I and Thou

This weekend I was reminded of the significance of Martin Buber’s ‘I and Thou’ in the critical years of my Christian formation. I must have bought my copy in the 1960s. It was first published in 1923 and translated into English in 1937.

Buber's main theme is that we may address existence two ways: The attitude of the "I" towards an "It", towards an object that is separate in itself, and the attitude of the "I" towards "Thou", in a relationship in which the other is not separated by discrete bounds. One of the major themes of the book is that human life finds its meaningfulness in relationships and that all of our relationships bring us ultimately into relationship with God, who is the Eternal Thou.

It could be described as 'religious philosophy', but it is certainly not philosophy in the conventional sense - it is not a closely-reasoned argument. Indeed, it reads more like a poem in prose and needs to be read slowly and with time to ponder the meaning.

Buber writes that “When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.” He believed that God is both the wholly Other and also the wholly Same, the wholly Present, the mystery of the self-evident, nearer to me than my I. God is being itself and transcends all attempts at objectification. The relationship with God is the foundation for all other I - Thou relations.

Buber was influenced by Kirkegaard, Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky and in turn influenced Reinhold Niebur, Paul Tillich, Karl Barth and many others. These authors were influential for John Robinson and others who in the 1960s wrote books about theology aimed not at academics studying theology in universities and colleges but written for a more general readership.

A trawl of my bookshelves reveals:

On Being the Church in the World. Robinson. 1960
Honest to God. Robinson. 1963
The New Reformation. Robinson. 1965.
The True Wilderness. Harry Williams. 1965
Guide to the Debate about God. David Jenkins. 1966.
But That I Can’t Believe. Robinson. 1967
Exploration into God. Robinson. 1967
In the End God. Robinson. 1968
Towards A Radical Church. Jones and Wesson. 1970
The Difference in Being a Christian Today. Robinson. 1972.
Can We Trust the New Testament. Robinson. 1977

Honest to God and the debate about God

John Robinson was trying to present to ordinary people what academic theologians were writing and thinking. He wanted people to have access to ideas which others considered to be dangerous. Some still consider them to be dangerous and heretical. Honest to God was the book which hit the headlines and broke the boundaries.

Robinson saw himself as being more conservative than many of his colleagues but wanted to ask, publicly, radical questions about belief in God and the Biblical narrative, about the virgin birth and the resurrection and what it really means to say that Jesus is ‘the son of God’. When I first read Honest to God I was relieved to discover that not having to believe that everything described in the Gospels actually happened was not only acceptable, but what many bishops, priests and teachers in the church also believed.

In his ‘Guide to the Debate about God’, David Jenkins took the process further, setting out to explore whether theism was on the way out – whether or not God really existed.

David Jenkins hazarded that the debate about God had exploded in the 1960s in the UK because people were just getting around to facing the questions posed by the scientific attitude in an open and general way, instead of leaving them to be discussed only at the academic level. Fifty years later, the question of whether evolution or Genesis six-day creation is the more accurate and truthful (and scientific) account of how things came to be is, astonishingly, still being ardently disputed by many Christians.

The first theologian analysed by Jenkins, Rufolf Bultmann, held that it was ‘urgently necessary to demythologise the Biblical way of looking at the world and the traditional way of understanding and presenting the Christian Gospel so that modern men and women may once again hear it as Gospel and not as nonsense’. We have travelled some way down this process, to the point where Biblical teaching about slavery and women, once supposedly orthodox and traditional, has been radically revised, whereas the development of teaching about sexuality is still in process.

Belief in God is based (in my simplistic analysis) (1) on the evidence of Scripture, or (2) on faith – a personal decision to believe, or (3) on personal experience – something or event that happened or on personal feelings and intuition, and for all three, might be or definitely is, a gift of the grace of God through revelation.

Many in the Church continue to be addicted to certainties and absolutes which are in truth neither. Belief as at present constructed is often somewhat tribal and/or somewhat idolatrous.

