My home teaching companion, Bruce, shares lots of wisdom when we home teach together. This month he perceptively mentioned that most people treat God like he is either their Bellhop or Santa Claus. We hope to call on God to take care of undesirable tasks for us or to give us stuff. Sure we might be profusely grateful when he fills either of these roles but gratitude doesn’t change the basic Santa/bellhop role we tend to cast God in. In this, the second installment of my reading of the newly released Volume 2 in Blake Ostler’s Exploring Mormon Thought series I’ll cover Blake’s views on the type of relationship we should have with God (covering pages 15-22).
I-Thou vs. I-It
Ostler discusses Martin Buber’s concepts of I-Thou vs. I-It relationships. The basic idea is that if we enter any kind of relationship where the end is anything other than closeness and intimacy with the person with whom we are entering it, then it is really an I-It relationship. The person is not the end but rather a means to some other end, therefore the person remains effective a type of “It” rather than a “Thou”. As Blake puts it: “…when persons are used, they cease to be persons and become mere things for us.” (p. 15) Regarding I-Thou relationships Ostler continues:
The I-Thou relationship is thus necessarily reciprocal. To approach a Thou is to be constituted as a Thou in the relationship. In such a relationship I not only give but also receive; I not only speak but also listen; I not only respond but invite response; I not only value but am valued. Only in such a relationship where soul truly mingles with the soul of another Thou are persons constituted as persons. (p. 16)
So when it comes to God, the question is what kind of relationship do we currently have? I think Blake is spot on when he claims that God desires and offers an I-Thou relationship with each of us. In fact he claims that the offer of such a relationship is the clearest example of the grace of God. Making such a claim flies in the face of most traditional Christian theology for several reasons though. Here are some reasons why:
1. I-Thou is a peer relationship and most theologies claim that the very idea of a peer relationship with God (to the degree I am talking about at least) is heresy. The suggestion that a peer relationship with God is possible is among the most radical and beautiful doctrines Joseph Smith taught.
2. An I-Thou relationship is just not possible if we are simply God’s creations. Creations (or pets) are never peers – the best a created being could hope for would be a Pinocchio-Geppetto relationship. But Mormonism teaches that we are simutaneously co-eternal with and children of God – not just creations.
3. An I-Thou relationship requires robust free will and thus an open future. In a causally determined universe (or in any fixed-future universe) the persons are not sufficiently free to independently choose or reject a relationship with God relationship but such free choosing is required for real I-Thou relationships. Being compelled or caused to enter a relationship destroys the nature of a true I-Thou.
So it is interesting to see all the obstacles we face to a true I-Thou relationship. On the one side most of the creeds in the world teach that such a relationship is impossible (and in my opinion too many Mormons buy such doctrines). On the other side even we Mormons (who are at least doctrinally open to a peer relationship with God) tend to prefer an I-It relationship with God anyway and often reduce him to our personal Santa or Bellhop. (We show these preferences through our prayers to and interactions with God. Plus our meager expectations about receiving revelation back often reveal our preference for an I-It relationship I think.) But God, because of his charity and grace, continues to unconditionally extend the offer of a reciprocal I-Thou relationship with us.
Ostler concludes his first chapter by addressing a recent Ensign article where Elder Nelson taught that the love of God is not unconditional. I chuckled at this nervy comment from Blake: “Thus Elder Nelson teaches that we should only give of our love to our children if they obey us” (p. 19) After getting my attention with that humdinger Blake goes on to explain that Elder Nelson is actually teaching a correct principle because there are different levels of God’s love for us. On one level His gracious and charitable ongoing offer of an I-Thou relationship is completely unconditional; but on a higher level the love and intimacy shared within an I-Thou relationship can necessarily only be given when we accept his offer of such a relationship and thus keep his commandments. Interestingly, this view tends to reconcile the classic grace vs. works debate very cleanly as well. The primary manifestation of unconditional grace in the world is God’s ongoing offer of an I-Thou relationship to us; the primary work required of us is to except that offer and embrace God in an I-Thou relationship.
My conclusion: Blake continues to be spot on with his theology. He takes full advantage of modern revelation to show us an unusually clear lens to view the gospel through by calling the creation of an I-Thou relationship with God the heart of the Plan of Salvation. On top of that he provides the best resolution of the grace vs. works debate that I have seen.