Leszek Łysień

In the Twilight of Ambiguity:

God’s Glimmering Presence
in the Hells Created by Man

When we cry out for an answer and it is not given to us, then we touch the silence of God (Simone Weil).

No, noble theologians this will not do | Your sincere desire will not save God’s morality, | Because if He created creatures capable of choosing between good and evil, | and they chose, and that is why the world lies in evil, | Then there is still pain, the unmerited suffering of animals (Czesław Miłosz).

I will start these reflections with two quotes that are surely the fruit of the kind of sensibility which expresses itself with love in thinking. The first one is from Martin Buber and it comes from a speech from a meeting devoted to Christian-Jewish dialogue,

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen. We really have a lot in common. We all await the Messiah. You believe that He has already come, departed again, and someday will return. I believe that He still has not come, but He will come. This is why I propose the following to you: let us wait together. When He will come we will simply ask Him: have You been here once before? Then I feed on the hope that I will stand near Him and I will whisper into His hear: don’t answer.

The other quote comes from Jurgen Moltmann, a Protestant theologian, which comes from the essay “Jesus in Auschwitz”,

I once wrote: God in Auschwitz and Auschwitz in the crucified God. This did not signify any eternalization of suffering. First, what I had in mind, above all, was: God in His own body, if you will, the Shekhinah, present in his people and image experienced Auschwitz. Second: Auschwitz is engraved in the memory of God. It continues in Him. God will not forget it.1

The experience of the foreignness and indifference of the universe, so dominant in the modern epoch (as Pascal wrote: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me”); the experience of the monstrosity of the laws which govern nature speaking in the languages of indifferent racial determinisms, by the power of which one race is predestined to rule over the world, whereas all the other ones are condemned, like bugs, for unconditional and total extermination (this is what makes concentration camps necessary which are supposed to mechanically and industrially consume lower races); the darkness of the judgments of history and the institutions called forth by it which cruelly crush those who have no right to enter earthly paradise, raised upon the ruins of the old world, condemned to annihilation (this is what makes gulags necessary, because they sweep away from the surface of the Earth the remains of human relics which were not consumed by the proletarian revolution). Facing this horrendum we ask about the presence of the God, without whose will a hair will not fall from the heads of His creatures. In the book Diesseits und Jenseits, Max Brod relates the words of an old Romanian Jewess:

I believed in God my whole life. When the Germans came and murdered our men, women and elders I still continued to believe in God. When they murdered our old, pious Rav, first torturing her, I still believed. However, when I saw how they dashed newborns against rocks upon which their brains splattered, I stopped believing that God exists.2

Did God become unbelievable for the persistently stubborn faith of the Romanian Jewess? Maybe the faith stopped there because God moved too deeply into a different, abysmal presence? When faced with the hells unleashed by the immeasurable abyss of human freedom should we not think more, or differently? We know one thing: discursive, speculative reason will not suffice, neither will faith as mere use of our reason. As the Polish religious writer Koniński put it, “flat theodicies” will not suffice. During a dark night of the wartime cataclysm in 1942 he wrote:

’The world lies in evil’ Yes, but we do not need this lesson from Christianity; to Christianity we ought to say, why does the world lie in evil? Christianity either answers with Mystery or flat theodicy. But in order to remain with Christianity despite all this, but not to budge from pessimism, not sell it easy, you have to daily – through pessimism – bore with the drill of naked faith and stubborn hope, bore through to the other side, the mute side, the hidden side.3

On the other side, distressed man is given the experience of a difficult God who does not function as a consolation, nor explaining anything, a God who cannot be used for anything. There perhaps remains a radical pre-trust, that despite the radicalism of evil the good is primordial.

Or maybe the remarkable confession of Simone Weil, which reveals the unbearable logic of this world, demands a Radical Otherness all that much more?

Whoever takes up the sword will perish by the sword. Whoever does not take up the sword (or lets it drop from their hands), dies on the cross.4

This is the pain of Job and the impenetrability of God.

