Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Absolute Relation with the Absolute

Lately I’ve been reading up on some Martin Buber and so I can’t help but see a relation to Buber’s work in everything I read. Obviously, Buber came after Kierkegaard, so the influence would move in the opposite direction, but I think exploring Buber’s ideas can help clarify parts of Fear and Trembling that have been a little fuzzy. One part that I’ve had a particularly hard time grasping is envisioning the kind of relationship that is formed between the individual and God when the ethical realm is suspended. Although we have been told that this relationship is “absolute” and it individualistic in nature, therefore it is not something one could really understand unless one is in absolute relation to God, Buber’s ideas might help us clarify what this “absolute” relationship is actually about.

Martin Buber (of Jewish roots) wrote I and Thou in 1923. This work focuses on the idea of “I,” that is, the self that we come to realize through relationship with other beings, and the two types of relationships in which the I can take part: I-It and I-Thou. The I-It relationship is one that Buber says the world around us is filled with. Every time that we enter into a relationship with an object or a person in an objective manner, we are viewing them as an It (this sounds a bit like Hegel). Through this relationship, we see ourselves as the I, the objective observer, experiencing the It. Buber says that an “experience” we have is always of an It. The I-It relation puts space between the two beings and the I only participates in the relationship with a part of its being.

The other type of relation, I-Thou, involved the whole being of the I. The I is, effectively, confronted by the Thou and looks immediately at it as a whole being. The I of this relationship is different from the I of the I-It; the I is encountering the Thou, offering its being to the other, and the distance between the two disappears. The Thou “fills the firmament” of the I and the I does not see it as a bunch of qualities or features, but as a whole being.

The absolute relation with the Absolute is something I liken to the relationship of the I-Thou. When the individual exists the ethical realm (which could effectively be seen as full of I-It relationships), the individual stands alone with God. The space between the individual and God, the mediation that existed through the ethical, disappears. God is the eternal Thou in which the I stands in relation.

Maybe this helps…


  1. I really like your comparison with Buber, because the teleological suspension of the ethical does seem to mirror the I-Thou relationship. My main concern with the Buber's whole analysis is how there is a distinction made between the it and the thou. When something is observed is this a conscious activity to perceive things as an it or a thou, or is it natural? If its natural, how is something like this determined? The answers to these may alter how we can compare these two different perceptions.

  2. From what I know of Buber, I believe he says that the I-Thou relationship is most natural to us. We see it with an infant in its mother's womb. The fetus is physically encountering this immediate relationship and does not differentiate itself as an I. When it enters the world, it searches for this same connection, trying to filling the physical gap with a spiritual connection. As the child develops, he learns to view things as objects and develops a sense of self (the I emerges from this relationship). So essentially, the I-Thou is natural to our being, we just loose sight of it as we grow into I's and distance ourselves from beings around us, at which point we turn towards the I-It as a reflex.

  3. I don't know anything about Buber, but I have a simple (and hopefully correct) explanation of the part you say you are having trouble with. In the ethical realm, we are still participating in a relationship with God; for the ethical laws we follow are based on God's commandments. However, because we aren't receiving these ethical laws directly from God the relationship is mediated.

    When God contacts us directly on the other hand, as he did with Abraham, and explicitly offers a command, the mediator is out of the picture. A commandment is moving directly from God to us. Thus, we are in an unmediated relationship with God. The first absolute in the phrase, "an absolute relation to the absolute," means something like "pure" or "unmediated."


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