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Sacred Space in a Divided World

Posted on November 15th, 2016

The anger and fears unleashed after the USA Presidential election last week took a lot of us by surprise – especially as it now bleeds into the church. I speak daily to my 21-year-old daughter, a college senior, protesting Trump’s win on the streets of Manhattan, as well as to my older brother, a professor in the Midwest, boasting about the end of the Democratic Party’s arrogance and elitism.

How are we to respond? I am not fully sure, but I am sure of one thing: Loving well is the essence of true spirituality, requiring that we practice the presence of people within an awareness of His presence. But learning this is no small task. Martin Buber, however, a Jewish German theologian, can serve us here.

In the early years of his life, the “religious” for Buber was the mystical experiences that lifted him out of the so-called earthly, ordinary experiences of life. Buber was more concerned with eternity than with the temporal, more with ecstasy than daily existence, more with what lies beyond the world than the world itself.

Then, as World War I was breaking out in Europe in 1914, a young man came to visit him after he had enjoyed a morning of “spiritual ecstasy”. It turned out to be an encounter that changed the trajectory of his life:

“What happened was no more than that, after a morning of “religious” enthusiasm, I had a visit from an unknown young man. I certainly did not fail to let the meeting be friendly. I conversed attentively and openly with him – only I omitted to guess the questions which he did not put. Later, not long after, I learned from one of his friends (he himself was no longer alive) the essential content of these questions. I learned he had come to me not casually, but borne of destiny, not for a chat but for a decision. He had come to me; he had come to this hour.”

The guilt Buber felt was not that he did not remove the young man’s despair, but that he was not fully present as a whole person. He did not bring the resources that he might have had to that meeting. He did not turn to the young man with his whole being – body, mind, and spirit. He did not genuinely listen. Rather, he brought the leftovers from his preoccupation with his morning of ecstasy.

For Buber this was a judgment on his whole way of life.

He noted that in most of our human relationships we treat people as objects, as an “It”. We get frustrated when people don’t fit into our plans and end up treating them as objects, as a means to an end. He argued that the most healthy or mature relationship possible between two human beings is an I-Thou relationship where we recognize the image of God in people. In an I-Thou encounter, we deeply listen and affirm each person’s uniqueness. When this happens, the separate space between us becomes sacred space. God actually penetrates that space and we experience God’s presence in a special way.

Consider the following diagram:


The central tenet of Buber’s life’s work was that the I-Thou relationship between persons intimately reflects the I-Thou relationship we have with God. Genuine relationship with any Thou shows traces of the “eternal Thou.” For this reason, it is such a powerful experience when we listen deeply in order to love someone well. When genuine love is present, God’s presence is manifest.

And if there is anything we need to bring to the polarization in our country, and the powers and principalities behind such divisiveness, it is a centeredness in Jesus that equips us to see each person we meet as a Thou.

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