Gabriel Hingley, "I-Thou in an Age of I-It: Martin Buber, Mission and the Gospel of John"

Conference paper presented at Urban Life Together: Inhabiting Our Neighbourhoods, October 17-18, 2014, Urban Seed. Published online November 12, 2015.



This paper explores Martin Buber’s philosophy of “I-Thou” in relation to discipleship and mission. It calls for critical and biblical reflection on the impact of contemporary technology on how we engage with others, and how this technology has the potential to create a dominant “I-it” reality. It also argues for a return to the Johannine concept of mission, which is essentially about those in the Church loving one another in such a way that the world is called to respond. This paper also explores some of the life stories drawn from the author’s own experience as a mission worker with Urban Neighbours of Hope (UNOH) in South-East Melbourne. It assesses how UNOH as a religious order attempts to be present in neighbourhoods facing poverty while at the same time obeying Jesus’ command to “Love one another.” It argues that none of this is possible without comprehending the I-Thou relationship of the Trinity as being at the centre of Christian life.


Gazing into Eternity

Have you ever gazed into another person’s eyes for more than a few seconds?

I hope you have. You must admit, if it’s done without distraction, it can be a profound experience. Whether it is your lover, your child, your parent, or simply a best friend—there can be a connection there that somehow transcends space and time.

Why? I wonder if God deliberately created our pupils to be black. Not simply for practical reasons, but to reflect the night sky. When we gaze into the blackness of space at night, and the distant stars light years away from us, we become in touch with the infinite.

Could it be that we were created by God to carry a bit of infinity around with us in our feeble, finite bodies? A wise Jewish man once said: “God has set eternity in the hearts of humankind” (Eccl 3:11). If God is (by definition) infinite, as you gaze into another person’s eyes, you are gazing at the image of God. You are then more likely to treat them with dignity and respect, as you might treat God if he was in the room. Indeed, from a Christian perspective, God is in the room!

Another wise Jewish man, Martin Buber, gave a name to living in this profound reality. He called it “I-Thou.” We all have an individual self, that is, an “I.” But our experience of life shows that there are significant others in the world who have a separate consciousness from us. They too experience life as an “I.” They have separate thoughts and feelings, a separate body, conscience and will. They are not simply objects, but living subjects like us. We all know intuitively that the Golden Rule of life is to treat these Others as we would treat our own Selves (Matt 7:12). Hopefully we don’t start out life just calling people an “it” or shouting “hey, you!” We learn that we have a name, and we learn to address others by name. We also address the other as “you,” but the English language has lost a more profound name for the other in the word “Thou”. Somehow, “Thou” accords the other with more of the dignity and respect every person deserves. Why do Christians believe everyone deserves equal respect? Because we believe they are created in the image of what Buber calls “the eternal Thou.” In other words, when we address the finite other as Thou, and gaze into their eyes, we get a glimpse of the Eternal Thou, the Infinite Other, who resides, in some mysterious way, within everyone.

Answering the Call

My wife and I were enjoying a beautiful evening together, looking out across a beautiful sunset over the Pacific Ocean. Not far in front of us I noticed another couple, also sharing a romantic moment together. Like us, they were clearly in love.

Suddenly, the peaceful moment was shattered by a harsh jangling noise. I watched the young man take his left arm away from his lover and reach into his pocket, pulling out a mobile phone. He answered the call, and within seconds the moment of intimacy with his partner was broken. The young lady was now sitting apart from him, waiting for him to finish the call.

I remember this moment vividly because it was at a time when mobile phones were only just beginning to hit the market. While there was a lot of hype in the media about how convenient they would be, my early observation gave me a window into the future—how this new technology would rapidly change our private lives forever.

Today I observe a concerning habit in my own neighbourhood. Often when I am with a neighbour and one of our phones goes off, we seem to have this compulsion to answer it. We might be having a meaningful conversation, or it could be an important event we are attending, but we still have to answer the call. Although I know this is unintended, the message we are sending to one another is that the time they are spending with each other is highly interruptible. But for our own sakes it is worse: we are not able to focus on being truly present to the particular people and the particular place we are in now. Many people these days seem haunted by the feeling that there might be something more interesting happening somewhere else.

Jesus encourages us to answer a very different call. It is the call to be present in our neighbourhoods. It is the call to be there when one of our neighbours is bereaved, so that we can offer a hug. It is the call to offer hospitality to strangers, and receive their hospitality. It is a call to enter into real dialogue with others.

