Thursday, July 7, 2011

I and Thou, and Indaba

Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me.

Earlier this month, members of the the Diocese of Toronto (along with members of the Diocese of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, and members of the Province Hong Kong) had the privilege to be part of a pilot project in the Anglican Communion called Continuing Indaba. Continuing Indaba is part of an ongoing listening project in the Anglican Communion in which we seek to journey together in unity amidst the issues that threaten to divide us. There are many things that divide us as Anglicans, not least of which are issues concerning human sexuality, but beneath the surface and the presenting issues that ignite conflict are deeper differences, many cultural, some linked to our varied and differing experiences of colonialism, and others linked to the shape of Christianity and Churchmanship we inherited and which endure in our post-colonial contexts.

When relationships break down, it is easy to caricature the other, and to deride the opinions and positions held by the other when they are so different from own. This is especially true when a vast geographical distance separates us as well. But the question was asked, what if we were to meet face to face? What if we were to welcome one another into each others’ homes, parishes and communities, and into each others’ lives? What would be the gifts that we would share and receive? What if we were to become vulnerable to each other, to become like children to one another, and to practice welcoming hospitality to one another, in spite of our differences?

And so we met for eight days. Part of that time was in the setting of the Convent of the Sisters of St. John the Divine, and another part was in local parishes, in local communities. I have been asked what the entire experience was like. I have half-jokingly responded that it was a bit like being in group therapy for eight days. It was hard emotional work, but fruit of the labour was wonderful. It was more than a week of group therapy, though; it was a time to journey honestly and authentically through the challenging questions we face and ask seriously the question, is there a future to this relationship? To our great surprise, we realized that we had only barely begun the work of relationship; and as the bud of that relationship began to open, we knew the joy of sisterhood and brotherhood. Our time together was punctuated by moments of depth, both painful depth and joyful depth.

Following our time together, I began to think about, and to read the work of the great Jewish philosopher and theologian, Martin Buber. The seeds to explore Buber were planted last fall in the visit of a former teacher. We had not seen each other in over twenty years, although we had had some recent wonderful correspondence. When we met we simply embraced each other, a few tears fell, and he quoted Martin Buber, “All real living is meeting.”

All real living is meeting.These words come from Buber’s beautiful little book, I and Thou. In that work Buber suggests that we cannot conceive of ourselves, except in relationship to the other. This is done in two ways. There is either the pairing of I with it/he/she; or there is the pairing of I with Thou (or you). In the world of I-he/she/it, we seek to control the world, shape it, and understand it. We are the subject, and everything else is object. The object, the he/she/it of the other is to studied, classified, explained, understood, theorized about. We are detached from the other, set apart from it, distinct from it. “I” is over “here” observing the “he/she/it” which is over “there.” This, according to Buber is the realm of experience. We seek to understand the other by learning about it, or him or her.

But the realm of I-Thou (I-You), Buber claims, is the realm of relationship. It is the place where hearts meet; it is the place where we see in each other the “I” of subjectivity; where we behold rather than experience; where we are indeed drawn into the life of the other, and where we realize that there is no “I” without “You.” It is the realm in which we are not longer objects to each other, no longer he/she/its to each other, but “Thou,” but “You”, and hence beloved. We encounter one another, and with the other, behold the eternal “Thou” and are drawn into the great “I-Thou” world of our creator. This is not the objective world of experience, but the realm of encounter, the realm of relationship, in which our shared subjectivity is woven together in a divine tapestry, where our individual steps move in concert with the other in a divine dance.

For me, the struggle of Indaba was the toggling between the realms of experience and relationship. At least part of our mandate seemed to be to offer an experience of the Canadian Church (and alternately an experience of Jamaican and Chinese responses to this experience), and an experience of how each of us do things (in particular, theology, sexual ethics, youth ministry, and social justice & engagement) in our own contexts; to experience how we understand and engage our mission and ministry in unique ways. It seemed to me, though, that the harder we tried to demonstrate who we were, the more difficult understanding became. We manufactured a program to give people from far and wide an experience of us, and yet it seemed like they still didn’t get us, and we still didn’t get them. Customs and traditions and ways of doing things seemed even more baffling and troubling.

However, at the heart of Indaba, and dare I say, at the heart of the Christian life, is another way of being, a way that moves beyond and more deeply than the way of experience, and that is the way of encounter, the way of relationship. This is the “I-Thou” relationship of which Buber speaks. The genius of Indaba was not so much that we learned about each other and experienced each others’ worlds, but rather that we encountered each other, that through living and being together for a time, even through bafflement, we grew in relationship with one another. Through encountering each other, beholding each other as beloved children of God, and hence the beloved of our beloved, we became no longer objects to be understood by each other, no longer he/she/it, but I and You, I-Thou. We encounter one another and behold within each other the eternal I and the eternal Thou, in a dance of reciprocity and mutual subjectivity. In our Indaba encounter, it was surprising how quickly, through the grace of the abiding presence and promise of the Holy Spirit in the Church, we moved from I-he/she/it, to I-Thou, and the interesting thing is that an unexpected gift began to emerge, namely, some very small seeds of understanding.

Buber concedes that the I-Thou moments of life are fleeting moments, but they are moments that inform and transform the everyday world of I-he/she/it that we inhabit most of our waking hours. Relationship shapes experience, not the other way around. Understanding does not come primarily through an experience of learning about each other, through objectivity, but through a relationship with another, through an encounter, when heart meets heart, when I meets Thou, when we realize that there truly is no “I” without “Thou” and that I and Thou are one.

This is the truth behind the saying of Jesus, “whoever welcomes you, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me.” In the faithfulness of welcoming each other, not as he/she/its, but as Thou, as another I who beholds me as Thou, we welcome another, Christ our God, who takes us beyond the surface layers of our lives and into the deeper places of encounter and relationship. When we plunge into this authenticity, through the risk of hospitality and welcoming, we are given the greatest gift of all, namely, through relationships formed with new friends, the friendship of Christ our God.

c. 2011, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves