“Again and again, with the surge of its enticements, universal temptation emerges and overcomes the power of the human soul; again and again innate grace arises from out of its depths and promises the utterly incredible: you can become whole and one. But always there are, not left and right, but the vortex of chaos and the spirit hovering above it. Of the two paths, one is setting out upon no path, pseudo-decision which is indecision, flight into delusion and ultimately into mania; the other is the path, for there is only one.”
Good and Evil by Martin Buber, page 128
Martin Buber was a Jewish philosopher and theologian who wrote on topics ranging from Judaism and Jewish mysticism to politics, art and education. He was born in Vienna and died in Israel in 1965. His book, Good and Evil, published in 1952, is a slim 143 page exegesis on a selection of Psalms, and Israeli and Persian myths. The book is divided into two sections: “Right and Wrong,” and “Images of Good and Evil.” In the forward Buber explains that both sections were intended as individual studies, but having been convinced they relate to each other as a unified work he put them together. In the first section of Good and Evil, Buber explores psalms 12, 14, 82, 73 and 1, and offers an analysis of the Psalmist’s lament over the familiar perplexity of why the ‘wicked’ prosper. Buber suggests a sequence for the psalms to be read and guides us from the beginning frustration of the Psalmist to the final ah-ha moment of understanding. After looking closely at the psalms Buber realizes the truth the Psalmist is presenting, the way is essential; drawing nearer to God is what matters. The Psalmist, Buber writes, makes an internal change. Even so, this does not answer the question of why evil exists. In the second half of the book, Buber tries to answer, “How can an evil will exist when God exists?” (60). To aid in answering his question, Buber turns to familiar Old Testament Biblical stories as well as Iranian myths to arrive at an understanding of why evil exists.
The word evil, especially for Catholics (I confess, I am), has deep roots in a traditional church where the ‘evil’ word, and the words ‘sin’ and ‘wickedness’ were all interchangeable, and used broadly as tools to force compliance, making them terrifying concepts that now hold little meaning except for being a reminder of what seems like a never ending set of embarrassments for Catholicism. Our cultural imagination has helped minimize the sting of these once potent words, Dr. Evil, and the Evil empire, or Monty Python’s Life of Brian, to name a few examples, but the playfulness and parody have turned these words into an absurdity that makes it difficult to think about evil as a legitimate category or concept to be examined in today’s modern world.
So why bother thinking about evil when it seems either comedic or medieval? In turns out, if you can make it to the end of Buber’s book without being distracted, and then maybe if you read it again or perhaps three times, you will find it offers a way of thinking about evil and good that is beyond traditional Catholic teachings; it also takes the words we have grown to think are harsh and hurtful: wicked, sin and evil, and elevates them to an intellectual and emotional human seriousness which traditional Catholic teachings fail to do.
The idea that there is evil in the world is still one of the main questions of religion and beyond religion. For it is often the atheist who asks why, if there is a God, does God let evil prevail in the world. So the atheist is like the Psalmist wondering why on earth do the wicked prosper? The atheist, like the Psalmist, sees it with his/her own eyes. The difference, though, is that the Psalmist continues probing his/her relation with God, which allows him/her to make an internal discovery.
Indeed, the Psalmist is correct, the wicked prosper. They lie. They create and spin illusions for the oppressed to believe (pgs. 10-12). We can pray for God to intercede, but it does not appear that God will come and save us from the lie by sending matching funds for those who are oppressed. The Psalmist begins to see something essential in the lie, its impermanence. Buber writes:
“The truth is God’s alone, but there is a human truth, namely, to be devoted to the truth. The lie is from time and will be swallowed up by time; the truth, the devine truth, is from eternity, and this devotion to the truth, which we call human truth, partakes of eternity.”pages 13 & 14
I love this assertion, “The lie is from time and will be swallowed up by time…” It is comforting to know the illusion has limits. Although, not so comforting when you are in time too. While the lie does dwell within time it does not mean, writes Buber, that God does not care about what we do here:
“But the truth is that God watches what his creatures are making of themselves.
God and humans are in a relationship, and it is man’s responsibility to fight against injustice and help the oppressed.
“We see the rift between those who do violence and those to whom violence is done, the rift between those who are true to God and the apostate element, running not merely through every nation, but also through every group in a nation, and even through every soul.”page 19
There is judgement on these injustices committed on man by man. The leaders of nations, the ones who hold power, they are expected to protect and care for the weak and the oppressed. Note too, “the rift” is within our very soul.
