“I-Thou” Relationships


January 27, 2013


Do you sometimes feel taken for-granted ?  Left out ?  Insignificant ?

Are there moments in your life when you feel fully  alive ? Authentic ?

Truly a worthy  person ?

Which do you prefer ?  Being an “IT” ?  Or being a “Thou”.

That, very simplified, is the essence of Martin Buber’s “I – Thou” concept  .. one of the most insightful and influential ideas of the 20th century.

Buber was considered to be, and was shaped by,  the Existentialist school.

Despite profound doctrinal differences, Existentialists shared the belief that philosophical thinking begins with the human subject—not merely the thinking subject, but the acting, feeling, living human individual.  In existentialism, the individual’s starting point is characterized by what has been called “the existential attitude”, or a sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world.  (I’m paraphrasing Wikipedia here .. a wonderful if incomplete resource that I would have loved to have had during my years of ministry.)  But Buber was reaching for a way past the “apparently meaningless or absurd world”.  And he found it by observing and naming and pulling forth the deepest way we might shape our orientation in life.  Shall we consign ourselves to an “I – it” way of being  .. or and “I -Thou” way of being ?

But I don’t want to belabor the esoteric concepts here.  Because I think the essence of Buber’s idea is sufficient .. and important.   I know I don’t like being an “IT”.  And moreover, I find life difficult if I .. if I .. regard things in an I -It manner.   I find life more satisfying, more meaning-full, grace-full, if I choose and pursue an I – Thou way of being ..  If I look for and act upon the deeper, more authentic essence of all I encounter .. if I seek the “Thou” in my relationships.  The “Thou” in other people near and far; the “Thou” in groups / organizations / cultures I encounter;  and even the “Thou” in the Natural Universe .. seeing this tiny blue – green marble we live upon as profound, living system  .. worthy of my deep respect and care ..  Seeing the wonder of the “stars in their flight, the dust of eternity” for the source from which we arise.  Then I become more fully me.

Twenty years ago I might have pursued this poignant insight on it’s own merit, for learning to approach life .. myself and all I encounter .. as “I-Thou” is central and essential for a meaningful, ‘grace-full’ life.  (I probably did actually, but I really can’t remember even half of the sermons). But before digging in on “I-Thou”,  I want to place this message in a Unitarian Universalist context.   A year ago at General Assembly Fred Muir gave the Berry Street essay to the ministers assembled there, and it was carried, slightly abbreviated,  in the most recent edition of the “UU World” under the title of “The End of the iChurch”.

Rev. Muir points out that in raw numbers, we are static .. have experienced minor fluctuations but essentially no growth over the past quarter century or longer.  And in relative terms, as a percentage of the population, we are shrinking.  Further, we UU’s are almost entirely White, Euro-centric people .. but the population is increasingly multicultural .. we and our like are no longer in   the majority.  And moreover, the majority of younger people are identifying as what pollsters have termed as “Nones” .. people who mostly claim a “spirituality”, but not a “religion”.  Given this stark reality, it seriously questionable whether Unitarian Universalism can survive another century.

Fred has an incisive, persuasive explanation for this haunting trend.  Our deepest identity has placed the individual and individualism at the center.  We have claimed an “exceptional-ism” that places us apart from the larger culture.  And we are aversive to authority.  I don’t know about you, but for all the good I have encountered, that pretty much nails what I have experienced over my three and ½ decades as a UU.  I encourage you to read Fred’s piece, for in it he offers an alternative approach to our essence,  as UU’s.

May we not instead, nurture a sense of “beloved community”, gathered in deep covenant with one another as our most characteristic identity ?  As a matter of fact, the idea is already there as our third principle ..  “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations”, and this is echoed in our principles of the “goal of world community” and “respect for the interdependent web of all existence”.   As I thought about what I might offer you, a new congregation in the early phase of shaping who you are and what you are about, it seemed to me that exploring what you might choose as your defining character might be helpful.  Which leads us back to “I – Thou”.

I suggest to you that you become the most fully actualized, fully human, when you are not only open to, but intentionally seeking, an “I-Thou” way of being  .. a way that embraces your relationships – with each other, with the local and larger community, and with the Earth and  the Natural Universe – as your priority.  And I suggest that you willfully see yourself in an”I-Thou” way.  You can be most fully you – as a person, as a congregation, as a religion – when you regard yourself not as an object, apart from others, apart from the larger culture, apart from the Natural Universe .. but rather in relationship with the possibility of “I – Thou” in all that you encounter.  This way enhances your individuality, raising up all that you have to offer and all that you are nurtured by the offering of others .. but does not make individualism the center of your personal or collective identity.

