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Finally!  I've finished it.  After two months I've managed to work what I've wanted to say about Buber into one essay.  I'm going to publish this in Oak Leaves if I can, and I may try to publish a modified version at Witchvox as well.  Certain paragraphs are stolen from a previous post but don't be fooled--this is a new essay.  It's long but well thought-out and (I certainly hope) worth the read.

Recently I finished Brendan Myers' new book The Other Side of Virtue, and I have an essay on that important book which I hope to complete in the near future.  So stay tuned for that one as well, coming soon...

The I and Thou of Ghosti

Applying Dialogue to ADF Druidry

Upon reading Martin Buber's I and Thou for the first time since university, I was struck by a deep resonance.  The book seems to offer the best statement I’ve found so far of something I've so often felt but failed to describe: the 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.  Or, the great relevance that person-god relationships have to person-person relationships.  This, and much more as well.  The more I explored Buber's work, the more I discovered new ways to understand my own religious path.

Martin Buber is one of few who can be called a prophet of our times.  His renowned book, I and Thou, has inspired theologians across religious boundaries.  The popularity of dialogue and commitment today is owed in no small part to him.  His influence in the twentieth century has even been compared to that of Nietzsche in the nineteenth (Friedman, in Kramer, p. x).  So what does this mean for polytheists?  Does his work have something to offer us as well?

In this essay, I explore Buber's philosophy and it's consequences for polytheism.  I find his work particularly relevant to ADF, for there is a basic similarity between his philosophy and ADF's concept of the guest-host relationship.  First, I present Buber and his work, in synopsis and in detail, drawing polytheist comparisons and contrasts along the way.  I do not pretend to make a well-rounded presentation of all Buber's themes.  What can be found here is selective, to be sure.  I focus on what seems most relevant to polytheists at this moment in time.  After examining Buber's ideas, I draw a more concentrated analogy to ADF's notion of guest and host.  This brings to light a number of remarkable discoveries latent in ADF religiosity.  Finally, I explore some key challenges in applying Buber's philosophy to a polytheist path.


I and Thou - basic synopsis

I and Thou is a short book written in brief, aphoristic sections.  It is ecstatic and beautiful.  The central thesis concerns the crucial difference between using the world as object and encountering it as presence.  The former we need to survive, the latter to live.  To put it in other words: we may speak of a person, animal, tree, or spirit as an “It”, an object, or we may speak to it as a “You”, a presence.  The difference for our spiritual well-being is profound.  To grasp the meaning, try this: imagine speaking of a housecat as a thing that eats, sleeps, defecates, and causes allergies, then imagine speaking to a housecat as a living personality—companion or enemy as the case may be, but as an actual being in front of you.  In just the same way we can treat people as mere objects, or as living beings.  Animals, trees, rocks, mountains, God (or gods)—all can be approached by these two basic modes.

Whether you literally say the words, or whether you say anything at all, is irrelevant.  These are fundamental attitudes, modes of existence, or as Buber calls them, “basic words.”  On the one hand, there is the basic word I-It, and on the other I-You.  The one is the field of experience, measure, comparison, particularity, and utility.  The other is the field of encounter, beholding, relation, wholeness, and intrinsic worth.

This theme has inspired generations of theologians, and I think it holds something for polytheists as well.  Who among us has not known the difference between observing the meteorological phenomenon of thunder and beholding it as a divine power?  Who has not felt the difference between analyzing ancient myths, and confronting them as living stories?  Who has not been seized by the painting that in ritual is a god, or the oscillation of seasons that in sacred time is a cosmic drama?  These distinctions are intimate to polytheists, but it is not always easy to put them into words.  Buber provides a language to express them, and discover new things about them, in his landmark book, I and Thou.

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.  He wrote the first draft of I and Thou between 1916 and 1919, during and just after the First World War.  The thought of mechanical tanks and wave after wave of soldiers sent into the trenches to be used up like human bullets must have made an impact.  The book came out in German in 1923.  The first English translation appeared in 1937—just before World War Two.  The following year, Buber escaped the Nazi regime by moving to Jerusalem.

