Personhood of God

Martin Buber I and Thou

“The clear and firm structure of the I-You relationship, familiar to anyone with a candid heart and the courage to stake it, is not mystical. To understand it we must sometimes step out of our habits of thought, but not out of the primal norms that determines man’s thoughts about what is actual.” -Martin Buber

I have been engrossed in I and Thou for several weeks now. Rather than try and cram all of my favorite quotes from I and Thou into one post, I have decided to break it up into a few discussion points, hopefully more to follow.  Buber’s work, although vague at times, is based on a practical model for how mankind relates to both God and people. Oftentimes in reading the works of early Christian Mystics one can be left wondering if it is even possible to experience a deeply personal relationship with God without retreating into a cloistered environment. I personally believe that we can grow in relationship to God no matter what station we find ourselves in in life. Faith is a choice… Below is an introduction to some of Buber’s thoughts on the personhood of God, which speaks to that practical relationship. Ironically, what follows was postscript to his original work, but probably should have been stated upfront.

“How – people ask – can the eternal You be at the same time exclusive and inclusive? How is it possible for man’s You-relationship to God, which requires our unconditional turning toward God, without any distractions, nevertheless to embrace all other I-You relationships of this man and to bring them, as it were, to God?…

The designation of God as a person is indispensable for all who, like myself, do not mean a principle when they say “God,” although mystics like Eckhart occasionally equate “Being” with him, and who, like myself, do not mean an idea when they say “God,” although philosophers like Plato could at times take him for one – all who, like myself, mean by “God” him that, whatever else he may be in addition, enters into a direct relationship to us human beings through creative, revelatory, and redemptive acts, and thus makes it possible for us to enter in to a direct relationship to him. This ground and meaning of our existence establishes each time a mutuality of the kind that can obtain only between persons. The concept of personhood is, of course, utterly incapable of describing the nature of God: but it is permitted and necessary to say that God is also a person. If for once I were to translate what I mean into the language of a philosopher, Spinoza, I should have to say that of God’s infinitely many attributes we human beings know not two, as Spinoza thought, but three: in addition to spiritlikeness – the source of what we call spirit – and naturelikeness, exemplified by what we know as nature, also thirdly the attribute of personlikeness. From this last attribute I should then derive my own and all men’s being person, even as I should derive from the first two my own and all men’s being spirit and being nature. And only this third attribute, personlikeness, could then be said to be known directly in its quality as an attribute.

But now the contradiction appears, appealing to the familiar content of the concept of a person. A person, it says, is by definition an independent individual and yet also relativized by the plurality of other independent individuals; and this, of course, could not be said of God. This contradiction is met by the paradoxical designation of God as the absolute person, that is one that cannot be relativized. It is as the absolute person that God enters into the direct relationship to us. The contradiction must give way to this higher insight.

Now we may say that God carries his absoluteness into his relationship with man. Hence the man who turns toward him need not turn his back on any other I-You relationship: quite legitimately he brings them all to God and allows them to become transfigured “in the countenance of God.”

One should beware altogether of understanding the conversation with God – the conversation of which I had to speak in this book and in almost all of my later books – as something that occurs merely apart from or above the everyday. God’s address to man penetrates the events in all our lives and all the events in the world around us, everything biographical and everything historical, and turns it into instruction, into demands for you and me. Event upon event, situation upon situation is enables and empowered by the personal language to call upon the human person to endure and decide. Often we think that there is nothing to be heard as if we had not long ago plugged wax into our own ears.

The existence of mutuality between God and Man cannot be proved any more than the existence of God. Anyone who dares nevertheless to speak of it bears witness and invokes the witness of those whom he addresses – present or future witness.” – I and Thou – by: Martin Buber (pg 180-182)

Buber, a Jewish philosopher,  stops short of drawing any connections to Christianity. Nevertheless, I find Buber’s views intriguing, you guessed it, for the process, and in this case the relational approach between I-You that is seemingly developed from an aware point-of-view.

Pax Vobiscum
-C.M. Gregory

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8 Responses to Personhood of God

  1. Hi Gregory,

    I like Buber’s distinction between “habits of thought” and “norms that determine man’s thought about what is actual”. Stepping out of the content of our habitual thought processes does not impinge upon our awareness of the actual. As he says, this is not a mystical exercise. It is within the common ability of everyone.

