A Half-Fast Walk through Martin Buber’s Thinking


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Dr. W. Craig Gilliam

“I am no philosopher, prophet, or theologian,” Buber said at a celebration of his eightieth birthday, “but a man who has seen something and who goes to a window and points to what he has seen.

“He (she) who hopes for a teaching from me that is anything other than a pointing of this sort will always be disappointed.”
~~Martin Buber

We cannot be truly human apart from communication . . . to impede communication is to reduce people to the status of things.
~~Paulo Freire

Martin Buber was a leading Jewish thinker and theologian who influenced many Christian theologians and religious philosophers. Buber felt that his work was “atypical” in that it did not fit into any one particular academic discipline; it was located between disciples. His work, I and Thou (1958), is often called a philosophy of dialogue. An early mentor of mine in ministry called it a classic and one of the greatest works of all time. Whether one can rate it at such a level, as I read Buber, I am continually captured by his insights into human nature and relationships. Whether you agree that it is a classis or not, I think most of us can agree that it is a work worth the read and the reread, for some rich treasures are buried in this classic and in many of Buber’s writings. This essay is an overview of some of those thoughts that I find rich with meaning and substance to digest as ministers.

I and Thou begins from experience that focuses on what “is human” in people. It begins with the declaration, “To man (people) the world is twofold, in accordance with his twofold attitude” (1958). By the term “attitude” Buber means a fundamental position, a way of posturing or positioning oneself toward the world either as I-Thou or as I-It. These postures are not rigid categories into which various types of people fit; for example, it would be wrong to insist that the scientist would prefer the I-It posture and that the artist would prefer the I-Thou posture. Rather, these attitudes are modes of experience that alternate in all people, “not two kinds of people, but two poles of humanity” (1958). People live in this continuum. Although, there are those who loose the ability to see others in an I-Thou way and begin to see all in a chronic I-It way, which makes them/us less than human.

Within these poles, the two I’s are not the same. In the I-It attitude, the “I” holds back and understands, measures, uses, and even controls the It. This I-It realm originates in our sensations, perceptions, thoughts, emotions, and desires. The I-It relationship is based on a perception of the other, but it does not encounter the whole being of the other. Rather, we select those characteristics of the person that are relevant to our inquiry and ignore the others. We synthesize what we learn about the other and use concepts and signs to communicate with the other. This attitude is essential for survival—it allows us to share in an objective world. In this way, knowledge is generated and the environment is predicted. We generate a sense of continuity and provide certainty to our lives. This is the realm of feelings and of using others. Here the subject who knows is distinguished from the object that is known. Buber states: “without It people cannot live. But he who lives with It alone is not a person” (1958, p. 34). Empathy and compassion are opposite of I-It. The world of It is set in the context of space and time; however, the I-It attitude does not know the present, only the past or future. It exists only through being bounded by others. People are objects observed, not living entities encountered with our whole being. Instead of in-betweenness, I-It makes subject-object relations.

In contrast, the I-Thou relationship can only be spoken with the whole being, and being spoken brings about its existence. The I-Thou relation has no bounds. It is an incomprehensible threat to the I-It order that holds a human person. It is discontinuous and disruptive. What is important to Buber is not thinking about the other but directly confronting and addressing other as Thou, which involves immediate contact. We use the circle in conflict work, for when people look at each other eye to eye and hear each other’s stories; it creates more possibility for true encounter. I believe what Matthew 18: 15 is pointing toward when he instructs those who have been sinned against to “go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone” and Matthew 5: 23-24 that comments “leave your gift at the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister,. . .” are about creating a compassionate, I-Thou space and encounter. This is also what Buber is exploring and employing. It invites us to see the humanity in the other, to hear their stories, and thus to have compassion for one another. Another way of saying it is, that if I do not give others assess to my humanity, I cannot get assess to theirs.

What evolves between the two or among a group is ineffable. To speak directly to the other invites the subject to realize his/her own otherness. In fact, it challenges both to break out of the prison of the external object. The “I” affirms itself only in the presence of the Thou. As Buber comments, “I becomes through my relations to the Thou; as I become I, I say Thou” (1958, p. 11). For Buber, the “I” is the term for a relation that cannot be expressed by a thought, because a thought dissolves the relationship. The I in relationship rediscovers “its original community with the totality of being (Levinas, 1967, p. 138). For Buber there is a spiritual significance to making social communion, and the I-Thou relationship, primary. The I-Thou relationship cannot be identified as subjective in that the I-Thou meeting does not take place in the realm of subjectivity, but in the realm of being or in the heart/soul. The space between cannot be conceived of as a space existing independently of the meeting of I-Thou. The space is inseparable from the adventure in which each human person participates. In the in-between where two meet is where God or the divine happens.

According to Buber, Jesus spoke the unfathomable depths of God’s wisdom in stories and parables. Buber commented that Jesus’ teaching stories are formed from the preserved nucleus of authentic conversations that once took place between Jesus and the disciples. Maurice Friedman comments that Buber believed that Jesus’ uniqueness “lay in the strength, the immediacy, the unconditionality of the “between” (p. 140). His message was that the Kingdom of God is already breaking into the present and that those who really hear the message are called upon to turn and trust. But what was essential about Jesus, according to Buber, is the situation-specific meetings between himself and his friends and enemies, which are embodied in his parables and life. Buber loved the passage, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst” (Matt. 18:20). Applying Buber’s dialogic principles to this saying, the term “gathered” suddenly takes on a new significance. It suggests not just a collective social or economic purpose, but a genuine togetherness, a community of conversations by which persons really meet one another. Through this deep meeting, the spirit of Jesus is thereby recognized in our midst. Buber is naming deep community.

