A Critical Review of Martin Buber’s I and Thou, in light of Christian theology and Capitalism

According to the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, Philosophy of Religion can be defined as “the philosophical examination of the central themes and concepts involved in religious traditions.”

With this definition in mind, in Judaeo-Christian traditions we are introduced to the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1–9. This particular story is pertinent to Buber’s I and Thou as it involves language oriented communication which Buber’s work is centred around. In this story, we see a rare moment in human history when humanity had one language, and we embarked on a global project to build a house that reaches the heavens. This venture was however sabotaged by God, by confusing the language of the builders, thereby leading to an abrupt end of this global undertaking.

That aside, driven by capitalist ideologies, biologists argue that our mental and emotional being are controlled by a complex system of neurons, synapses, and other biochemical substances by millions of year of evolution, as such our moods and emotions can be altered and enhanced with the right chemistry. The barriers of consciousness are being pushed with robotics and artificial intelligence, with scientists predicting that before the end of this century, we will see bespoke interventions to alter DNAs, and biomechanics that can enhance our current capabilities beyond our wildest dreams. In some ways fulfilling the dream of the mid-19th century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, who mentioned in his piece God is dead that “all beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the Overman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment” (Gay Science Collection).

So, I write a critical review of Martin Buber’s I and Thou, through the prism of human relation in Christian theology and Capitalism.

Martin Buber, I and Thou

Buber is influenced by a wide range of philosophical traditions and sources, including Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, Hermann Lotze, Coleridge’s Essay on Faith, Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity and Kierkegaard’s Single One.

In Coleridge’s Essay on Faith, Coleridge builds upon German philosophical tradition of I am being the last word. This theory argues for the unity of nature to be necessarily and only grounded in the Self of man. But according to Coleridge, that Self itself is to be necessarily grounded in another Self, in his words: “I am, precisely because I can say “Thou art!” — for it is just the power and will to say so which makes me an “I”.’ Interestingly Martin Buber developed his dialogical existentialism piece under the title: I and Thou.

For Buber our relationships as humans works on the premise of existence as encounters. He articulated this by using the word pairs: I -Thou and I-It, describing both as encounters through which an individual engages with other individuals, inanimate objects, and all reality, including consciousness, modes of interaction, and being. In light of this Buber mentioned that “the primary word I-Thou can only be spoken with the whole being. The primary word I-It can never be spoken with the whole being” (p.3). This recurring theme is used to describe the dual modes of being: dialogue as in I-Thou, and monologue as in I — It. As such, communication, particularly language-oriented, is used in describing dialogue or monologue through symbols and expression of the relational nature of human existence.

In line with the word pairs, Buber mentions three distinct complex sphere of relationships, namely: our life with nature, our life with men, and our life with intelligible (spiritual) forms. Buber noted that in the first sphere “this relationship sways in gloom, beneath the level of speech. Creatures live and move over against us, but cannot come to us, and when we address them as Thou, our words cling to the threshold of speech” (p .6); in the second sphere “the relationship is open and in the form of speech. We can give and accept the Thou” (p. 6); while in the third sphere, the “relationship is clouded, yet it discloses itself; it does not use speech, yet begets it” (p. 6).

Buber maintains that a person is at all times engaged with the world in one of these two modes, employing these word pairs in articulating a multifaceted idea about modes of being, predominantly, how a person exists and actualises such existence.

Christian Theology and I and Thou

Buber held a personalist view. Keith E. Yandell’s Encyclopaedia of Philosophy defined personalism as “the thesis that only persons (self-conscious agents) and their states and characteristics exist, and that reality consists of a society of interacting persons. Typically, a personalist will hold that finite persons depend for their existence and continuance on God, who is the Supreme Person, having intelligence and volition.”

