Thursday, December 02, 2010

I-Thou -- Part 1

As I stepped outside this morning to fetch the newspaper, I was bowled over by the thin crescent Moon and Venus together in an inky sky. "Thou Moon," I said. "Thou Venus."

I'll wager that I am not the only one on the porch for whom Martin Buber's I And Thou was a formative book of our youth.

Buber was an eminent Jewish philosopher and religious scholar, born in Vienna in 1878. His most famous work was first published in English in the 1930's, but a second English edition was brought forward by Scribner in 1958, just as I was beginning my struggle to reconcile my scientific training with my childhood faith. Buber offered me, and others like me, a vocabulary for understanding what we felt -- a naming of two kinds of experiences, what he called the I-It and the I-Thou.

Ordinary day-to day experience -- the scientific experiment, for example, or how I feel just now as I stare at the screen of my word processor -- belongs to the realm of the I-It. Such experience is necessary for living in the world. We win our bread in the realm of the I-It. We put on our shoes, go to the bank, and change the oil in the car in the realm of I-It. "Without It man cannot live," says Buber. And he adds: "But he who lives with It alone is not a man."

There is a different kind of experience that is relational, mutual and transcending that Buber calls I-Thou. It is an experience we feel most commonly in interaction with another human being -- a partner, a parent, a child, a friend. But it can also be experienced with other living beings, or even inanimate objects. "Thou Moon," I whispered. "Thou Venus." For a moment in the morning darkness, I felt -- I understood -- that I was part of something mutual, all-encompassing, deeply mysterious. Selene and Endymion.

There is a hierarchy of experiential relation within the I-Thou -- celestial body, plant, animal, human. All of these lines of relation culminate in what Buber calls the eternal Thou. By means of every particular Thou, we address the eternal Thou, says Buber.

And now he makes a statement that was important for me at that crucial stage of my life: "Men do not find God if they stay in the world. They do not find Him if they leave the world. He who goes out with his whole being to meet his Thou and carries to it all being that is in the world, finds Him who cannot be sought."

It took some years of deconstruction to turn this into a usable philosophy, although it contained the germ of religious naturalism. Is Buber's I-Thou just a more intellectualized version of a defunct animism? Does his "Thou" imply personhood? What can mutuality mean with an inanimate object? I will take up these questions tomorrow.