Tuesday, January 27, 2015

I and Thou

Having read, from my university library, a short, introductory book on Martin Buber by Aubrey Hodes, I decided to read his seminal text, I and Thou, choosing (of two) Walter Kaufmann's translation because I knew his work in philosophy and theology and regarded it with a dual sense of appreciation and sceptical questioning. 

In passing, I note that Kaufmann's translation is the one that most Buber scholars openly (or subtly) devalue. Since I do not know German I cannot come to my own determination but I notice that in this 'devaluation', there is more than a little resistance to seeing Buber's text as iconoclastic when it comes to 'religion' or a 'religious perspective on the world', an iconoclasm that Kaufmann relished, and which, I think, Buber respected. He was, after all, delighted that there was no word for religion in the Hebrew Bible! You get more than a 'whiff' of the followers not wholly appreciating the 'master'!

I remember sitting in a basement room of our library, warmed by a single bar electric fire (as it was an eccentric university) trying to fathom the meaning of Buber's dense yet alluring text. A text that Buber himself confessed was written under the pressure of ecstatic urgency.

Ironically it is a text, as was Buber's life direction, that sets its face against 'ecstasy' in favour of a concrete, embodied presence in the world.

At it's heart is an invitation to recognise that we come to the world with a twofold attitude. The one, usually dominant, is to treat of the world as a means, a matter of experience and use, and this is necessary. The second is to treat of every particular person or object in the world as an end in itself, of a value that touches infinity. This is rarer but ought to be the disposition that enfolds, directs all our meant actions. 

Put like this the book is incredibly simple but it goes forward to explore all the barriers and opportunities for bringing this twofold attitude into a right relation. It is an invitation to a dialogical relationship with reality that keeps checking against our urgency to use, interpret, manipulate, a profound question of to what end, in what presence.

For ultimately for Buber, the relationship of I and Thou is a relationship framed by the only reality that can never become an 'It', an object of usefulness, that reality being God. 'I and Thou' ultimate direction is to have one recognise that we live in a transcendental reality where the givenness of everything is not arbitrary or accidental but a gift, continuously created out of a divine ground.

This recognition can never be objectified - made into a 'religion' - for all 'religion' is of the attitude of 'It', a fabrication for our use. 

God is not useful, God simply is and like everything that is, is to be enjoyed as such. 


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