Those of us who have read theology or, perhaps, those who are people of faith and are old enough might well recognize this title as a reminder of the late Jewish philosopher and theologian, Martin Buber. I remember reading Buber’s book, I and Thou, when I was in college in the 1960s. It was already a famous book by then. I am not sure I fully understood it, but that would not be the last time I read it. It has been a while since I looked at the book.
Buber came up in a conversation with a friend who asked if I had seen the recent article by David Brooks? I had not seen it, but when I was told about it, I knew I would quickly locate and read that piece. I very much like what Brooks decides to write about and what he contributes to societal conversation. I wish more people read him and took him seriously.
Brooks’ article focused on the 2016 contentious election. He provocatively suggests, “Read Buber, Not the Polls!” I think Brooks puts it well when he said that Buber “devoted his whole career to understanding deep intimacy.” In thinking about deep intimacy, Buber came up with the distinction of two types or relationship: I-It and I-Thou relationships. Basically, I-It relationships treats others as objects and I-Thou relationships treats others as real people (or God as God).
Brooks differentiates I-It relationships into two types. One type is utilitarian, which means I need another for some purpose. For example, I hire someone to do my taxes, but it does not involve any level of interaction, much less, intimacy. This is not a bad relationship. The other kind of I-It relationship is not good. Here I treat another as an object when I ought to treat them as real people. Brooks calls these “truncated versions of what should be deep relationships.” These can be our kids, friends, etc. Instead of treating that person as a person, we treat him or her as an object.
The other, I-Thou, relationships “are personal, direct, dialogical---nothing is held back.” It is at this point Brooks turns to direct quotations from Martin Buber. It reminded me of what I knew about Buber. Martin Buber was born in 1878 and worked within the Zionist movement long before Israel became a country. He became a professor in Germany, but resigned the position in the 1930s in the face of Hitler’s coming to power and the anti-Semitism that came with Hitler. He moved to Palestine in what would become Israel in 1948. Buber died in 1965, when I was a much younger college student.
I am glad Brooks has dragged me back into my memory and allowed me to cherish again the work of Buber. And I particularly like the perspective Brooks adds to my own memory. I appreciated the words from Buber that Brooks incorporates in his article. Buber said, “All real living is meeting.” I take this to mean that our lives are social. There is no way we can make it alone in this world. In my perspective we are dependent---dependent on God, on the natural world and on each other.
Brooks focuses on our relationship with each other. Ultimately, the good life will come when we have some I-Thou relationships as opposed to what Brooks calls “mechanical relationships.” People who are open to I-Thou relationships, Brooks notes, are those with “a guard-down posture that is openhearted and open-minded.” That is a lovely way to describe a potentially rich life. I can certainly name those times when I was anything but a guard-down guy. There are times when I am defended---wall up and defenses at the ready. I can only make I-It relationships when I am so postured.
I appreciate Brooks’ thoughts not so much for the 2016 political season, but more for what it means for me and for us long-term. I-Thou relationships create the possibilities of love and compassion. The I-Thou perspective is the spiritual option. It leads folks to want to give, to share and to care. This kind of relationship leads to respect, appreciation and acting for the good of all. Importantly, it can lead to service---ministering to the least fortunate in our midst or around the world.
I-Thou is the pathway to a relationship with the Holy One who creates, cares and redeems us from our worst selves. This relationship is embodied in Jesus who becomes the paradigm of holy action in our world. Jesus is not some holy other, but is the radical presence of Thou in our world. When Jesus said, “follow me,” he invited each and every one into an I-Thou relationship.
I am grateful to Brooks, to Buber and to every one in my life who have endeavored to live an I-Thou relational life. I am trying to do so, too.