I, Thou, and Church

I, Thou, and Church

4 min read

(Mary Washing Feet of Jesus – Source: Wikipedia)


Martin Buber (a Jewish philosopher in the early 20th century) wrote a book titled “I and Thou”. In it, he argues that there are two kinds of relationships: an “I it” relationship and an “I thou” relationship.

An “I it” relationship is essentially a transactional relationship. It collapses a person or being into a function that serves a purpose for you: like a cashier, waiter/waitress, or bank teller. The person takes on a utilitarian function and plays a role. This relationship isn’t necessarily bad when the function is good; we need these to form large, complex societies.

A problem is when these instrumentalist/transactional relationships are all that we have or when all our associations collapse into these “I it” relationships where we only relate to or see others as serving a functional purpose for us. This leads to alienation and disconnection.

Buber calls “I thou” relationships encounters where you meet another being in their totality free from the instrumentalist agenda. So rather than collapsing a human being into the function that they serve, “I thou” relationships continuously unfold the dynamic and infinite reality of the other. These sacred encounters are rooted in love, intersubjectivity, trust, validation, and forgiveness which create a space that Buber calls the “between”. And it is in this ”between” that God can be found.

I think the church with its hierarchy, callings, corporate structures, and roles it asks all to play can often collapse into merely providing “I it” relationships which, ultimately, cannot alone house God or feed our souls. As an example, the expectation of giving everyone a calling, function, or role which we are to always fulfill and magnify can provide belonging in an “I it” relationship but, ironically, that can simultaneously create isolation if we never behold or reveal each other beyond instrumentalist, “I it” roles. Additionally, our sustaining in church hierarchy can collapse into “I it” relationships where we see the role of leaders being ultimate authorities requiring obedience of others. An “I thou” sustaining of imperfect leaders invokes God as it supports and strives with them in their flawed humanity in “all patience and faith” (Doctrine & Covenants 21:5) – see 14 Keys to Sustaining Prophets for an exploration of this.

But I see some of the changes being made – more flexible curricula, 1st Sunday councils, ministering programs, more collaborative leadership councils, etc. – as attempts to acknowledge that we need to do a better job providing these essential “I thou” encounters. Are we fully realizing the potential these inspired changes have? I’ve also observed that even though these changes open us up more to these sacred “I thou” encounters, sometimes we have a hard time relating in church in any way other than “I it” as that is the posture our spiritual muscle memory sometimes assumes. These habits can collapse Sunday lessons into call/response liturgies, 1st Sunday councils into lessons, ministering into Home/Visiting Teaching we ulterior motives, councils into order briefings, etc. Again, we need both kinds of relationships, but in moderation that nourishes both our institutional functions and our personal souls.

Jesus is an excellent example here. His healings and teachings are “I thou” encounters where many others saw those individuals as “I it” – their playing the role of sinners who must be punished for their sins. When Mary broke from the role society required of her as a sinner and washed Jesus’ feet, the Pharisees were upset with Jesus saying he should have, “known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner.” (Luke 7:39) The woman is an “it” to them playing the function of witnessing of sin. In Jesus’ parable, he teaches about forgiveness, then asks the question to Simon, “Seest thou this woman?” (Luke 7:44) That call for Simon to “see” the woman is a call for him to look past “I it” and behold her as “thou”. Jesus’ forgiveness is controversial not merely because of who Mary was; it was controversial because it asked others to let go of the “it” role they had heaped on her. Forgiveness brings us into the “I thou” spaces to worship God; judgment collapses our relationships and worship into “I it”.

The gospel gives us the tools to enter into these sacred “I thou” spaces and meet God; church provides the laboratory. But we have to dethrone the god of “I it” which, as it turns out, is ourselves and enthrone the other there.