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Looking for balance between identity and encounter: Buber's relations and interreligious dialogue.

There is certainly nothing original in addressing Martin Buber's Ich-Du relations or in examining the implications of his claims for the broad context of interfaith dialogue. Indeed, I am neither an expert in Buber's philosophy nor have I examined what many consider his magnum opus with the extensive knowledge of German that undoubtedly identifies the specialist. Yet, my hope is to offer a fresh perspective that is to emerge as a bridge between the theoretical/philosophical and the experiential/phenomenological in a manner that is certainly unique in the specific details of its actualization. In fact, in my eyes Buber came to life while I was studying at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome pursuing a post-doctoral diploma in interreligious dialogue. This would be no remarkable background if I were a Jesuit priest or even a Catholic lay member with a degree in fundamental theology, but as an Italian Latter-day Saint with academic training in the theological and socioscientific study of Mormonism the setting was not only novel (given that I was the first Mormon ever to attend the institution) but also ideal for an I-Thou Erlebnis of the Buberian kind. (1) Therefore, this essay is undeniably and unapologetically autobiographical, but its main purpose is not to report but to reflect upon the reality of an experience of encounter through the guidance and aid of Buber's dialogic philosophy, which is used to reflect upon what is presently only a memory, although one with significant implications for my own identity.

Indeed, "identity" lies at the core of my explorative and reflective enterprise, which is to be accompanied by another term of great significance for both Buber and interreligious dialogue at large, namely, "encounter." Identity and encounter, in fact, are two coexisting elements that contribute to define, for better or for worse, dialogues and pseudo-dialogues of many different kinds and contexts. It was no surprise then that, in the many conferences, lectures, and debates on interfaith dialogue that I attended in Rome, the common difficulty of demarcating exact boundaries and of defining the characteristics of true dialogue involved questions of identity and encounter. In other words, and in that specific context, the objective of understanding dialogue in order to be able to replicate and develop it usually extended over a pathway littered with such questions as: What are the characteristics of a dialogic identity? What are the boundaries and objectives of a dialogic encounter? What is or should be the ideal meeting point between the stable and the dynamic, the divergent and the common perspectives, the nonnegotiable and the negotiable?

In these questions it seemed that change and stability intersected at times confusedly and at times systematically. Often the perceivable although unspoken goal was to extend an excessively fixed identity beyond its boundaries to an ideal point of conjunction with encounter, which in turn was to be pushed back from its unpredictable, even erratic nature toward greater stability and control. In this light, is it even possible to speak of identity and encounter as separate, identifiable elements of human existence, or should we simply fall back into the identity-in-encounter and encounter-in-identity conundrum with no further guiding principles leading to a recognizable equilibrium? This is where Buber comes to our assistance.

As is well known, Buber distinguished between two kinds of relationships that characterize human beings in all their interactions. The most common and by far most abused is the "Ich-Es" or "I-It" relation that involves the realm of "experience" or Erfahrung as Buber would pinpoint. Specifically, experience of this kind involves the objectification of our reality with the It part representing the direct object of whatever goal-directed verb concerns us, including verbs of perception and sensation. Buber further stated that experiences of this sort are not focused in the present world; indeed, they may not even be considered encounters because they take place only within the mind of the individual subject, since they connect with her or his memories, conceptualizations, and desires that are clearly rooted in the past. In short, the meeting of the subject and the object is defined by the classifications inherent to them, therefore leading to a lack of reciprocity that would be possible only in an exchange between two individual subjects. On the other hand, "Ich-Du" relations, usually translated as "I-Thou," are exactly the kind of "unmediated" encounters that ground an individual in the present world. They involve reciprocity, mutual revelations, and fullness of presence with a focus on the unity of a person rather than on the fragmentations of an ego, which are instead typical of analytical "I-It" experiences between individuals. These "I-Thou" relations, in turn, are a "glimpse" and an extension of the "I-Thou" relations that believers may experience in their sacred encounters with the Divine.