It’s a Dog-Eat-Dog World

“All my life, I have been treated like a dog.” Such were the words of my Iraqi friend “Asid,” who confided in me one day at our mission centre. His life story is infused with tragedy, suffering and despair. Asid lost all his family members in the Kurdish massacre of the late ‘80s. He fled to Iran for safety, but continued to be mistreated because of his ethnic and religious background. He is now seeking asylum in Australia, while also caring for his only child. “My son is the only family I have,” Asid often remarks, holding his boy protectively.

One day I found out it was Asid’s birthday. In the evening I said to my wife Catherine, “Why don’t we go over to Asid’s house and surprise him?” So we bundled our three kids in the car, and on the way there bought a cake and birthday present. When we arrived at his house, Asid greeted us with astonishment. He invited us warmly into his little lounge room, and we sang “happy birthday” to him. Virtually the whole time, Asid shook his head in disbelief. “No one has ever celebrated my birthday,” he told us. His deep brown eyes were wet with tears.

But there was nothing really special about what we were doing. Catherine and I had simply accorded Asid the dignity he deserved as a man created in the image of God. What we consider a normal part of Aussie culture, in celebrating another person’s birthday, made a profound impact on Asid only because he had never before been treated as a significant “Thou” in other people’s lives.

Unfortunately, Asid’s experience of life is all-too-familiar for so many people in the world today. Where entire countries are ruled by violent dictatorships, where religious ideology enforces people to behave in certain ways, or where people are simply treated as “consumers,” this is the realm of what Buber calls “I-it.” It is the world in which all of us, most of the time, live out our daily existence. The temptation is continually there in the world to expand our own ego at the expense of others, or on a larger scale for groups, businesses or governments to expand their empire by treating others as objects rather than real people.

Buber argued that the realm of “I-it” is not bad in and of itself. It is necessary to carry out our daily tasks using the technical knowledge we have gained. My son would not be alive today if it wasn’t for the doctors with their expertise, who treated the condition he has by monitoring his blood sugars. They see him essentially as a bundle of statistics and blood cells, and that’s okay! If we continually lived in “I-Thou” reality, it would be difficult to survive. But problems arise when “I-it” becomes our primary reality. When we begin to think it is okay to label a certain group of people “queue-jumpers,” when we spend more time on our smart-phones than playing with our children, when our conversations revolve more around material things than feelings or ideas, or when companies treat employees as an expendable resource, then we need a serious reality check. This reality is not actually “real” at all, but gives us only the superficial illusion of life.

Unfortunately, for many of us, even as Christians, it is easy to allow “I-it” to become our dominant, default reality. As Buber puts it, “How powerful is the unbroken world of It, and how delicate are the appearances of the Thou.”[1] Like Gollum in Lord of the Rings, we are all too easily attracted and obsessed with the world of things, and in the process we become disfigured—a “shattered, mutated version” of what we are supposed to be,[2] becoming less and less able to appreciate true beauty and intimate relationship, and more likely to be self-seeking and covetous.

The things that draw us away from our embodied life within our own neighbourhoods are numerous and varied, and different for each individual. For some, it might be computer games. I have a neighbour, “Thomas,” who barely goes out of his house because he is glued to his Xbox. He is more adept at navigating the Lord of the Rings Lego Game than finding his way around his own neighbourhood. He gets easily agitated around people, and would rather hide away inside. If we spend more of our waking time in cyberspace or looking at a screen than we do with real people in real time, isn’t there a danger that we are losing valuable social skills that define us as human beings?

For me personally, it’s probably an older form of technology that draws me away from community: books! Being more of an introvert, it’s easier for me to plunge into a book than engage with a real person. I need to remind myself that there are lonely people like Asid and Thomas who could use some real company.

God Loved the Kosmos in such a Way that …

The disciple John simply called the realm of “I-it” the kosmos, meaning “the world.” Kosmos signifies “a massive, coherent reality that becomes manifest in hostility to Christ and his disciples.”[3] Meanwhile, John frequently refers to Jesus as “the Son of Man,” which could be translated in modern language as “One Who Represents all of Humanity.” If Jesus is the embodiment of our God-given humanity, and the world is hostile to Jesus and his “sent ones” (as taught by Jesus in John 15:18), it therefore follows that the world is essentially hostile to our very humanity as it was originally conceived by God. In John’s cosmology, the world is under the sway of the Evil One (John 17:15), a thief whose mission it is “to rob, kill and destroy.” John also refers to him as the Prince of this world (John 21:31; 14:30; 16:11). He is anti-body, anti-relationship, anti-love. One could almost say he is the “embodiment” of I-it, but he is without form or substance. He is an absence so strong that at times we experience him as a presence—a dark force that seeks to suck up all life and rob us of our joy, like “The Nothing” in The Neverending Story by Michael Ende.

