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Humanity at its Best

by Houston M. Burnside

Houston Burnside cupThis article is about my rediscovery of Martin Buber. The title I chose is based on a term used repeatedly by Confucius:  “man at his best.” I’ve modified it here to read, “Humanity at Its Best.”

It’s been almost half a century since I studied Buber’s writings at some depth. In the course of my recent studies his name popped up again. Martin Buber was a Jewish philosopher (some say, theologian) and, over the years, many Christians have found meaning in what he had to say, and were able to connect his ideas to their Christian faith. I’m one of them. The best way for me to understand Buber is to read what he wrote as poetic prose. This is especially true when reading his book, I and Thou.

Buber talked about the most meaningful way to relate to people and the world around us.  In a way, he tried to define what it means to be human, in the best sense of that word.  For some time now, my pitch has been that our humanness can only be found in community, in relationships, not in any kind of isolated individualism which only looks within. Buber’s discussion of I-Thou vs. I-It relationships may look like he’s advocating a kind of individualism. This is not the case. His primary concern was about the quality of human relationships.

When I was first introduced to Buber’s writings, it seemed to me that his focus was limited to individual relationships, and thus, a kind of individualism. It didn’t take long, however, to discover that he was opposed to individualism. So am I.  I can’t agree with the notion that individualism represents the best way to get at the meaning of humanity at its best.

For Buber and many others, humanity is not at its best when we see people or things as mere means to selfish ends. Human compassion makes us more human. Altruism makes us more human. Trying to walk in another person’s shoes makes us more human. Seeing a spark of divinity and hope in another makes us more human. It’s not who talks the loudest that pictures humanity at its best. It’s who listens with close attention and compassion that reveals humanity at its best.

People like Martin Buber, Desmond Tutu, Mohandas (Mahatma) Ghandi, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King, Jr. looked at “humanity at its best” in ways which can be thought to be more altruistic.  For these folks, the best of our humanity involves altruism and human compassion, and is manifested by looking outward – to the other, to one’s community of fellow world travelers.  To only look within would, they conclude, foster selfish and neurotic attitudes.

To view others from a perspective of self-interest suggests that others become only means to selfish ends.  The other becomes a thing for my manipulation.  A different way of looking at others involves seeing flashes of humanity at its best (or divinity) in the other.  It’s not always easy to see the best, or to see glimpses of God in other people.  It does however, seem to be a worthy pursuit.

In his introduction in To Love: The Words and Inspiration of Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu saw humanity at its best in togetherness.  He summed up his thoughts on this as: “I am because we are.  We are (together) therefore I am.” This approach to seeing humanity at its best reflects what is called Ubuntu Theology.  It might also be referred to as “the theology of love.”  Our humanity is tied up with, and is shaped by our communities.  It’s also revealed in the way we relate to others.  For Tutu, we are all called to create an approachable, accepting community.

Martin Buber wanted to see others as “persons” rather than as “individuals” or things. Objectifying others (I-It relationships) is what leads to prejudice, to painting all members of a group with the same brush. Buber wanted to see beyond individual characteristics (such as race, eye or skin color, nationality, size, occupations, etc.).  He wanted to see the other as a person in totality. For Buber, what is most real, and what most clearly reveals humanity at its best is what happens between two people or between a person and the natural world, in I-Thou encounters. Buber saw this quality of betweenness as indescribable, yet as the most meaningful part of human relationships.  It may sound a bit mystical, but this is exactly what he meant by seeing another as a Thou rather than as an It.  Buber applied his I-Thou principle to nature, as well.

I can relate to this.  One of my fondest memories, as a young child of about five or six years of age, had to do with lying on the grass in our front yard, down in the Arroyo Seco, between Highland Park and South Pasadena, California.  On my back I could see the large tree looming overhead.  I never climbed this tree, as I had others.  It was always there.  I didn’t know its name nor was I even aware of any of its specific characteristics.  I didn’t want anything from the tree.  It didn’t demand anything from me.  I just looked up in awe.  It was there.  I was here.  We faced each other.  I guess one could say there was sort of a non-verbal communication going on.  We met.  The tree was my Thou.  That impression has never left me.  A bit mystical, you might say.  Yes.  But to me, real.




Buber, Martin,  I and Thou, trans., Prologue & Notes, Walter Kaufmann ( New York: Simon & Schuster, Touchstone,1996), 61, 130-31.

__________, I and Thou, trans. Ronald Smith (New York: Charles Scribner, 1958).

__________, Between Man and Man, trans. Ronald G. Smith (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1965).

__________, The Knowledge of Man. ed. Maurice Friedman (New York: Harper & Row, 1965).

Tutu, Desmond, “Introduction,” in To Love: The Words and Inspiration of Mother Teresa (Boulder, Colorado: Blue Mountain Arts, 2007), 3-5.


Houston Burnside is Professor Emeritus of Teacher Education, San Diego State University. In addition, he is an ordained American Baptist minister and served 12 years in pastoral ministry. Houston and his wife, Connie, are now active members of the Table: United Church of Christ of La Mesa, CA. Houston is currently enrolled in a continuing education program through Princeton Theological Seminary.


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