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I and Thou (Talk 4 of 4)

Talk on Martin Buber's Philosophical Work "I and Thou"

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Feb 15, 2006
In topic: Philosophy
"For Buber, we are created moment by moment by what we encounter." Buber's philosophy is discussed as a "philosophy of relationship and dialogue." "Buber is saying there is no such thing as a person without a person-in-relation."
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I and Thou  (Talk 4 of 4)

Zoketsu Norman Fischer

February 15, 2006

 

Transcribed, abridged and edited by Anne Johnson, Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager

Note: When quoting Buber, Norman has substituted gender neutral language for Buber's typical use of the masculine pronoun, which was current at that time. 

 

In the third part of I and Thou, Buber talks about the religious side of the I-Thou relationship, or I-You relationship. He begins with a statement that basically says it all: “Extended, the lines of relationships intersect in the eternal You.”

In every relationship – relationships to other people, to nature, to art – when there is a real encounter, the I-You relationship, the lines go past that to which you are relating, and they all meet in the eternal relationship.

Every single You is a glimpse of that. Through every single You the basic word addresses the eternal you. The mediatorship of the You of all beings accounts for the fullness of our relationships to them—and for the lack of fulfillment.

Isn’t that interesting? Every relationship is a glimpse of this ultimate relationship. Because each relationship evokes this ultimate relationship, they are so important to us. It accounts for why they are so satisfying. It also accounts for why they are ultimately problematic and why they don’t fulfill us.

 “The innate You is actualized each time without ever being perfected.” In other words, the ultimate relationship is never perfected in our relative relationships. “It attains perfection solely in the immediate relationship to the You that in accordance with its nature cannot become an It.” As we discussed earlier, every You relationship in the relative world always becomes an It. The moment of real encounter always gives way to the moment of: How come you stepped on my toe? Don’t you know that I don’t like you to put the toothpaste there? All those moments inevitably appear, and so the only relationship that truly satisfies us is the relationship that can never become an It, that is only a You. This is the divine relationship, which is only evoked through these limited relationships. Limited relationships are important, but also, in the end, lack complete fulfillment.

People have addressed the eternal You by many names. When they sang of what they thus named, they still meant You: the first myths were hymns of praise. Then the names entered into the It language.

In the history of religion, people were encountering the Divine through the names that they spoke. But then after a while, the names that they spoke became just objects in the world.

People felt impelled more and more to think of and to talk about their eternal You as an It. But all names of God remain hallowed—because they have been used not only to speak of God but also to speak to God.  Some would deny any legitimate use of the word God because it has been misused so much.

Today it’s even worse, because now, in America, if you say “God,” then everybody thinks that you are a member of the religious right. Really. So the word has become debased. “Certainly it is the most burdened of all human words,” Buber says.

For whoever pronounces the word God and really means You, addresses, no matter what his delusion, the true You of his life that cannot be restricted by any other and to whom he stands in relationship that includes all others.

So no matter what your theology, the eternal You is there. If you abhor the name of God and fancy that you are godless, when you address with devotion the You of your life – that cannot be restricted by any other – then you are addressing God. Even if you say, I am an atheist; I hate God, but you fully meet something in your life, then you are addressing God. To Buber, that is the only thing that God is. In other words, what is real is not what is said in a theology book.

So skipping a couple paragraphs, “Our concern, our care must not be for the other side (God) but for our own. Not for grace but for will.” In other words, all speculations about God and all ideas about what God wants are useless. That’s God’s problem. The only important thing is what we will know. We have talked about grace and will: we do something, we practice, we make an effort. The will is in that effort. When we actually do something, the grace part comes forward to meet us.

Buber says not to worry about the grace; it has nothing to do with you: “Grace concerns us only insofar as we proceed toward it and await its presence; it is not our object.”

The You confronts me. But I enter a direct relationship to it. Thus the relationship is at once being chosen and choosing. This is the activity of the human being who has become whole: it has been called not-doing.

A direct relationship is both passive and active. Buber read the Chinese Taoist philosophers and studied Buddhism. He was influenced by them, and that is why he is using the term “not-doing.”