In any case, although my present focus is interfaith dialogue, I am not particularly interested in what Buber had to say about God. Instead, it is Buber's analysis of relations among people that is especially relevant in my present context, which focuses on identity and encounter as the foundations for interreligious dialogue. In the first place, and in line with Kant's deontological ethics, it is important to recognize that Buber did not advocate an ideal world with only "I-Thou" relations--as if it were possible or desirable never to objectify or "use" individuals in any manner. (2) People do not live and cannot live with pure encounter only; they must or at least should also reflect, analyze, and examine with the kind of personal detachment and personal concern that is necessary for life in society. In fact, to use Buber's own words, "[W]ithout It a human being cannot live. But whoever lives only with that is not human." (3) Thus, as he clearly recognized, the objective is not to choose sides in the false dichotomy between control of identity and the letting loose of encounter, or in being either a "person" individual or an "ego" individual in its purest forms. Indeed, since dialogue takes place between human beings with physiological and psychological make-ups that necessarily lead to "I-It" relations, we are mistaken to interpret Buber as setting up a dichotomy between a nondialogic "I-It" relation as opposed to a dialogic "I-Thou." True, his emphasis on the "I-Thou," which at times appears hyperbolic, pushes the reader toward embracing this form of relation as a mode of existence, but the context remains firmly built on the assumption that "I-It" relations will not, can not, and should not fully disappear.

Buber saw the ideal in a particular intersection of the "I-It" and "I-Thou" or, in different terms, in a merging of identity and encounter. Parenthetically, for our purposes let us translate the "I-It" relation as "greater focus on identity" and "I-Thou" as "emphasis on encounter." Indeed, true dialogue can take place only in a human context that merges the "I-Thou" and the "I-It," although the challenge remains to define their unity and balance in more exact terms. This elusive demarcation of boundaries may be especially frustrating, but I would suggest as a first core point of reflection that the simple acceptance of its existence as a central element of any correct "definition" of dialogue is highly significant. In fact, it can help us to identify those perspectives on dialogue that are incorrect or at least suspect because excessively skewed in one direction over the other. Indeed, people's hesitations, anxieties, and even fears, which often lead to half-hearted attempts or utter refusals of dialogue, often emerge from a failure to recognize this balance as the very objective of the process of dialogic exchanges. Admittedly, the balance between "I-It" and "I-Thou" relations is not the most emphasized point or the center of Buber's argument, yet I extract it as an important foundation that may assist us in examining other elements of Buber's discussion that concern those dynamics that can lead individuals toward a balance between identity and encounter. Let me illustrate the significance of this ideal balance by pinpointing some general obstacles that often hinder dialogue, interfaith dialogue being no exception.

Two common fears in individuals who are hesitant to approach dialogue about such sensitive topics as politics and religions have more to do with a rejection of distorted forms of dialogue than with concerns about dialogue as such, at least according to my understanding of dialogic exchanges. Indeed, one of these anxieties emerges from viewing dialogue as skewed on the side of identity, or of the "I-It" relations, where the fear is that the purpose of the exchange, which usually remains unspoken and is camouflaged in more acceptable terms, is to establish identity over and against another identity. In the most negative instances people reject being treated as an It by having the potential weaknesses and problems of their commitments exposed or ridiculed by another individual who in the process is able to strengthen and reinforce her or his identity over and against those elements that are being criticized. In other more benign instances people are concerned that they will simply get lost in the other person's identity--not necessarily because their own commitments are being criticized but because they view themselves "only" as an It, whether purely from lack of confidence or also from the fact that the l they are facing is contributing to this feeling. In fact, it is not always the I in the "I-It" relation who sets the tone for the exchange; it may also be the It who prefers to be addressed as such in order to hide an I that is considered inadequate and must thus be protected. In any case, whether the concern is to become lost in, absorbed by, or exposed through another person's identity, purposely or not, it is clear that in these instances identity is too great of a focus, because personal safety is the core issue. The exchange is tilted on the side of the "I-It" relation, and what emerges in these circumstances, as can be commonly observed in our society, is not true dialogue but a form of intellectual battle that involves winners and losers. In other words, people do not listen because they are too busy making or defending a position, either verbally or mentally, and where there is no listening there is no dialogue. This is not to say that these concerns are unrealistic, given the prevalence of many pseudo-exchanges, which often claim to be dialogic, that are based on win-lose rather than win-win situations. Yet, what should be recognized is that this is a distortion that does not affect the value and need for true dialogue.