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

Recently the English translation has been called into question.  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 a familiar and intimate word, and Buber's work is about the immediacy and intimacy of true relationship.  In 1970 Walter Kaufmann attempted to rectify this with a new translation using "You" instead of "Thou."  I find Kaufmann's argument compelling, but there is also evidence for Smith's translation.  Buber was a polyglot who spoke nine languages, and wrote to Smith with numerous finely-nuanced corrections to the translation.  It is hard to believe Buber would have allowed such a crucial term to be misrepresented.  If Buber was mistranslated, then it was consensual.  Kaufmann attempted numerous other improvements as well.  In some cases he did better, in others worse.  Overall, regardless of accuracy, I often find myself puzzled till I read the Kaufmann translation.  Personally, I find it possible that if Kaufmann's version is not closer to Buber's intention, then it is in many cases better than Buber's intention.  In this essay, I consistently use Kaufmann's terms, including the all-important "You."

A closer look

What seized me about Buber's book was how well it described my relationship to gods, people, 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.  Buber would call it “unification of the soul” (Buber, p. 137).  Suffice to say it is a powerful condition that infuses life with meaning and depth.  It is the "cradle of actual life" (p. 60).

To put that into words is not too easy.  Yet Buber's distinction works.  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.

Buber describes just such an experience in an earlier work called Daniel.  In this work, a character relates:

I walked along the road one dim morning, saw a piece of mica lying there, picked it up, and looked at it for a long time.  The day was no longer dim: so much light was caught by the stone.  And suddenly, as I looked away, I realized that while looking at it I had known nothing of “object” and “subject”; as I looked, the piece of mica and “I” had been one; as I looked, I had tasted unity.  (quoted in Buber, p. 146n)

In that moment was encountered not just a mineral but also a presence.  The character does not reduce it to size, weight, shape, nor even sparkle.  He is caught, enraptured by the stone, so much so that “the day was no longer dim.”

This episode brings to mind an ancient Sumerian spell wherein the poet appeals to salt as if it were a living presence:

O Salt, created in a clean place,

For food of gods did Enlil destine thee.

Without thee no meal is set out in Ekur,

Without thee god, king, lord, and prince do not smell incense.  …

O Salt, break my enchantment!  Loose my spell!

Take from me the bewitchment!—And as my Creator

I shall extol thee.  (quoted in Frankfort et al., p. 130)

Sumerian literature speaks in this way also to grain, flint, reeds, and more.  The style recalls also Vedic praise of the soma drink as the god Soma, and the fire as Agni.  This in turn suggests the Greek hearth deified as Hestia, and the Roman as Vesta.  The attitude whereby inanimate objects are not really inanimate, but rather are able to be encountered as presence, runs throughout the polytheistic world.  "Animism" does not adequately convey the significance of the matter.  To say as animism does that all things have a spirit is metaphysical theory, but to say that things can be encountered as a presence, that all things can be a You for an I--that drives the point home.

Here is a very different way of relating to things than the analytical discourse of description, comparison, and utility.  Surely the analytical mode is useful and necessary, says Buber, and the Sumerian poet does not demure to praise the salt’s usefulness.  Yet something else is also needful.  It is encounter with presence that turns our experience from a series of events into a life.  "Without It a human being cannot live.  But whoever lives only with that is not human" (Buber, p. 85).

This attitude toward rocks extends also to all aspects and creatures of nature.  Buber famously explores encounters with trees and cats in his book.  Everything from rivers to stars, and from fish to eagles, can be approached as either object or presence.

So beings of nature can be used for their utility but they can also be encountered as presence.  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, 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 not merely aesthetically pleased, but revitalized and renewed.

Buber's words describing an I-You encounter sum up my experience with deity in ritual:

The form that confronts me I cannot experience nor describe; I can only actualize it.  And yet I see it, radiant in the splendor of the confrontation, far more clearly than all clarity of the experienced world.  Not as a thing among the "internal" things, not as a figment of the "imagination," but as what is present.  Tested for its objectivity, the form is not "there" at all; but what can equal its presence?  And it is an actual relation: it acts on me as I act on it."  (p. 61)

As Buber says, gods cannot be tested, tried, or detected by empirical means like objects can.  Nor can they be possessed as an internal or imaginary thing.  Yet they can be encountered.  What are they, finally?  They are what is present.  Between worshiper and worshiped, something occurs that cannot be described or experienced per se, but which is nevertheless real.  In Buber's terms, a relation is "actualized" in an encounter with deity.

