The atheist staring from his attic window is often nearer to God than the believer caught up in his own false image of God.
― Martin Buber
My Wednesday Lenten posts this year will be reflecting on quotes from people who were influenced in one way or another by Henry David Thoreau. A good one to start with is Martin Buber. His attachment to Thoreau is not based on Thoreau’s famous naturalist writings but on his political activism.
Martin Buber (1878–1965) was a prolific author, scholar, literary translator, and political activist whose writings—mostly in German and Hebrew—ranged from Jewish mysticism to social philosophy, biblical studies, religious phenomenology, philosophical anthropology, education, politics, and art.
He is most famous for his philosophy of relationships based in the short but extremely influential book, I and Thou. In it he differentiates between I - It relationships which are subject-object interactions and I -Thou or dialogue-based interactions. (Note: A reminder that “thou” in the original English usage is NOT the formal pronoun, but the informal version of close and intimate relationships. It is the equivalent of “du” in German and “tu” in Spanish.)
So without getting too complicated or philosophically technical, Buber sees the main difference between “I-It” and “I-Thou” as the first is an experience by one of another. It is in observation and analysis that this occurs. It can be said that it is also a non-interaction in the sense that there is no back and forth. I watch the sunset; I watch the heron on the beach; I watch the people walking by me.
On the other hand, “I-Thou” is interactive; we meet each other and dialogue or we seek to deepen our understanding of the other. Buber says this dialogue relationship is what happens in love. We live IN love; we don’t watch it. (Again, oversimplified, but that’s my understanding of the gist of it.)
Thoreau, when he went to live by Walden Pond really went into what he was expecting to be an “I-It” relationship. It was a self-serving, selfish motive on some levels when it began. How could it be anything else? He didn’t know the pond or its inhabitants either present or past, human or animal or plant. It didn’t take him long.
He dug into the ground and found history with old foundations and burial grounds of previous villages. He went out and discovered his fellow residents. He began to enter into a dialogue with them and discover what they had in common and what he had to learn from their teaching.
Every major naturalist writer since him has had the same experience. To repeat Sunday’s Thoreau quote, they discovered heaven is under their feet as much as it is about their heads. When we discover heaven it might be safe to say we begin to discover and interact in love. When Thoreau did that, he also saw connections he needed to make in other areas; we are all inter-connected whether we like it or not. That led him to his political views and the essay, Civil Disobedience. It was in that writing that Buber connected first with Thoreau.
Martin Buber wrote, of Civil Disobedience:
I read it with the strong feeling that here was something that concerned me directly.... It was the concrete, the personal element, the "here and now" of this work that won me over. … He addressed his reader within the very sphere of this situation common to both of them in such a way that the reader not only discovered why Thoreau acted as he did at that time but also that the reader—assuming him of course to be honest and dispassionate– would have to act in just such a way whenever the proper occasion arose, provided he was seriously engaged in fulfilling his existence as a human person. The question here is … of the absolutely concrete demonstration of the point at which this struggle at any moment becomes man's duty as man....Because Thoreau has entered into an “I-Thou,” personal and intimate relationship with his world and the events of the world, he makes it clear in his essay that any thinking and honest individual would have to do the same when challenged by circumstances. In Thoreau’s case it was the annexation of Mexican territory by the United States and the ensuing Mexican-American War. He was also a strong Abolitionist who saw no way that owning slaves was a moral thing. How could it be when we are all interrelated? How can we turn relationships with other humans into “I-It”, non-dialogic interactions?
— "Man's Duty as Man" (1962)
Why then was I drawn to Buber’s statement above? We live in a time when there are many false images of God (or gods) being thrown around. There is the angry, punishing God; there are the things we worship as having importance beyond themselves; there is the image of a God that hates the same people as I hate and believes the same things I believe.
The atheist on the other side has nothing to start from. There is nothing of that kind of value as a “God”. The attic is shuttered, but unlike the false images, an attic’s shutters can be opened more easily than a closed mind. Somewhat in the way that Thoreau discovered the ability to be in a personal relationship with the world and others, the atheist has more possibility of discovering an “I-Thou” relationship with “God” because he or she has no preconception about what or who God is.
That is far more technical than my mind wants to grasp. But that is what Lent is about. I don’t understand this relationship with God in and through Jesus. Intellectually I understand it less today than I did in 1964 when I became a Christian. But I know it better today. I also know that it is just as intimately connected with the world around me than ever before. I continually discover new ways to move from “I-It” to “I-Thou.”
This past week we have seen another school shooting. I will write about that sometime else, perhaps. But what I see happening among the student survivors of the Parkland shooting is a movement into an “I-Thou” based civil disobedience. They have discovered the Golden Calf of guns in the public square and realized that they are not as important as the idol. A relationship to an idol is not a dialogue. It is "I-It" and never built in love. It is often a demand. We say "I will worship you (the idol) and you will protect me and make me powerful."
In our mind the idol responds with a beckoning smile.
The students in Parkland have seen the lie in that. They have lost 17 fellow students and teachers. They were not protected by the idol; the idol was used to kill them.
The power of the interconnections, the relationships, become clear. Students around the country I am sure sat in their classrooms every morning since then wondering if it could happen to them. They saw and lived the relationship between themselves and Parkland. They are tired of it. They see the evil in it on some emotionally deep level and say, “Enough!”
- What can I learn this Lenten season from paying attention to my relationships?
- How can I drop the “observer” role and enter into dialogue with the world around me?
- What does love compel me to do for those with whom I am in an “I-Thou” relationship?
- Finally, how can I stop being an observer of God, or worse, one who turns God into a false-image idol, and give myself over to the love I can live within?
Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.
― Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience