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Sermon : Sodom and Gomorrah

Martin Buber: Toward a Definition of Evil

At this juncture, the second stage of evil begins; where the first stage posited evil as indecision, the second stage follows from that indecision to the actual decision to evil. The issue of auto-problematics arises at the stage of indecision; the human soul 'calls himself in question, because his self-knowledge no longer enables him to affirm and confirm himself.'25 Indecision, becomes a state of being in that this particular dimension of evil is experienced as a 'negativation of self-knowledge.'26 That is, the self is increasingly lost in the indirection of the human soul, causing the relationship of a person to their self to weaken. The human soul then has two options: to self-affirm as they are, or to choose the self as they intend.27 Buber implies that the ill-actions of Adam and Eve - and all of humanity to follow - is the choice to deem themselves as their own sovereignty, much the same way as the classical image of 'Satan' is supposed to have done. However, such a self-affirmation is what Buber calls 'infidelity to being.'28

This self-affirmation is important for Buber, since it can end up in one of two contrasting ways. Here Buber uses the example of Yima from Iranian mythology. Yima is said to have been endowed with the position of dominion over the world in order to protect it and ensure its prosperity. He rules for hundreds of years until Ahura Mazdah declares a great winter to descend upon the wicked populace, and instructs Yima to build a shelter for the best specimens of humanity. Yima does so; however, he allows demons access to the shelter, and in the process begins to laud himself and bless himself. Yima has at this point attributed his status and being to his own doing as opposed to properly accrediting these to Ahura Mazdah who gave them to him. While not parallel in any fashion, this story has striking similarities to the story of Adam and Eve insofar as the first humans are said to disengage themselves from God in order to be their own sovereignty. This self-affirmation made out of hubris is, according to Buber, 'an existential lie against being.'29 Indeed, Buber argues that it is human nature to resist 'with all its active and latent energy the commanding will to mold to it,' and instead to seek a self-propelling existence.30

And so the decision to evil has two choices: to channel indirection toward the direction of the self or to the direction of God.31 Herein lays the issue of free will, stated above as the setting of choice from which evil arises.32 Indeed, Aquinas states that the cause of sin cannot be the devil, but in fact the human's will alone, for sin is an action and a thing is directly the cause of sin the same way it is directly the cause of an action.33 It is the human soul, therefore, which is the impetus of the evil force for there is no evil other than that which humanity does against God's good will and divine purpose. Evil enters the world when a member of the universe renounces its proper role in the divine scheme and ceases to be what it is meant to be.34 It is when the will turns to its own private good or to anything exterior or inferior that the will sins.35 To put it differently, evil here is the wilful turning to self from God - when the will abandons the highest for the lower.36 If 'creation has a goal and the humanly right is service directed in the One direction,'37 then to turn from this one way and set upon our own path, a false path, we reject and insult our uniqueness which is entrusted to us in order for its realisation - that is, simply because 'a unique human being is created does not mean that it is put into being for a mere existence, but for the fulfilment of a being-intention.'38 While the will and its freedom is good, humanity has the tendency to abuse them - but God has given us the free choice in willing, and therefore has allowed for the possibility of evil, where this evil is the decision to navigate a path away from God in contradiction to His will and thereby declare autonomy. Sin is the imperfect relationship with God, and volitions and actions against His will that arise from the distorted relationship.39

  1. Ibid., 135.
  2. Ibid., 134.
  3. Ibid., 136-137.
  4. Ibid., 105.
  5. Ibid., 110.
  6. Buber, On Judaism, 115.
  7. Buber, Good and Evil, 141.
  8. See page 4 above.
  9. Thomas Aquinas, 'Summa Theologica,' Basic Writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Vol. 2, ed. Anton C. Pegis (New York: Random House, 1945), 658.
  10. John Hick, Evil and the God of Love (Great Britain: Macmillan and Co Ltd., 1968), 53.
  11. G. R. Evans, Augustine on Evil (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 116.
  12. Hick, , p.66.
  13. Buber, Good and Evil, 142.
  14. Ibid., 141-142.
  15. Hick, God of Love, p.16.