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I and Thou | Study Guide

Martin Buber

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I and Thou | Part 3 | Summary


Key Takeaways

  • Part 3 explores what is perhaps Martin Buber's central concern: how relationships with others connect to a person's relationship with God (the eternal You).
  • "The lines of relationships intersect in the eternal You," says Buber, and "every single You is a glimpse of that." Relationships between people mediate the relationship with the eternal You. In I-You relations the innate You remains imperfect. Only in immediate relationship with God does the innate You attain perfection.
  • Relationship is both passive and active, for a person chooses and is chosen.
  • Learning to meet the other as I-You is not the subject of spiritual practices, which exist in the I-It world. "Going forth" requires "the total acceptance of the present."
  • The mystics are wrong, in Buber's view: to meet God we must not give up the I, since it is needed in all relations, including the highest one. What needs to be relinquished is the need for self-affirmation.
  • Those entering the absolute relationship with God see everything in the You. Neither running toward nor away from the world will help, says Buber. Rather, "whoever beholds the world in him [God] stands in his presence."
  • Buber's prescription is somewhat paradoxical because he has already said—and now says again—that whether we separate God from the world or see God in the world, we are in the realm of I-It. He then cryptically asserts that a person can find God neither by remaining in the world nor by leaving it. "Whoever goes forth to his You with his whole being and carries to it all the being of the world, finds him whom one cannot seek."
  • The You that Buber admonishes the reader to go forth to is the internal You, associated with the eternal You. God is "wholly other," "wholly same," and "wholly present," a "mystery of the obvious that is closer to me than my own I." In making life sacred, we encounter "the living God."
  • In Buber's view, humans can confront God only through things, which are "his medium of communication with man." If God and the world are separate, the seeker turns away and doesn't confront anything.
  • However, if "God is in the world," the seeker tries to understand the world in its totality, which is impossible.
  • Finally, if "the world is in God," the seeker goes forth in the world of things and is led to meet with God. Life is treated as sacred, and a meeting with the living God becomes possible.
  • Buber next lays out a critique of mysticism. Mysticism can be broadly defined as a spiritual path in which a person seeks unity with God or the Absolute through self-surrender. The mystic theoretically gains spiritual knowledge not accessible through the intellect and either merges with the Absolute or in some way becomes the Absolute.
  • Earlier in his studies, Buber delved into Christian and Indian mysticism, studying both Western mystics and Indian Vedanta philosophy and Buddhism. Buber was interested in the approaches to unity and multiplicity in all religious traditions. While he was at first enthusiastic about Eastern ideas of unity, he ended up turning away from them, and he explains why in Part 3 of his treatise.
  • In Buber's view, people could not exist if God did not need them, and people need God for their existence.
  • Creation is something that happens to us and changes us, and we have no choice but to submit.
  • When we "encounter the creator," we "offer ourselves to him, helpers and companions." In prayer, we pour ourselves out to God without reservation, which amounts to acting on God when the prayer is devoid of greed.
  • The sacrifices of old were a way of offering people's small will to God's great will, saying that God's will be done, through the supplicant, whom God needs.
  • The difference between such sacrifice and magic is that magic attempts to create an effect without entering a relationship with divinity.
  • A similar problem arises when the religious act is primarily a descent into the self, whether a person seeks to shed their subjectivity and I-hood or whether they view the self as not different from God.
  • In the first practice, we expect God to fill our being once we empty ourselves of I-hood. What Buber means is that some mystics seek to empty themselves of ego so that God may fill them with divinity. Buber seems to be referring to the Christian tradition, in which a spiritual practitioner experiences the presence of a personal God along with spiritual ecstasy. Christians believe they have souls, but their souls are not God. Nonetheless, the Christian mystics experience merging with God.
  • In the second, practitioners in the Indian Vedic tradition also believe they have souls, which are attached to the One Ultimate Reality with attributes—specifically called atman. The embodied soul is called jivatman. (Buber doesn't provide these details about Indian philosophy, but only a broad outline.) When experiencing the Reality, the Indian mystic realizes that atman is not different from Brahman. Brahman is God or the Reality without qualities, and some texts call Brahman consciousness (meaning a unitary consciousness that has the power to differentiate itself in the phenomenal world). Buber's point is that the goal of the Vedic experience is to end I-You duality.
