Chapter 12: The Eternal Thou

Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue
by Maurice S. Friedman

Chapter 12: The Eternal Thou

The inborn Thou is expressed and realized in each relation, writes Buber, but it is consummated only in the direct relation with the Eternal Thou, ‘the Thou that by its nature cannot become It.’ This Thou is met by every man who addresses God by whatever name and even by that man who does not believe in God yet addresses ‘the Thou of his life, as a Thou that cannot be limited by another.’ ‘All God’s names are hallowed, for in them He is not merely spoken about, but also spoken to.’ Our speaking to God, our meeting Him is not mere waiting and openness for the advent of grace. Man must go forth to the meeting with God, for here too the relation means being chosen and choosing, suffering and action in one. Hence we must be concerned not about God’s side -- grace -- but about our side -- will. ‘Grace concerns us in so far as we go out to it and persist in its presence; but it is not our object.’ (I and Thou, op. cit., p. 75 f.)

To go out to the meeting with the Eternal Thou, a man must have become a whole being, one who does not intervene in the world and one in whom no separate and partial action stirs. To go out to this meeting he need not lay aside the world of sense as though it were illusory or go beyond sense-experience. Nor need he have recourse to a world of ideas and values. Ideas and values cannot become presentness for us, and every experience, even the most spiritual, can yield us only an It. Only the barrier of separation must be destroyed, and this cannot be done through any formula, precept, or spiritual exercise. ‘The one thing that matters’ is ‘full acceptance of the present.’ Of course, the destruction of separateness and the acceptance of the present presuppose that the more separated a man has become, the more difficult will be the venture and the more elemental the turning. But this does not mean giving up the I, as mystical writings usually suppose, for the I is essential to this as to every relation. What must be given up is the self-asserting instinct ‘that makes a man flee to the possessing of things before the unreliable, perilous world of relation.’ (Ibid., p. 76 ff.)

‘He who enters the absolute relation is concerned with nothing isolated any more.’ He sees all things in the Thou and thus establishes the world on its true basis. God cannot be sought, He can only be met. Of course He is Barth’s ‘wholly Other’ and Otto’s Mysterium Tremendum, but He is also the wholly Same, ‘nearer to me than my I.’ He cannot be spatially located in the transcendence beyond things or the immanence within things and then sought and found.

If you explore the life of things and of conditioned being you come to the unfathomable, if you deny the life of things and of conditioned being you stand before nothingness, if you hallow this life you meet the living God. (Ibid., p. 78 f.)

It is foolish to seek God, ‘for there is nothing in which He could not be found.’ It is hopeless to turn aside from the course of one’s life, for with ‘all the wisdom of solitude and all the power of concentrated being,’ a man would still miss God. Rather one must go one’s way and simply wish that it might be the way. The meeting with God is ‘a finding without seeking, a discovering of the primal, of origin.’ The man who thus waits and finds is like the perfected man of the Tao: ‘He is composed before all things and makes contact with them which helps them,’ and when he has found he does not turn from things but meets them in the one event. Thus the finding ‘is not the end, but only the eternal middle, of the way.’ Like the Tao, God cannot be inferred in anything, but unlike the Tao, God can be met and addressed. ‘God is the Being that is directly, most nearly, and lastingly over against us, that may properly only be addressed, not expressed.’ (Ibid., p. 80.)

To make the relation to God into a feeling is to relativize and psychologize it. True relation is a coincidentia oppositorum, an absolute which gathers up the poles of feeling into itself. Though one has at times felt oneself simply dependent on God, one has also in this dependence felt oneself really free. And in one’s freedom one acts not only as a creature but as co-creator with God, able through one’s actions and through one’s life to alter the fate of the world and even, according to the Kabbalah, to reunite God with His exiled Shekinah. If God did not need man, if man were simply dependent and nothing else, there would be no meaning to man’s life or to the world. ‘The world is not divine sport, it is divine destiny.’

You know always in your heart that you need God more than everything, but do you not know too that God needs you -- in the fullness of His eternity needs you? . . . You need God, in order to be-- and God needs you, for the very meaning of your life. (Ibid. p. 82.)

This primal reality of relation is not contradicted by the experience of the mystics if that experience is rightly understood. There are two kinds of happening in which duality is no longer experienced. The first is the soul’s becoming a unity. This takes place within man and it is decisive in fitting him for the work of the spirit. He may then either go out to the meeting with mystery or fall back on the enjoyment and dissipation of his concentrated being. The second takes place not within man but between man and God. It is a moment of ecstasy in which what is felt to be ‘union’ is actually the dynamic of relation. Here on the brink the meeting is felt so forcibly in its vital unity that the I and the Thou between which it is established are forgotten.