    It is difficult to think of God as a “person”, because that leads to a conceptualization, another attribute we attach to the idea of “God-ness”. I’m not aware if Buber develops the idea of God’s personhood as a manifestation of “Presence”, without which I don’t believe personhood makes much sense.

    There can be no relationship between persons or between God and persons without presence. So, I think that our personal relationship with God looks more like an acknowledgement of presence, which we become aware of through “naturelikeness” and “spiritlikeness”. Outside of personal revelation, or subjective mystical experience, we would have no way at all of entering into relationship with God. But, to say that the awareness of God’s presence is the sole province of the mystic would be incorrect.

    The “Presence” I am talking about here is, by definition, prior to personal relationships. It is the necessary element when talking about the “personhood” of God. It is not the awareness of personhood, but presence that ultimately leads us to “seeing” the sacred within everything, and understanding God’s self-communication to us. At least, that’s the way I see it.


    • C.M. Gregory says:

      Hi Steve,

      I and Thou is focused on unity of being which is a next step focal point in the process beyond the ecstatic moment. Keep in mind that Buber studied and wrote on mysticism for over 20 years prior to I and Thou and ultimately settled into attentive silence in his later works. Buber’s wordplay is almost poetic, which is one of the reasons I think this book has survived as long as it has. When I read I and Thou I get a keen sense that presence is a given. The book works out the interplay between presence, awareness, and what is actual or “the real.”

      The concept of the personhood of God is not exactly a philosophical idea. I was just thinking back to our Allegory discussion and the last quote I sent you from Thomas Merton where he alluded to a similar thought: “it is the presence of a person to a person.” For me the bigger picture is the personhood of God as represented in Christ i.e. “the Word became flesh.” Would you agree that we can relate to God as “personlikeness” in Christ?…

      I recently had a discussion with a confessed “lurker” on One of the things that they felt “put off” by is all of the “big words” that we frequently toss around. So in effort to be more sensitive to those who are completely unfamiliar with some of the philosophical and theological concepts that are often intertwined with the works I tend to review, I left out some of the “tougher” verbiage… If you look back to the original Buber quote in my post, this section would have followed the first paragraph. Hope it helps clarify…

      Buber continued: “Note that the question is not about God but only about our relationship to him. And yet in order to be able to answer, I have to speak of him. For our relationship to him is supra-contradictory as it is because he is as supra-contradictory as he is.

      Of course, we shall speak only of what God is in his relationship to a human being. And even that can be said only in a paradox; or more precisely, by using a concept paradoxically; or still more precisely, by means of a paradoxical combination of a nominal concept with an adjective that contradicts the familiar content of the concept. The insistence on this contradiction must give way to the insight that thus, and only thus, the indispensable designation of this object by this concept can be justified. The content of the concept undergoes a revolutionary transformation and expansion, but that is true of every concept that impelled by the actuality of faith, we take from the realm of immanence and apply to transcendence.”

      Thanks for commenting,

  2. Hi Greg,

    This post was very pleasant reading. I’ve always enjoyed Buber. :)

    I find Buber’s comment about the I-You relationship interesting, in that he asserts it is not mystical. I’m a bit rusty on his ideas, so correct me if I am mistaken, but doesn’t he make a significant differentiation between I-You and I-Thou? Isn’t the first more a dualistic perception of other and self in relationship, while I-Thou is more a perception of self recognizing union with other? And isn’t I-Thou the ideal he points us toward, as opposed to I-You? If this is the case, then what Buber suggests is indeed a movement into the mystical as a higher order of love.

    By the way, last week I started working on the next post (or series) for my blog, and your post has some strong resonance with it, as do some things others have recently said. :)


    • Ah, I just read your reply to Steve. If Buber identifies the mystical only with the ecstatic, then he might not consider I-Thou as mystical, but as relationship informed, or transformed, by mystical ecstasy.

      In any case, I look forward to any clarity you can add.


    • C.M. Gregory says:

      Hi Chuck,

      Thanks for commenting! I’m excited that “Du” too enjoy Buber. I hope to pivot off of this book into a couple more discussions. Similar to my second reply to Steve, I will outline the main relational ideas that Buber utilizes for my next blog post. I started with the personhood of God more or less to frame what I see as the bigger picture idea of how we relate to God through Christ. Of course from my perspective, that is an idea that will take some effort to develop more fully.

