Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Looking for Balance between Identity and Encounter: Buber's Relations and Interreligious Dialogue

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Looking for Balance between Identity and Encounter: Buber's Relations and Interreligious Dialogue

Article excerpt

There is certainly nothing original in addressing Martin Buber's Ich-Du relations or in examining the implications of his claims for the broad context of interfaith dialogue. Indeed, I am neither an expert in Buber's philosophy nor have I examined what many consider his magnum opus with the extensive knowledge of German that undoubtedly identifies the specialist. Yet, my hope is to offer a fresh perspective that is to emerge as a bridge between the theoretical/philosophical and the experiential/phenomenological in a manner that is certainly unique in the specific details of its actualization. In fact, in my eyes Buber came to life while I was studying at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome pursuing a post-doctoral diploma in interreligious dialogue. This would be no remarkable background if I were a Jesuit priest or even a Catholic lay member with a degree in fundamental theology, but as an Italian Latter-day Saint with academic training in the theological and socioscientific study of Mormonism the setting was not only novel (given that I was the first Mormon ever to attend the institution) but also ideal for an I-Thou Erlebnis of the Buberian kind. (1) Therefore, this essay is undeniably and unapologetically autobiographical, but its main purpose is not to report but to reflect upon the reality of an experience of encounter through the guidance and aid of Buber's dialogic philosophy, which is used to reflect upon what is presently only a memory, although one with significant implications for my own identity.

Indeed, "identity" lies at the core of my explorative and reflective enterprise, which is to be accompanied by another term of great significance for both Buber and interreligious dialogue at large, namely, "encounter." Identity and encounter, in fact, are two coexisting elements that contribute to define, for better or for worse, dialogues and pseudo-dialogues of many different kinds and contexts. It was no surprise then that, in the many conferences, lectures, and debates on interfaith dialogue that I attended in Rome, the common difficulty of demarcating exact boundaries and of defining the characteristics of true dialogue involved questions of identity and encounter. In other words, and in that specific context, the objective of understanding dialogue in order to be able to replicate and develop it usually extended over a pathway littered with such questions as: What are the characteristics of a dialogic identity? What are the boundaries and objectives of a dialogic encounter? What is or should be the ideal meeting point between the stable and the dynamic, the divergent and the common perspectives, the nonnegotiable and the negotiable?

In these questions it seemed that change and stability intersected at times confusedly and at times systematically. Often the perceivable although unspoken goal was to extend an excessively fixed identity beyond its boundaries to an ideal point of conjunction with encounter, which in turn was to be pushed back from its unpredictable, even erratic nature toward greater stability and control. In this light, is it even possible to speak of identity and encounter as separate, identifiable elements of human existence, or should we simply fall back into the identity-in-encounter and encounter-in-identity conundrum with no further guiding principles leading to a recognizable equilibrium? This is where Buber comes to our assistance.

As is well known, Buber distinguished between two kinds of relationships that characterize human beings in all their interactions. The most common and by far most abused is the "Ich-Es" or "I-It" relation that involves the realm of "experience" or Erfahrung as Buber would pinpoint. Specifically, experience of this kind involves the objectification of our reality with the It part representing the direct object of whatever goal-directed verb concerns us, including verbs of perception and sensation. Buber further stated that experiences of this sort are not focused in the present world; indeed, they may not even be considered encounters because they take place only within the mind of the individual subject, since they connect with her or his memories, conceptualizations, and desires that are clearly rooted in the past. …

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