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Spring 2020 · Vol. 49 No. 1 · pp. 18–27 

In the Beginning Is Relation: Reconceiving Human Creatureliness

Laura Schmidt Roberts

The original printed article contained some mismatched endnote numbers.
Download a corrected PDF of this article here.

We have an impoverished humanity if we have no “genuine meetings” with creation.

While a theological understanding of relationality as constitutive of human being is not new, extension of this assertion to human interrelatedness with the rest of creation presents fruitful possibilities for revisioning an ecologically informed theological anthropology. Such revisioning is crucial in the current context of growing ecological crisis, bearing as it does increasingly visible and dramatic evidence of the groaning of the whole of creation (including humanity) as an interdependent community. Though particularly pressing now, this realization received eloquent description by naturalist and environmental philosopher John Muir over a century ago:

Why should man value himself as more than a small part of the one great unit of creation? And what creature of all that the Lord has taken the pains to make is not essential to the completeness of that unit—the cosmos? The universe would be incomplete without man; but it would also be incomplete without the smallest transmicroscopic creature that dwells beyond our conceitful {19} eyes and knowledge. From the dust of earth, from the common elementary fund, the Creator has made Homo sapiens. From the same material he has made every other creature, however noxious and insignificant to us. They are earthborn companions and our fellow mortals. 1

This article considers how construals of human being might be recast to emphasize human interrelatedness with all of creation by engaging twentieth-century philosopher Martin Buber’s I-Thou dialectic. For Buber, I-Thou marks the spheres of relation in which the “I,” through encounter with the Other, develops as a whole person. These relationships—marked by dynamic participation and mutual impact—constitute the human person. What might it mean to construe human relation to God’s good creation as encounters with an Other?

To begin, I sketch Buber’s two ways humans encounter and respond to whatever presents itself to us in the world, the I-It and the I-Thou relational stances. I then explore briefly the way in which Buber himself describes human encounter with creation (“our life with nature”) as an I-Thou relation and draw out several implications for theological anthropology.


Buber’s best-known work, I and Thou, presents human existence in the world as characterized by two different relational stances, which he describes as “speaking” I-Thou or I-It. The language of stances denotes choice and orientation, and the sense of speaking is most like a speech-act (an utterance considered an action) versus just saying something. “There is no I taken in itself” says Buber “but only the I of the primary word I-Thou and the I of the primary word I-It.” 2 We are who we are, and we become who we are by virtue of these relational stances. Both are necessary for life in the world, but only one, speaking the I-Thou, helps us become fully human persons.

In the realm of the I-It, our activities have objects.We perceive, sense, feel, imagine, think, experience some thing, but only by traveling “over the surface of things” such that one “wins an experience from them.” We “extract knowledge” for evaluation, judgment, justification, use. As the realm of such “experiences,” subject-object duality characterizes the I-It stance, marked by our separation from whatever we encounter through objectification and marked by our control—we arrange, order, categorize, always only through our own filters. Buber recognizes the practical necessity of this stance, and even its inevitability. But he underscores the danger of living too much in only this realm, because of its self-referential and self-reinforcing nature: “The man who experiences has no part in the world. For it is ‘in him’ and not between him and the {20} world that the experience arises.” This one-sided cataloging, knowing, and using typifies I-It “experience” in contrast to “the world of relation” established by the I-Thou. Buber insists that “Without It man cannot live. But he who lives with It alone is not a man.” The one-sided nature of this stance keeps us from developing into full human persons; we remain, instead, individuals. 3

