Lewis, Buber, Dickinson

“Meeting with God does not come to man in order that he may concern himself with God, but in order that he may confirm that there is meaning in the world. All revelation is summons and sending.”   –Martin Buber, I and Thou

I suppose I ought to know this, but I cannot recall reading about whether C.S. Lewis was influenced by Martin Buber’s work, specifically I and Thou. Some of Lewis’ writing seems to suggest that he agrees with the concept of relation: as Buber describes it, the stepping out to meet Thou as Thou, and the insistence that “Man’s [sic] desire to possess God” keeps said man from true relation with God (a point described in The Great Divorce through the allegorical character of the Episcopal Ghost). God has become an “It” rather than a Thou for the Bishop, though he feels he is a true believer, an error made in lesser ways by other characters such as the Big Man.

Many of the students I tutor are writing their final papers for a Theology class that uses Lewis’ texts as a foundation for the course, which is why I’m feeling a bit conversant with Lewis lately, many long years after reading his fiction and his theological writings. And a random quote (above) that I read on a colleague’s email put me in mind of Buber, whose I and Thou reads, often, like poetry….which got me thinking about Emily Dickinson.

How’s that for a train of thought? Perhaps I need to examine the concatenation step by step.

1) Buber, I and Thou, a work deeply influenced by the author’s immersion in non-Western and Cabbalistic “mysteries” (the idea of the radii and the Centre closely parallels the Hindi conceptualization of Indra’s Net, just to name one example). Buber returns to the Western religious traditions throughout, though he mentions the way of Buddha and others as he examines the ever-present confrontation with the Thou of relational experience.

2) Lewis, The Great Divorce. Students interpret this work as one in which the author outlines his agreements and differences with, among other things, ideas about free will stemming from Socratic/Platonic through Augustinian and more modern concepts of Heaven/Hell. They tend to miss the concepts of what makes union/relation significant in the choice to unite with God, but they “get” the gist of the allegory.

3) Emily Dickinson, who more informally and more frequently uses “you” and “I” to explore these depths, but whose contrarian views on soul and spirituality knit the religious with the genuine in complex and exciting ways through the art of language.

An example, in which she does employ the King James Bible diction:


Where Thou art—that—is Home—
Cashmere—or Calvary—the same—
Degree—or Shame—
I scarce esteem Location’s Name—
So I may Come—

What Thou dost—is Delight—
Bondage as Play—be sweet—
And Sentence—Sacrament—
Just We two—meet—

Where Thou art not—is Woe—
Tho’ Bands of Spices—row—
What Thou dost not—Despair—
Tho’ Gabriel—praise me—Sire—

How similar to Buber, those lines “And Sentence—Sacrament—/Just We two—meet—”

and the idea that “Where Thou art not—is Woe—”

Poetry precedes philosophy more often than not, though philosophy may object.

One comment on “Lewis, Buber, Dickinson

  1. […] most interest to Via Negativa readers. A typical Ann E. Michael blog post might have her comparing Martin Buber, C. S. Lewis and Emily Dickinson, weighing the benefits of Lawn vs. meadow, and a doe, or musing on the appeal of the Christmas […]


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