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Sermon : Sodom and Gomorrah

Martin Buber: Toward a Definition of Evil

Relationship is an essential ingredient for all of existence in Martin Buber's theological philosophy. His most famous work, Ich und Du (I and Thou), posits all of reality as two types of relations. The first is the Ich-Es (I-It) relation, which is a non-mutual link objectifying the 'other' - whether a person or a thing - solely for the purpose of personal utilisation experience, thereby rendering reality a selfish existence. The second relationship is that of Ich-Du (I-Thou), which is an inter-penetrating, mutual relationship described as an encounter, as a meeting of two which is on a deeply being-effecting level.40 For Buber, it is here in the relationship of Ich-Du that real life is experienced. This is an important notion for all of Buber's thought is laced with it. It is the community which is not only the place where humanity is most human, but it is also the community which is where God is realised - and these two concepts are intricately inter-related, for the Divine is fully consummated in the community because the relationship between man and man is made existent within it.41 Furthermore, true Ich-Du relation 'can only exist between unified and responsible persons.'42 Thus, for one to have a distorted relationship with God is to pave the way to wickedness upon the false path. It is unity which is the ultimate goal, for out of external unity comes the community, out of spiritual unity comes the direction towards God, and out of inner unity the human soul is able to do good - for just as Ich-Du can only be established with the whole being, and likewise, Ich-Es can never be established by the whole being43 - so too 'good can only be done with the whole soul.'44 Unification is what the human soul is constantly striving towards, for it is in unification that the soul finds direction; conversely, the soul can only find direction through unification and for 'the unified soul there is only One direction.'45 It is crucial for the human soul to attain itself in unity for 'only when he has first attained his own self does the good thrive through him.'46

Hence, Buber challenges contemporary notions of evil in that he defines it not as an independent opposing force but as dependent upon the human soul. Here it may be beneficial to note the distinction Buber makes between the 'sinner' and the 'wicked,' picking up the language and thought from Psalm 1. For Buber these are two distinct categories of persons. The wicked is a type, whereas the sinner is a state of being. Thus, 'the sinner does evil' while 'the wicked is evil.'47 It would appear therefore that the wicked is trapped in the second stage of evil, persistently deciding to go on their own way and refusing the One way,48 while the sinner is at the first stage of evil, in existential chaos, continually missing the way again and again.49 Thus, for the sinner there is still hope that the decision can be made toward God; whereas the way of the wicked, the non-way, leads to nothing and the wicked will simply vanish. The sinner is still able to stand before God, and God directs the sinner in the way, but the wicked does not stand before God because they have negated their existence through their decision of the false way.50 Where the sinner is able to grasp at direction and exit the indirection, the indecision, by 'turning into God's way,'51 the wicked have made their decision and therefore have no desire to turn away from themselves and their false way - and so their way leads to nowhere and comes to nothing.52

In distinction from these two wrong ways is the 'right way,' the way of God - the One way - which is followed by the righteous, 'the proven ones,' and are known by God.53 These human souls are those who have unified their impulses toward the path of God with unconditional dedication, existing in a constant Ich-Du relationship with nature, fellow humans and with God. While it is true each human being has the potential to do evil through the rejection of the One way and thereby remaining inwardly separated, never tasting unification, God has provided direction for us 'to distinguish between the true way and the false ways.'54 But as the Psalmist asserts, and as Martin Buber affirms, it is not enough to simply accept it, we must 'delight in the law of the Lord' (Psalm 1:2) and 'we must cling to it with a passion more exalted than all the passions of the wicked' - but we must also meditate on the law day and night (Psalm 1:2), and repeat its living word so that it enters into our being, holding our souls in unification, keeping us on the way. Thus evil, through unification of the urges and the direction of indirection - by the attainment of the whole being orientated toward God and thereby fulfilling its intent - does not need to be conquered, but instead has been redeemed.55

  1. Martin Buber, I and Thou (New York, NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958), 11.
  2. Buber, On Judaism, 113.
  3. Buber, Between Man and Man, 116.
  4. Buber, I and Thou, 3.
  5. Buber, Good and Evil, 130.
  6. Ibid., 140.
  7. Martin Buber, The Knowledge of Man: A Philosophy of the Interhuman, trans. Maurice Friedman and Ronald Gregor Smith (New York, NY: Harper Torchbooks, 1966), 136.
  8. Buber, Good and Evil, 59. Emphasis added.
  9. Ibid., 51.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid., 59.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid., 60.
  14. Ibid., 51.
  15. Ibid., 57.
  16. Buber, On Judaism, 125.