WHAT IS SPIRITUALITY?
The I-Thou Encounter,
Discovering Other Persons of Spirit
we have become persons of spirit ourselves,
this might empower us to notice manifestations of spirit in others.
When both persons become fully present, an I-Thou encounter can occur.
However, we need to distinguish I-Thou encounter
from other experiences, such as romantic love.
And developing our human spirits
might enable us to create communities of persons of spirit.
Unfortunately, no matter how wonderful it is to encounter others as spirit,
every I-Thou meeting is destined to come to an end.
A. I-THOU ENCOUNTER IS NOT ROMANTIC LOVE.
B. IN OUR SPIRITS WE CAN BECOME UNIQUE.
C. WE CAN CREATE COMMUNITIES OF PERSONS OF SPIRIT.
D. BUT EVERY THOU
WILL BECOME AN IT AGAIN.
WHAT IS SPIRITUALITY?
The I-Thou Encounter,
Discovering Other Persons of Spirit
by James Leonard Park
of our human spirits come to a focus in love:
When our sensitivity enables us to notice signs of spirit in others
—self-transcendence, altruism, freedom, creativity—
a true encounter of two persons of spirit can occur.
I-THOU ENCOUNTER IS NOT ROMANTIC LOVE.
In order to
understand this I-Thou encounter, however,
we must clearly distinguish this meeting of human spirits
from the psychological phenomenon of romantic love.
Romance is a set of fantasies we learned from our culture.
Other people are basically supporting characters
in our self-contained grand drama of passion and suffering.
Romantic love is a system of socially-scripted feelings,
which we have been rehearsing within ourselves for years.
When we are finally ready to 'fall in love', we release our emotion
on any appropriate victim who happens to cross our field of vision.
But these feelings take place entirely inside our isolated selves.
After a few
months we might discover that this romantic experience
was more an expression of our internal dreams and expectations
than a real encounter with another actual person.
If we are sensitive, perceptive, & self-critical, we will eventually discover
that romantic love was an emotional adventure based on illusion, not information.
The mysterious 'chemistry' drawing us together
was the effect of internalized romantic fantasies, suddenly let loose.
Romantic love results from emotional programming ,
which prepares our feeling—teaches our 'hearts' how to 'fall in love'.
is the opposite of romantic infatuation.
Rather than enculturated feelings
contained entirely within our personality capsules,
the I-Thou meeting takes place between us.
In contrast to the popular belief that love is a feeling,
Martin Buber argues that feelings yield no interpersonal life at all
because feelings take place entirely within our own 'hearts'.
Real meeting occurs when we open ourselves to other persons of spirit.
Such encounters cannot be planned or prepared for.
They happen sometimes when we least expect them
—when we didn't know our spirits were showing.
When we notice
freedom, creativity, & altruism in others,
such presence might elicit similar capacities in us,
which might result in moments of mutual appreciation.
I-Thou encounters never constitute a relationship
because they are rare even for the most spirited persons.
But continuing relationships can develop between persons of spirit
who have occasionally encountered each other as I and Thou.
to distinguish I-Thou encounters from romantic love
is to examine the uniqueness of the two persons involved.
Romantic love involves the physical and emotional levels of being.
With respect to our bodies and our personalities,
we differ from other persons only in degree—never in kind.
Our bodies might 'measure up' to the ideals endorsed in our culture.
And our personalities might closely resemble the most pleasing 'types'.
Beauty contests compare both bodies and personalities.
The young women compete to be the most beautiful and the most talented;
and they are also interviewed by the host (usually a male)
to see whether they have pleasing 'feminine personalities'.
While we are deeply engaged in the game
of romantic love,
we should not expect anything related to our spirits to emerge.
We might be so filled with fantasy feelings (absorbed from culture)
that who-we-are-choosing-to-be in our freedom is almost completely obscured.
IN OUR SPIRITS WE CAN BECOME UNIQUE.
to culturally-valued bodies and personalities
—which have developed more or less by chance—
we develop as persons of spirit by exercising free choice.
Genes and culture provide us with different bodies and personalities;
in every detail we differ from all other persons on the planet
—just as every leaf and every snowflake differs from all the others.
But such incidental differences do not make us unique—one-of-a-kind.
Such uniqueness and singularity emerges
thru the consistent process of making free choices.
How can we recognize
uniqueness in others?
