Tuesday, July 16, 2013

My friendship with Martin Buber

When I was a theology student, I discovered an abiding dislike of Christian doctrine, after the tenth century (with honourable exceptions),  for after this time there is a break of relation between being and knowing, of doctrine being therapeutically concrete, rooted in prayer. Theology becomes not of God but about God: abstract, intellectual and rational.

My tutor in modern Christian doctrine found this dislike perplexing, after all I was a highly intelligent student so why would I fail to answer the questions set, wanting to probe their presuppositions from a philosophical and existential direction? In this probing my understanding of Buber's philosophy was critical. In exasperation one day my tutor exclaimed, 'I have not read Buber' at which point he was treated to such a hollowing look of contempt that only an arrogant twenty one year old can deliver!

Reading Maurice Friedman's 'My Friendship with Martin Buber', I find myself recalling the ongoing debt I owe to this remarkable man and thinker (and not only in recusing me from the highways and byways of modern doctrinal thought).

Friedman was the pre-eminent interpreter of Buber in the English speaking world, his biographer and his friend. This was his own last book before he died. He shows that he was a man who walked his talk, that sought to concretely embody his philosophy in his life. He was a great man as a result, if not a saint.

It is always difficult to encapsulate in a few words the richness of Buber's thought not least because it is a kind of thinking that is best assimilated through living it out in your own particular context.

Whenever I manage to overcome my impatience and irritability and present myself humanely to the person at the Sainsbury checkout counter or in answering fully a question put to me by a colleague - I think of Buber. Buber is present in my valuing of democratic dialogue between persons as the basis of any meaningful social intercourse, in my sense that a true social order begins in the quality of personal relationships. When I find God in what presents itself in the daily round requiring a loving and just decision, I think of Buber. When I recognise that God is "I am there as whoever I am there" a confirming demanding presence that can be addressed and responded to, but not talked about, I see Buber's hand.

I cannot think of a person whose thinking has more influenced my own, taught it and tested it - I am deeply indebted to him, not least that in reading and practising him, some (if not all) of that arrogance has been worn away to show glimpses of a person capable of listening and contending with another in faithfulness and humanity.


  1. I suppose you think of Buber every time you have to deal with me :)

    1. Buber's I and Thou was dedicated to Paula, his wife:

      'For P. The abyss and the light of the world./Time's need and the craving for eternity./Vision, event, and poetry:/Was and is dialogue with you."

      So that in that sense...yes...:-)))


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