Saturday, November 14, 2009

Martin Buber vs. NPR

Martin Buber asserts that the there are two “founding relationships” that humans form. There is the human-to-object relationship, the I-It, as well as the I-Thou, a human’s relationship with another human. The I-thou is more than just humans connecting one another, however; it is the freedom-to-freedom relationship. That is, we have a profound connection with other people when there is a reciprocation of the understanding that each is a free being. Buber, a theologian, states that we are capable of forming such connections because they reflect our experience with God. This is the case for both believers and nonbelievers. When a human encounters the I-It, the person seeks for the object in need. Conversely, the I-Thou relationship is deeply significant because the human with whom we connect enters our lives naturally, creating meaning for both subjects. This is similar to a human’s experience with God. Our views of God develop based on life experiences, rather than constant search for a finite answer of God’s existence.

While Buber suggests that our personal relationships reflect that with God, an NPR broadcast I came across in my Psychology class complicates this. The broadcast, entitled “To the Brain, God is Just Another Guy,” supports that the brain responds to God as if He is another person. Functional MRIs were performed on participants as they were told statements such as “God is with me throughout the day and watches over me,” and “there is no higher purpose.” The statements activated areas of the brain responsible for empathy and understanding others’ thoughts. If we formulate opinions about God, our brain cannot help but to understand God as if He were another finite being. The study also suggests that that religion formed in the brain as result of social interactions (Hamilton, 2009). In other words, our idea of God developed over years of people collectively attempting to understand a higher being and the afterlife. It benefits human evolution, however, because it allows us to form unity, especially in times of turmoil. Essentially, the study claims that we have developed an idea of God because of complex human interactions.

While I do not believe that this experiment directly disproves the I-Thou relationship, I do believe that it complicates Buber’s claim. God is an incredibly infinite Being that the human brain cannot fully fathom. Whether we believe in God or not, we cannot entirely understand God’s purpose or existence. Thus, the study’s findings suggest that we can only expect so much from the I-thou relationship. We are supposed to model our I-thou relationships with the ideal Eternal-Thou. However, if we can only understand God as “another guy”, then the model for such relationships is restricted. It is not degraded into the I-It, as we are not necessarily objectifying God. However, Buber’s idea that humans must strive for the Eternal Thou in our personal relationships is too idealistic.

Hamilton, Jon. (2009, March 09). “To the Brain, God is Just Another Guy.” All things Considered. Washington, DC: National Public Radio.


  1. I think this is a very interesting blog, especially as it makes you think of there being limits of one's relationship with God. I agree that it is harder to have the eternal I- Thou relation with God when we are not able to fully grasp God's entire essence and existence. Jen's reference to the NPR broadcast clouds Buber's claim alot because the NPR broadcast is presenting the possibility that God can be seen as another human among us. Therefore, there might be a presence of the I- It relationship within the eternal I - thou relationship.

  2. I think your point about the limited capability of humans in this relationship is very important. In a sense it makes Buber's I-thou relationship unattainable in a perfect form because of the sheer lack of cognitive and perceptive abilities of one of the parties involved. It's comparable to trying to create and maintain an I-thou relationship between a human and a gnat. While there is clearly interaction and mutual recognition between the two, the relationship is severely limited by the gnat, through no fault of its own, only because it happens to be gnat.


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