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Buber's I and Thou--a Polytheist Reaction

I just finished Martin Buber's highly influential book, I and Thou.  I immediately identified with much of what Buber describes.  In fact, the book seems to offer the best statement so far of something I've so often felt but failed to describe--that powerful difference between ritual and so-called mundane consciousness.  Or, that disturbing-but-vital difference between what we can rationally say of god-traditions and what we can know (but not say) in actual god encounters.  That makes me want to look further into how Buber's work can be applied in a polytheist context.  The rest of this post will explore that.

I and Thou - basic synopsis

I and Thou is a short book written in brief, aphoristic sections.  It is rather ecstatic and beautiful.  Its main focus is on the two ways of engaging the other, as a "You" (or "Thou") or as an "It."  In the I-It relationship, the other is an object, something that can be experienced, compared, contrasted, and placed alongside all other somethings in an endless proliferation of stuff.  In the I-You relationship, by contrast, the other is an all-encompassing entity, unique and incomparable.  A true encounter takes place.  All the stress is laid on this fundamental sense of relationship.  The It-world is necessary and has its place.  Yet value accrues to the eternal You.

Martin Buber (1878-1965) and the book

Buber was known most for his Zionism, revival of Hasidism, and his articulation of the dialogic relationship (the most famous being I and Thou).  Born in Vienna under the rule of Austria-Hungary, he later lived and taught in Germany, and then finally moved to Jerusalem.  He wrote the first draft of I and Thou between 1916 and 1919, during and just after WWI (I don't know if he fought or not).  The book came out in 1923, well before WWII and the Holocaust.  The first English translation appeared in 1937--just before WWII.  The same year, Buber moved to Jerusalem, escaping Nazi persecution.

The book failed to make a huge impact on Jewish audiences.  But in the 50's and 60's, as Buber began traveling and teaching in America, it picked up speed.  Protestant theologians received it well, and it also fit in with the emerging counter-culture crowd.

Unfortunately the English version suffered from serious translation issues.  Ronald Gregor Smith had chosen to translate Ich and Du as "I and Thou."  This "Thou" lended an august and holy air, but at the same time a sense of exalted distance quite alien to the original.  Du is rather a familiar and intimate word, and Buber's work is all about the immediacy and intimacy of true relationship.  In 1970 Walter Kaufmann rectified this with a new translation using "You" instead of "Thou."  Kaufmann made numerous other improvements, and justified his translation with copious footnotes.

I read I and Thou in Smith's translation in university, but at the time I was not yet ready to digest the book.  This time, I read Kaufmann's translation, and it hit home.

A Polytheist Reaction

What seized me about Buber's book was how well it described my relationship to gods, nature, and especially to things.  I can kick a rock as callously as the next person, but every now and again one jumps out at me and I find myself talking to it as though it were more than just an object.  The same goes for trees, animals, the sea, and the sun.  When I engage things in this animist way, I feel something different inside, a different consciousness.  I won't try to describe it too much, but suffice to say it is a powerful feeling that adds depth and meaning to life.

To put that into words is not too easy.  But Buber's distinction seems to work.  I can address a rock as just an It, an object to be felt, studied, analyzed, and used.  But I can also address it as a You, an entity to be encountered, a being with intrinsic value.  When I do that, it opens up that strange, unconventional realm that has so vitalized my life.

The same goes for deities.  I can read the myths, study the epithets and traditions, constellate the correct symbols and offerings in a ritual, and thereby "use" a deity for some particular experience I want to have.  But I can also make a genuine call out to that deity, opening myself to meeting the deity not like a thing but like a person.  It is then that a ritual moves from performance to encounter.  I am left feeling not merely aesthetically pleased, but revitalized and renewed.

This is probably why hard polytheism has been working for me.  Even though I've never found any compelling reason to suppose the gods must be distinct, real-existing entities, I have found that calling out to them as such evokes something powerful.  In Buber's lingo: approaching them as You enables true encounter.