Easier said than done, of course.  For as much as we have cherished the idea that we a born a “blank slate”, that we and our children are ready to be shaped by liberal idealism, it is more complicated that that.  In fact we know now what previous generations were understandably skeptical of .. we know from twin studies, from brain science, and from a more nuanced reading of history and literature that we have strong genetic dispositions.  Happily, among these – for most human beings – the evolutionary biologists point to a genetically inherited propensity for  empathy and seeking out mutual relationships  .. and even an inclination towards the golden rule .. to be a “Moral Animal” as Robert Wright puts it.

But we also inherit a tendency towards tribalism .. a pull towards favoring, and being favored by, others most like us.  Moreover, my conscience compels me to note that, though rare, we may be born with little or no capacity for mutuality.  Further, we know know that the lack of nurture in infancy and the first few years of life can leave a  brain and personality that is sociopathic .. unable to empathize with or relate to others in any genuinely mutual way.  And we know that belonging to a tribe is a powerful inherited and culturally reinforced tendency that can get out of hand and lead to tragic human conflict and calamity.  I assume I don’t need to elaborate here; our experience is replete with political, religious, neighborhood, and sports tribes.  No .. seeking an “I-Thou” way of being is not a given, nor easy.  But it is within our grasp; indeed we can readily see moments where it has emerged.

Among the more vivid and enduring examples of an “I – Thou” experience is the Civil Rights Movement in which the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King called forth the “beloved community” and people of disparate religions, race and culture joined together to over come the terrible history of slavery, Jim Crow and separateness, and claim not only the inherit dignity potential in all people, but also the possibility that our work places and communities might be integrated and that our children might play and grow up together without regard to race or color.   Similarly, the Woman’s movement and GLBT movement have raised up not only the value of all persons, but also that this happens in community, in relationship.

And I can tell you that I am so much more as a person because of the deep relationships I have encountered within my family, among friends, and within congregations I have served.  Forty-one, almost forty-two years of marriage to Terry and all that we have done and experienced together  has enriched me beyond words.  Dear friends have likewise pulled me in to a deeper authenticity.  And I dare say that I was introduced to an “I – Thou” sense of the Natural Universe when my father awoke in the tent before dawn one morning in the Adirondacks and took me on a slow, nearly wordless walk along the sleepy campsites to the rock at the east end of Eighth Lake, to watch the day being born in the mirror reflection of the woods and mountains, sky and sunlight.

You know, I have no lack of ideas and words to explicate all this.  Indeed, speaking too long is an occupational hazard to which I have befallen more than once.  But given that the idea of “I – Thou” is so intimate and experiential perhaps some moments for personal reflection will serve us best this morning.  So I invite you to enter a few moments of silent reflection here, meditation if you will ….

Allow yourself to call into your mind a moment or two when you have felt most fully alive, vital, “spiritual” ….

moments with loved ones perhaps ..

moments within a friendship ..

within a community  ..

moments of awareness and nurture from Nature ..

perhaps a moment when you were personally self-aware of your better self .. your most authentic reality ..

Thank you for taking that time.  I invite you to share after our worth-ship, if you are so inclined , a bit of what came in to your consciousness these past few minutes.  And like wise, I invite you to share among yourselves some of the insights and satisfactions and learning’s you are having with the Soup Kitchen, or as you participate in Building Your Own Theology, or even within the Steering Committee.  I know that when I share with others I am enriched.  I know that consciously listening closely to others is almost always worth more than I anticipate.  I have seen, experienced first hand, the fruits of deep, respectful, honest sharing.

You are launching a “beloved community”, and to the extent that you make it an “I – Thou” experience, thoroughly mutual relationships, and an open, embracing encounter with the local and larger community the center of your identity and effort – you are shaping a congregation and a faith worthy of surviving and blossoming in the 21st century.  This is the last time you will worship in this room, and the move up to Pottsville could be a little unsettling.  But if you bring to your new meeting house the “I – Thou” character you have nurtured thus far, and intentionally make that the spirit of your endeavor,  you will flourish and become a gift not only to one another, but also to the community near and far, and even – I dare say – a gift to our Unitarian Universalist faith.  To this end I stand with you, among you and wish you the blessing of life worth living.

Blessed be – Namaste – Amen


January 27, 2013


Guest Minister: Rev. Bob Throne 

Pianist: Diane Feeser


WELCOME & Tom Feeser



GATHERING HYMN Morning Has Broken #38

– please rise  


RESPONSIVE READING       “Out of the Stars”

– please rise #530 – in hymnal & insert



OFFERTORY  ??? – piano ?

READING                              I Call That Church Free”

– James Luther Adams

Rev. Throne             


HYMN – please rise           Mother Spirit, Father Spirit #8

SERMON                                “I-Thou, the Relationships”

Rev. Throne 

CLOSING HYMN                    We Would Be One #318

– please rise                          


CLOSING WORDS                Rev. Throne