Arts and Culture

Thou and It Relationships

Fifth in a series

In his encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis claims that humanity has dealt with technology and its development according to a one-dimensional model.

According to this model a person is exalted who uses logical and rational procedures to exercise control over the object while neglecting the possibilities inherent in the thing itself. If this is the way we approach and deal with nature, we are misusing one of God’s great gifts to us. Pope Francis writes the following:

“This has made it easier to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed beyond every limit.” (No. 106, p. 73)

The way we deal with nature tells us something about how we view God as well as how we view nature and ourselves. Pope Francis writes the following:

“Neglecting to monitor the harm done to nature and the environmental impact of our decisions is only the most striking sign of a disregard for the message contained in the structures of nature itself. When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities – to offer just a few examples – it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself, everything is connected.” (No. 117, p. 79)

Reading our Holy Father’s marvelous insights into the mystery of person, I am reminded of the great Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber. Pope Francis’ terminology is different from Buber’s but I think that much of what Pope Francis teaches can be illuminated by Buber’s categories: I-Thou and I-It.

Two Ways of Relating

Buber claimed that there were two ways that human persons relate. One he called the I-Thou relation, and the other the I-It relation. The I-It is easier to understand, the I-Thou calls into focus the profound mystery of the human person, a mystery that permeates everything that Pope Francis speaks or writes.

In an I-It relation, if I ask a person “Who are you?” what I mean is how can I use you, what function or role can you play in my life, what can you do for me. I think that in an I-It relation, when a person is treated like a reality to be used, the person is reduced to an object in the life of the other. Buber was concerned that I-It relationships were multiplying. I see this type of relationship in just about every part of our society. I see it in the media and education, in families and unfortunately, even in the Church.

As I-It relationships multiply, it is possible that I-Thou relationships not only diminish, but also perhaps become more difficult to have and sustain. We can fall into the habit of treating persons as things. Pope Francis is trying to remind us of the dignity of every person.

Buber believed that God was part of every I-Thou relation. God is the Thou present in every human thou. For Buber, this meant that in an I-Thou relation each person was meeting God in addition to meeting another human person. For various reasons, an I-Thou relation can slip into an I-It relation. However, though the human thou can be reduced to an It, God is the Thou Who can never be reduced to an It. When an I-Thou with God slips into an I-It, the person is no longer relating to God, but to some reality he or she has put in the place of God.

Buber believed that an I-Thou relation could take place between a person and God, between two human persons and also with nature. For years, I found it difficult to conceive how an I-Thou could take place between a person and an object of nature, for example a tree. Having read and re-read Pope Francis’ encyclical, I no longer have any difficulty conceiving of an I-Thou relation happening between a person and an object of nature. Because of Pope Francis I see more clearly than ever that nature can lead us to God. Nature can reveal to us something of God’s goodness and beauty. Nature is speaking to us of God.

I agree completely with the Holy Father that how we treat nature can tell us about how we are or are not living morally. Nature is a significant message from God. Pope Francis sees that deeply and he is trying to help us see it as well.