The contrast between an individual and person clarifies the difference between the two different stances. An individual remains separate from others. Buber affirms the individuation necessary to becoming an authentic “I” and “standing your ground” in relation to the Other—this kind of distance marks the development of a person. But the individual remains separate in a self-contained, isolated way. The individual turns away from relational events, bending back on themselves in a closed, self-referential manner or, when encounters do occur, imposing their view in a kind of self-asserting monologue. The individual chooses the stance of I-It, the control and predictability of objectification and possession and use—chooses this over the risk of what Buber calls “the unreliable, perilous world of relation.” Buber’s concern (nearly a century ago!) was in fact the dramatic expansion of “the world of It,” in relation to which human “ability to experience and use It must also grow.” The problem, Buber explains, is that “the development of the ability to experience and use comes about mostly through the decrease of human power to enter into relation . . . [The] power to enter into relation is being buried under increasing objectification,” 4 Buber lamented. As one scholar clarifies, when our habitual stance is the I-It, “it becomes more and more difficult for individuals to suspend the perception of everyone and everything as an object for personal consumption or gratification.” 5 A habitual stance of objectification leaves us ill-equipped for a life in which, Buber insists, “All real living is meeting” or encounter. 6

The realm of the I-Thou by contrast “establishes the world of relation,” the world in which the ongoing process of becoming a person unfolds. Human personhood develops only in relation to the Thou, where we encounter an irreducibly whole and unique Other. A human person (as opposed to an individual) seeks interrelation and dialog with, not objectification and use of. Doing so means “standing your ground” as an I, but it’s the I of a person who turns one’s unique whole being and full presence toward encounter with an Other, versus the I of an individual turned back onto itself. The I of a person steps out into direct relation in immediate, mutual encounter which further develops their full personhood. Such a genuine meeting is always an event, marked by risk and by yielding versus control. The encounter entails both listening and responding, for the I both chooses and is chosen in dialog. Genuine {21} meeting in the realm of the I-Thou occurs not in the “experience” of either of the dialogical partners, for such internal, self-referentiality belongs to the I-It. Rather the engagement generates a new reality in between the partners, both more and other than the sum of the two or their “experience” of the authentic encounter. 7


Buber identifies three spheres in which the world of the I-Thou relation arises: our life with nature (“beneath the level of speech”), our life with humans (through speech), and our life with “spiritual beings” (beyond speech). The mutual reciprocity and dialogical nature of the I-Thou relation in the interhuman sphere is easy enough to picture. But Buber insists a measure of reciprocity may also characterize genuine, direct relationship with specific animals and elements of nature (though not with an abstracted nature in general). A “latent twofoldness” of the I-It and I-Thou marks animals’ existence because they can react or respond to actions toward them, generating a measure of back and forth. This makes possible “a threshold of mutuality” in genuine encounter with them as one “says Thou” to them. In fact, the remarkable achievement by which one “draws animals into his atmosphere and moves them to accept him, the stranger, in an elemental way and to respond to him”—this ability to win active response from an animal is directly proportional to the extent to which one’s attitude “is a genuine saying of Thou” according to Buber. 8

Aspects of nature like stars, rocks, and trees lack the ability to react or respond in the same way. “Yet,” Buber insists, “this does not mean that here we are given simply no reciprocity at all. The deed or attitude of an individual being is certainly not to be found here, but there is a reciprocity of the being itself, a reciprocity which is nothing but being in its course. . . . Awakened by our attitude, something lights up and approaches us from the course of being.” 9 The assertion points to something shared simply by virtue of existence, a reciprocity born of “the course of being” that lies dormant until stirred by the relational stance—the “speaking Thou” which calls it forth. Buber begins his discussion of the world of relation with a concrete demonstration of this notion:

I consider a tree.

I can look on it as a picture: stiff column in a shock of light, or splash of green shot with the delicate blue and silver of the background.

I can perceive it as movement: flowing veins on clinging, pressing pith, suck of the roots, breaking of the leaves, ceaseless commerce with earth and air—and the obscure growth itself. {22}

I can classify it in a species and study it as a type in its structure and mode of life.

I can subdue its actual presence and form so sternly that I recognize it only as an expression of law—of the laws in accordance with which a constant opposition of forces is continually adjusted, or of those in accordance with which the component substances mingle and are separated.

I can dissipate it and perpetuate it in number, in pure numerical relation.