In lived reality, even in ‘inner’ reality, there is no ‘unity of being.’ Reality exists only in effective, mutual action, and ‘the most powerful and deepest reality exists where everything enters into the effective action, without reserve . . . the united I and the boundless Thou.’ The doctrine of mystical absorption is based on ‘the colossal illusion of the human spirit that is bent back on itself, that spirit exists in man.’ In renouncing the meaning of spirit as relation, as between man and what is not man, man makes the world and God into functions of the human soul. In actuality, the world is not in man nor is man entirely included within the world. The image of the world is in man but not its reality, and man bears within himself the sense of self, that cannot be included in the world. What matters is how man causes his attitude of soul to grow to real life that acts upon the world.

I know nothing of a ‘world’ and a ‘life in the world’ that might separate a man from God. What is thus described is actually life with an alienated world of It, which experiences and uses. He who truly goes out to meet the world goes out also to God. Concentration and outgoing are necessary, both in truth, at once the one and the other, which is the One. (I and Thou, op. cit., pp. 85-95)

The misinterpretation of relation as union has led both eastern and western mystics to make union with God a goal in itself and to turn away from the responsibility of the I for the Thou. To seek consciously to become a saint, or attain ‘union,’ as is advocated by some modern mystics, (See for example the writings of Gerald Heard, in particular The Third Morality [New York: William Morrow, London: Cassell, 1937], chaps. viii-xi, Pain, Sex, and Time [New York: Harper & Brothers, London: Cassell, 1939], chaps. xi-xii, xvi; A Preface to Prayer [New York: Harper & Brothers, 1944 London: Cassell, 1945]; and The Eternal Gospel [New York: Harper & Brothers 1946, London: Cassell, 1948, chap. xi]) is to abandon oneself to the world of It -- the world of conscious aims and purposes supported by a collection of means, such as spiritual exercises, abstinence, and recollection. Greater for us than this ‘phenomenon of the brink,’ writes Buber, is ‘the central reality of the everyday hour on earth, with a streak of sun on a maple twig and the glimpse of the eternal Thou.’ (I and Thou, op. cit., p.87 f.) Reality is to be found not in the pure and lasting but in the whole of man, not in ecstasy beyond the world of the senses but in the hallowing of the everyday.

We may know remoteness from God, but we do not know the absence of God, for ‘it is we only who are not always there.’ ‘Every real relation in the world is consummated in the interchange of actual and potential being, but in pure relation -- in the relation of man to God -- potential is still actual being. It is only our nature that compels us to draw the Eternal Thou into the world and the talk of It. By virtue of this great privilege of pure relation there exists the unbroken world of Thou which binds up the isolated moments of relation in a life of world solidarity.

By virtue of this privilege . . . spirit can penetrate and transform the world of It. By virtue of this privilege we are not given up to alienation from the world and the loss of reality by the I -- to domination by the ghostly. Turning is the recognition of the Centre and the act of turning again to it. In this act of the being the buried relational power of man rises again, the wave that carries all the sphere of relation swells in living streams to give new life to our world.’ (Ibid p. 98 ff.)

It is this unbroken world of Thou which assures us that relation can never fall apart into complete duality, that evil can never become radically real and absolute. Without this limit to the reality of evil we would have no assurance that I-It can become I-Thou, that men and cultures can turn back to God in the fundamental act of reversal, the teshavah. Without this limit the world of It would be evil in itself and incapable of being redeemed. Buber describes the relation of the world to what is not the world as a

double movement, of estrangement from the primal Source, in virtue of which the universe is sustained in the process of becoming, and of turning toward the primal Source, in virtue of which the universe is released in being.... Both parts of this movement develop, fraught with destiny, in time, and are compassed by grace in the timeless creation that is, incomprehensibly, at once emancipation and preservation, release and binding. Our knowledge of twofold nature is silent before the paradox of the primal mystery. (Ibid., p. 100 f.)

This primal twofold movement underlies three of the most important aspects of Buber’s I-Thou philosophy. The first is the alternation between I-Thou and I-It. The second is the alternation between summons, the approach to the meeting with the eternal Thou, and sending, the going forth from that meeting to the world of men. The third is the alternation between revelation, in which the relational act takes place anew and flows into cultural and religious forms, and the turning, in which man turns from the rigidified forms of religion to the direct meeting with the Eternal Thou. Evil for Buber is the predominance of I-It through a too great estrangement from the primal Source and good the permeation of the world of It by I-Thou through a constant return to the primal Source. As in Buber’s Hasidic philosophy the ‘evil impulse’ can be used to serve God, so I-It, the movement away from the primal Source, can serve as the basis for an ever greater realization of I-Thou in the world of It.

There are three spheres, says Buber, in which the world of relation is built: our life with nature, our life with men, and our life with ‘intelligible essences.’ Each of these gates leads into the presence of the Word, but when the full meeting takes place they ‘are united in one gateway of real life.’ Of the three spheres, our life with man ‘is the main portal into whose opening the two side-gates leads, and in which they are included.’ It is here alone that the moments of relation are bound together by speech, and here alone ‘as reality that cannot be lost’ are ‘knowing and being known, loving and being loved.’ The relation with man is thus ‘the real simile of the relation with God,’ for ‘in it true address receives true response.’ But in God’s response all the universe is made manifest as language. (I and Thou, op. cit., p. 101 ff.)

