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‘In each Thou we address the eternal Thou’

by
25 September 2015

Martin Buber’s teaching about relating to the world sheds light on today’s challenges, says David Bryant

A SUBLIME mass was taking place at All Saints’, Margaret Street, back in 1959. At the very moment of the Sanctus, members of the Protestant Truth Society broke in, shouting and throwing stones. The choir sang on regardless; the sanctuary party, clothed in incense, did not bat an eyelid; and the churchwardens deftly ejected the intruders. It would have been amusing, but for the latent toxicity of the disruptive party.

Septuagenarian priests will have no difficulty in drawing up a time-line of Anglican strife from those early days. Bishop John Robinson’s Honest to God (1963) produced outrage among traditionalists, and delight from liberal theologians. In 1972, there was the demise of the proposed Anglican-Methodist union. It was rejected with a degree of bitterness on both sides.

Add to all this the rumblings caused by Thomas Altizer’s death-of-God theology, ructions over textual criticism, arguments over the remarriage of divorcees, mixed approaches to the burial of suicides, outcries over the ordination of women, differing requirements for the baptism of children, and you get a bumpy ride. As for women bishops and homosexuality, the histrionics are still going on.

Disagreement and the holding of theologically opposed views is fine when discussion evolves along the lines of Hegelian dialectic. For example, half the PCC might put forward a plan for the use of incense (thesis); half throw up their hands in horror (antithesis). The meeting moves forward amicably, drawing on the provision that it is used only on major festivals (synthesis).

Unfortunately, too often conflict becomes endemic. Intransigence and self-interest pave the way for unedifying and sometimes cut-throat outbursts of hostility.

There is a way out of this impasse, and it is found in Martin Buber’s taut, pithy treatise I and Thou. Published in 1923, and hailed by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr as "a great event in the religious life of the West", it has lost none of its persuasiveness and simmering power.

For Buber, all existence is expressible in terms of relation and encounter. Human living inevitably involves meeting other people and responding to them, orally, visually, or mentally. Go into the village shop, and the truth of this becomes apparent. Nor can we avoid coming face-to-face with the non-personal world and perceiving it through all our senses: on a woodland walk, we can not only see the trees, but we can also touch their trunks, smell them, and hear the wind soughing through their branches.

Buber points out that the fundamental way in which we engage with the world is through the primary relational term I-It. We view the world as a series of objects, relating to it in a superficial, uninterested, and sometimes destructive way.

There is a fatal weakness at the heart of this approach to the universe. It means that we view the planet as an impersonal source from which we are entitled to grab whatever is going. So we destroy the rainforest, hack out oil-wells — regardless of environmental damage — and pollute the atmosphere with nuclear explosions and an uninterested shrug of the shoulders.

The I-It relation has an equally damaging effect on daily encounters. People are depersonalised and placed into categories of white, black, Muslim, Christian, wealthy, impoverished, homosexual, or straight. At its extreme, humankind is viewed as an acquisition, an object.

Think of child-abuse in Yorkshire, modern slavery, and the egoistic philosophy of our day embodied in such comments as "What can I grab back from life?" To persist with this world-view is to lose one’s integrity. "If a man lets it have mastery, the continuing growing world of It overruns him and robs him of the reality of his I." This is spiritual bankruptcy.

There is, however, a second primary relational concept: I-Thou. This involves a readjustment of our perceptions, so that all our encounters with the natural world are deep, full of respect, and imbued with reverence.

Buber describes this transformation. "The It is the eternal chrysalis," containing the potential for change, always open to an injection of the holy. "The Thou [is] the eternal butterfly" — beautiful, harmonious, uplifting. The Christian gospel calls us to make this radical change from I to Thou.

It has striking results. No longer do we view a tree as wood pulp or timber for making money. It is perceived as complex and holy. This works with personal relationships, too. "He who loves a woman, and brings her life to present realisation in his, is able to look in the Thou of her eyes into a beam of the eternal Thou." By seeking the Thou in others, we are directly in communion with God: "In each Thou we address the eternal Thou."

I-It in church affairs leads to fundamentalism, ethical absolutism, paternalism, homophobia, dislike, and greed. Transpose our thought-forms into an I-Thou mode, and compassion, love, understanding, and listening emerge.

This is the essence of Christ’s Beatitudes. The poor in spirit, mourners, the persecuted, and peacemakers are all viewed as blessed, encompassed by human and divine love. They have become our Thou.

As W. H. Auden writes in For the Time Being, his Christmas oratorio:

 

Remembering the stable
where for once in our lives
Everything became a You
and nothing was an It.

 

Buber’s eloquent and profound spiritual-philosophical world-view has the potential to transform humanity and the Church. Let’s go for it.

 

The Revd David Bryant is a retired priest living in Yorkshire (Features, 11 September).

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