough to try” (105).
Buber rejects such fatalism. He calls it humankind’s “abdication in the face of the proliferating It-world.” But the It-world is proliferating only because human beings are bewitched by this faith in doom. “Nothing can doom [humankind] but the belief in doom, for this prevents [what Buber calls] the movement of Return” (107).
“The movement of Return” could be called “repentance,” turning back to God. But Buber is not thinking of elaborate religious ritual or a formal conversion to a particular religion. He has in mind a simple Return to openness to the reality of the You-world; what I earlier referred as “the total acceptance of the present.” Not acceptance of whatever is as good, but an acceptance of the present as the arena wherein life is to be lived and God is to be encountered.
“The belief in doom is a delusion from the start.” The notion of everything running down, of irresistible fate, “does not know the actuality of spirit.” When someone is overpowered by the It-world, they will accept faith in doom as a truth which, in Buber’s words, “creates a clearing in the jungle.” For those overcome by the It-world, their very chains—that is, faith in doom—are foolishly held to be profound enlightenment.
“In truth,” Buber continues, “this [faith in doom] only leads [the person holding it] deeper into the slavery of the It-world.” However, Buber firmly believes that “the world of You is not locked up. Whoever proceeds toward [that world, the world where encounter, where spirit, where trust in a life-giving God of mercy; whoever proceeds toward that world], concentrating [one’s] whole being, with [one’s] power to relate resurrected, [this person will find freedom.] And to gain freedom from the belief in unfreedom,” he concludes, “is to gain freedom” (107). We might add, to gain freedom from the belief in impersonality is to gain freedom. To gain freedom from the belief in the impossibility of giving and receiving love is to gain freedom. To gain freedom from the belief in overwhelming fearfulness of the present is to gain freedom.
Buber is certainly critical of many expressions of violence and oppression in the present world. However, his response is not escape from the present but an affirmation of the fundamental goodness of the present underneath all that hurts and violates. His response is belief in the world, that this is where God is present, this is where we know others as You, this is where we find healing.
“Only [people] that believe in the world achieve contact with it;“ Buber argues, “and if they commit themselves they also cannot remain godless.” Belief in the world as the creation of God, belief in the world as the arena of God’s activity—for Buber, this leads to belief in God. He affirms this with particularly moving words: “Let us love the actual world that never wishes to be annulled, but [let us] love it in all its terror, [daring] to embrace it with our spirit’s arms—and our hands encounter the hands that hold it” (142-43).
It is in the present world, and only in the present world, with all its terrors, that we encounter God as You; it is only in the present world, with all its terrors, that we might know one another as You. We can face these terrors only when we know this world—with the hands that hold it—as trustworthy; as a place ultimately characterized by abundance, not scarcity.
To some extent, at least, I believe the point about the heart of the life of faith being relationships corresponds with Mennonite emphases on community. The priority on community places a premium on inter-human relationships.
The Mennonite world certainly has its share of ideological people. Some of us tend toward a fundamentalistic placing of ultimate priority on correct doctrine. Others of us tend toward a kind of political activism that places an ultimate priority on very different correct doctrine and correct action. Nonetheless, as a whole, I believe, most Mennonites tend to be much more people-oriented than ideology oriented.
The point about life being lived in the present corresponds with Mennonite emphases on concrete, practical living. A famous story is told of the Mennonite farmer who was asked by a young evangelist if he was saved. The farmer took out a pen and a scrap of paper and began making a list of his neighbors. “What are you doing?” asked the young man. “You are wondering if I’m saved,” replied the farmer. “Here’s a list of people who see me live. Ask them.”
Salvation has to do with life in the present; with practical, mundane, day-to-day existence. The people who know us the best, who see our present, day-to-day lives—they are the ones who can speak to the spiritual reality of these lives.
I think of the worship space in the Mennonite church in Eugene, Oregon, where I pastored for seven years. This space embodied a spare beauty of wood and its value for singing, and quilts on the wall, that combine a sense of simple attractiveness with a sense of function. They seemed down-to earth, but also holy in that earthiness. They helped me to appreciate the holiness of life in the present, concrete world. I compare this with some other churches, with their stained glass, carpeting, high, sweeping ceilings, loud organs and sense of “awe.” When I’m in them, I feel like I kind of disappear. They give me a feeling of otherworldliness which I don’t find particularly encouraging.
Now, my point here is not to focus on denying a future, heaven-like reality. Rather, I more want to emphasize the significance of a positive focus on the here-and-now. Faithful living in the present does not require a rejection of a future beyond. But it does require full commitment to living in the present.
The point about seeing reality as trustworthy corresponds with Mennonite distinctives such as believers baptism and pacifism.
Believers baptism can be seen as reflecting trust in people’s ability to decide for themselves to identify with the faith community. It reflects less fear about the destiny of the child. There a sense of confidence that our children will find God accessible in life—that is essentially what I mean by affirming reality as trustworthy: God is accessible in life. That access to God is available for all of us at all time—we may trust in that.
Pacifism assumes that reality is, at its deepest level, peaceable and not conflictual. It is trustworthy. Life is not, at its heart, dog-eat-dog. War is not, due to the nature of reality, inevitable. Pacifism assumes that at least we, as individuals, can live free from the dominance of militarism and violence.
My pacifism rests on my conviction that God is love. Saying “God is love” to me essentially means saying “reality is trustworthy,” since God is ultimate reality. This sense of pacifism is to me probably my deepest sense of spirituality. I know that my spiritual passion is very much connected with a rejection of the ways of violence and an affirmation of the fundamental need for respect and compassion for all people at all times.
So, what, in conclusion, might I say about the significance of these ideas? For one thing, this approach to human life encourages us to focus more on relating openly and respectfully to other people and to the world around us than on doctrines or religious techniques and rituals.
Secondly, this perspective sees God as immanent, as present among us, as most knowable in the context of our interaction with other people and creation.
Third, this viewpoint can help us to be hopeful about the possibilities of our growth and authenticity. The You-world is always nearby. Our access to it does not depend upon confessing certain dogmas, following certain techniques, engaging in certain rituals. Our access to the You-world mostly depends upon our openness to it, our patience in waiting for it, and our responsiveness to the glimpses of love and vitality we do experience with the people we encounter in life.
[This essay originated as a series of sermons preached at Eugene (Oregon) Mennonite Church in 1994. It has been condensed and slightly edited in September 2011—the original is here.]
One thought on “Affirming Life: Learning from Martin Buber”
I started reading I and Thou 50 years ago. I still pull it off the shelf on occasion. The newer version with the introduction/prologue supplied by Walter Kaufmann offered significant insights into a better understanding of Buber.