Solitude is necessary for relation with God. It frees one from experiencing and using, and it purifies one before going out to the great meeting. But the solitude which means absence of relation and the stronghold of isolation, the solitude in which man conducts a dialogue with himself, cannot lead man to God. Similarly, we do not come to God through putting away our ‘idols’ -- our finite goods such as our nation, art, power, knowledge, or money -- and allowing the diverted religious act to return to the fitting object. These finite goods always mean using and possessing, and one cannot use or possess God. He who is dominated by an idol has no way to God but the turning, ‘which is a change not only of goal but also of the nature of his movement.’ (Ibid., pp. 103-106.)

He who has relation with the Eternal Thou also has relation with the Thou of the world. To view the religious man as one who does not need to take his stand in any relation to the world and living beings is falsely to divide life ‘between a real relation with God and an unreal relation of I and It with the world.’ No matter how inward he may be, the ‘religious’ man still lives in the world. Therefore, if he does not have an I-Thou relation with the world, he necessarily makes the world into an It. He treats it as a means for his sustenance or as an object for his contemplation. ‘You cannot both truly pray to God and profit by the world. He who knows the world as something by which he is to profit knows God also in the same way.’ (Ibid., p. 107)

In the moment of supreme meeting man receives revelation, but this revelation is neither experience nor knowledge. It is ‘a presence as power’ which transforms him into a different being from what he was when he entered the meeting. This Presence and power include three things: ‘the whole fullness of real mutual action,’ ‘the inexpressible confirmation of meaning,’ and the call to confirm this meaning ‘in this life and in relation with this world.’ But as the meaning cannot be transmitted and made into knowledge, so the confirmation of it cannot be transmitted as ‘a valid Ought,’ a formula, or a set of prescriptions.

The meaning that has been received can be proved true by each man only in the singleness of his being and the singleness of his life.... As we reach the meeting with the simple Thou on our lips, so with the Thou on our lips we leave it and return to the world. (Ibid., pp. 109-114)

Man can only succeed in raising relation to constancy if he embodies it ‘in the whole stuff of life,’ ‘if he realizes God anew in the world according to his strength and to the measure of each day.’ This is not a question of completely overcoming the relation of It but of so penetrating it with Thou ‘that relation wins in it a shining streaming constancy: the moments of supreme meeting are then not flashes in darkness but like the rising moon in a clear starlit night.’ Man cannot gain constancy of relation through directly concerning himself with God; for ‘reflexion,’ bending back towards God, makes Him into an object. It is the man who has been sent forth to whom God remains present. (Ibid., p. 114 ff.)

The mighty revelations at the base of the great religions are the same in being as the quiet ones that happen at all times. Revelation ‘does not pour itself into the world through him who receives it as through a funnel; it comes to him and seizes his whole elemental being in all its particular nature and fuses with it.’ But there is a qualitative difference in the relation of the various ages of history to God. In some, human spirit is suppressed and buried; in some, it matures in readiness for full relation; in some, the relation takes place and with it fresh expansion of being. Thus in the course of history elemental human stuff is transformed, and ‘ever new provinces of the world and the spirit . . . are summoned to divine form.’

The form that is created as a result of this theophany is a fusion of Thou and It. God remains near this form so long as belief and cult are united and purified through true prayer. With degeneration of prayer the power to enter into relation is buried under increasing objectification, and ‘it becomes increasingly difficult . . . to say Thou with the whole undivided being.’ In order to be able to say it, man must finally come out of the false security of community into the final solitude of the venture of the infinite.

This course is not circular. It is the way. In each new aeon fate becomes more oppressive, turning more shattering. And the theophany becomes ever nearer, increasingly near to the sphere that lies between beings, to the Kingdom that is hidden in our midst, there between us. History is a mysterious approach. Every spiral of its way leads us both into profounder perversion and more fundamental turning. But the event that from the side of the world is called turning is called from God’s side salvation. (I and Thou, op. cit., pp 116-120)

The fundamental beliefs of Buber’s I-Thou philosophy are the reality of the I-Thou relation into which no deception can penetrate, the reality of the meeting between God and man which transforms man’s being, and the reality of the turning which puts a limit to man’s movement away from God. On the basis of these beliefs Buber has defined evil as the predominance of the world of It to the exclusion of relation, and he has conceived of the redemption of evil as taking place in the primal movement of the turning which brings man back to God and back to solidarity of relation with man and the world. Relation is ‘good’ and alienation ‘evil.’ Yet the times of alienation may prepare the forces that will be directed, when the turning comes, not only to the earthly forms of relation but to the Eternal Thou.