According to Buber the human person is both open and hidden. A problem occurs when openness and hiddenness are out of balance with one another. When Buber states that one’s whole being must encounter the Thou, he never means this to be some kind of mystical fusion. He believes that the Thou teaches you to meet others and to hold your ground when you meet them-to maintain self-definition, while encountering other and being in relationship with other. In the language of family systems, this is self-differentiation. In the midst of the encounter, once the I becomes conscious of experience and conscious of listening, the Thou disappears and the I finds itself in the domain of It. The intense momentary encounter cannot last. Buber describes how our “exalted melancholy, (is) that every Thou in our world must become an It” (Buber, 1958, p. 16). The I-Thou is a relationship of true knowledge because it preserves the integrity of the otherness of the Thou. Commitment is what allows access to otherness. The key to otherness is knowledge through commitment—a meeting of will and grace.

Martin Buber

Buber states that “in every sphere in its own way, through each process of becoming that is present to us, we look out toward the fringe of the eternal Thou; in each Thou we address the eternal Thou” (1958, p. 6). God, the eternal Thou, is both the supreme partner of the dialogue and the power underlying all the other I-Thou encounters. We cannot know God in Godself. We can only know God as person because that is the way God encounters us in relation. According to Buber, God is both self-revealing and self-concealing. Buber is against any systematic theology that takes away the mystery of God. In a way, he is referring to the mystery of the I-Thou relation to God or to the mystery of the nearness and remoteness of an I-Thou relation with the divine. He seems to offer an image of a God that is both being and becoming. Buber rejected theology that teaches this or that about God; his religious thought gives primacy to the I-Thou relationship with the incomprehensible.

Buber starts from the human experience of faith, which makes him think of revelation in these terms: “that which reveals is that which reveals. That which is is, and nothing more. The eternal source of strength streams, the eternal contact persists, the eternal voice sounds forth. . .” (1958, p. 112). From a reception of revelation, one receives a presence as power. Revelation is an incomprehensible event. (S)He who is receptive to revelation knows that the I-Thou is real in the present–in the now.

For Buber, every person has the wish to be “confirmed as what s/he is, even as what s/he can become, by people,” (9165, p. 182) and we have an innate capacity to confirm our fellow human beings in this way. In fact, our humanity only exists when this capacity unfolds. Here is an important bridge between Buber’s work and ministries of counseling, pastoral care and conflict transformation—confirmation of the one with whom one ministers’ is a most essential attitude. It is through such presence and affirmation that the minister, therapist/counselor or conflict transformation facilitator attempts to make the other present. To make the other present means to imagine the other concretely, to imagine what another person is wishing, feeling, perceiving or thinking.—hopes, dreams, fears and concerns. For Buber, the essential element of genuine dialogue is to experience the other side. This means to imagine the real, which demands “the most intensive stirring of one’s being into the life of the other” (1965, p. 81). The act of inclusion of the other allows one to make contact with another and still be in contact with oneself.

The dialogical attitude means that the minister, counselor or conflict transformation facilitator must “walk a narrow ridge.” He or she does not “rest on the broad upland of a system that includes a series of sure statements about the absolute, but on a narrow, rocky ridge between the gulfs where there is no sureness of expressible knowledge but the certainty of meeting what remains undisclosed” (1965, p. 184). The minister, leader, facilitator or consultant, who ventures along this narrow ridge holds her/his own perspective, but only in the context of what the other brings, with all the surprises of the moment. The narrow ridge culminates in the I-Thou, which challenges the person to face surprises and seek deviations in the service of co-existence. The minister, leader, counselor or facilitator does not take security for granted, nor does he or she use theory or theology to substitute for the encounter. The challenge is to be fully present in the “nothing else than process without getting lost in the abyss” (1957, p. 94), since theory and theology can be used as a defense against facing the unknown and the encounter with other. The minister, leader, facilitator or conflict worker must face the certainty that the unknown will always be there. Buber’s concern was with losing sight of the whole person.

Even when, because of insecurity, an individual refuses to enter relationship with a Thou, the longing for confirmation remains. In the grip of this difficulty, a person who clings to an I-It relationship may speak of Thou but really mean It. Here Buber points out the duality of being and seeming—we may seem to be something other than what we are. A person may seem to be a unified I, and may say Thou, without actually entering into relationship with the Thou. Buber believes that we all give into the temptation to possess confirmation of our being while avoiding the risk of real I-Thou relationship. However, it is essential to differentiate people in whom “being “or “seeming” predominate.

My invitation is how to live deeply into an I-Thou way of being with self and others I encounter? How do we live open to be influenced by others while influencing them? How do I honor and respect those who believe like I believe, while also honoring those who stand at a different place? How do I live open to God, whose middle name is Surprise!

Agree or disagree, you are invited into this conversation.

1957. Pointing the Way. NewYork: Schocken Books.
1958. I and Thou. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
1965. The Knowledge of Man. New York: Harper and Row.
1966. Hasidism and Modern Man. New York: Harper Torchbooks.

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