Nor is this relation merely theoretical--it has effective power.  "It acts on me as I act on it."  In other words, an encounter changes the worshiper, as well as the worshiped.  Buber calls this "reciprocity."  He means that both parties affect the other.  When we turn to deity as You, the actuality of deity is affirmed.  In turn, we ourselves are also affirmed.  We are affirmed because in such a moment we discover ourselves to be active participants in presence.  "It takes two to tango" goes the old saying.  There cannot be a You without an I to address it as such.  And If You has intrinsic worth, and it depends on I, then I must also share in that worth.

Furthermore, Buber says that to say You is an act of one's whole being.  In order to address another being not as some discrete object but as a unique, holistic presence, we must use our own unique, holistic self.  We cannot merely use our intellect, or half a heart, or a mechanical gesture of the hand.  We must fully turn to the other to say You.  Therefore, when we successfully do this we also encounter the wholeness of our own being.  When we are whole, then we are actualized.  We are most fully real.  In ritual, then, we encounter deity as You, and in so doing we become whole.  There is reciprocity: we actualize the deity by recognizing its presence, and in turn we are actualized as whole beings.

To sum up, the effective power of ritual is, in Buberian terms, the actualization of both You and I.  Ritual is a relation that affirms both parties.  Through encountering deity, we become whole and fully real.

So deities can be addressed as You, and so-called inanimate objects like rocks can be addressed as You, but thus far relations with people have yet to be discussed.  It may seem the most obvious of all, since the very word "You" comes from the medium of human communication: language.  Yet, the obviousness of the matter can lead to gross distortions.  For this reason, discussion of human interaction has been saved for last.  What has been learned thus far about rocks and deities will be applied to people as well.

More often than with rocks or deities, with people we use the word "you."  Yet by it we do not always mean You.  We may pronounce the sound of the word, but we mean something less than unique, holistic presence.  We mean "you over there," or "this skin-bag that happens to be in front of me right now."  We do not always turn to the other person with our whole being.  We quite often experience people as object, rather than encounter them as presence.  We say "you," but we do not say You.  So, just as for rocks and deities, so too with people, there are two means of approach: as It or as You.  And this depends not on the words we use, but on the attitude we take.

Furthermore, we need both attitudes.  Just as it is necessary for our survival to use rocks as objects, it is necessary for the smooth ordering of society to occasionally use people that way as well.  Think, for example, of a cashier ringing up your purchases in a busy grocery store.  Your goal is to get your groceries home in time for dinner, and the cashier's goal is to get you through the line as fast as possible in order to help the next person.  If you stop and try to have a genuine meeting of souls in that situation, you will likely end up annoying the cashier, not to mention the other people waiting in line.  There is a time and a place for the mutual, consensual use of people as objects.  However, if you only use people as objects, something is wrong.  If you never have a genuine encounter with other people as presence, then you never affirm other people, and you are yourself never affirmed by them, or made whole in the relation.  Society would be deeply impoverished.  And if Aristotle was correct in saying that we are social animals, then we would lead poor lives indeed without genuine social encounters.  Hence, it is vital to recognize that in social relations, we need both basic words, I-It and I-You.  We need not force every interaction into a You encounter, nor can we allow ourselves the safe, dull comfort of avoiding encounter entirely.  We must mind Buber's admonition that we need It to survive, but also You to be human.

So just as with rocks and deities, there are two attitudes we can take, and we need both.  Likewise, the attitudes we take have profound consequences.  Just as an encounter with deity in ritual has effective power, and can actualize the other while also making us actualized and whole, so an encounter with a person can have this effect as well.  In fact, for Buber there is but little difference between an encounter with a person and an encounter with God.  "In every You we address the Eternal You," he writes (p. 57).  The point here is that human interaction too shares intrinsic worth.  Human interaction too can have effective power.  It is not just ritual and mysticism and animistic nature reverence that ought to concern a religious person.  Rather, social relations are central.  This was a key insight for Buber.  More than anything else, he was anxious to relocate religion in the human realm.  This is revealed in the title of his follow-up to I and Thou, a book called Between Man and Man.  Everything that has been said thus far about rocks, trees, mountains, clouds, stars, animals, gods, goddesses, and spirits, also applies to people.  And people are of core concern.  Society too is the "cradle of actual life."