This is the activity of the human being who has become whole: it has been called not-doing, for nothing particular, for nothing partial is at work in human beings and thus nothing of human beings intrudes into the world. It is the whole human being, closed in its wholeness, at rest in its wholeness, that is active here, as the human being has become an active whole. When one has achieved steadfastness in this state, one is able to venture forth toward the supreme encounter.

In other words, we all know what it means to be partial in our living, partial in our actions: to go through the motions, or not to be whole hearted, or not to give ourselves to a relationship. The point is that we want to give ourselves completely.

“To this end one does not have to strip away the world of the senses as a world of appearance.” Some religious traditions say: This world is just a world of the senses, a world of appearances. It’s not as important as compared to God. But we don’t have to separate God and the world of appearances.

“There is no world of appearance, there is only the world – which, to be sure, appears twofold to us in accordance with our two-fold attitude.” In other words, there is just one world. It will be a world of objects and contention and trouble, if we have an I-It attitude, an instrumental attitude of not really meeting. On the other hand, if we really meet the world and meet what is in front of us, then the world itself is everything we need. Nothing is more holy than this ordinary world, if we only will be there for it.

“Only the spell of separation needs to be broken.” Isn’t that great? We have been placed under a spell. We all conspire together to keep ourselves under that spell. The spell of separation, the spell of It. “Nor is there any need to ‘go beyond sense experience’; any experience, no matter how spiritual, could only yield us an It.”  And remember that Buber denigrates experience. An experience is always collecting a whole bunch of stuff. What is the difference between collecting a bunch of different experiences and going to Walmart and buying a whole bunch of stuff and lining it up on our table? To Buber there is no difference. Encounter, meeting, is not experience for him. It is another category of human activity. Even inner experiences, spiritual experiences, are just experiences.

 Nor need we turn to a world of ideas and values—that cannot become a present for us. All this is not needed. Can one say what is needed? Not by way of a prescription. All the prescriptions that have been excogitated and invented in the ages of the human spirit, all the preparations, exercise and meditations that have been suggested have nothing to do with the primally simple fact of encounter.

So that’s great! Dogen says that zazen is not meditation. It’s not a technique. It’s not an experience. It’s just encountering our aliveness – the simple fact of encounter.

“Every actual relationship to another being in the world is exclusive.” When you give yourself to that one being, the whole world falls away except for that one being. “It’s You is freed and steps forth to confront us in its uniqueness.” When you hear a bird singing, you actually hear it. You are there for it. If you actually give yourself to it, it is amazing! It’s even more amazing when you know that the bird has been singing for about a half an hour and you never heard it. The whole world is filled with that bird song, or that person, that you have finally seen for the first time.

 “It fills the firmament—not as if there were nothing else, but everything else lives in its light.” That’s the profound part about it. In other words, it’s not just about the bird song, everything is there.

As long as the presence of the relationship endures, this world-wideness cannot be infringed. But as soon as a You becomes an It, the world-wideness of the relationship appears as an injustice against the world, and its exclusiveness as an exclusion of the universe. 

In other words, if I am obsessed with something, excluding everything else, and making an It of it, then I become kind of a monstrous person.

This next paragraph is really important:

In the relation to God, unconditional exclusiveness and unconditional inclusiveness are one. For those who enter into the absolute relationship, nothing particular retains any importance—neither things nor beings, neither earth nor heaven—but everything is included in the relationship.

So there is nothing to worry about. You don’t have to worry about anything or feel beleaguered by anything, because nothing particular retains any ultimate importance.

For entering into the pure relationship does not involve ignoring everything but seeing everything in the You, not renouncing the world but placing it on its proper ground.

Looking away from the world is no help toward God; staring at the world is no help either; but whoever beholds the world in him, stands in his presence “World here, God there”—that is It-talk;

This world of appearances is not important. God is in heaven. And “‘God in the world’” is also It-talk,

…but leaving out nothing, leaving nothing behind, to comprehend all—all the world – in comprehending the You, giving the world its due and truth, to have nothing besides God but to grasp everything in God, that is the perfect relationship.