In all this the tree remains my object, occupies space and time, and has its nature and its constitution.

It can, however, also come about, if I have both will and grace, that in considering the tree I become bound up in relation to it. The tree is now no longer It. I have been seized by the power of exclusiveness.

To effect this, it is not necessary for me to give up any of the ways in which I consider the tree. There is nothing from which I have to turn my eyes away in order to see, and no knowledge that I would have to forget. Rather is everything, picture and movement, species and type, law and number, indivisibly united in this event.

Everything belonging to the tree is this: its form and structure, its colours and chemical composition, its intercourse with the elements and with the stars, are all present in a single whole.

The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no value depending on my mood; but it is bodied over against me and has to do with me, as I with it—only in a different way.

Let no attempt be made to sap the strength from the meaning of the relation: relation is mutual.

The tree will have a consciousness, then, similar to our own? Of that I have no experience. But do you wish, through seeming to succeed in it with yourself, once again to disintegrate that which cannot be disintegrated? I encounter no soul or dryad of the tree, but the tree itself. 10

Here Buber sketches with poetic clarity the difference between I-It and I-Thou relations with one exclusive tree. He rejects any fanciful or mystical “trying to see things from the tree’s point of view.” But he likewise rejects the parsing or categorizing of the tree by the individual who peers at it from a distance as if that were adequate to its reality. The observable aspects are irreducibly parts of a whole whose singular unity is greater than the sum of its parts—“that which cannot be disintegrated” (dis-integrated). The tree “approaches us from the course of its being;” the whole unique {23} reality of the tree discloses itself, even without language. This genuine meeting characterizing the I-Thou relation remains unavailable to the individual who investigates but assumes no relationship—the stance, the distance, preclude any real connection or encounter. The tree is seen as so many various measurable parts, and so the investigator likewise brings only part of a human person—a “conditional individuality”—to their “consideration” of the tree. By contrast, as the “world of relation,” the ongoing development of full human personhood occurs in the realm of the I-Thou, which includes “our life with nature” as demonstrated by the narrated encounter with “the tree itself.”


Three aspects of Buber’s thought prove especially productive for revisioning an ecologically informed theological anthropology.

First, Buber’s assertion that relational stances—either the I-It or the I-Thou—govern all of human existence highlights questions of disposition, habituated practice, and personhood. What does it mean to be human and to develop fully as a human person? Buber’s response is resoundingly relational, a strong point of resonance with biblical texts and Christian understanding. Indeed Genesis 1 and 2 paint a picture of created humanity located in relationships, with the God who made them and who they image in the world, with each other, and with the rest of creation (animals, plants, soil, waters). Relatedness to God marks humanity and creation as a whole. All things have their origin, purpose, and place from God, and all are both distinct from and dependent on God. Humanity bears this relationality in a unique relationship to God as made in God’s image. Humanity’s relationship to the rest of creation is also unique in light of responsibilities given—dominion, cultivating and “keeping” the garden, and naming the animals.

But this uniqueness must not be allowed to overshadow how we are like the rest of creation, and how that createdness clarifies our relationship as one of interdependence, born of shared materiality and limitations. Humans are bodies formed from the earth (Gen 2), bodies that need food and water and a place to be. A physical environment and food to eat are central concerns, actually. Genesis 1:29–30 (NRSV, passim) describes shared vegetarian food sources for humankind and “everything that has the breath of life” (beasts, birds, creeping things). Genesis 2 depicts God forming a man from the dust, planting a garden, and “placing” the man in it with instruction to cultivate and eat (Gen 2:7, 8, 15). God creates and sustains and makes provision for creation, human and otherwise.

Interrelatedness marks the entire created order—as part of creation our existence and well-being are inextricably linked to the world in {24} which we were created and placed. So too, Genesis depicts relationship between humans as essential, most pointedly in Genesis 2:18 where a suitable partner must be made for the man because “it is not good” for him to be alone (a statement surely meant to be read in contrast to completed creation as “very good” in Gen 1:31). The Genesis picture is of an interdependent, harmonious, interconnected creation, all of which God declares is “very good.”

