Theology & Spirituality

I, Thou, and the Need for We: An Incarnational Reading of Martin Buber

According to Jewish philosopher and mystic Martin Buber (1878-1965), there are two modes of relationality: I-it and I-thou. In the I-it framework, the other is viewed as an “it” to be acted upon. This third-person way of relating naively presumes that one enjoys intellectual mastery over the other, and is rooted in an imperious epistemology that believes it can “list” the qualities which comprise the other. The result is a form of relational utilitarianism, where the other exists as strictly a means to an end. This encourages an overly scientific worldview and various means of exploitation, with a bitter result: in dehumanizing the other, the I does violence to itself. 

By contrast, the I-thou relation is a more humanizing modality to Buber. When the other is seen as a “thou,” grasped in a second-person sense, they are allowed to be themselves without being forcibly assigned into third-person categories. Buber states, “When thou is spoken, the speaker has no thing for his object. For where there is a thing there is another thing. Ever It Is bounded by others; It exists only through being bounded by others. But when Thou is spoken, there is no thing. Thou has no bounds. When Thou is spoken, the speaker has no thing; he has indeed nothing. But he takes his stand in relation” (I and Thou 4). The I-thou relation is founded upon mutual participation where both terms emerge as themselves from the encounter. An example might be marriage. My wife is not an object for my exploitation, a thing I can know through scientific research; she is not an It but a Thou. In the encounter that is our marriage, I hopefully emerge more as an I because she is my Thou. Buber summarizes, “The ‘I” emerges as a single element out of the primal experiences, out of the vital primal words I-affecting-Thou and Thou-affecting-I” (21-22).

Buber applies I-thou relationality to theology, resulting in a kind of mysticism that conceives of God as the “eternal Thou.” Faith is the grounds for an encounter with the mysterious Other; anytime God becomes an it, the notion delves into the idolatrous and must be destroyed. In this regard, Buber borders on the Anselmian: God is greater than that which can be conceived (cf. Proslogion 2). While some apologists may try to weaponize the ontological argument to “prove” God’s existence, it is actually a primer for mysticism because it establishes God’s sheer otherness. God is not in the world or part of the world, as many of the pagans would have us believe. Those idols must be shattered without hesitation. Anselm’s distinction between God and the world is precisely how we maintain the I-Thou relation in theology: as soon as we place God in a box and turn him into an it, he bursts forth from our feeble container to upset our expectations. 

Against the backdrop of St. Anselm’s distinction, the iconoclasm of the Old Testament makes sense. “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them” (Exod 20:4-5a, NRSV). While God remains unaffected by idolatry, idols do violence to our understanding of God by arrogantly attempting to wrangle the infinite into the categories of finitude. The prophet Habakkuk points out the futility of worshipping idols (Hab 2:18): “What use is an idol once its maker has shaped it—a cast image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in what has been made, though the product is only an idol that cannot speak!” 

As fruitful as it may be for spirituality, Buber’s mysticism leads to a certain epistemological problem by emphasizing the metaphysical gap between creature and Creator. Besides the faint awareness of our utter dependency on God, we cannot approach him. While the I-thou modality prevents the idolatry of creating a god in our image, it does leave us at an impasse that makes relationality virtually impossible. After all, the requirement for communication and love is a certain measure of equality—or at the very least, analogy. On these grounds, the great Dominican philosopher and theologian Herbert McCabe concludes that if sheer disparity is all there is between God and man, Nietzsche must be right: God can be nothing more to us than a cosmic slavemaster. Perhaps he is nice and “cares kindly,” but that does not alter the fundamental nature of the relationship (God Matters 17). 

It is here that Trinitarian and Incarnational elements of Christian theology prevail by restoring communication and, therefore, love between God and humanity. While the Creator-creature distinction would seem to preclude the possibility of one’s love for the other, there is a love between the persons of the Trinity. Because those hypostases are equal, love is accordingly possible. We can conclude that “The Father loves the Son” (John 3:35; cf. 5:20; 10:17; 15:9; 17:24; Matt 17:5). And by becoming Incarnate, the Son bridges both moral and metaphysical gaps that separate humanity from God. 

While this is surely more intimate than an I-it relation, can the Incarnation be characterized as an I-Thou relationship? The problem with characterizing the Incarnation as an I-Thou relation is that the Word does not leave humanity as permanently sheerly other, but rather enables the conformity of humanity to the divine life. As the Athanasian Creed reminds us, this theosis occurs “not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of the Manhood into God.” The Incarnation is a category Buber cannot account for: the Incarnation treats humanity not as a thou but a “we.” God becomes one of us so that, in turn, we might be sharers in his life. McCabe explains further that the Incarnation “is not given to us [as] a piece of information about God, it is communicated to us in the act of God’s taking us up into his love. In other words that the Father loves Jesus is revealed to us precisely in our being brought to share in that love between them” (18-19). Jesus reveals God not as a crude “it” of our own fashioning or an unapproachable “Thou” but as a “We” with whom we can identify. 