Buber noted that an I‑Thou relation is a mutual and holistic existence between two authentic individual beings. He describes it as a concrete encounter, arguing that “when Thou is spoken, the speaker has not thing of his object. For where there is a thing there is another thing. Every It is bounded by others; It exists only through bounded others.” (p. 4). The two beings meet one another in their authentic existence, without any qualification or objectification of one another, even their ideas and imagination are active in this relation. Strengthening his idea, Buber emphasises that although I-Thou is not an event, it is still perceivable and real. In his words, “when Thou is spoken, the speaker has not thing; he has indeed nothing. But he takes his stand in relation” (p. 4).

In this mode, we are fully engaged, completely present, mutuality, reciprocity, recognising and affirming the other persons full humanity, we are present in the present, it happens in the here and now — rather than in the there and then. In his view, this I-Thou experience is the most precious part of our human experience and part of our birth right. It is at the very core of all genuine transcendence, creativity and spirituality. As such, he argues that we don’t grow as human beings all on our own in any deep way, but all genuine growing and becoming requires a Thou. In other words, growing and becoming only occurs between people, rather than within or outside of people.

In Ephesians 2:13–22 for instance, Paul uses similar ideas, “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (v. 14), in bridging historic division between the Jews and the Gentiles within the early church. In like manner Buber noted, “Spirit in its manifestation is a response of man to his Thou. Man speaks with many tongues, tongues of language, of art, of action; but the spirit is one, the response to the Thou which appears and addresses him out of mystery. Spirit is the word.” (p. 39).

With regards to God, Buber presents a pantheistic logic of the omnipresence of God, in line Hassidism (a strand of Judaism) tradition which he was a follower. Buber asserts that this relationship is the foundation of any possible interaction with God, and that an I-Thou relationship with anything or anyone connects in some way with the eternal relation to God. Therefore every I-Thou relations makes at least an indirect reference to God, consequently even self-proclaimed atheist who experience the I-thou in their lives are living in relation to God, much more so that self-proclaimed theists who experience little or no I-Thou experiences. Buber asserts that “the man who experiences has no part in the world. For it is ‘In Him’ and not between him and the world that the experience arises” (p. 5). This ties in with the concept of redemption, as seen in an excerpt from one of John’s letters, “those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” (1 John 4:20).

According to Buber, to create this I–Thou relationship with the Eternal Thou (God), even though we are meant to be actively pursuing it (as in the case of Paul’s Damascus experience in Acts 9:1–19), we should be open to the idea of such a relationship in the first place (being a Jew, the concept of a messiah was known to Paul, in fact most Jews in that era were expecting the messiah). For Buber, pursuit of such a relation creates qualities associated with the tensions of It-ness, thereby hindering an I-Thou relation, reducing it to I-It.

In Christian theology, this idea undermines the profound spiritual experience of, for example, Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:22–38), who were clearly actively seeking God in the person of the Messiah. In Buber’s view, God responds to our openness to an I–Thou relation through grace, furthermore, because God is void of qualities, this I–Thou relation is unique and dependent on us. But it can also diminish when we treat it as an I-It relationship.

In light of this, Buber alludes that our spiritual lives are not so much about what we proclaim, but how we live in relation. So even though prayer is the most important way of addressing God directly, it can be reduced to an I-It when it takes the form of objectifying God. For example when our prayers and devotion is centred on getting God to produce good things, while withholding bad things from us, for example in the Lord’s prayer (Matthew 6:9–13), Psalm 23, or Jabez’s prayer in 1 Chronicles 4:10.

For Buber, this is a form of objectification and manipulation, and a typical example of how we address God as an It, rather than standing in relation to God as the Eternal Thou. Buber noted, “how would man exist if God did not need him, and how would you exist? You need God in order to be, and God needs you — for that which is the meaning of your life.” (p. 130).

Capitalism and I and Thou

Humankind long for an era of peace, cooperation and wealth. On the political front we have alliances like: the Arab League, European Union, United Nations, Organisation of African Unity, Economic Community of West African States, National Atlantic Treaty Organisation etc., however these pursuits remain illusions. Sectarianism, nationalism, civil wars, racism, inequalities, genocides, neo-colonialism, anti-Semitism, islamophobia, unfair trade, social inequality, gender discrimination, terrorism, environmental pollution, and far right ideologies remain rife.

