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Sermon : Sodom and Gomorrah

Martin Buber: Toward a Definition of Evil

One of the most explored theological tenets among the general population - whether it is specifically addressed or inadvertently evoked - is that of evil. Questions thereof are, at some point or another, asked by everyone - and these questions are as equally cumbersome and difficult as they are prevalent. Moreover, inquiries into the presence of evil are speculative and ideological - abstract musings of those who watch the evening news as well as those who experience, to some degree, the personal ills of society. Indeed, the issue of 'evil' is one which everyone struggles with on some level - and everyone has a theory. However, the most common worldview posits a Manicheanistic definition of what evil is; that is, the general population subscribes to a belief which can be simplistically summarised: the world is involved in a black and white struggle between 'a good' and 'an evil.' It is the intention of this paper to present an alternative to this view by examining the works of a widely known Jewish philosopher-theologian, Martin Buber, whose works have been influential not only among Jewish philosophers but also Christian thinkers.

1 However, over time it became increasingly problematic and uncomfortable for theologians to attribute ambivalence to God - an ambivalence clearly stated throughout the Tanakh and most famously depicted in the Book of Job.2 Thus, as a result of the uneasiness, and after determining human sinfulness was a somewhat insufficient answer, Israel turned to yet another answer: 'the instigator of evil was a malevolent spirit who had greater power to offend than mere mortals.'3 Thus, a 'twinning' occurred, and the malignant, destructive aspect of God was subtracted from Him and attributed to a different spiritual power - the one God split into two parts, and the satan rose to a higher, more independent role.4

And so the binary worldview, in simplistic terms, came to birth and continues not only in the Christian tradition but also in the cultures of which it has held significant sway. However, such a view of evil may in fact be too simplistic - the progression of time does not necessarily result with advancement in thought. While enlightenment occurs, regression does as well. Biblically, it would seem, evil does not originate from an independent spiritual entity, existing as a sort of theological Third Law of Motion.5 Evil is much more concrete and earthen; it is embodied, enacted and promulgated by the human creature.

Martin Buber, a Viennese Jewish philosopher-theologian, argued we must abandon the perception of good and evil 'as two poles, two opposite directions' which belong 'to the same plane of being, as the same in nature, but [which are] the antithesis of one another.'6 Evil, according to Buber, is in fact not 'a pair of opposites like right and left or above and beneath,'7 but is instead, essentially, choice - more specifically, evil is what decision is made from the choice of human free will. Yet, this choice, though deemed 'evil,' can in fact be incorporated into the realm of Good, and thus Buber tears asunder the commonly held understanding of the Manicheanistic worldview, for there are no opposite forces save for perhaps the decisions which must be made within each of us. Yet, evil is still a serious and specific reality.

For Buber, there are two 'ways' which are the result of choice and the Psalms play a significant role in shaping the theological philosophy regarding them. While Psalm 25 exhorts the Lord to teach us in His ways and direct us on His paths (vv.4, 8), Psalms 1 and 12 compare the ways of the righteous and the wicked in starkly contrasting imagery. It is Buber's belief that the Psalms are a completion of the Torah in the sense that the book ends the Pentateuch, in a complementary manner, with directional hymns which are intended to show the way humanity is to choose.8 The choice, of course, is set up to be an easy decision; the Torah is God's teaching and direction to the people how to distinguish between the good way - the one way - and the evil way - the false way.

  1. The definition here implies a relativistic view of evil, where when something occurs to us which infringes upon our existence we deem it evil, however it may not necessarily be evil in and of itself (i.e., natural evil, which is merely the universe acting in the way God had made it to act). Furthermore, such a view neglects the use of the blessings and the curse in play throughout the Tanakh, where God sets parameters for Israel's conduct and should they fail to live up to their part of the covenant God will punish them using various means (the other side of the coin being should they succeed in living up to their part of the covenant, God will bless them beyond measure).
  2. Isaiah 44:24 describes God as 'the Lord, who has made all things,' while Isaiah 54:16 has God as the creator of 'the destroyer to work havoc.' Amos 3:6 poses that 'when disaster comes to a city, has not the Lord caused it?' These are only a few examples which depict Yahweh as the almighty, powerful God, yet as not afraid to 'get dirty.' Indeed, God has the first born males of Egypt killed as a plague to free His people; He destroys Sodom and Gomorrah and floods the entire world for their sins - God is not above doing what we perceive as 'evil,' and the crucial notion in this worldview is that it is our limited perspective which attributes certain things as evil, where they may in fact be instrumental to God's purposes. See Jeffrey Burton Russell, The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity (London: Cornell University Press, 1977), 174-214.
  3. Russell, The Devil, 182.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Newton's Third Law of Motion states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction; thus in a theological twist, Satan would be the equal and opposite reaction to God's active will.
  6. Martin Buber, Good and Evil (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1997), 121.
  7. Martin Buber, Between Man and Man (Boston, : Beacon Press, 1959), 78.
  8. Buber, Good and Evil, 51.