There is much more to Buber's work--a great deal more nuance than I care to relate here.  Right now I just want to highlight two major challenges facing a polytheist.

1) The first is a monotheist slant in the work.  Buber was of course a monotheist--Jewish, and Hasidic.  He was quite liberal and well read in other religions, and in I and Thou he engages not only Christianity but also Buddhism, Hinduism, Platonism, and other traditions.  Still, he remained essentially monotheist and that shows in I and Thou.  I don't mean to blame him in any way; I'm simply stating a fact.  For Buber, the You that can be encountered in the world, in everyone and everything, is always the one eternal You.  Though Buber is adamant about affirming the value of the world, finding the sacred right here and now--something I very much appreciate--he nevertheless insists that what is encountered through each individual person and thing is somehow behind it all one, the eternal You.

Now, it may be that I have just not fully digested the work yet, but I cannot find any compelling reason why the You must be one.  In fact, since the You is incomparable to other things and is utterly unique, strictly speaking the You should be neither one nor not-one.  It should be beyond enumeration, since number is inevitably an item of comparison and belong in the It-world.

What that means for a polytheist is that the You can easily be reinterpreted as not one but many.  If number is to be applied at all, then many seems just as good a choice as one.  And if I'm not mistaken, the rest of the theory won't topple if we make that choice.

However, there is another aspect that will cause some serious conflict.  This brings me to the second challenge.

2) For Buber, the You is You by nature, boundless and indescribable.  In its pure essence it knows nothing of It.  It is we who reduce the You to an object, and bring it into the It-world.  By itself it is only You.

For polytheists, this is a problem.  Hard polytheism assumes that deities are many and distinct.  They can be distinguished from each other.  They can be compared and contrasted.  They have identifiable characteristics and traits.  All these things are of the It-world, for only Its can be lined up one beside the other and compared.  What this means is that, for the polytheist, the gods have in their nature something of the It.  It is not just we reduce them to It.  Rather, they are essentially both You and It.

This has ramifications running throughout Buber's theory.  If gods, which have value, are by nature It, then It acquires value.  The It-world is not just necessary, it is intrinsically valuable.  The realm of comparison, contrast, study, analysis, experience, feeling--this world accrues value.  The You still has value too, but it is no longer the You alone.  Now it is the You and the It that share value.  This is very different from Buber's formulation, where the It was necessary but only the You was given any intrinsic worth to speak of.

So, for the polytheist, the values change.  Along with this comes a change in ethics.  Buber's over-riding ethical message, if one reads between the lines a bit, can be summed up as encouragement to cultivate I-You relationships as much as possible.  The I-It must be utilized too, but I-You is what you should be after.  In contrast, the polytheist interpretation might be summed up as encouragement to cultivate both the I-You and I-It, as appropriate to circumstances in the moment.


In summary, Buber's I and Thou can be a useful framework for polytheist thinking.  It is not without its challenges, though.  The monotheist tone can be exchanged for a polytheist one without much difficulty.  But the notion of a You that is You by nature can only be replaced with difficulty.  If one is to work with a You that is by nature both You and It, which seems necessary for polytheists, then the whole work needs to be re-thought.



( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 9th, 2008 04:33 pm (UTC)
Very interesting, thank you for posting this! I may have to go pick up that book now (and am glad to know about the differences in translation).

the polytheist interpretation might be summed up as encouragement to cultivate both the I-You and I-It

I think you're right. Balance is important in polytheism. It is not only the spiritual that is important, but the mundane world as well. The real magic, IMO, is in blending those two, in experiencing both worlds at once.
May. 10th, 2008 02:50 am (UTC)
That's what I love about this religion. ;-)
May. 9th, 2008 11:38 pm (UTC)
I am er.. somewhat familiar with Buber's I and Thou but I never have thought before about it from a Polytheist viewpoint. Thanks for posting this, great food for thought!
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )