Philosophy Spiritual Praxis Article Audio

19 Thingifications

Depersonalization in everyday life…

Emil Brunner adapts in his relational theology the conception of Buber (and Ebner) of an I-You vs. an I-it relationship. Simplified one can say that I-You stands for relationships and encounters in which we see the other as a truly “other” human being, as a person and not just an object. I-it relationships stand for our relation with the inanimate world of things (e.g. your car), plants or animals and when we treat people like they were mere objects.

In an I-You relationship I disclose myself, I give myself (or at least something of myself) to another person and at the same time I see the other person as a true vis-à-vis.

This is what being a human means. It is quite clear that in this “fallen” world there might be never a pure I-You relation without any I-it “pollution”, but I believe it is beneficial to reflect on this difference. Where in our everyday life do we treat persons as things, objects, “its”? Some examples:

Other people

  1. The cashier lady who is not fast enough. I thingify her when I only see her as the means to a swift shopping experience.
  2. The church volunteers who just fill in the empty spots in our organization. I depersonalize them when I only seem them as bricks in a “building” (even in a spiritual one).
  3. The refugees who are among us. I depersonalize them when I only tolerate their being around but avoid actual contact (starting with eye contact).
  4. My kids who don’t do what I want them to do. I depersonalize them when my main goal is to have them obedient to my will.
  5. My spouse/ partner who fulfils my needs. I thingify him/her when this is the main reason I “love” him/her.
  6. The sexy people on billboards, in papers and magazines, on the internet or at the beach. I objectify them when I just value their features but have no interest in them as whole persons.
  7. The homeless, the disabled, the strange who are among us. I depersonalize them by being disturbed by their presence and wishing they were not there.


  1. I thingify God by trying to pray the right prayers or pray them in the right way to finally obtain what I want. I turn God into a vending machine.
  2. I depersonalize God by calling him “the divine”.
  3. I depersonalize God by believing that every religion and cult leads to the same divine being, while it is obvious that they cannot mean the same person (save one with a personality disorder).
  4. I objectify God by believing he is only there to meet my needs, fix my life and save my soul.
  5. I depersonalize God by mainly talking about him instead of with him.
  6. I thingify God by believing when “I do this” then “he does that” (or better: this and that happens). It’s called manipulation (power to control a thing).
  7. I depersonalize God by “worshipping” him while mainly searching a warm, fuzzy feeling.


  1. I depersonalize myself by living like I am driven by my instincts and therefore seeing myself as not quite responsible for my actions.
  2. I depersonalize myself by only valuing or devaluing certain features of my whole being (e.g. looks).
  3. I thingify myself by letting others treat me like an object (and maybe even enjoying it) because they only value a certain feature of me and not me as a whole person.
  4. I objectify myself by believing that God only sees me as a gearwheel in his grand masterplan.
  5. I depersonalize myself by believing that I am only worthy to be loved when I fit in or try to change myself.

A closing thought: could it be that we sometimes have almost an I-You relationship with things (a car) or animals (your dog) but at the same time treat persons like objects. This truly is messed up.

Where do you treat objects like persons and persons like objects?

My conviction, as Brunner’s, is the following: the only way to live I-You relationships is first to accept God’s invitation to be loved unconditionally by him who sees and treats us as a true “You”, a true person. Since only God can do that perfectly this is the foundation for every other I-You relationship.

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