Jenkins’ Guide to the Debate about God concludes with a chapter on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, described as a prophet who shocks and a witness who testifies. That which came to be described as ‘religionless Christianity’ was for Bonhoeffer grounded in strict spiritual discipline, frequent prayer, and the most rigorous attention to the Christian and especially the Biblical tradition, arising from his Lutheran heritage. His was a call into the ‘Cloud of Unknowing’. Bonhoeffer warned against the negativity of so much religion, against the fearfulness involved in looking for special data about God, and against the religious tendency to rely on a spurious and external authority for the obedience and understanding of faith.

The evolving vision of God

In the sixty years since Honest to God was published, many others have written about the transformation of the Christian narrative and our experience of the divine. Among those to be found on my bookshelves who have continued the adventurous exploration are: John Shelby Spong, Richard Holloway, John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, Walter Wink, Diana Butler Bass, Jose A Pagola, Phillip Yancey, John Carroll, Illia Delio, Phyllis Tickle and Brian McLaren.

What I find curious and frustrating and at times depressing is that sixty years on, books are still being written to persuade people to reimagine Jesus and God and the Christian life and release themselves from literalist, fundamentalist, ‘plain truth of Scripture’ understandings of faith as if what was being thought, imagined and written about in the 1940s, 50s and 60s never happened.

In ‘Saving Jesus from the Church’ published in 2009, Robin Meyers seems to be undertaking the same task begun in the 1960s by John Robinson and others – he describes what he is doing as trying to recover something very old, and he’s trying to do it for the general public. I don’t think there is much new in Robin Meyers account when compared with John Robinson’s sequence of books.

Theologians and philosophers have been doing the work of theological exploration and excavation for well over six decades. But the books which most excite me I tend to stumble across by accident or are recommended by friends pursuing a similar, contemplative, apophatic path. There is a richly creative flow of prophetic, deeply reflective, adventurous work, but it is not flowing through the channels of mainstream church life. For example, it does not feature in debates and presentations in The General Synod and I doubt if it ever finds its way into meetings of the College and House of Bishops or Archbishops’ Council.

Renewal and Reform

The Renewal and Reform programme being rolled out in the church is aimed at dealing with the decline in numbers and lack of vocations. It wants to stem the effect of the sea’s ‘melancholy, long withdrawing roar, retreating to the breath of the night-wind’ by systemic reforms and developing strategic capacity for significant change in the institutional life of the Church of England.

The blurb on the first English translation of I and Thou says ‘It lays out a view of the world in which human beings can enter into relationships using their innermost and whole being to form true partnerships. These deep forms of rapport contrast with those that spring from the Industrial Revolution, namely the common, but basically unethical, treatment of others as objects for our use and the incorrect view of the universe as merely the object of our senses, experiences. Buber goes on to demonstrate how these inter-human meetings are a reflection of the human meeting with God. For Buber, the essence of biblical religion consists in the fact that - regardless of the infinite abyss between them - a dialogue between man and God is possible.

Holy, Godly I - Thou relationships in the church

My faith journey has sought to explore and deepen my innermost and whole being in which the holy, godly, divine self which is the core of every human being can form true partnerships and relationships with as much I – Thou quality as I can muster. I have come to believe that following this path in prayer, personal development, proclamation of the faith, relationships, work and play – in every dimension of life – is our prime task as human beings and as Christians.

Christian faith communities in the west have largely lost interest in and awareness of the exploration of the nature of God and essence of Jesus’ life and teaching as it has been explored by Buber and Bonhoeffer, Robinson and Jenkins, Borg and Butler Bass. All too rarely does the church adventure into an exploration of and a risky encounter with Buber’s I and Thou or the G_d of the infinite, unnameable mystery or the apophatic darkness of infinite light.

If the Church of England does not have, running through the heart of its life, people living out and teaching and dwelling in the contemplative, apophatic mystery and otherness of G_d then the resources being poured into Renewal and Reform will have no lasting effect. Decline will continue and may be inevitable.