      I too often find that we seem to be kicking around the same ideas in some odd synchronistic timing, albeit from different perspectives. Like two sides of an archetypal coin that God seems to be tossing around, LOL :)

      To your question about clarifying I-You verses I-Thou I have pulled some notes from the prologue. The translator speaks better to this point than I could, but in a nutshell the original German word was not You or Thou. It is Du

      From prologue pg. 14-15:
      “I-You sounds unfamiliar. What we are accustomed to is I-Thou. But man’s attitudes are manifold, and Thou and You are not the same. Nor is Thou very similar to the German Du.

      German lovers say Du to one another, and so do friends. Du is spontaneous and unpretentious, remote from formality, pomp, and dignity.

      What lovers or friends say Thou to one another? Thou is scarcely ever said spontaneously.

      Thou immediately brings to mind God; Du does not. And the God of whom it makes us think is not the God to whom one might cry out in gratitude, despair, or agony, not the God of whom one complains or prays spontaneously; it is the God of the pulpits, The God of the holy tone.

      When men pray spontaneously or speak directly to God, without any mediator, without any intervention of formulas, when they speak as their heart tells them to speak instead of repeating what is printed, do they say Thou? How many know the verb forms Thou commands?

      The world of Thou has many mansions. Thou is a preacher’s word but also dear to anticlerical romantic poets. Thou is found in Shakespeare and at home in the English Bible, although recent versions of the Scriptures have tended to dispense with it. Thou can mean many things, but it has no place whatever in the language of direct, nonliterary, spontaneous human relationships.

      If one could liberate I-Thou from affectation, the price for that would still involve reducing it to a mere formula, to jargon. But suppose a man wrote a book about direct relationships and tried to get away from the formulas of theologians and philosophers: a theologian would translate it and turn Ich und Du into I and Thou.

      God of the holy tone, I like that…

      • Thanks, Greg. Yeah, as someone who has tried to learn Spanish, I understood Buber to be speaking of the Yo-Su and Yo-Tu relationships. We English speakers have forgotten that Thou was once a term of greater familiarity and intimacy rather than of formality or even submissiveness. In terms of Christian religious language, it is more like referring to God as Beloved rather than Lord. I definitely agree with Steve that this hinges upon a different experience and expression of presence.


  3. Hi Greg,

    I don’t want to be accused of “piling on”, but I had a few additional thoughts. Related to Chuck’s comments about I-Thou and I-You, or I-It, I’m wondering if there is not a subtle danger of engaging God in the I-It form. I say subtle, because many religious folks might want to know and experience God in such a way as to “possess” God rather than to “allow” God. On the surface this might appear to be a very devout manifestation of one’s love for God, but love which is suffocating is better described as attachment.

    I suppose the whole problem is how we understand the manner in which we engage with and relate to God. Fortunately, Buber didn’t have to worry about things like the Incarnation and dual natures. It’s hard to tell how he would have dealt with that! In any case, it seems your main interest is how one relates to God through Christ:
    “For me the bigger picture is the personhood of God as represented in Christ i.e. “the Word became flesh.” Would you agree that we can relate to God as “personlikeness” in Christ?”

    It strikes me that there is more than one Christology within Christianity – perhaps several. I think the “correct” view, if there even is one, is an open question. Since Jesus was a person (although not really in some orthodox views), it is easy enough to take the next step in the equivalency of Jesus with Christ and Christ with God. I think that is the view of most Christians, and because it is, the idea of God’s “personhood” becomes much easier to swallow, in that Jesus becomes God manifest. For those less sure of this particular formula, whose Christology is perhaps different, it isn’t quite as tidy as we might like. For them personhood is much less clear cut.


    • C.M. Gregory says:

      Hi Steve,

      Thanks for kicking the ball down the field! Like I mentioned, this book has many great points to discuss and thanks to your and Chuck’s questions I have a great idea for the next post. In the book prologue they basically summarized Buber’s views into five perennial attitudes. I will outline them next time I blog so that we can discuss in detail how they may/may not inhibit spiritual growth… for now this is from the prologue pg 9.

      Mundus vult decipi: the world wants to be deceived.
      The truth is too complex and freighting; the taste for the truth is an acquired taste that few acquire. Not all deceptions are palatable. Untruths are too easy to come by, too quickly exploded, too cheap and ephemeral to give lasting comfort. Mundus vult decipi; but there is a hierarchy of deception.”

      To be continued,

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