  • Both practices of the mystic go beyond I and You. Buber suggests the first practice leads to ecstasy, whereas the second perhaps uncovers ecstasy or something like it "as the thinking subject beholds itself."
  • Buber equates the Christian statement from the Gospel of St. John—"I and the Father are one"—with the first practice, although he explains that mainstream Christianity does not view this statement as a mystical merging of an individual self with God.
  • Buber mentions that Meister Eckhart, the medieval Christian mystic, represents Christ as the Person "whom God begets eternally in the human soul." However, Eckhart's teachings are in conflict with orthodox Christian beliefs.
  • Buber equates the second statement—the apprehension of oneself as not different from God—with a quotation from the Khandogya (also Chandogya) Upanishad: "the All-embracing is my self in the inner heart." (The 13 principal Upanishads contain the esoteric teachings of the Indian religion, called Hinduism in the West.) However, this statement from the Upanishads is not the best representation from the texts of the philosophy they espouse.
  • Buber claims the Upanishads (the basis for Indian Vedanta philosophy) teach that the individual ego and the world are illusory. But this view is an oversimplification. Vedanta calls the world illusory because it is not eternal, being subject to decay, death, and destruction. This is not the same as saying it lacks reality or doesn't exist. Vedanta teaches that the world is not what it appears to be—something modern-day physicists would not dispute.
  • In summary, Buber says people have two types of mystical experience. In the first experience, two become as one, and the human being is absorbed into the deity.
  • He describes the second experience as one in which a person's life force becomes concentrated so that soul "stands alone in itself" and rejoices in its exalted state. Buber gives credence and importance to this experience, which makes a person "fit for the work of the spirit." In this feeling of unity, the person experiences bliss, and Buber is perhaps indicating he has had this experience.
  • But in Buber's view, the person must return to "the wretchedness of daily turmoil." The mystic then experiences being split, with "one part abandoned to hopelessness." But Buber neglects to say that the sages of all traditions who describe such experiences stress the importance of bringing into the everyday world the wisdom gained in mystical states.
  • Further, those who have such experiences are marked in a new way: rather than feeling more hopeless about the separation from God that accompanies ordinary consciousness, they gain strength and equilibrium and become more fearless.
  • Since the mystics have also written about those effects of entering such states and returning to normal consciousness, it would appear the mystics and Buber are not so far apart. But Buber believes in duality, in which God is experienced in the I-You relation, while the mystics, as defined by Buber, believe in the experience of unity. However, this view doesn't mean they turn their backs on the world.
  • Buber prefers the experience of unity that does not do away with the actual person and thus does not devalue the world.
  • Buber finally turns to the Buddha's statements about the ultimate end of spiritual practice, called nirvana although Buber does not use the Buddhist term. Nirvana literally means "extinguishment," although Westerners typically translate the term as "enlightenment."
  • The goal of Buddhist practice is the end of suffering, which is to end the cycle of becoming and passing away—escaping the wheel of rebirth.
  • Buber opines there is no way to know if reoccurrence or reincarnation exists. If it does, "we should not seek to escape from it," but rather "to speak in every existence, in its appropriate manner and language, the eternal I of the destructible and the eternal You of the indestructible."
  • Understandably, Buber is categorically opposed to the Buddhist view because he embraces the world of forms, whereas the Buddha sees the world as impermanent and the human experience as suffused with suffering.
  • Buber does not mention a key tenet of original Buddhism—the doctrine of independent origination—that explains the origin of the world without having to rely on a deity. According to the Buddha, humans have no permanent substance or "soul." Buddhism is a radical atheistic religion, diametrically opposed to Buber's concept of an eternal You.
  • Buber much prefers the "the greater vehicle" of Mahayana Buddhism to "the lesser vehicle" of Hinayana, which is closely aligned with the Buddha's original teachings. Mahayana Buddhism revises the original doctrine to include "the eternal You of man." In saying so, Buber most likely is thinking about the emphasis put on compassion for all beings in Mahayana practice.
  • In summary, Buber's view of mystic "immersion" is this: it is based on the illusion that spirit "occurs in man," when in truth, it occurs from man—between man and what he is not. When spirit is "bent back into itself," it loses relation and ends up psychologizing God and the world, which Buber calls "the psychical delusion of the spirit."