A different kind of concern, although probably less common, comes from the opposite direction. In these cases the main anxiety is to be emptied rather than of being absorbed. This is the idea that views dialogue as pure encounter, where what one is and what one is committed to must be suspended, hidden, or otherwise forgotten. In this view dialogue involves only "I-Thou" relations and that to be able to experience these relations one must somewhat obliterate one's identity to the point that it becomes difficult to recognize any sort of I. In some of its forms this concern involves a view of dialogue as threatening, whereas in others the main idea is one of useless exchanges that do not significantly add to an individual's knowledge or experience. In the former case the person rejects the understanding of ideal dialogue that involves only the exploration of commonalities where the main concern is to avoid offending the other. In this context the ultimate objective appears to be a common bond that somehow materializes between two self-denying individuals. Yet, the skeptic is prone to suggest, there is always an agenda that is being advanced, if not explicitly by the other person involved in the encounter, then by a kind of impersonal culture that is setting up rules for dialogue that effectively silence some desires and commitments. Therefore, politically correct dialogue becomes, as it were, a straightjacket that is only satisfying for those who have embraced postmodern relativism and can then use "so-called" dialogue as a self-congratulatory device of sort. In short, whether it is viewed as fake, useless, subtly deceiving, or excessively elusive to invest much time in, some people ultimately refuse dialogue because they object to the idea that dialogue should require pure encounter while demanding an obliteration of identity. Here the problem is not so much lack of listening as it is excessive limitations, real or perceived, on what can actually be said in such exchanges.

There is a better solution to both these scenarios, although most likely quite a bit rarer in its actualization than the pseudo-dialogues just addressed. In this context the hyphen between the pronouns I, It, or You deserves as much analytical attention as the pronouns themselves. Even more importantly, the implicit hyphen between the two core forms of relations, between the "I-It" and the "I-Thou" needs to be recognized for its significance and bidirectional nature. What does that hyphen tell us about the way in which identity and encounter should merge? Buber said on this subject:
      Whoever stands in relation, participates in an actuality; that
   is,in a being that is neither merely a part of him nor merely
   outside him....

      ...

      But the I that steps out of the event of the relation into
   detachment and the self-consciousness accompanying that, does not
   lose its actuality. Participation remains in it as a living
   potentiality.... This is the realm of subjectivity in which the I
   apprehends simultaneously its association and its detachment.
   Genuine subjectivity can be understood only dynamically, as the
   vibration of the I in its lonely truth. This is also the place
   where the desire for ever higher and more unconditional relation
   and for perfect participation in being arises and keeps rising....

      The person becomes conscious of himself as participating in
   being, as being-with, and thus as a being. (4)


This text is cryptic enough to give rise to a variety of interpretations, but my greatest interest again lies in the interaction between the concepts of identity and encounter. What I understand Buber to say or imply here is the following: (1) It is not so much a matter of "doing" dialogue well; it is more a matter of being a dialogic person. (2) To become such a person it is not so much a matter of merging identity and encounter (although this objective can also be reached with time); it is more a matter of alternating them. In other words, it is to engage in focus and panoramic views, in zooming in and zooming out in cyclical fashion in order to allow both encounters to affect identity and identity to affect encounters. (3) It is not so much a matter of being secure in one's identity; it is more a matter of being secure in one's subjectivity, which, in other words, is a deeply encountering identity.

