Martin Buber's I and Thou has long been acclaimed as a classic. Many prominent writers have acknowledged its influence on their work; students of intellectual history consider it a landmark; and the generation born since World War II considers Buber as one of its prophets. The need for a new English translation has been felt for many years. The old version was marred by many inaccuracies and misunderstandings, and its recurrent use of the archaic "thou" was seriously misleading. Now Professor Walter Kaufmann, a distinguished writer and philosopher in his own right who was close to Buber, has retranslated the work at the request of Buber's family. He has added a wealth of informative footnotes to clarify obscurities and bring the reader closer to the original, and he has written a long "Prologue" that opens up new perspectives on the book and on Buber's thought. This volume should provide a new basis for all future discussions of Buber.
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.