'The publication of Martin Buber's I and Thou was a great event in the religious life of the West.' Reinhold NiebuhrMartin Buber (1897-19) was a prolific and influential teacher and writer, who taught philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem from 1939 to 1951. Having studied philosophy and art at the universities of Vienna, Zurich and Berlin, he became an active Zionist and was closely involved in the revival of Hasidism.Recognised as a landmark of twentieth century intellectual history, I and Thou is Buber's masterpiece. In this book, his enormous learning and wisdom are distilled into a simple, but compelling vision. It proposes nothing less than a new form of the Deity for today, a new form of human being and of a good life. In so doing, it addresses all religious and social dimensions of the human personality.Translated by Ronald Gregor Smith
Buber is one of the greatest Jewish thinkers of the 20th century and this work was almost an instant classic. I can see why every major theologian cites "I and Thou" in their work. Whether you agree with all his ideas or not - doesn't matter - read it, and have an encounter.
Martin Buber's I and Thou is not so much a formal approach to theology as it is a simple answer to "How should I be in the world?" Ethical living is found not in the realm of interiority and constancy, but within dynamic relation to the world. We must respect the humanity and complexity of every person sui generis, not only their function in our lives at any particular moment.
This is a very nice introductory ethos. But Buber pushes the extent of the I-Thou relationship further: to the cosmos and to God. And from that position, he also argues that God is in dynamic relation with creation. The model of an omni-max God, almost a force rather than a being, hinders divine relation and makes creation trite. If God is everything already, then the world was created as a bauble and God can only understand us as an It. For creation to be meaningful, God has to grow in relation to it: to be surprised and delighted by our decisions as "created co-creators" (not Buber's term, but I think he would've liked it). We must treat the world and one another in a way that affirms God's presence and presentness, for "the world is not divine sport, it is divine destiny. There is divine meaning in the life of the world, of man, of human persons, of you and of me."
The orthodox alternative, that God is omni-max and unchanging and 'faith' is about what set of beliefs you keep, ends up looking like idolatry in contrast to Buber's theology of compassionate relation. We therefore end up at an empowered existentialism: God didn't create the world teleologically, but instead the meaning of life is dynamic, as the creation uniting God with the world is worked out in mutual and loving relationship.
It's dense. There's no other word for it. I can sense its meaning; I know he was on to something very big in terms of understanding the relationship between one human being and the next - the other. It's just all very opaque for those not trained in philosophy. For instance:
"There is no I as such but only the I of the basic word I-You and the I of the basic word I-It. When a man says I, he means one or the other. The I he means is present when he says I. And when he says You or It, the I of one or the other basic word is also present."
When you read this a few times, think about it real heard, and go back to it once more you actually start grasping something of the immensity of Buber's thinking. It gets easier as you move along, especially the second part. I read this mostly because I was interested in Buber's take on mysticism, but there are easier books, perhaps the ones which explain Buber's thinking rather than repeat his words.