To illustrate this latter point, an image comes to mind that I heard reported from Harvey Cox during a presentation he gave in May, 2010, at the Gregorian. He spoke about identity as an anchor, which everyone knows is a heavy tool with the purpose of stabilizing a ship resting at harbor when it is lowered into the water to secure the vessel to the sea bed. At the same time Cox highlighted a second purpose of an anchor that is usually not known by most of us who are not sailors and do not spend their lives on ships. This purpose is to stabilize the ship while in movement, or to give it added equilibrium while it is traveling on the waters, a purpose that in this case is fulfilled by a lifted rather than by a lowered anchor. In other words, there can be a dynamic stability in identity that does not involve rigidity on the one hand or loss and chaos on the other. Instead, to return to Buber's comments, the inner drive for encountering should be allowed to find fulfillment and to be securely included and recognized as paramount within the content of one's identity. At the same time, that very identity cannot be betrayed through excessive pressures aimed at obliterating or hiding differences between individuals in encounter. Encounters need to be transparent, present, and actual in order to provide the kind of living and useful experiences that will ultimately leave their mark on individuals' identities.

To be sure, any extensive discussion about the development of a dialogic personality would need to involve several psychological considerations that I am not able to address in this setting. I may only briefly hint at one that I find significant and that emerges from Buber's discussion about the primacy of "I-Thou" relations in the development of a child. He says: "It is not as if a child first saw an object and then entered into some relationship with that. Rather, the longing for relation is primary... In the beginning is the relation--as the category of being, as readiness, as a form that reaches out to be filled ... the innate You." (5) In short, to draw a Christian theological connection, we need to re-learn to encounter as children encounter, not in substance but in mode, and then proceed to intersperse such encounters with analytical moments built on knowledge and experience without robbing the encounter of its potential transforming force. In many ways, I feel that my relatively recent experience at the Gregorian University was a positive example in this direction, because it helped me to become a more dialogic individual. Therefore, I would like to conclude this exploration with some brief reflections on what I was able to learn in that particular setting about Buber's relations and interreligious dialogue, both in terms of what the experience embodied positively and of what it was still lacking.

In the first place a distinction needs to be made between my involvement in dialogue, as a Mormon interacting primarily with Catholics, and my involvement in or observations of dialogue among Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Buddhists. In fact, my direct involvement in dialogue as a Latter-day Saint encountering Catholicism was limited to a few interactions in which I responded to sincere questions about Mormonism. Thus, I only tasted an appetizer of what I hope will soon become a full meal of personal involvement in L.D.S.-Catholic exchanges. The limited number of this kind of interactions was not due to the fact that my "unique" religious affiliation was kept hidden. On the contrary, it was well known among faculty and students, but the focus of our studies was Judaism, Islam, or Protestant Christianity--never Mormonism. Hence, my direct engagement in dialogue involved surfacing elements of identity that, depending on the topic, highlighted the Catholic, Muslim, Protestant, or simply faith-based aspects of my largely submerged Mormon identity. These dynamics culminated in some very interesting moments of self-reflection and analysis, but in most cases I purposely attempted to limit deep introspection on my own identity to prevent it from hampering the "I-Thou" encounters, particularly with the Catholic world into which I wanted to immerse myself with childlike enthusiasm. Therefore, it is not incorrect to conclude that my dialogic experience as a Mormon in a Catholic environment was skewed on the side of the "I-Thou" relations, but it was the quality of these very relations that prepared me for a deeper engagement with the "I-It" that l envision in my near future.