Before leaving the current subject I want to draw attention to a concept common in ADF discourse: the Cosmos.  On this too Buber has something important to say:

an ordered world is not the world order.  There are moments of the secret ground in which the world order is beheld as present.  Then the tone is heard all of a sudden whose uninterpretable score the ordered world is.  These moments are immortal; none are more evanescent.  They leave no content that could be preserved, but their force enters into the creation and into man's knowledge, and the radiation of its force penetrates the ordered world and thaws it again and again.  (p. 82)

In this passage, Buber sharply distinguishes between a world which is merely ordered, that is to say a world of neatly arranged things, and "the world order," i.e. the Cosmos.  The first is a world as It, the second the world as You.  What is interesting here is that even something as abstract as the Cosmos can be encountered as a presence.  Furthermore, it is not necessarily the case that it will be comprehensible in a mundane, rational sense.  Encounters with Cosmos "leave no content that could be preserved."  In other words, you won't necessarily come away with a neat theory or formula for understanding the universe.  What you will come away with is a profound sense of a "tone" or "force" that "penetrates" the dull, typical, and well-understood mundane world.  So when in ADF ritual we recreate the Cosmos in the triple pattern of Land, Sky, and Sea, or in any other traditional pattern, what we are doing is not theorizing the precise make-up of the universe (we have scientists who are far more qualified to do that!).  What we are doing is encountering the Cosmos as presence, saying You to the Cosmos, and inviting into the world that vital energy which "thaws it again and again."  It also follows that if we say You to the Cosmos, then the same effective power seen before is activated: the Cosmos is actualized, and we in turn are actualized and made whole.

Consequences for ADF druidry

I've presented Buber's basic philosophy in detail because I believe it can have significant consequences, particularly for ADF theory and practice.  Already I have noted numerous points where Buber's ideas link up with polytheist ideas, or can link up with minor tweaks.  Now I'll pull these themes together and push them to a radical conclusion: Buber's I and Thou is a powerful tool for understanding ghosti.

*Ghos-ti is a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European word referring to the reciprocal duties of guest and host.  It has been taken up in recent years as a core emblem of ADF ritual, for the guest-host relationship is at the center of what we do.  In each rite we invite the powers worshiped to join us at the Sacred Center as our guests.  We act as hosts, giving them gifts.  Already can be seen forming a relation which has two parts: a guest and a host.  Like Buber's I-You relation, there is a basic duality.

Now, the guest-host relationship carries with it certain obligations.  The host must provide for the needs of the guest, and the guest must in turn provide something as well.  Usually it is something like conversation, and a willingness to abide the peace of the host's home.  What is seen here is a basic exchange.  The host gives something, and the guest gives something.  This is the essence of sacrificial ritual, and has been recognized as such since Classical times.  The ancient Latin formulation was do ut des, "I give that you may give."  In ritual we give offerings to the gods, and they give blessings in return.  This obligation of mutual giving is summed up in the term ghosti.

This guest-host relationship relates in an interesting way to to Buber's I-You relation.  Both involve reciprocity.  In Buber, as has been seen, reciprocity means effective power, where both parties affect each other.  The I actualizes the You, and the You in turn actualizes the I.  In ADF as well there is reciprocity: the guest gives to the host, and the host gives to the guest.  By drawing this comparison, questions arise.  Does the ritual act of offering "actualize" the worshiped?  And in turn, is the worshiper also actualized?  Do both parties become more fully "real" in the process?  I'll return to these questions shortly.  First, let's continue the comparison.

For Buber, not only does the I-You relationship actualize those involved, but it also makes them whole.  This is because one cannot turn toward the other with half a heart.  It is an act of one's whole being.  Therefore, in doing so one realizes one's whole self.  At the same time, one cannot address the other as half a being and still mean You.  Anything less than a whole being can only be a part, or a series of parts, in short an It.  Thus, to address a being as You is to address that whole being.  So the You is also made whole.  Both I and You discover wholeness in the mutual reciprocity of the I-You relation.