Whatever capacities of spirit we might detect (freedom, creativity)
might also be understood psychologically.
When we first
meet new people,
we interpret them on a psychological level.
We fit them into our preconceived categories.
We all have ready-made ways for dealing with others.
But we understand and appreciate ourselves on a different level.
We know the psychological interpretations are incomplete
because we experience our own lives from the inside.
if we have an unusual life-style,
this might first be interpreted as an inability to adjust to society.
Many people might understand us this way—at least initially.
But occasionally we encounter other persons of spirit
who notice that we differ from other people not by chance
but as a matter of free, self-creating choice.
If we ourselves recognize the
being psychological selves and being persons of spirit,
then we might be more ready to recognize spirit in other persons.
Do we notice freedom in others?
Are they genuinely re-creating themselves?
Do we appreciate creativity in others?
Have they really created something new?
And are we aware of self-transcendence and altruism in others?
discoveries are mutual
—if both persons are operating on the level of spirit.
And occasionally these I-Thou encounters
lead to on-going loving relationships based in our spirits.
But even if we once encountered each other as I and Thou,
we might later revert to conventional psychological dynamics.
And our relationships might become merely emotional and intellectual
—or they might come to an end.
WE CAN CREATE COMMUNITIES OF PERSONS OF SPIRIT.
disclosure between persons of spirit
usually does not lead to loving relationships.
Two persons of spirit who appreciate each other's uniqueness
seldom find it appropriate to create a personal relationship.
It would be
wonderful to create communities of persons of spirit,
all of whom recognize the dimension of spirit in the others.
But it is difficult—especially at first—to tell the difference between
the psychological-intellectual levels and the deeper dimension of spirit.
Some people who initially seem to exhibit freedom, creativity, altruism
—all the marks of the human spirit—
later turn out to be just unusual persons,
who can be understood psychologically.
Most people want to believe that they are persons of spirit.
But it takes some spirit even to recognize the lack of spirit.
If long-lasting communities of spirit are rare,
at least we can treasure whatever brief moments we have
of being present with other persons of spirit.
BUT EVERY THOU WILL BECOME AN IT AGAIN.
The same holds
true for loving relationships:
We might continue to have moments of I-Thou encounter
until for some reason we lose spiritual connection with each other.
One or both might be re-engulfed in the lower dimensions of life
or we might freely choose to turn our spirits in different directions.
As Martin Buber
Every I-Thou encounter is destined to come to an end;
every person who was present in full self-creation and freedom
is destined to slip back into the world of It
—the world where we recognize one another as bodies and personalities,
where we experience and interpret one another thru concepts of mind.
But the rich
experiences of being present
with other persons of spirit are not canceled by their termination.
And we can always be open to new encounters on the level of spirit.
It is a gift
to recognize spirit in other persons.
When an I-Thou encounter happens, we might wish to 'freeze' the moment,
to make that being present with each other last forever.
Such flashes of encounter might be like noticing a butterfly:
If we grasp the butterfly, we destroy it.
We can only rejoice that we are present to appreciate the butterfly
for as long as it wants to stay.
In memory we can treasure moments of I-Thou encounter.
And if we remember where we saw the butterfly before,
we can attempt to return to that 'place',
hoping for another moment of encounter with a person of spirit.
James Park is an independent existential
He treasures those rare moments of encounter with other persons of spirit.
Other dimensions of his thinking will be discovered on his website:
An Existential Philosopher's Museum.
Martin Buber I
James Park New Ways of Loving:
How Authenticity Transforms Relationships .
If you would like to read a deeper critique of romantic love, go to:
Romantic Love is a Hoax! Emotional Programming to 'Fall in Love' .
6. Love: The I-Thou Encounter, Discovering Other Persons of Spirit"
was adapted by the author from
Six Capacities of Our Human Spirits
by James Park.
If you click that title, the complete Table of Contents will appear.
In 2011, all 8 chapters of Spirituality for Humanists
were incorporated in a new book:
Spirituality without Gods:
Developing Our Capacities of Spirit.
This chapter about love as a manifestation of spirit is Chapter 12.
Several others books on
are reviewed on the Existential Spirituality Bibliography .
Return to the Existential Spirituality page
Go to other
cyber-sermons by James Park,
organized into 10 subject-areas.
Return to the opening page of this
An Existential Philosopher's Museum