Martin Buber was one of the greatest religious figures of the 20thcentury.
Of his many remarkable contributions, perhaps none was more significant than his introduction of the concept of I-Thou relationships. For it is in these relationships that Buber believes we can best love one another.
In a typical engagement in the world, Buber believes, people experience a particular thing as an “it.”
I use things, and so do you, and the things that are used are considered “its.” Put another way, the “I” that puts an “it” to some purpose is the subject, and the “it” is the object of the action.
Yet, there are other encounters in which we enter a relationship with another in a sort of subject-subject manner. When you and I relate in this way, we’re not a subject and an object interacting, but rather two active subjects. Even more, in the special universe of this relationship, you become Thou, suggesting also that I see God in the encounter with you.
Further, with God there, isn’t love so, too? When I look at you as Thou, mustn’t I do so in love? Indeed, I-Thou appears a perfect manifestation of the two commandments Jesus called the greatest – a love of God, alongside a mutual love of self and neighbor.
While I-it relationships occur, and indeed are necessary in the world, Buber argues that an overuse of them in politics, economics, and our personal lives has caused a severe and damaging alienation.
While universal I-Thou relationships cannot occur all the time, Buber believes we can respond to our yearning for relationship, for something more enduring and fulfilling, by effectuating more I-Thou in human encounter.
When we do so, we feel and show more affection for the other as well as a sense of dutiful, loving responsibility. This replaces alienation with meaning and purpose. Further, the more we live in I-Thou the more God becomes present all around.
So, here are 18 pearls of Buber’s thinking that spell out “I-Thou.” Enjoy!
1. “We are told that man experiences his world. Man…goes over the surfaces of things and experiences them. He brings back from them some knowledge of their condition… He experiences what there is to things. But experiences alone do not bring the world to man.”
2. “The world as experience belongs to basic word I-It. The basic word I-Thou establishes the world of relation.”
3. In life with other human beings, “the relation is manifest and enters language. We can give and receive the Thou.”
4. In life with spiritual beings, “the relation is wrapped in a cloud but reveals itself.” “In every sphere, through everything that becomes present to us, we gaze toward the train of the eternal Thou; in each, we perceive a breath of it; in every Thou, we address the eternal Thou…”
5. “When I confront a human being as my Thou and speak the word I-Thou to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things.” “He is no longer…a dot in the world grid of space and time – nor a condition that can be described, a loose bundle of named qualities. Neighbor-less and seamless, he is Thou and fills the firmament. Not as if there were nothing but he; but everything else lives in his light.”
6. Even a person with whom I’ve been in I-Thou relation may not always be so. “I do not find the human being to whom I say Thou in any Sometime and Somewhere. I can place him there and have to do this again and again, but immediately he becomes a He or a She, an It, and no longer remains my Thou.”
7. ”that I speak the word (Thou)…is a deed of my whole being; it is my essential deed.” “The basic word I-Thou can be spoken only by one’s whole being. The concentration and fusion into a whole being can never be accomplished by me; can never be accomplished without me. I require a Thou to become; becoming I, I say Thou…All actual life is encounter.”
8. “Every Thou in the world is doomed by its nature to become a thing or at least to enter thing-hood again and again. In the language of objects, every thing in the world can…appear to some I as its Thou. But the language of objects catches only one corner of actual life. The It is the chrysalis; the Thou, the butterfly.”
9. “It is up to you how much of the immeasurable becomes reality for you. The encounters do not order themselves to become a world, but each is for you a sign of the world order.”
10. “It cannot be surveyed: If you try to make it surveyable, you lose it. It comes – comes to fetch you – and if it does not reach you it vanishes; but it comes again, transformed.”
11. “Between you and it (the encounter) there is a reciprocity of giving: You say Thou to it and give yourself to it; it says Thou to you and gives itself to you…” “…it teaches you to encounter others and to stand your ground in such encounters.”
12. “And through the grace of its advents and the melancholy of its departures it leads you to that Thou in which the lines of relation, though parallel, intersect. It does not help you to survive; it only helps you to have intimations of eternity.”
13. “The It world hangs together in space and time. The Thou world does not hang together in space and time. The individual Thou must become an It when the event of its relation has run its course. The individual It can become a Thou by entering the event of relation.”
14. “Since one must eventually return into “the world,” why not stay in it in the first place?” Without It, a human being cannot live. But whoever lives only with that is not a human.”
15.”When man lets It have its way, the relentlessly growing It world grows over him like weeds, his own I loses its actuality, until the incubus over him and the phantom inside him exchange the whispered confession of their need for redemption.”
16. “Extended, the lines of relationship intersect in the eternal Thou. Every single Thou is a glimpse of that. Through every single Thou the basic word addresses the eternal Thou.”
17. “Some would deny any legitimate use of the word God because it has been misused so much…” Yet, for whoever pronounces the word God and really means Thou, addresses, no matter what his delusion, the true Thou of his life that cannot be restricted by any other and to whom he stands in a relationship that includes all others.”
18. “…whoever…fancies that he is godless, when he addresses with his whole devoted being the Thou of his life that cannot be restricted by any other, he addresses God.”