Tuesday, 28 February 2012

40BFL 5: I and Thou

This little book is simply the best written work of philosophy or theology I have read. It is literally poetry for the soul. It gives a wonderfully simple account of transcendence and the divine and it is the only work of philosophy I know that gives a properly convincing defense of a personal God. The beauty of it is that the whole work is premised on an incredibly simple idea - essentially that there are two ways of being in the world, either in an I - It relationship or an I - Thou relationship. The former is concerned with utility and experience, it's understanding is set in the past, and it fundamentally treats the world as a collection of objects. The latter does not separate the world into objects, but knows only present relationship understood as mutual, connected love. But it doesn’t turn this into a preachy binary. I - It relationships are important, but it is through I - Thou relationships, with God, other people and the world that we experience transcendence: ‘without It man cannot live. But he who lives with It alone is not a man’.

Anyone who has read T. S. Eliot’s later poetry and plays will feel the resonance strongly. But in a sense culture is full of this kind of philosophy - whether it’s Gaga’s You and I, Michael Jackson’s Earth Song, and We are the World, the Source’s You Got the Love. Obviously half the time the principle is expressed in totally sentimental ways, or becomes simply about a feeling rather than relationship, but the fundamental human ability to experience transcendence in a relationship with God, other people or the natural world is basic and recognised by many who would not think of themselves as particularly religious or philosophical.

What it also recognizes is the precarious nature of transcendence. Like Schleiermacher (coming later), and like we had earlier with Mackinnon, transcendence is not something that can be systematically figured out and described, nor is it bottled within institutions (though systematic approaches and institutions are necessary), but it is something that needs to be continually sought and refound, as Eliot said ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality’; or for Buber, ‘It is not possible to live in the bare present’ - ‘God, the eternal presence, does not permit himself to be held. Woe to the man so possessed that he thinks he possesses God!’

The work also has a persuasive ethical side to it that remains relevant. So when he talks about society, the ‘mechanical state’ has its place but not without also ‘living mutual relation with a living centre [and] with one another’. True community must be a ‘community of love’, just as true marriage is only sustained by ‘the revealing by two people of the Thou to one another’.

There is so much more that could be said about this wonderful little book. Written by a Jewish philosopher, it is a landmark work of Christian theology - which is not to usurp it but to find in it a basis for dialogue and inclusivity. It is written with wisdom and poetry which is all any of us can really hope for, and it is ethically demanding - both in terms of our practical love of others and how that is related to our vocation and salvation; the fear being that:

‘the continually growing world of It overruns him and robs him of the reality of his own I, till the incubus over him and the ghost within him whisper to one another the confession of their non-salvation’.

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