There are no pure individuals, since a fundamental aspect of humanity is community. This means that various iterations of “we” comprise our existence as individuals by our membership in collective groups. I am (much to my shame at this moment) a Dallas Cowboys fan. This means that I belong to the “we” of Dallas Cowboys fandom which is bound together by mutual love for our team. I am a member of my family—a husband, father, son, brother, grandson, nephew, and cousin. My identity is formed not only by my relation to others as “thous” but also by my membership in the collective whole that is our family. To be the “I” of a father means to have a “thou” of a child, but both of us are part of the larger whole that is our family. It would cease to be the same whole without each of us. A significant importance of an I-we relational mode is that the individual cannot overpower the collective, and also the collective cannot erase the individual. I am me, but the me that I am is shaped by the various “we”s in which I participate, even as those “we”s would never be the same without my participation. As important as all the groups we belong to are, the ultimate need for the “we” finds its fulfillment in the sacrament of Baptism which translates us into the ultimate “we”: the Body of Christ. This “we” brings its members together in a far more intimate manner than even the I-thou relationship. I-thou presumes separation and distinction. But conceiving of the Body’s members in an I-we modality allows the separate parts to participate in each other more intimately, “the two become one.” St. Paul uses agricultural imagery of grafting to depict the reality of baptism: the scion and rootstock must grow together into an organic unity. What is true of us in baptism is played out in the Mass, where we receive Christ (he in us) as we offer ourselves at the altar (we in him). We are growing up into him who is our head (Eph 4:15) as we become alter Christus. God offers “in the Church and its Scriptures not further Information but a share in his life” (McCabe 19) so that the Christian is no longer a creature before their creator but a “Son before the Father” (220). 

It is for this reason that Pauline scholar Michael Gorman emphasizes the idea of “co-crucifixion” in Paul’s writing on the Christian life (Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology 40-105; Participating in Christ: Explorations in Paul’s Theology and Spirituality 17-21). For Gorman, the person who is translated into Christ is inducted into a cruciform way of being: 

The cross is not only the source but also the shape of our salvation, and cross-shaped living (cruciformity) means that all Christian virtues and practices are cruciform: faith/faithfulness, love, power, hope, justice, and so forth. Cruciformity is also theoformity, or theosis; that is, cross-shaped existence is God-shaped existence, and this existence is for both individuals and communities in the Messiah. Cruciformity/theoformity is a matter not of imitation but of transformative participation: being in the Messiah/the Spirit and having the Messiah/the Spirit within (mutual indwelling). (Participating in Christ 28) 

Christ offers not an abstract ethical model to follow (an “it”) and he is not an other whom we “let be” (a “thou”). He is our head into whom we grow, the tree onto which we are attached. 

In the end, Buber should be commended for offering an alternative to the dehumanizing modality of the I-it relation by introducing us to a new relational framework where we conceive of the other as a “thou.” Yet his kind of mysticism keeps God at arm’s length and slips into regressive iconoclasm that seems stuck in a cycle of deconstruction; there can be no “further up and further in” so much as an otherness characterized by an ever-widening gap. In this regard, I and Thou has an important didactic function because it reminds us of the metaphysical gap between creatures and Creator, and between sinners and the Holy One. However, if this is true, the reality of Thou becomes a manifestation of the Law, in that it meets our inadequacies with nothing but condemnation, always reminding us of our insufficiency and finitude. Rather, by his Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection, Christ elevates humanity beyond this gap which separates us from God. No longer do we find our “I” in the midst of the Adamic “we” but instead in the New Adam who is “God with us” (Matt 1:23). As those who have been grafted into him, I-thou can no longer characterize our relationship to God. We need something more intimate, in which we find ourselves as incorporated into the Christic “we.”

Wesley Walker

Wesley Walker

Wesley is from Raleigh, North Carolina. He went to Liberty University for his undergraduate and graduate degrees in Biblical Studies where he was also on the debate team and is working on his STM at Nashotah House Theological Seminary. He currently resides in Annapolis, Maryland and is a priest at St. Paul's Anglican Church (APA). He lives with his wife Caroline, their son Jude, and their dog. He co-hosts The Sacramentalists Podcast.

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