Memories play tricks on us. I have been trying to recall my experience of studying undergraduate philosophy as a seminarian many years ago and comparing it with what I emphasize and stress in the philosophy classes I now teach at St. John’s University.
Was there in the courses I took as an undergraduate any emphasis on the relational nature of the human person? I don’t think so. I know we never studied any of the personalist philosophers such as Martin Buber, Gabriel Marcel, Emmanuel Mounier or John Macmurray.
In all the courses I teach, I emphasize that to be a human person is to be relational, open to other, in dialogue with other, present to other. I believe that if we look for philosophical insights that influenced the thinking at the Second Vatican Council, the insights would be insights into the mystery of the human person.
About a month ago, a question came up in one of my classes that fascinated me. The question arose in a class in which the students and I were studying the philosophies of the atheist Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1981) and the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (1878-1964).
In a philosophy class, I make no direct reference to Christian revelation or to the teaching of the church. In my philosophy classes, we rely on reason alone. If we looked at Christian revelation, I think I could have answered the question quickly, but using only reason the answer did not come so easily.
The question arose because of two different views of the human person held by Sartre and Buber. In one of his writings, Sartre claimed that he once thought that the anti-Semite was basically the same as the rest of us. He ate, he slept, he had a job, he had a sexual life, but there was one small difference: He hated Jews. But except for that, he was just like us.
Sartre claimed that he came to see that the anti-Semite’s hatred of Jews changed everything about that person. The anti-Semite’s hatred of Jews stained all his relationships. I agree with Sartre about the anti-Semite’s relationships. It seems to me that if you really hate anyone, you change your relationships with everyone, including God.
Of course to agree with Sartre, we have to see hatred as seriously wishing harm to someone. Perfect, powerful expressions of hatred are the statements, “Go to hell!” or, “God damn you!” or, “Drop dead!” Most people who use those expressions probably don’t mean them, but if a person meant them, they would be perfect expressions of hatred.
Buber believed that an I-Thou relationship could happen between two human persons, between a human person and an object of nature, for example a tree, and between a human person and God. For Buber, every I-Thou had five characteristics: ineffable, direct, intense, presence and mutual.
By ineffable, Buber meant that no one, including Buber himself, could understand an I-Thou relationship completely. By direct, he meant that an I-Thou relationship was focused on the center of the two poles of the relationship. By intense, he meant that it was a deep rather than a casual relationship. By presence, he meant that each was there for the other. By mutual, Buber meant that the relationship always involved two.
No individual could force an I-Thou to happen. Buber also believed that in every I-Thou relationship God was also present so that if a human person had an I-Thou relationship with a tree, the person was also meeting God. For Buber God was the Thou, capital “T,” behind every thou, small “t”.
I agree with Buber’s philosophy. The question that arose for me was this: If hating one person, such as an anti-Semite does, can change your relationship with everyone, including God, then can an I-Thou relationship change your relationship with everyone? What I am wondering is, does a love relationship change your relationship with everyone, including God?
In order to take my question seriously, we have to give very powerful characteristics to the actions of hating and loving. We should not think of hating as merely not liking someone, or loving as merely being attracted to someone.
No. By hating, I mean wishing serious harm to someone, and by loving, I mean making a free self-gift to someone. If hating can alienate a person from everyone, including God, can loving open someone into relationship with everyone, including God?
If we go beyond merely using our reason and look to Christian faith for an answer to my question, then I think an answer is more easily reached. The Holy Spirit in sanctifying us joins us to others as our brothers and sisters. Loving God and neighbor opens us and expands us to have multiple relationships. The Holy Spirit can transform us and deepen our capacity to love.