Sunday Reflection, 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (September 29, 2013): Establishing the “I-Thou” Relationship

Humans were made for interconnectiveness in an "I-Thou" relationship

Humans were made for interconnectiveness in an “I-Thou” relationship

“This encounter with personalism [in the thought of Martin Buber] was for me a spiritual experience that left an essential mark” — Pope Benedict XVI

“When I confront a human being as my Thou and speak the basic word I-Thou to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things. He is no longer He or She, a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition to be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. Neighborless and seamless, he is Thou and fills the firmament. Not as if there were nothing but he; but everything else lives in his light.” — Martin Buber

This Sunday is the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time. You can find the readings here. The Gospel reading is the famous story of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man is condemned to eternal absence of God, not for actions he did, but for his inaction of ignoring Lazarus, the poor beggar outside his door. This story highlights a key insight of what it means to be human, one that profoundly affected by spiritual life.

Humans are deeply interconnected. We are meant to be in relationship with each other and with our Creator. Martin Buber, the 20th century Jewish philosopher who deeply influenced the thought of Pope Benedict XVI, described this interconnectivenss as a successive series of individuals treating others as unique children of God, rather than objects to be used. Buber termed this the “I-Thou” relationship. According to the site AngelFire:

“Martin Buber’s I and Thou (Ich und Du, 1923) presents a philosophy of personal dialogue, in that it describes how personal dialogue can define the nature of reality. Buber’s major theme is that human existence may be defined by the way in which we engage in dialogue with each other, with the world, and with God.

According to Buber, human beings may adopt two attitudes toward the world: I-Thou or I-ItI-Thou is a relation of subject-to-subject, while I-It is a relation of subject-to-object. In the I-Thou relationship, human beings are aware of each oher as having a unity of being. In the I-Thou relationship, human beings do not perceive each other as consisting of specific, isolated qualities, but engage in a dialogue involving each other’s whole being. In the I-It relationship, on the other hand, human beings perceive each other as consisting of specific, isolated qualities, and view themselves as part of a world which consists of things. I-Thou is a relationship of mutuality and reciprocity, while I-It is a relationship of separateness and detachment.

Buber explains that human beings may try to convert the subject-to-subject relation to a subject-to-object relation, or vice versa. However, the being of a subject is a unity which cannot be analyzed as an object. When a subject is analyzed as an object, the subject is no longer a subject, but becomes an object. When a subject is analyzed as an object, the subject is no longer a Thou, but becomes an It. The being which is analyzed as an object is the It in an I-It relation.”

Early in human history our ancestors turned away from God and lost that interconnectiveness, as told by the second creation story in Genesis. We are living with the consequences of that loss today.

The Gospel clearly highlights the consequences of the loss of the “I-though” relationship and replacing it with the “I-it” relationship. In the Gospel, the rich man loses sight of Lazarus as a unique person created in the image of God and ignores him completely. That is a common occurrence, especially in modern Western civilization with our emphasis on individual rights and materialism. I am profoundly guilty of this in many of my actions, from walking past a beggar on the street, to looking at a woman lustfully, to being indifferent to a check-out clerk earning minimum wage, to ignoring the human and environmental impact of my latest iPhone or food choices. In so many aspects of my life, I am treating others as mere commodities to serve my needs, rather than as unique persons made in the image of God.

Today’s reflection is from Deacon David Backes of the outstanding blog New Wood. Deacon Backes highlights the pervasiveness of the “I-it”relationship in the United States:

“Dressed in blue jeans and a tee shirt, the young woman sat on a railing 16 stories above the canal. Just 26 years old, she was thinking of taking her life by jumping into the frigid sea water far below. On the lanes of the Interstate 5 bridge behind her, Seattle’s early morning rush hour began congesting. It was August 28, 2001, two weeks away from the terrorist attacks on the other side of the country. What happened in Seattle might not make the history books, but it is an important sign of our times, a spiritual parable that fits well with our readings today.