If this is compared to ADF ritual, a new question arises: does sacrificial ritual also effect wholeness?  To answer that it must be asked: can one offer with half a heart?  Can one fulfill the sacred duties of guest and host with only part of one's being, or by addressing only part of the other?  Can it be a mere automatic exchange between objects?  I think not.  True giving is an act of one's whole being.  Anything less is a mere reshuffling of resources.  To actually give is to meet eyes with the other and offer something of oneself.

Surely things can be handed out or taken mechanically.  To return to the cashier example, there is an exchange of money for goods, but no real meeting of eyes or wholeness of beings.  This kind of giving is not the kind I am talking about.  It is rather a mutual taking.  It is consensual, fully necessary, and certainly not wrong, but it is not true giving.  Perhaps I should follow Buber in using capitalization to distinguish meanings: the cashier situation is an example of giving but not Giving.

Note also that in the case of Buber's You, saying You does not depend on actually pronouncing the word.  One can say "you" without saying You, and one can say You without verbally saying anything at all.  Likewise, one can give without Giving, and one can Give without physically handing over anything.  Sometimes the best gift may be one's care, attention, and love for the other.

So it is entirely possible to give in one of two ways: as a partial, mechanical exchange, or as a holistic, genuine ghosti relation.  In the first each party experiences the other as an object, in the second each encounters the other as a presence.  As with Buber's basic words, I-It and I-You, there are two basic gestures or actions, giving and Giving.  And the distinction depends on the attitude we take.

Yet so much more follows than a mere change of attitude.  If one does Give, significant blessings accrue.  In order to Give, one must address the other as a whole being.  And one must summon one's whole being to the task.  In this way, one encounters one's own self as whole.  This is itself a true and powerful blessing.  Though it is not wrong to live also in the mundane, particular world of things, dealing with others as part-beings for the sake of the smooth operation of society, this is not all it takes to live.  A person also needs to be whole, and needs to be affirmed as whole.  The effective power of Giving is this sense of wholeness.  Through it, we live.  As Buber said, humans cannot live without It, but those who live with It alone are in a poor state indeed.  It can likewise be said that we cannot live without giving, but through Giving we become human.

Now we are in a position to answer the questions raised earlier: Does the ritual act of offering "actualize" the worshiper and the worshiped?  Though Giving, do both parties become more fully "real?"  The answer must be yes.  If it is not already obvious, Buber is not making a metaphysical statement when he speaks of being "actual" or "real."  Rather, he refers to the sense of being "real" that accompanies wholeness.  To live in the It realm is to be a part-being, half a thing, or an assembly of pieces, and it is all too often accompanied by a sense of being "unreal," a mere ghost of a person.  In stark contrast, the encounter with You and the act of Giving effect a sense of wholeness and reality.  Both parties are affirmed, and share intrinsic worth.  The I-You relation and the guest-host relation have effective power granting access to actuality.  Through saying You and through Giving, we become more fully real.

All this supports a basic analogy between Buber's I-You relation and ADF's guest-host relationship.  At the same time, there are differences.  For one, the metaphor of I-You is language, while that of Giving is action.  The corresponding sacred dimensions are prayer and sacrifice, respectively.  These differences are significant for understanding the unique flavor of each tradition, and how the same essential idea plays out differently in ritual, ethics, theology, and so forth.  This essay, however, is concerned only to show a basic similarity.

Nor is this similarity something that I have imposed onto Buber's work.  He himself acknowledges the validity of offering: "sacrifice and prayer step 'before the countenance,' into the perfection of the basic word that signifies reciprocity" (p. 131).  And although Buber himself clearly prefers prayer, he does not entirely dismiss what seems to him an anachronistic form of worship: "I cannot despise the honest servants of the remote past who thought that God desired the smell of their burnt sacrifices" (p. 131).  We modern polytheists may disagree with Buber about the timeliness of materials offerings, but we can agree on the worthiness of "honest" sacrifice.  The analogy of I-You and Giving remains valid.

At the end of the day, the conclusion is: Buber's I and Thou is a valuable tool for understanding ghosti.

Summary of consequences

So what has been learned that is new, by this application of Buber to ADF druidry?  A number of important points have come to light, none of which I have ever seen explicitly stated in ADF discourse to date.

First, it's been seen that a correspondence exists between Buber's I-You duality and ADF's guest-host duality.  The guest-host relation can also be expressed as ghosti, or as Giving.  These basic relations are at the core of both traditions.

