"The Way is beyond the power of words to define.
Words come to mind, but they do not express it truly.
"In the beginning was No Word.
Words issued profligate, from the womb of matter.
"And whether, in passion, we resonate with the surface of things or in wisdom we penetrate to the core...
"Yet the surface and the core are essentially One -
The concept makes them seem distinct, manifesting different surfaces.
"If you ask me then I will name this "Wonder".
"From Wonder into Wonder, existence emerges forth."
The Dao, considered in present-day contexts
We will say that Jesus was a super-shaman who claimed he had a direct line on the path to the Good; and he was willing to die on the cross in order that humanity might be saved from its bondage to sin.
We will also notice these symbols: the Man nailed to the Cross; and Christ raised up as the flesh and blood member of the Holy Trinity, which is the triangle of forces made up of the Lord, the Holy Spirit and the Son.
These symbols stand as images of the Way of Christ. That is: a path that stands aloof from all the set codes of morality or convention which people may try to impose; a path which cuts underneath all personal struggles for power and privilege; a path whose truth can never be alloyed with any form of pretension or insincerity - and which is the only path which leads to real fulfillment.
Where are we now?
And so we, as the present-time inheritors of the Christian vision, have burned into the deepest levels of our minds this vision of a path for every human being. This path, threading an unbroken way towards the Good in spite of all the temptations, intimidations and calamities that may try to block it. And in this vision the only real source of failure is the weakness or the misguided willfullness of the individuals themselves.
Now we surely live in times of extreme confusion, where the path to the Good seems to have merged invisibly with the snares and delusions of the surrounding scenery. Yet we, brought up within a Christian culture, speaking a Christian language, cannot help but feel that we are either on the path or off it; we are either saved or lost - even if we don't know how to distinguish which is which.
No way out of this
All of us are caught in this: Christians, apostates, atheists, post-modernists, Marxists and dilettante relativists: all of us are trying to convince ourselves that we are on the path, or we are anxious that we may have lost it. This is especially likely when we are busy denying there ever was a path in the first place. Often the disguise is thin indeed, for instance with the Marxist creed which is really nothing else than the same old Christian struggle to build the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, under new management and a different name.
Fundamentalists all around
So it is interesting how the same old sins keep cropping up under new disguises. And the same fundamentalist idiots arguing about the True Creed and trying to force it down everyone else's throats. And the same arrogance, intolerance and inhumanity practised under the false banner of Socialism or Nationalism - just as we have seen under the false banner of Christianity from the time when the Holy Fathers first got turned on to the blood lust. "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose", as my old Creole granny used to say to me as we sat together under the twilight shadow of the guillotine.
adapted from "A Bolt From the Bleeding Sky" by Michael Roth, published 1984
Let us first consider the astonishing words with which Martin Buber began his most influential work I and Thou
"To man the world is twofold, in accordance with his twofold attitude.
"The attitude of man is twofold, in accordance with the twofold nature of the primary words which he speaks.
"The primary words are not isolated words, but combined words.
"The one primary word is the combination I-Thou,
"The other primary word is the combination I-It; wherein, without a change in the primary word, one of the words He and She can replace It.
"Hence the I of man is also twofold.
"For the I of the primary word I-Thou is a different I from that of the primary word I-It."
|* * *|
"Primary words do not signify things, but they intimate relations.
"Primary words do not describe something that might exist independently of them, but being spoken they bring about existence.
"Primary words are spoken from the being.
"If Thou is said, the I of the combination I-Thou is said along with it.
"If It is said, the I of the combination is said along with it.
"The primary word can only be spoken with the whole being.
"The primary word I-It can never be spoken with the whole being."
Orienting our search
I believe that in this short passage there are some vital clues for successfully orienting our search for The Way. First I want to emphasise that Buber never suggested that we should prefer the I-Thou attitude over the I-It in any absolute sense. It is rather that the dimension of I-Thou has an indispensible part to play in our life, that is too easily overlooked. Only if we take our bearings from the I-Thou, can we maintain and integrate our stance amidst the complex, conflicting demands of the world we live in.
The danger, and the tragedy
Obviously there is a whole book to hand, in which Buber is going to explore the complex interplay between our two fundamental attitudes. There was also more than half a lifetime, in which he would further unfold this complex vision, in writing and teaching, and in living. I, however, am simply wanting to summarise here one essential point, about these two fundamental human stances:-
The I-It exists in a relation of spontaneous interplay with the I-Thou, and this is a natural part of our being human. Then Buber is trying to point out to us the danger which comes from our out-of-control expansion and the every increasing complexity which we are generating in the realm of "I-It". This is our modern tragedy: we have become lost in the tangles of "I-It", and we cannot find our way home.
This is one way of defining the search we are committing ourselves to, in the Dao of Beginning Again. We will avoid the simplistic interpretation of Buber which would make an Idol out of the concept of the I-Thou
, but we are searching for ways to increase the influence in our lives, of this mode of relationship to What Is. This entails learning better to navigate the realms of I-It
, which is not at all the same thing as repudiating it, or trying to diminish its importance. We are seeking a new integration of these two modes of our being: this is the search that we are committed to, and which we have barely yet begun.
© all content: copyright reserved, Michael Roth, January 2004