Spirituality as Relational Dialogue

FRENCH PHILOSOPHER Gabriel Marcel (1889-1975) maintained that the spiritual life is a dynamic relationship between the mind and something outside it – “all spiritual life is essentially a dialogue” and uses for the first time, one of the words of real dialogue by referring to God as a “you”.[i]

Ferdinand Ebner (1882-1931) an Austrian philosopher who developed a religiously informed philosophy of language, argued that the spiritual essentially belongs to the I-You relationship. For Ebner the human spirit “is essentially determined by its being fundamentally intended for a relation to something spiritual outside it, through which and in which it exists” – that is, God.[ii]

This line of thought was developed further by Martin Buber, the Austrian Jewish philosopher (1878-1965) in his now famous formulated philosophy of spiritual dialogue. Buber’s I and Thou, published shortly after Ebner’s book, contains a formula for the Ebnerian idea “Spirit is not in the I but between I and You. It is not like the blood that circulates in you but like the air in which you breath”.[iii] Indeed, ‘I and Thou’ were words taken over from Feuerbach who had maintained that the “true dialectic is not a monologue of a solitary thinker with himself; it is a dialogue between I and Thou.”[iv] For Buber the spirit is wherever “encounter” occurs, whether it be with a human being, a cat, or a tree. As New Zealand theologian Lloyd Geering points out:

“Buber came to feel that spiritual power exists in the personal relations which draw people together in reciprocity. It led him to emphasise the value of true dialogue, and to suggest a fresh understanding of God as the Eternal thou present in all deep human relationships of the I-Thou variety.”[v]

[i] Steven G. Smith, The Concept of the Spiritual (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988), Ibid, 37.

[ii] Ibid, 37-38.

[iii] Ibid, 38.

[iv] Lloyd Geering, Religious Trailblazers (Wellington: St. Andrew’s Trust for the Study of Religion and Society, 1992), 26.

[v] Ibid, 26.

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