Is God Your Bellhop, Santa Claus, or Friend? (Ostler reading part 2)

March 30, 2006    By: Geoff J @ 11:00 pm   Category: Ostler Reading,Personal Revelation,Theology

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.


  1. A couple of additional thoughts:

    I think that in addition creating and I-Thou relationship with God via a direct dialogic relationship (where we pray always and hear back from always by always having his Spirit with us) we probably also enhance that relationship with God through our true I-Thou relationships with other people here. “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matt 25:40) I think that the entire concept of relationships with others where the other is the purpose and not just a means to some other end is closely related to the scriptural concept of charity. That also fits nicely with the teaching that if we have no charity we are nothing. If the entire purpose of life is to create an I-Thou relationship with God then if we have no I-Thou (read charity-filled) relationships with our fellow beings then we can’t have one with God either. Therefore we are “nothing” in the sense that we are squandering our probationary period here.

    I also think that one problem many of us have with reactivation or missionary or even home teaching efforts is that we too often take an I-It approach to the people who we are serving. The individuals sometimes become a means to some other goal (numbers, guilt alleviation, whatever) rather than the end in themselves. An I-Thou relationship makes others the end. It means that we want to deeply understand and help and share the best of ourselves with them independently of other goals. That kind of charity is hard — but it may be the very heart of the Plan of Salvation.

    Comment by Geoff J — March 30, 2006 @ 9:43 pm

  2. I’ve a great relationship with my wife. I’d like it to continue to grow and be the perfect “I-Thou” eternal relationship. I have a good relationship with my parents, but I don’t put as much effort into it. I’m extremely thank for the gift of life and upbringing they gave me, however the idea of a “close and intimate” relationship with them, to me, is not as valuable as a close and intimate relationship with my wife.

    Likewise, I am extremely grateful to God, His wife and Son for spirit, life, salvation, everything. I hope, with Their help, to become their equal. I wonder, however if Father’s relationship with Mother is always not only ‘more better’ but also more important than Their relationship with us? Likewise isn’t the “close and intimate” relationship with my wife ultimately the most important to eventually become Gods (have spirit children)?

    Am I explaining this correctly?

    Comment by Ed — March 30, 2006 @ 10:17 pm

  3. For the life of me, I can’t make WordPress’s automagic pingbacks work.

    Anyway, I have some comments.

    Comment by Brad Haas — March 31, 2006 @ 2:28 am

  4. Ah, I was going to make a comment and then Geoff said in comment #1 what I was going to say. The I-Thou relationship with God only actually works insofar as we have it towards others. I’m thinking the parable of the unmerciful servant. To the degree that we fail to extend the I-thou relationship to others we essentially reject it from God.

    I don’t think that Geoff suggests otherwise here, but I think it’s particularly important to point out that the I-Thou relationship is not a set of actions but a state of being. There’s nothing you can do to develop the I-Thou relationship with another if you essentially see them with an I-It perspective. It is a fundamental condition of the heart.

    Comment by Eric Russell — March 31, 2006 @ 3:30 am

  5. Brad,

    I think I turned pingbacks off. It was letting too much spam in.

    Interesting response post, BTW. I suspect that my original assertions in 1-3 were probably too strident because while there are differences in the degree to which Mormon theology and creedal Christian theologies allow for I-Thou relationships (with Mormonism’s uncreated nature of man, eternal progression, and robust notions of free will giving it a turbo boost in this area), both certainly seek such relationships. I added a small qualifier or two as a result of your comments so thanks!

    Comment by Geoff J — March 31, 2006 @ 8:10 am

  6. Eric,

    Oops. Sorry to steal your thunder. I’m glad to see that we are once again on the same page though. I think your additions were right on the mark as well. This I-Thou thing probably has more to do with the concept of paradigm than with actions. That is part of the reason I wanted to post on this — paradigms seem to be best shifted through discussion and learning and I think this I-Thou direction is a better lens through which to see the world than most others.

    Comment by Geoff J — March 31, 2006 @ 8:16 am

  7. So is Blake giving you a cut of his royalties? Your being pretty persuasive here.

    Comment by Eric — March 31, 2006 @ 9:51 am

  8. Hehe. Maybe I’m hurting sales by revealing all the gems in the book, Eric… ;-)

    Comment by Geoff J — March 31, 2006 @ 10:18 am

  9. One of my favorite bible scholars is a born again. He continues to promote the idea that our end goal is fellowship with God. But his type of fellowhip seems to me to be more of a “atta boy – good dog” type relationship. Your post is so right on and so contrary to his I’m tempted to talk with him at his next bible study I attend.

    Comment by don — March 31, 2006 @ 12:44 pm

  10. yes, he is also my gardner, my cheerleader, my AA sponsor, my. . .

    Not my husband, though. Bill’s good at that part. Actually, he does some of the other stuff, too. Not the AA part, he doesn’t relate.

    Comment by annegb — April 1, 2006 @ 11:03 am

  11. I’ll try again – my first comment was either rejected or lost.

    Briefly: What is ultimately (eternally) more important, your I-thou relationship with God or your I-thou relationship with your spouse?

    Comment by ed — April 2, 2006 @ 4:32 pm

  12. Hmmm… Interesting question Ed. My guess is that both relationships are required for a “fullness” of joy and that neither I-Thou relationship can be fully realized in the eternities without the other. In other words, I suspect oneness with your spouse is impossible without both of you having a loving I-Thou relationship with God and that Oneness with God is impossible without having a loving I-Thou relationship with your spouse. It seems to me that it takes more faith to focus energy on the relationship with God because we can’t see him while here though.

    Comment by Geoff J — April 2, 2006 @ 10:19 pm

  13. Ok, let me try again…

    Which relationship is more important to God, His relationship to you (and me) or His relationship with His Wife?

    My wife and I may become Gods and Godesses and build worlds and have eternal children. Yes, in order to reach that level we’ll want/need/require an I-thou relationship with our Father (and perhaps Mother), but then won’t the spousal relationship be the ultimate?

    Comment by ed — April 4, 2006 @ 8:10 pm

  14. Well ed, I think there are all sorts of assumptions built into your last question that have not been fleshed out in the revelations. For instance, you seem to imply that your wife and you will have some sort of separate kingdom someday — an idea that may or may not be true. For instance, the great intercessory prayer in John 17 could be read to mean that there is only one Godhead and we are all invited to join it. We also don’t really know the nature of the current male/female roles in the Godhead or the nature of that Oneness. (I have a paper in the works one this subject, actually.) So I think a lot of unpacking of assumptions would have to happen before these questions could be discussed in a fruitful way.

    Comment by Geoff J — April 5, 2006 @ 8:48 am

  15. Hmmm,

    I’ll have to go look it up, but I thought it was at least BY that taught that there are 3 levels in the CK and one had to be married (perhaps with more than one wife – according to BY) to reach the top level and only those that reach the top level can procreate spiritually – producing another link in the lineage of Gods.

    Comment by ed — April 6, 2006 @ 5:07 pm

  16. Ed,

    I don’t think I disputed any of the things you just mentioned in my comment… What I did question was the notion of a completely separate (and perhaps autonomous or at least semi-autonomous) kingdom.

    Comment by Geoff J — April 6, 2006 @ 7:18 pm