I & Thou in the Dollhouse

I was careful with my application to divinity school not to misrepresent my beliefs in any way. I mean. Its not like I’m a follower of Baal, but, you know, some people would prefer that to humanism. (I can assure you, aside from eating babies there is absolutely no overlap.)

But I also needed to make a case for why a humanist should be at all interested in Divinity School. There are many good reasons, of course and we’ll talk a lot about them in coming posts. But I tried to tackle it in a different sense in each of three very short essays I was asked to write for my application.

This one asked me to “describe and interpret a favorite book or movie with commentary on why it is meaningful to you.” I almost chose the movie Welcome to the Dollhouse

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… but went with I & Thou instead:

My freshman year at Indiana University was a returning for me. I had struggled over the previous two years with family conflict, the source of which I could not yet comprehend, which had led to a brief stint of homelessness. I had been forced to take a gap year, and while now finally back on track, my transition to life on campus was still pretty bumpy.

The Spring Semester of that year I was lucky enough to get into a 300-level course offered at my dorm (a Living & Learning Community I was also very lucky to get into), by an extraordinary professor, Rabbi Mike Morgan (now Chancellor’s Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Jewish Studies there) who introduced me to, among many other wonders, Martin Buber’s I and Thou. The core message of the book — that “all actual life is encounter” — communicated with forceful compassion by Professor Morgan, struck a chord deep within me that gave me courage to go forth, and resonates within me to this day.

In the book, Buber posits two modes of engaging the world of the Other: “experience” — the profane, everyday, objectifying I-It — and the fleeting, sacred, reciprocal I-You of “encounter”, in which we glimpse the “the absolute relationship”, the “eternal You”. Buber offers no prescriptions of chants or mantras, no parables, arcane symbols or secret codes. I and Thou is descriptive rather than prescriptive, in keeping with its author’s matter-of-fact mysticism. Professor Morgan’s lively but focused classroom discussions brought this to vivid life.

The book’s iteration of a relational theology was not entirely unfamiliar to me, even then: it is rooted in the core belief of reciprocity we find in all world religions, that I had heard in countless interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount over the years in my own Mainline Protestant upbringing. But having struggled with the limiting concept of a remote and largely proscriptive God, I found Buber’s insistence that it is through the particular Other that we encounter “the absolute relationship” — a concept clearly informed by the dialogic tradition of Hasidism — electrifying.

In Professor Morgan’s classroom, not only was the moral imperative of attention to the reality of the Other and our vital participation in the unity and totality of encounter clear, it was put into practice. The challenge was presence, and presence the reward. Had we read and discussed I and Thou less attentively it would have been easier to shrug off its insights. Buber’s language could seem obscure at times, but for me, with Professor Morgan’s spirited delivery, it had the ring of uncanny truth of overheard corner-store conversations: “Something happens to man,” Buber says of the “absolute relationship”. “Something happens.” And I knew just what he meant. Isn’t this the essence of revelation? Isn’t this how we talk about love?

In Buber we find the mysterious and awesome Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, The I am that I am, that cannot be inferred or deduced, that “can only be addressed.” And approaching this mystery with the guidance of a great teacher is how presence in the world became home to me. Something happened in that classroom, in the “sphere between things” that has stuck with me, and gives me courage, again and again, to return.

I’ll work Welcome to the Dollhouse into all this somehow later on. Count on it.

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