For instance, we recently witnessed France’s biggest attack in peace times, with the attackers (most of them EU citizens) claiming to act in the name of Allah against infidels (their fellow citizens). On the other front, and perhaps even more concerning, some Christians blame the victims for the attacks, citing secularisation, abortion statistics, and that those at the Bataclan were singing songs to the devil.

As well as religion, the socio-economic undertones of these issues cannot be ignored either. Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, argued that the human desire to increase private profit is the basis for collective wealth, in a nutshell, egoism (I-It) is altruism. As a result the world and its vast resources can be seen as an It to be exploited and not enjoyed. But capitalism works for the greater good when business owners perceive wealth as capital to be reinvested. This mode of thinking promotes fairer trade, human capital development, environmentally friendly invention and innovation, creation of gainful employment opportunities and payment of fairer wages. However a key dogma of capitalism is individualism, which is also a pillar of neo-liberalisation. Starting from the 1980s, neoliberal agenda in the UK and USA especially, led to dramatic cultural shifts in attitudes towards wealth creation, community relation, and wealth distribution.

Evidently capitalism has brought some gains to humanity, but sometimes I worry if its woes outweigh these gains. For instance in present times in Europe, those at the fringes of society are literally falling off the cliff, as we see the rise of food banks, stagnation in social mobility, youth unemployment, right wing activism, drug and alcohol abuse, terrorism, and poverty of aspiration. According to the BBC, forty-seven percent of jobs as we know them today in the US are likely to be lost through recent development in technology. So Buber argues that in our modern and technological life, I-It is more dominant than I-Thou.

Buber’s view is perhaps more pertinent now with the internet of all things and social media playing a big role in human communication — in fact in many ways replacing genuine encounters. Buber mentions a culture of capriciousness, as he put it, “the capricious man does not believe in encounter, he does not know association, he only knows the world out there and his desire to use it.” (p.109).

For Buber, by operating in an I-It mode our relationship is objectified, through either manipulation or a means-end mentality. Buber asserts that Using is an externalised way of addressing the world, while Experiencing is an internalised way of addressing the world. Therefore, I-It is not with our whole being, but rather through habits, experience, and patterns of interaction. In this mode we manipulate others through fear, guilt, hype, moralism, from our past experiences, in much the same way we use our objects. In this mode there is no acknowledgement of the other person’s humanity.

Conclusion

We are evidently, more comfortable, but less happy or fulfilled. It seems that our greatest enemy is our individualistic or self-centred worldview, which cuts across humanity, regardless of religious persuasion or none; hence the need for redemption.

When Jesus was asked the fate of people that encountered similar plights to those in the massacre in Paris, he responded with these words:

“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them — do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? (Luke 13:1–5).

In these verses, Jesus highlights the universal need for all to be redeemed (unless you repent) from the corruption of this world, and in Buber, the concept of redemption seems to be a crosscutting theme. I hasten to qualify that redemption here means a process of recovery, which among other key themes reverses the judgement on humanity in the aforementioned passage in Gen. 11:1–9.

In optimism Buber talks about the return. However for the return to happen, we need to call the incubus of the world of I-It by its true name. According to Buber Incubus fetters opportunities to experience real relation, transcendence, and spirituality. Buber asserts that the return requires the sacrifice our little will which is unfree and ruled by things and our ego, to our great will which is free from these forces.

Bubers work is timeless. A book everyone should take time to read. However, my study of Buber leaves the following questions unanswered: how do we practically identify incubus and call it by its name? How can I-Thou prevail against the establishment and powers structures? With developments in artificial intelligence and robotics, should a robot be considered an It or a Thou?

 

Bibliography

Friedrich Nietzsche, Gay Science Collection, (1882)

Keith E. Yandell, Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, Routledge: https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/personalism, last accessed 27/11/15

Martin Buber, I and Thou, translated by Ronald Gregor Smith (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958)

Rachel Nuwer, Will Machines Eventually Take on Every Jobs?  (6 August 2015): http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150805-will-machines-eventually-take-on-every-job, last accessed: 27/11/15

 

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