The Pain of Job and the Impenetrability of God

The words of Job in the biblical book containing his name reveal a situation of pushing man into the twilight of existence, a twilight which does not allow him to understand the matter that matters the most deeply to him. Let’s quote a few of them:

“Should he come near me, I see him not; should he pass by, I am not aware of him” (Job 9: 11), “But if I go to the east, he is not there; or to the west, I cannot perceive him” (Job 23: 8), “Oh, that today I might find him” (Job 23: 3), “I cry to you, but you do not answer me; you stand off and look at me” (Job 30: 20), “Lo, God is great beyond our knowledge” (Job 36: 26).

Twilight envelops that which is deepest. Questions remain without answers. Why do the innocent suffer? Why me who asks this? Leading to where? How long? From whence these terrors which encircle man like a dense fog? Maybe it is better not to ask. Maybe it would be better to never have been born, alas!, but who has managed that, as somebody rightfully noted.

Facing the hells of a world that is a massacre day and night, erected by the hands of men, fuming from blood, a nature red in tooth and claw, facing all the gulags, wars that destroy humanity to its core, we ask about the presence of God, we ask of His existence in the face of this pandemonium.

Jean Nabert spoke of the evil of the death camps as “impossible to justify”.

Tischner commenting on these words said:

Among the phenomena of this world, which mutually explain and shed light on each other, this is ‘unjustifiability’ itself. Does this mean that this ‘unjustifiability’ does not demand explanations? Does it destroy the question ‘why?’5

During one of his last interviews Heidegger managed a remarkable statement, “Only a God can save us”.

We ask then: what God? What kind of God can we speak of in the face of the threatening darknesses of the world without falling into the grotesque, into the comic, into absurdity? A reserved God, ashamed of the madness, shamelessness, unbounded pride of His creature, or maybe a more refined noesis noesos, giant causa sui, in front of which you cannot dance, pray, sing (Heidegger). Perhaps Deus otiosus, the one who has retreated from the spectacle of the world and is superfluous in any explanatory procedures? There exists the temptation of Epicurus to send all the gods packing to their own world, to the gaps of being, relieving them thereby from the madnesses and bloodbaths that people, make for each other without end, but also to relieve people of the gods’ presence.

There is another temptation when faced with human monstrosities and the suffering of the innocent, the total compromise of the creation and the Creator, to relieve God of existing, “One justification for God is that He does not exist” (Stendahl). This is how atheism ad maiorem Dei gloriam comes into being. We could also be dealing with yet another solution connected with the name Dorothee Sölle, a theological sociologist, and her atheistic faith in God. Her post death of God theology deals with the abdication of God: of a God who is powerless in the world, who first needs help from Christ, who represents the non-present God, then from the side of people who act in place of God. These kinds of conclusions, and similar ones, were forced by the logic of, on the one side, a too daring and enthusiastic theology of God’s omnipotence (of a willful and capricious God), on the other side by an optimistic theodicy, which as the product of a strong, self-contained reason (logodicea) projected God as a cosmic calculator who programs the best of possible worlds. Levinas wrote:

What does the suffering of the innocent mean? Does it not testify to a world without God, of an Earth on which man alone decides about good and evil? The easiest and most common reaction is to announce your allegiance to atheism. This reaction is also the healthiest for all those for to whom, until now, a somewhat primitive God gave rewards, meted out punishments, or forgave sins and in His goodness treated people like eternal children.6

Theologies that are too easy, transparent and presumptuous carry disarray within themselves by likewise deprecating both God and man. The theology which explains evil as recompense for sin while wanting to maintain the integrity of doctrine says clearly: not one soul was unjustly thrown into unhappiness. We know one thing: in these questions, whirling and engaged, which enter into the deepest worries of man nothing is clear, unambiguous, mathematically obvious. We find ourselves in the twilight of ambiguity. When facing evil we have to question a religious way of thinking that is subject to a logical coherence, a wholeness ordered in a manner that is consistent and systematic.

Within this perspective Aquinas’ judgment seems exceedingly sober. He says that we have no basis to think that we are capable of providing a sufficiently justified answer to the question why God did not create a world without evil, and that in such a significant matter we can only become aware of our ignorance. However, we do have the right to ask and allow the question to become a scream. In the last analysis, this scream is the mark of human goodness, which does not become the mulch of history nor the illusion of wishful thinking. It is the expression of the secret conviction that at the foundations of being, but otherwise than being, is a Goodness, which like light struggles to break through the darkness of human conclusions.