Genesis 3 portrays human sin as the breaking and warping of these relationships, a disorder that maps significantly onto relations marked by self-assertion, isolation, objectification, possession, and use—the I-It. The curse in Genesis 3 addresses the relational ruptures explicitly: enmity between creature and human, a cursed ground from which provision must be wrestled, mutual human partnership replaced instead by a “ruling over.” The stories that follow in Genesis show humankind “out of place” literally in terms of expulsion from the garden but also metaphorically in relation to the harmonious whole depicted in creation. A spiral of violence escalates (Gen 6:17) such that the flood story (Gen 7–9) presents a kind of de-creation and renewed creation, with God establishing covenants with the humans but also with every living creature and the earth itself (Gen 9:10–17). While the text reasserts the nexus of interdependent relationships from the creation stories in Genesis 1–2, the rest of Genesis narrates the ongoing brokenness and disorder of these relationships, especially between humans.

Buber’s contrasting stances prod us to reexamine what dispositions govern our relationships, for relationships constitute our ever-developing personhood. In a consumer-oriented culture, how intentionally do we combat the tendency to view everything and everyone as having instrumental value—as being somehow of use to us? How do we structure individual and communal practices that foster genuine reciprocal relationship instead of “ruling over,” relationships that risk “the unreliable, perilous world of relation”—the I-Thou? As Christians we have good resources for this, of course: a God who risks incarnation, thereby making possible and making visible what a life of right relationships looks like. A God whose very self is a community of “persons” in mutual relationship, and whose relational image humankind bears. 11

Second, Buber insists that a measure of the reciprocity typifying the I-Thou relation may characterize genuine, direct relationship with specific animals and elements of nature. That is, the scope of relationships constituting human personhood extends to these. He asserts a connection born of the shared “course of being” marking all that exists and (as we saw above) he narrates one such I-Thou encounter with a tree (contrasting it with an I-It). The Genesis accounts resonate here too, narrating a common {25} origin of creation, distinguishing all things from the God who speaks (Gen 1) or shapes (Gen 2) them into being. Humans are created by and dependent on God for existence and provision, as is all of creation. Such embracing of our basic relatedness to creation may sound obvious, but theological anthropologies are often long on human uniqueness and short on human creatureliness (that is, often long on our likeness to God but short on our likeness to the rest of creation). But Buber’s relational stance presses beyond mere recognition of shared “creatureliness” to recast human relation to actual entities in creation as relation with a (admittedly qualified) Thou. The implied shift from instrumental to intrinsic value finds resonance with Christian understandings of creation’s inherent value by virtue of being made and sustained by God and declared good by virtue of creation’s role in depicting, proclaiming, and “telling” God’s glory, presence, and nature, and in praising God (Gen 1, Ps 8, 19, 65, 104, 148).

Buber’s meditation on the tree clarifies the shift from instrumental to intrinsic value, from the catalogued features and use of the tree as object to the irreducible uniqueness of the tree encountered as an Other. Remember, Buber doesn’t personify / anthropomorphize the tree; the tree is not an Other in the fuller sense that animals are (who can react/respond), let alone in the fullest human sense. Buber is under no illusion that the encounter carries the robust reciprocity of interhuman dialog. But the disposition marks a profound change by assuming a relationship born of shared origin, by asking first, not “what is it good for,” but how, by turning my full self toward this encounter, might I become more fully connected to my “life with nature.” We find ourselves in built environments that remove and insulate us from the rest of creation, that disrupt visible markers of our interrelatedness with the whole of earth’s community. How do we structure individual and communal practices that reforge such links, and do so with expectation of receiving an expanded self from the encounter? Buber’s work prods us toward a theology of the human person inclusive of encounter with creation as an encounter constitutive of our personhood (developing it if we “speak Thou” or limiting its development if we choose the I-It).