Second, these relations can be contrasted against their counterparts.  I-You contrasts with I-It, and Giving contrasts with giving.

Third, the relation we enter into, whether I-You or I-It, Giving or giving, depends on the attitude we take.

Fourth, the relations of I-You and Giving share an important quality: reciprocity, the effective power of each party to act on each other.

Fifth, these relations can only obtain through an act of the whole being.  The act of Giving, as opposed to that of giving, requires one to turn one's whole self to the other, and address that other as a whole being.

Sixth, because these relations can only obtain via the whole being, through them we encounter ourselves as whole.  Through Giving we become whole.

Seventh, since we become whole through these relations, we also become "actualized."  We affirm the other, and are in turn affirmed.  Through Giving we become more fully real.

Eighth and finally, all this has ramifications for how we conduct our rituals, and how we live our lives.  Both in and out of ritual, it is important to turn our whole being to the other, and Give.  We also need the other kind of action, giving with a small "g," but we cannot do with only that.  To fulfill our obligations as guest or host, to fulfill the sacred duties of ghosti, and to live as full and complete human beings, we must Give.

Challenges in applying Buber to polytheism

Deep similarities have been found between Buber's philosophy and the guest-host relationship.  Yet there are also challenges to be faced before the two can be brought into sync. Two in particular stand out to me: a monotheist bias, and a conviction that the You is You by nature.

The first challenge is a monotheist slant in the work.  Buber's greatest influences were of course monotheistic: Judaism, and that mystical branch of Judaism called Hasidism.  Buber 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.

He says the eternal You is one, but I cannot find any compelling reason why it must be so.  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 belongs in the It-world.

What that means for polytheists 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.

So the first challenge is resolved with relative ease.  The second, however, is a bit more trying.

The second challenge is that, 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, gods have in their nature something of the It.  It is not we that reduce them to It.  Rather, they are essentially both You and It.

This has ramifications running throughout Buber's theory.  If gods, which have intrinsic worth, are by nature It, then It acquires worth as well.  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 had 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, is encouragement to cultivate I-You relationships as much as possible.  The I-It must be utilized too, but I-You is what one should be after.  In contrast, the polytheist interpretation would be encouragement to cultivate both the I-You and I-It, as appropriate to circumstances in the moment.

These two challenges are significant.  They call into question aspects of Buber's philosophy, and change the philosophy.  In fact, it seems that polytheism has something meaningful to contribute to the Buberian tradition.  In time, a thorough polytheist critique may strengthen this already strong, inter-religious philosophy.


In this essay, I've attempted to show that Buber's I and Thou is an invaluable tool for understanding polytheism in general, and ADF druidry in particular.  It is not without its challenges, but these challenges can be resolved.  By applying Buber's philosophy to polytheism and ADF discourse, it has been seen that the two can be usefully compared.  Numerous new insights have come to light.  These insights may have been indigenous to ADF in a latent way, but through the application of Buber they have become explicit.  Of course, any such comparison of theories is likely to dredge up a few gems.  But I believe that Buber and ADF is a particularly fruitful combination.  Their core ideas are so similar that cross-fertilization seems inevitable.  What will determine the success of this coupling is how well we face its challenges, and how willing we are to learn from a non-polytheistic tradition.

I'll conclude with a final word from Buber:

Every word must falsify; but look, these beings live around you, and no matter which one you approach you always reach Being. (p. 67)


Buber, Martin.  I and Thou.  Trans. Walter Kaufmann.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 1970.

Frankfort, Henri, H. A. Frankfort, John A. Wilson, Thorkild Jacobsen, and William A. Irwin.  The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man: An Essay on Speculative Thought in the Ancient Near East.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1946.

Kramer, Kenneth Paul.  Martin Buber's I and Thou: Practicing Living Dialogue.  New York: Paulist Press, 2003.

2-7-09 UPDATE: It's come to my attention that a third challenge arises.  Buber's monotheism can be said to extend also to his valuation of wholeness, and his relation of wholeness with being fully "real."  Achetypal psychology (James Hillman, David Miller, etc.) has called an emphasis on psychic wholeness monotheistic, and advocate instead a polytheistic multiplicity within the psyche (for example, see Miller's The New Polytheism).  If we take this charge seriously, it radically shifts the landscape of Buber's work.