In the first reading, the prophet Amos speaks of the danger facing those who are complacent about the suffering of others, those who stretch comfortably on their couches, eating and drinking to their desire, focused on their own entertainment. It is not only a sign of spiritual death, says Amos, but when a society falls into the trap of materialism it can bring about real-world ruin as well.

That morning in Seattle, the spiritual sickness of our culture was on full display. Police arrived quickly to begin trying to talk the young woman out of jumping. Within the first seven minutes at least three motorists, angry about being slowed down, shouted at her to jump. The police later told reporters that this is pretty common in these situations, actually. And yet on this day it got worse, to the point where the police ended up shutting down the entire bridge. For four hours they kept it shut, as they talked to the woman and encouraged her not to give up.

Horns honked; windows got cranked down in irritation as people down below grew frustrated over not being able to move. More people yelled “jump,” usually followed by a word that I can’t say here. Several people down below figured out how to make a sign that said ‘jump,” hoping the woman would see it.”

I encourage you to read the rest of the homily here.

About William Ockham

I am a father of two with eclectic interests in theology, philosophy and sports. I chose the pseudonym William Ockham in honor of his contributions to philosophy, specifically Occam's Razor, and its contributions to modern scientific theory. My blog (www.teilhard.com) explores Ignatian Spirituality and the intersection of faith, science and reason through the life and writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (pictured above).
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7 Responses to Sunday Reflection, 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (September 29, 2013): Establishing the “I-Thou” Relationship

  1. Our disconnectedness is more and more apparent with each passing day.

    • Hi Rosalien:

      Thank you for your comment. You have a very unique insight; having lived in three very different and distinctive cultures, you have a broad perspective of humanity that few of us enjoy.

      Yes, there are certain aspects of humanity becoming more disconnected. I see it primarily in our economic systems. We worship at the alter of GDP and try to maximize our individual economic situation without regard to the human cost. The human exploitation is true within both rich and poor societies but it is perhaps more prevalent between the rich and poor countries.

      However, being a disciple of Teilhard de Chardin, I am optimistic about the future of humanity. There are other currents that are drawing us closer together. One prominent example is the fact that you and I are able to communicate and share ideas virtually instantaneously. There is very slowly, but steadily, becoming a greater awareness of how our actions affect others and our planet. Broadly speaking, Teilhard de Chardin captured this evolving nature of humanity growing closer together in global awareness and consciousness as the Noosphere. Yes, there will be exploitation, setbacks and pain along the way, but I am hopeful that humanity will continue to recognize and act on our inteconnectiveness over the next few centuries.

      Peace,
      W. Ockham

      • I agree that there is “a greater awareness of how our actions affect others and our planet.” Will our voices be heard in time to reverse the global environmental crisis already underway?

  2. claire46 says:

    I feel that once we noticed that we see others as commodities, we are invited and led to change. The added difficulty is our busy daily life with little time for ‘conscious’ time. So often we live on automatic pilot. I was told long ago that the way to change is to take small steps. So looking back at your own list, and thinking of my own, I need to take one of those points and work on it till I can get to the next item on my list.
    Thank you for the inspiration for change 🙂

    • Excellent comments on all levels Claire. As I became better acquainted with Ignatian Spirituality and (more importantly) integrate the practices and outlook with my daily life I have noticed slow but steady changes in me. Your comment about focusing on one item at a time is really good advice. Thank you for the reminder and prodding 🙂

  3. Lynda says:

    Thank you for this excellent post. I am especially pondering the move from the “culture of care to the culture of commerce” as I commented on that very thing in a paper I’m writing that is due later this morning! I’m also grateful as I will be breaking open the Word at RCIA on Tuesday and you have provided much for me to think about sharing.

    • Lynda, I love the tagline “culture of care to the culture of commerce”. Good luck on your paper. I am sure it will be a fascinating read (feel free to share it online if you are comfortable 🙂

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