Third, more (or really other) than the recognition that, as made, creation has intrinsic (versus only instrumental) value, Buber’s assertion of “our life with nature” as a sphere in which the I-Thou relation arises means we’re less than fully human if in this realm we’re speaking “It” instead of “Thou.” It’s not simply that we should value creation for itself; it’s that as creatures ourselves, our personhood is diminished—our humanity fragmented, even truncated—if we aren’t living dialogically and relationally in this arena. Muir provides a concrete positive example in describing his approach as a naturalist: “This was my ‘method of {26} study’: I drifted from rock to rock, from stream to stream, from grove to grove . . . When I discovered a new plant, I sat down beside it for a minute or a day, to make its acquaintance and try to hear what it had to say.” 12 Muir understood himself to be not isolated but accompanied in the wilderness (he speaks often of “plant people”). He understood such communion to develop his spirit and mind—his person. He was, in fact, critical of contemporaries who thought such a personal, relational, and spiritual encounter an unfitting approach for scientific study. Reflecting on time spent in the Sierra with renowned Harvard botanist Asa Gray, Muir lamented, “He is a most cordial lover of purity and truth, but the angular factiness of his pursuits has kept him at too cold a distance from the spirit world.”

The I-Thou provides a way to posture, think, and talk about how we have an impoverished humanity if we have no such “genuine meetings” with creation. Buber’s concern about operating too much in the I-It realm is that objectification, distance, possession, and use often become habitual and bleed over into the other realms where a Thou may also be encountered. It becomes easier to treat other persons as objects—as Its instead of Thous—for example. It means we bring impoverished selves to our other encounters even when we expect those to be (and prepare for those to be) more fully dialogical.

Exploration of human relationship to the rest of creation as an encounter with a Thou, an Other (versus an experience of an object) provides avenues for embracing human creatureliness and reframing human self-understanding as ones who are part of and dependent on the earth community. The dialogic intersubjectivity, emphasizing participatory encounter, brings to the fore this relationship with creation as one constitutive of human being as created—as creatures. Buber would call us to reposition ourselves relationally in light of our creatureliness, to turn fully toward “the unreliable, perilous world of relation.” Not just because we’re in ecological crisis, but because holding ourselves at an objectifying distance leaves us less than fully human. Anabaptist-Mennonite articulation of human being has often emphasized relationality as central to what it means to be human—that right relationship with God and with others provides the matrix within which one somehow is most fully human. Buber’s I-Thou dialectic helps extend those concerns to human creaturely relation to creation, as part of earth community, and provides resources to rebuild an understanding of human being from this ground up. 13 {27}


  1. John Muir, A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, ed. William Frederic Badè (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1916), 139.
  2. Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Ronald Gregor Smith (New York: Scribner, 1958), 4.
  3. Buber, 4–6, 34, 38; Kenneth Paul Kramer, Martin Buber’s I and Thou: Practicing Living Dialogue (New York: Paulist, 2003), 25–27.
  4. Buber, 38–39, 118.
  5. Kramer, Martin Buber’s I and Thou, 74–75.
  6. Buber, I and Thou, 11; Kramer, 107–11.
  7. Buber, 6, 11; Kramer, 101–12.
  8. Buber, 6, 125–26.
  9. Buber, 126.
  10. Buber, 7–8.
  11. I’ve explored these notions in greater depth in “Toward a Theological Anthropology: A Study of Genesis 1–3,” Direction 45 (Fall 2016): 136–48.
  12. John Muir, John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, ed. Linnie Marsh Wolfe (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979), 354.
  13. My thanks to Fresno Pacific colleagues Mark Baker and Michael Kunz for collegial conversation and suggestions which improved this article.
Laura Schmidt Roberts is Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Fresno Pacific University. The intersections of ecotheology, environmental ethics, and theological anthropology have been a recent focus of her scholarship and teaching. She is especially interested to do this work in a way that draws on, extends, and expands Anabaptist-Mennonite understandings of theology, faith, and discipleship.

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