So it is neither outside the world nor in the world. It is grasping the world through the You. You don’t find God if you remain in the world and you don’t find God if you leave the world.

Whoever goes forth to his You with his whole being and carries to it all the being of the world, finds him who one cannot seek.

Now Buber talks about aloneness, because we might ask, Well wait a minute! Do you have to be in a relationship with something or someone? What about solitude? Are you telling us that somebody whose practice in life is the life of solitude can’t live the religious life as you are defining it?

On the bottom of page 151 there is a hypothetical objection.

But isn’t solitude itself a portal? Does it not happen sometimes in the stillest lonesomeness that we unexpectedly behold? Cannot intercourse with oneself change mysteriously into intercourse with mystery? Indeed, is not only he that is no longer attached to any being worthy of confronting being? “Come, lonesome one to the lonesome,” Simeon, the New Theologian, addresses his God.

Buber replies that there are two ways of being lonesome and lonely, and here by lonesomeness he means solitude.

There are two kinds of lonesomeness depending on what it turns away from. If lonesomeness means detaching oneself from experiencing and using things, then this is always required to achieve any act of relation, not only the supreme one.

In other words, if we are always grasping things, we can’t really meet them. So if that’s what we mean by loneliness, letting go of grasping things, then that’s what we have to do. So in that sense, paradoxically we meet one another in our solitude.

But if lonesomeness [solitude] means the absence of relation: if other beings have forsaken us after we had spoken the true You to them, we will be accepted by God; but not if we ourselves have forsaken other beings.

If our aloneness involves our inner cutting off from one another, if my aloneness involves a rejection of others and an inner sense of holding others at arm’s length, then there is no spiritual dimension to that. But if I live my entire life by myself, and in my heart I understand my connection to others, I have not forsaken other beings. That aloneness can be the aloneness of I-You. Even if there is nobody around, we can relate to God, we can relate to what is beyond. That is a You relationship, even if we are completely alone.

Only he that is full of covetousness to use them is attached to some of them; he that lives in the strength of the presence can only be associated with them. The latter, however—he alone is ready for God. For he alone counters God’s actuality with a human actuality.

So the one who has a clinging need of others, in his solitude, can’t connect. But if you live with the strength of the presence within yourself, the You is there. There are two kinds of loneliness, depending on what you turn away from.

Then he says there are two kinds of lonesomeness:

 If lonesomeness [solitude] is the place of purification which even the associate needs before he enters the holy of holies, but which he also needs in the midst of his trials, between his unavoidable failures and his ascent to prove himself—that is how we are constituted.

A certain amount of aloneness is required for our self-purification. If we are the kind of person who constantly needs to be surrounded by others and we have no sense of inner space, then we are not going to purify our self for the ascent. He is referring to the Old Testament where the priests went through a purification process before they could go into the temple and do the service in the temple.

But if it is the castle of separation where we are conducting a dialogue only with ourselves, not in order to test our self and master our self for what awaits us but in the enjoyment of the configuration of his own soul—that is the spirit’s lapse into mere spirituality. And this becomes truly abysmal when self-deception reaches the point where one thinks that one has God within and speaks to him.

You become confused and think your sense of self is God. Then you cut off all the others and you take solace in yourself.

“But as surely as God embraces us and dwells in us, we never have him within. And we speak to him only when all speech has ceased within.” In silence.

One could think about this for a long time. What does he mean by this? We may be left with the difficulty of exactly knowing. So practically speaking, we all have to ask ourselves the question: What is this aloneness of myself? To what extent is it separation, to what extent is it self-obsession, and to what extent is it really a kind of creating the space within myself to reach out to others?

In our practice, even though we sit together, we are all sitting alone. So our practice is essentially a practice of solitude, but I think our understanding is that we are doing that not to wall ourselves off from each other, but so that through the process of our aloneness, we really and truly can meet one another. There is the beauty of the relationships involved in sitting together in silence. This brings a human connection even without speaking, even without knowing one another. It brings a beautiful relationship.