Buber divides things up differently than one might think; instead of good and evil being divided by obvious acts of injustice v. those who strive for justice; he looks internally to the heart. One must draw near to God with a purity of heart; not just do good acts in exchange for prosperity. It is the heart that counts. The heart the does the act without any hope of getting a reward in the end.
“The state of the heart determines whether a man lives in the truth, in which God’s goodness is experienced, or in the semblance of truth, where the fact that it ‘goes ill’ with him is confused with the illusion that God is not good to him.”page 34
A “purity of heart” opens the door for anyone to draw near to God, and for any external position to receive God’s goodness. Buber reminds the reader that it does not mean life gets easier once God’s presence is revealed to you. You must still work and live and make decisions on your own, but with God’s felt presence, your decisions ought to align closely with what is right. As Buber states, “God’s presence acts as counsel” (pg 43).
As Buber reads through the Psalms he has chosen he traces the Psalmist’s suffering over the prosperity of the wicked, and slowly demonstrates how the Psalmist begins to see clearly that the wicked themselves are the illusion; for this reason “their way peters out” (60). He then concludes with a distinction between those who are merely sinners and those who are wicked or evil.
“The right way, the way of God, is followed by ‘the proven ones’. Those who continue on their own way, and refuse to go that way, are called ‘the wicked,’ those who miss that way again and again are called sinners. The real struggle of the direction is therefore with the wicked, whereas the ‘good’ and ‘upright’ God again and again ‘directs sinners in the way’ (Ps 25,8), that is, helps them to find the way back.”page 52
It takes a Jewish scholar to clarify sin for us. Catholics seem to conflate wickedness and sin thus turning us all into evil beings, which leaves no space to be human. But, with Buber there is a relationship to which we are called, and therefore we strive in the direction of God, the way. Being a sinner seems quite normal for most of us since we are always unintentionally losing our way, and trying to make our way back to God; while wicked and evil are intentional.
After sorting out what is evil, the question remains how does it exist when God exists? Buber examines the myth of creation, Cain and Abel, and the Biblical story of the flood. He, again, draws from his relational understanding of God, and therefore interprets the actions of humans as potentially evil and not humans themselves as created evil. You turn away from God completely — which does not mean you just stopped praying or going to church or even when you declare there is no God –. The turning away is much more profound. It means you turn away from trying to be good; from trying to be fully human; from trying to be in relation with all of life. Once you turn away from your brothers and sisters, your neighbors, your universe, and begin to think of them as in your service, then you have turned away from life itself. Evil then is this complete turning away which opens up to chaos and confusion.
“But it is not man who is seen as evil. The ‘wickedness’ does not imply a corruption of the soul, the living soul which was breathed into man, but of the ‘way’ (6,12), which fills the earth with ‘violence’ (v.11)page 91
We know evil because it dwells within us. We all must face our urges to turn away from the least of our brothers (Matthew 25:40). Buber is not making a simple argument about doing evil and making a choice not to do it. It is not about getting rid of evil, but rather, joining evil with good and using it somehow.
“Man is bidden (Deuteronomy 6,5): ‘Love the Lord with all thine heart,’and that means, with thy two united urges. The evil urge must also be included in the love of God thus and thus only does it become perfect, and thus and thus only does man become once more as he was created: ‘very good.’page 96
And so what is a whole heart? What does it mean to do something wholeheartedly? If this is what God calls us to do, “Love the Lord with all thine heart,” then we cannot repress or exclude, but we must somehow learn to turn the evil urges within us over to the good.
“Again and again, with the surge of its enticements, universal temptation emerges and overcomes the power of the human soul; again and again innate grace arises from out of its depths and promises the utterly incredible: you can become whole and one. But always there are, not left and right, but the vortex of chaos and the spirit hovering above it. Of the two paths, one is setting out upon no path, pseudo-decision which is indecision, flight into delusion and ultimately into mania; the other is the path, for there is only one.”page 128
Buber’s illumination of evil brings to mind Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. During his trial Arendt begins to see a man only concerned with being successful. He is the epitome of only caring about being acknowledged as successful at something. He thus completely turned away from loving anyone. He followed the way of destruction.