  • Buber agrees with the Buddha that the world dwells in us as an idea, but not that the world is in us.
  • The world and human beings are reciprocal, and thought "inheres in the It-relation" but is "annulled by the You relation, which detaches me from the world."
  • "Let us love the actual world that never wishes to be annulled, but love it in all its terror," Buber says. The world does not separate us from God, and "to go forth in truth to the world" is to seek God.
  • Toward the end of Part 3, Buber reiterates some ideas he has already examined in his discussion of God and the world. He notes it is possible to have an I-You relationship with an animal and even a thing (he gives an example of a fragment of mica), which means the other party sometimes does not reciprocate in the relationship. But when another being responds to us, we feel the brevity of such relations.
  • Even love relationships fluctuate between I-You and I-It. Every You in the world must become a thing, again and again. Only one You never stops being a You, and that is God.
  • He also goes back to the three spheres in which relations are built: with nature, at the threshold of language; with other people, using language; and with spiritual beings, where language both disappears and is created.
  • In life with other people, language is perfected. Here the primal word receives a reply, and we both see and are seen. This relation is a metaphor for our relation with God.
  • Buber allows that relation with oneself is also a metaphor for relation with God, "if lonesomeness means detaching oneself from experiencing and using things." Moreover, if we are rejected by others after we have spoken "the true You" to them, God will accept us.
  • Buber warns the seeker to beware of building "a castle of separation," in which we speak only to ourselves, not in preparation for a meeting but rather to enjoy our own uniqueness. In this scenario, the spirit lapses into "mere spirituality" and the delusion we have God within us to whom we can speak.
  • Buber draws a distinction between God's embracing and dwelling within his creatures. Human beings do not have God within, Buber says, a reminder that meeting with God occurs in the Between.
  • Buber criticizes the ideal of a solitary "religious" person who has transcended the duties and obligations of the world: such a path is one in which the seeker's will "is dissolved in unconditional being." While the seeker still performs their duty in the world, they do so without obligation.
  • Buber describes the state of the self-realized sage, as described in certain Eastern texts. Such people are said to be in the world but not of it. Sometimes this state is compared to a potter's wheel, which continues to rotate for a time even though the potter has stopped turning it. In Buber's view, this notion disparages God's creation as nothing but an illusion.
  • On the contrary, "when a man steps before the countenance, the world becomes wholly present to him for the first time in the fullness of the presence ... and he can say You in one word to the being of all beings."
  • A person privileged with such a gift of grace does not move away from the world but comes closer to it. Buber's theology holds that God exists outside of the world but also within the world, which is the only place where human beings can meet God.
  • Humans receive God "as a presence of strength" that makes life "heavy with meaning." Put another way, human beings have been created deliberately by God for a reason and with a purpose. The meaning of each person's life is unique. The meaning of one's life can be received in an I-You encounter with God, but can never be experienced.
  • There is no formula for engineering an encounter with God, nor one for acting on the meaning of our life after such an encounter. God remains a mystery in that we have known God but have no knowledge of God.
  • Buber's God neither names nor defines himself for the benefit of humanity. Buber quotes the words from Exodus 3:14 of the Hebrew Bible to prove his point, in which God tells Moses his name.
  • This passage, the subject of many interpretations, is generally translated as "I am That I am" and sometimes as "I am Who I am." Buber translates this text from the Hebrew to German, and translator Walter Kaufmann renders Buber's words in English as "I am there as whoever I am there."
  • For Buber, this text means "that which has being is there, nothing more." Thus, God remains a mystery to human beings.
  • Although the eternal You (God) can never be an It, human beings nonetheless cannot help turning God into a thing because of their lonesomeness.
  • Humans long for a God of duration and continuity, and thus "God becomes an object of faith" and a "cult object," the center of a religion or belief system. When this happens, personal prayer is superseded by communal payer governed by rules.
  • Buber opines that the spatial constancy of God's presence can be found only in human beings' relationship to "their true You," which then radiates outward to a center.
  • Thus, a group of people, through their own encounters with God, create a circle of community with You at the center. "That alone assures the genuine existence of community," says Buber.
  • Time then can be anchored in "a relation-oriented life of salvation," and space can be anchored "in a community unified by a common center." Only when this occurs does a "human cosmos" come into being, surrounding an "invisible altar."
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