Today considered a landmark of twentieth-century intellectual history, I and Thou is also one of the most important books of Western theology. In it, Martin Buber, heavily influenced by the writings of Frederich Nietzsche, united the proto-Existentialists currents of modern German thought with the Judeo-Christian tradition, powerfully updating faith for modern times. Since its first appearance in German in 1923, this slender volume has become one of the epoch-making works of our time. Not only does it present the best thinking of one of the greatest Jewish minds in centuries, but has helped to mold approaches to reconciling God with the workings of the modern world and the consciousness of its inhabitants. This work is the centerpiece of Buber's groundbreaking philosophy. It lays out a view of the world in which human beings can enter into relationships using their innermost and whole being to form true partnerships. These deep forms of rapport contrast with those that spring from the Industrial Revolution, namely the common, but basically unethical, treatment of others as objects for our use and the incorrect view of the universe as merely the object of our senses, experiences. Buber goes on to demonstrate how these interhuman meetings are a reflection of the human meeting with God. For Buber, the essence of biblical religion consists in the fact that -- regardless of the infinite abyss between them -- a dialogue between man and God is possible. Ecumenical in its appeal, I and Thou nevertheless reflects the profound Talmudic tradition from which it has emerged. For Judaism, Buber's writings have been of revolutionary importance. No other writer has so shaken Judaism from parochialism and applied it so relevantly to the problems and concerns of contemporary men. On the other hand, the fundamentalist Protestant movement in this country has appropriated Buber's "I and Thou encounter" as the implicit basis of its doctrine of immediate faith-based salvation. In this light, Martin Buber has been viewed as the Jewish counterpart to Paul Tillich. This is the original English translation, available in America only in this hardcover edition of I and Thou. Martin Buber considered Ronald Smith's the best of the English translations and it was prepared in the author's presence. The more poetic rendering, this translation can be looked at as the King James Version of Buber's I and Thou.
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.