In contrast to this, Jesus commands his disciples to “Love another, as I have loved you,” (John 13:34) in order that the kosmos may believe that he is the Sent One of God (see John 17:21–23). Jesus’ call to reciprocal love and intimacy with God is in direct opposition to the divisive, ruthless violence of the kosmos, the reality of I-it. In this simple commandment, Jesus reveals that one of the Church’s primary roles is to model to the world what true I-Thou relationships look like. It is through the temporal I-Thou relationships that a Christ-centred community shares with one another, by means of the gift of the Spirit, that people may get a glimpse of the eternal I-Thou relationship between Father and Son. This will ultimately break the power of the Prince of this world, who is only given reign because the world has allowed “I-it” to be the dominant reality.

So the good news is that the world is not utterly irredeemable. It may be under the sway of Satan, but Jesus assures his disciples that he has conquered the world (John 16:33). God has already won the world over by his love, by sending his one and only Son, the epitome of humankind, so that whoever believes in him will have life in abundance (John 3:16). Rather than seeking his own power and glory, Jesus’ “hour” of glory is on the cross, naked and stripped of all power. He is a King, but his kingdom is not of this world. He allows himself to be treated worse than a dog. He becomes an “it” to the “I” of the world, but rather than responding with violence, which would only continue the “I-it” reality, he chooses simply to love the world by laying down his life. In this radical act of love Jesus treats all human beings as “Thous,” who are created in the image of his Father, the eternal Thou. Thus the cross could be understood as the single event that restored all of us to our true humanity. But only those who are born of the Spirit (John 3:5), who guides them into all truth (John 16:13), can comprehend the profundity of this event.

It is possible that John (or the Johannine community) wrote his Gospel partly in response to Gnosticism. The Gnostics were a growing sect in the second century, whose beliefs were starkly dualistic. The world and everything in it, including the body, was seen as utterly evil. The only way to escape from this world was through gaining gnosis (knowledge) of our true home, which is in heaven with God.

The Prologue of John’s Gospel refutes this worldview. It states that Jesus came “into his own” or “into his own home” (John 1: 11), meaning this world! He became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood (John 1:14; the Message). Salvation occurs not through some kind of esoteric knowledge of our divine essence, but from “knowledge” in the sense of an intimate relationship with God. Jesus affirms his disciples in the Last Discourse: “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:7). Later he says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you” (John 15:9). At the centre of Christian discipleship is an I-Thou encounter with the eternal Father, made possible by the action of the Son, which is revealed to the believer in this age as true “Life” with a capital L by the Holy Spirit. “In him was Life, and the Life was the light of all humankind,” writes John in the Prologue (John 1:4). This Life and salvation, John attests, may begin now, in this world.

Wholly Present, Holy Presence

For Urban Neighbours of Hope (UNOH), “Presence” is listed as one of our top priorities. As people working for the transformation of urban neighbourhoods facing poverty, we want to be as present as we can be to our neighbours. This requires sacrificing time and energy we could be spending “somewhere else’ to be intentionally and wholly present to others.

However, as with any Christian living in community, I know I eventually hit a wall. The wall is my own sin. I have learnt that my temper can only be kept so long, my compassion is not limitless, and I am by no means immune from those things that seek to distract me from my core purpose as a mission worker and Christ-follower.

This is why, alongside “Presence,” UNOH also holds “Worship” as a top priority. Jesus must be at the centre of all that we do. If we are primarily present to him, we can be wholly present to others. If we make it our daily practice to address the eternal Thou in prayer and worship, we are more likely to be able to address others as “Thou.” Jesus’ presence, by means of the Holy Spirit, is then able to infuse the present with holiness, so that everyday interactions with neighbours (such as celebrating a birthday) have the potential to become sacred moments. The Spirit is also given space to impart to believers the fruit we so desperately need for genuine transformation to occur: love, joy, peace, gentleness, self-control, and so on. This is the essence of the sacramental life modelled by religious orders throughout the ages, which UNOH and other “new friar” groups seek to emulate.

