Having discovered that relationship is at the heart of who God is, and of who we are, we now turn to a consideration of the impact of “God uses” language is on our understanding of relationships. As we have seen, the way that we talk about God is formative, and therefore it is important that we are careful in the way that we describe the way that God relates. Furthermore, we have also seen that any way that we describe God relating externally must be congruent with our understanding of how God relates internally. With respect to our selves, it is valuable to explore the way in which the relationships that form the communities in which our stories, and therefore our selves, are realised. It is also apparent that the relationship that has the most power to form us is our relationship with God. If we misconstrue the nature of that relationship, then we risk not encountering God fully.

I-Thou / I-It
To provide a framework for these considerations of relationship, we will use Buber’s I-Thou / I-It model. As a foundation for this model Buber (1959) introduces the concept of “primary word”. Each primary word is a combination of two words. These primary words are not a part of the language that pertains to objects, but to relationships. He argues that the primary word “I-Thou can only be spoken with the whole being”. In contrast, the primary word “I-It can never be spoken with the whole being.” (p.3)

He argues that experience is the world of I-It. Neither the I nor the It are altered by the fact of one experiencing the other. (p.6) This is because I-It is fundamentally a word of separation. (p.23) Furthermore, he makes it clear that things that are used fall into the I-It primary word category. (p.38) In contrast, it is only in the I-Thou world of relation that interaction can occur. (p.6) This leads to the definition of love as exclusive to the I-Thou primary word relation. “Love is the responsibility of an I for a Thou”(p.15)

Having described the two primary words, Buber also describes the dynamics within this model of relating. He suggests that the knowledge of a person’s identity is derived from the I-Thou word that is initially spoken to them. Having become aware the self then conceives the I-It primary word. (p.22) For Buber this provides an explanation for his observation that the I-Thou relation seems to be unsustainable and that it reverts to I-It. (p17)

He argues that the world of It is one of space and time and that the world of Thou is beyond both. However, he also argues that any given Thou “after the relational event has run its course, is bound to become an It.” (p.33) When considering this model in the context of relating to God, there are two potential problems with this assertion. How can a “Thou” that is beyond time by constrained by a process within time? Secondly, what dictates that a relational event must run its course – what if it is an eternal event? Buber addresses these concerns by defining God as Thou that can never become an It. (p.76) This definition is echoed by Kung (1980, p.634) “God can be heard and addresses: that he comes among men saying “I,” making himself a “thou” for them, one who speaks to us and to whom we can speak.”

Buber goes on to use these constructs to describe the difference between an individual and a person. He suggests that the I of I-It is different to the I of I-Thou. The I of I-It, the individual, is concerned with self-definition over-against the other, knowing itself as the one who experiences and uses and also is experienced and used. The I of I-Thou, the person, desires to know and to be known in relation with other persons. (p.62ff)
He further argues that individuality is mostly a self-delusion as its fundamental methodology of defining itself by what it is not, in continuous over-against, takes it further and further from true being. (p.64) Thus Buber demonstrates that the one who operates only in the I-It world becomes more unreal.

With this model in view, the problems of “God uses” language are thrown into stark relief. It is clearly the language of I-It, rather than I-Thou. Thus it takes us further away from genuine relationship in which each is fully present to the other, and in which healthy self developing stories can be known. By integrating into our narratives language which portrays ourselves as It to God’s I, this becomes part of our understanding of ourselves. When we see ourselves as It, then we become more likely to relate to others, including God, as It, rather than Thou. So we become increasingly alienated from each other, and from God. This alienation is noted by Buber who suggests that humans have a tendency to reducing God to It, taming God so that we can possess God. (p.112ff)

Moltmann (1991, p.xvi) goes beyond Buber and suggests that in the Trinitarian perichoresis there is a deeper and more fruitful example of mutuality than that in the I-Thou system. Emerging from this view of the Trinity, Moltmann argues that the cross event becomes God the Father suffering with God the Son rather than the Father causing the Son to suffer. Whilst there is not space here for a discussion of Moltmann’s theology of the cross, it is worth noting that this moves away from Christ being the tool of salvation in the hands of the Father to Christ a being a partner in a mutual undertaking. This move addresses Boenhoeffer’s critique, related by Blocher, of “a god of the heathen, a resource figure for us to exploit.” (in McCormack, 2008, p.128)

A Worked Example
In order to illustrate how Buber’s I-Thou / I-It model can be used to analyse and critique ways of relating, particularly with regard to use and abuse, we now turn to an examination of the analysis by Cooper-White (1995) of power dynamics, particularly in Christian communities.