Perhaps the fact that the exact nature of L.D.S. theology was largely unknown to both faculty and students facilitated this process of dialogic preparation, because I was never given reason to be defensive. Indeed, a clean slate may facilitate the normative primacy of "I-Thou" relations because the absence of preexisting knowledge of one's interlocutor's ideas and commitments would favor rather than hinder the encounter. In similar fashion, notwithstanding my Italian background, my prior knowledge of Catholic theology was also very limited. Moreover, the fact that I never felt myself to be a "token" of religious diversity, that people regularly treated me as a You rather than as an It, that they interacted with me first and foremost as a fellow human being by demonstrating sincere friendship and concern prior to and in connection with any questions they may have had about my religious beliefs only increased my desire for further "I-Thou" relations and subsequent "I-It" evaluations of a sympathetic and balanced kind. Indeed, the quality of the human relation meant a greater willingness to engage potential elements of disagreement because the already established respect of the You made the detached analysis of the It less consequential in the preservation of one's identity. Still, as already stated, since direct and full dialogue based on my complete religious identity was not frequently actualized, this experience was more predisposing and preparing me for dialogue rather than representing a satisfactory example of dialogue in itself. As a whole, there was only so much that could be achieved in a few months' time, and I certainly do not regret the fact that the experience was skewed on the side of unarticulated or superficially articulated encounters rather than in the direction of "I-It" analysis.

Undoubtedly, and for good reasons, we are more concerned about the opposite imbalance, which closes the door to dialogue rather than opening it. Yet, in participating in several conferences and presentations, as well as in attending various interreligious courses, I noticed a pattern that is possibly symptomatic of a growing concern that we may be defining dialogue excessively in "I-Thou"-relation terms. A minority of faculty, presenters, and students pinpointed that true dialogue should also involve the affirmation of one's boundaries, of one's exclusive claims, of rejection of particular beliefs or perspectives that run counter to one's deeply held commitments--in short, to say "no" and not only "yes" when encountering the other. Some people were starting to become uncomfortable with what they felt pressured not to say or even to believe. In many of these expressions, sometimes only timidly and implicitly proposed, one finds elements of a debate internal to Catholicism that pertains to the hermeneutics of the Second Vatican Council, but the issue is relevant for all theoretical questions focused on the dynamics of interreligious dialogue. Is the exclusive search for commonalities a travesty of true dialogue? Is there an ideal point where it is preferable to focus on differences?

In one of my last written assignments at the Gregorian, which I completed in the context of my individual tutorials with the dean of the school, I commented that I did not want to express an "external" evaluation of a particular aspect of Catholic theology because I felt, as a non-Catholic, that it was not my place to criticize. To this statement the dean replied by noting on the side of the paper: "you may, you can, you should criticize," and then added orally that he trusted that I could do so in fairness and balance, particularly at that point in my experience. Indeed, as Buber claimed and as my experience underlined, there is a time to analyze and to evaluate, even negatively, but only after and in alternation with moments of deep encounter and exchange. Thus, two truly dialogic individuals will find the "I-It" that cyclically follow the "I-Thou" just as potentially enlightening as the encounters themselves and, as a result, will engage in new encounters with renewed enthusiasm and depth. In Buber's words:
   whatever has thus been changed into It and frozen into a thing
   among things is still endowed with the meaning and the destiny to
   change back ever again. Ever again ... the object shall catch fire
   and become present, returning to the element from which it issued,
   to be beheld and lived by men as present. (6)


Mauro Properzi

Brigham Young University

Provo, UT

(1) "Erlebniss" and "Erfahrung" are German words commonly translated in English as "experience," but the terms are not exact synonyms. In fact, "Erlebnis" refers to "internal" experiences of full personal involvement, whereas "Erfahrung" is commonly associated with "external" experiences that do not engage the complete individual in one's full psychophysiological identity.

(2) My reference to Immanuel Kant is specific to his second formulation of the categorical imperative, the formula of the end in itself, as described in his Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, tr. James W. Ellington, 3rd ed. (Indianapolis, IN, and Chicago: Hackett Publishing Co., 1993 [orig.: Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (Riga: Johann Friedrich Hartknoch, 1785)], p. 36. His formulation states, "Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means." I have italicized the words that are central to my present point.

(3) Martin Buber, I and Thou. A New Translation with a Prologue "I and You" and Notes, tr. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970), p. 85.

(4) Ibid., p. 113.

(5) Ibid., p. 78.

(6) Ibid., p. 90.
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Author:Properzi, Mauro
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Article Type:Essay
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Date:Mar 22, 2011
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