Jesus is clear in his Last Discourse in the Gospel of John: if we want to worship and honour him, we must begin by honouring each other. He practically demonstrated this by washing his disciples’ feet (John 13:1–20), and then giving them a new command to “love one another” (John 13:34–35). I believe this is a crucial point that often gets missed by churches or mission teams seeking to reach out to their local neighbourhood. We must first and foremost love one another, as fellow disciples, before we can go out and change the world. Because ultimately the world is changed by witnessing how much the people in the Church love one another (see John 13:35; 17:21–23). This is how the world will know that Jesus is the Sent One of God, and how they will know we are true-blue followers of him.

Too often mission teams can draw an unhealthy distinction between their own team members and the people they are ministering to. “Whatever it takes to see the Kingdom come” has been our catchcry in UNOH, but our driven-ness to be present to our neighbours can result in the wellbeing of our fellow teammates being disregarded. We forget that we are called to listen to and encourage our fellow Christians as well. I have witnessed first-hand the results of an “I-it” reality manifesting on the mission field: it creates division and competition between teams, and feelings of inadequacy creep in as I compare myself to other workers, who seem to be loving their neighbour better than me! People begin to measure their own self-worth and other people’s worth according to what they can or cannot contribute to UNOH (like cogs in a machine, which can be discarded if not functioning well), rather than accepting each other’s God-given worth as children of God.

Knowing that the disintegrating effects of the “I-it” reality pose a constant threat to our integration as a team, it takes the daily practice of repentance and re-consolidating relationships with one another to achieve a common bond of unity in Christ. The UNOH team are currently putting into place what are essentially “I-Thou” practices: hosting regular member meetings in which the aim is not to make decisions so much as truly dialogue with one another; assigning various roles to people on the basis of their strengths and gifts, rather than treating them as cogs in a machine; and to foster spiritual unity within the order, we distribute common devotions (written by every worker on a roster) that we all participate in on a daily basis across teams. Most importantly, UNOH is a “covenanted” community. That is, we share a common set of commitments and rhythm of life which helps us stay connected, even across different regions. Our three commitments of obedience to Christ, service to our communities and simplicity of lifestyle mean that our lives are not centred on things but on relationships.

On a local level in my neighbourhood, many of the churches in the Greater Dandenong region of Melbourne have laid aside denominational differences and come together to tackle the issue of asylum seekers and how best to care for them in our community. It has been wonderful to see the Church rise up to be the loving, caring presence she is called to be in our neighbourhoods, looking out for the needs of the most vulnerable. We have seen many Persian people come to faith in Christ in this way, and I am sure a lot of that has to do with the love they witness within the Church community.


My point is really very simple, but in its simplicity I think it gets too easily neglected. The central point of all mission, all discipleship, all Church endeavour, must be the I-Thou relationship shared by the Son and the Father, which through the work of Jesus on the cross, the entire world is invited to participate in. As disciples participate in this intimate relationship and reap the harvest which is the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, and so on), others witness this and become swept up in the love and glory that the Son and Father share.

As soon as we depart from this dynamic, relational aspect of the Trinity, mission, discipleship and other forms of ministry become centred more on programs than people. As soon as we move from genuine “I-Thou” encounters with God and others, our ministry will become centred on formulas, techniques and manipulation. The Spirit will be quenched, with no space to breathe. In other words, we fall back into the insidious reality of “I-it.”

I hope this paper can be a challenge for all of us to take stock of how much we spend our lives in the reality of “I-Thou,” and consider how often we might fall prey to the temptations that the false reality of “I-it” brings. You might like to go over your past week and consider these questions, journaling your responses:

  1. When did I spend some time with another person, but was more focused on things, tasks or my own agenda, rather than listening to that person and being truly present to them? Reflect on that moment. You may wish to offer a prayer of confession to God.
  2. When did I spend a significant moment with God in prayer or worship, and address him as a “Thou”? Contemplate this.
  3. When did I spend a significant moment with another person, and address them as a “Thou”? Try and recollect this moment in your mind and remember what it was like.
  4. In what ways could I prevent myself from making “I-it” my dominant, default reality? Write a list.
  5. In what ways could I maximise opportunities to share I-Thou moments with others? Make a list.


[1] Martin Buber, I and Thou, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958), 98.

[2] Mark Sayers, The Vertical Self (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 115.

[3] Paul S. Minear, “Evangelism, Ecumenism and John Seventeen,” Theology Today 35, no. 1 (1978): 10.

Image: Michael Summers, Flickr (Creative Commons)