The author begins her argument by asserting that, “All the abstractions and uses to which people put one another … constitute some manner of objectification, an I-It encounter.” (p.17) She goes on to argue that I-It thinking and relating is inseparable from power and objectification of the other. (p.18) She writes “Our entire social and economic structure depends upon the use of the It – regarding plants, animals, people and the earth largely as consumable resources.” (p.19) Over against this, she suggests that Jesus in Luke 6:31 and Matthew 7:12a is not just laying out a laying out a legal framework for ethics, but instituting a deep I-Thou at the centre of human relating. (p.23)

With this ground work complete, Cooper-White demonstrates convincingly that at the centre of the story of Tamar in 2 Samuel 13 is a complete lack of I-Thou relating to Tamar by the other protagonists and much I-It relating. (2 Sam 13:2, 13:14, & 13:17; p24)
To explore the reasons for this, she offers an analysis of power, after psychologist Rollo May, arguing that basic to the human condition is the power-to-be, that every human person needs to feel that they are significant. This need finds natural expression in the power of self-affirmation and the power of self-assertion. May argues that when these are repeatedly denied, then the power of violence and power of aggression break out.(p.30)

Cooper-White suggests that the conflict between the powers-to-be of individuals can only be reconciled by a true appreciation of the I-Thou in all relationships and the resisting of I-It. The sum of self-affirmation is greatest for all humanity when all humanity sees every other human as Thou rather than It. (p.30)

After Starhawk, Cooper-White offers a three-fold analysis of power: power-over versus power-within and power-with. “Instrumental, utilitarian I-It ways of relating lead to only one kind of power, the currently predominant understanding of power as power over others.” She argues that power-with, mutuality, can only be achieved when power-within, one’s own authority over oneself is truly recognised. (p.31) Cooper-White suggests that in Christianity the power structure has been seen as a pyramid, with God at the top, with leaders (men) in the next level, then everybody else.

“Those lowest are cultivated, used, and exploited for their resources with little or no acknowledgment or compensation. Below a certain line (usually defined by gender, age, race, or serving-class status), beings always have been regarded as the property of those above the line. They are used, used up, and abused.”(p.33)

Over against this, Cooper-White advocates power-within, which she understands as the spark of the divine in the human self. Interestingly, she doesn’t appeal to an imago dei argument at this stage, which I feel would strengthen her case by rooting the argument in the creation order. From that spark of God in human life, power-within, comes the ability to develop power-with, which is the expression of power-within in relationship. Because both participants are secure in their own selves they are able to reach out in a way that negates neither, but builds each other up. (p.33) This is a true I-Thou expression of power.
From this analysis, the dangers of relating to one another in an I-It manner are clear. However, Cooper-White also points out that the way in which we picture our relationship with God is formative for our understanding of our relationships with each other. She argues that rather than relating to God as Thou, we tend to relate to God as It. Worse than this, an It in the image of ourselves, a powerful peak to the pyramid. (p.40) Again we are drawn to the conclusion that describing God’s relationship with us as one of utility, an I-It relationship, damages the way in which we form relationships with each other, and with God.

Seen in this framework, it seems clear to me that “God uses” language carries significant risk. It is apparent that this language exists only in the realm of I-It relations. If this is the way that God relates to humans, then it must also be a way in which God relates internally in the Trinity. It has also been shown that I-It ways of relating lead to alienation from God, from others, and ultimately from self. This alienation is completely at odds with the understanding of the relational God, who is love, and who calls God’s people to love with all that they are.

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