After all, God is someone who concerns us unconditionally and pain, evil and the suffering of the innocent touch us directly, question our existence, and shake it in our depths. They shrink it down and do not let it be in the measure of desire written into the deepest regions of the human person.

When facing evil man experiences at the same time some kind of excess of his existence, he knows that he should be more, better, otherwise. This is where the shock, disgust, protest and unrest come from. Thinking comes from the experience of evil – questioning thinking and thinking questioningly.

Yet, this is not disengaged thinking, distanced, cold, debatable. It pulls the thinker into pain, does not allow him to stand at a distance. Thinking that is touched by suffering leads to a community of sufferers, sensitive, open, finally present to each other. Dorosz writes,

Evil is the element of our lives which never lets itself be domesticated: evil gives birth to questions that always remain without answer and cause rebellion against God or the world. Evil is the fundamental contradiction of human life: it destroys our projects, crosses up our plans and marks our efforts with meaninglessness. Evil, if you will, is the corrosion of being. When evil touches us particularly, when subjected to its destructive effects we fall into doubt and despair, there comes the natural temptation to escape.7

Kurtz, from Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, experienced a meaningless wilderness which is submerged in a semantic nothingness. This darkness revealed the absolute contingency of reality before him, which seemed to whisper, “do what you want, it won’t mean anything anyway”. This is nature bereaved of ethics, beyond good and evil: there are only the strong and the weak, the successful and the losers. Yet, when he was dying Kurtz cried, “The horror! The horror!”, and in this cry you could hear the inconsolable desire for meaning, a clear sign of disagreement with the permanent bereavement of all meanings. Oedipus, when he comes to know tragedy, his own and of kin, silently blinds himself and gives himself to the relentless decrees of destiny. Job experiences his tragedy differently. Berdyaev writes:

Job is not humble and does not reconcile himself with fate. Job cries out and his cry fills the history of the world, and even today resounds in our ears. In the cry of Job we feel the fate of man. For Job there is no fate like for Oedipus. He knows a power that transcends the world, transcends fate, a power to which you can appeal about the sufferings of the world, so he cries out to God and this cry becomes a denial of God. Only the Bible knows denial of God, wrestling with God, the wrestling of Jacob, the wrestling of all of Israel. Reconciliation with tragism through beauty, humility toward innocent and senseless sufferings, amor fati, is the greatest achievement of the tragic spirit of Greece.8

This spirit, in a frightful form, comes back to life in Nietzsche who justifies the mad spectacle  of the world (radically godless) with the genius that comes from it. Life is justified as an aesthetic phenomenon.

When asking about human hells and the presence of God within them, we cannot answer with a negation of God. This negation lowers the level of the questions by taking Job’s dignity away from him. When that happens, his protest becomes a simple biological reaction to pain, and hope a childish illusion. Then all the humiliated, reviled and the down and out are merely the mulch of history from which grow the strong and relentless. Then Auschwitz and Kolyma become something so obvious that they are not only not worthy of our attention, but they also portend more monstrosities of their kind – which will necessarily come because of the dynamics of the natural determinisms written into humankind, which devours and is devoured. The “metaphysical scandal” (J. Czapski) of evil cannot be answered with a theological vacuum. The problem of evil can at best question a certain version of theism, a certain clumsy image of God (granted, by necessity it will always remain so) that is forced into being by logical necessities of a given system of thought, but it does not validate atheism.

The Inevitable Failure of Noble Theodicies

Facing the immensity of evil in the death-dealing 20th century, a traditional theodicy is not a possible answer because it remains painfully powerless and indecently shameless. Traditional theodicies show the crisis of abstractions detached from reality in collision with worlds that take away their tongues. That God does not manifest Himself in the world clearly and unambiguously is attested, at the very least, by Gnostic thinking which, when it faces evil, questions the world and its creator and contrasts them with the God who saves, whereas they condemn the world to an apocalyptic destruction. The experience of evil can sharpen our gaze, but it can also trap us in the blind spasms of a rebellion which with disgust rejects God and bears fruit in the radical creation of a new earth. We fall into the temptation of Gnosticism when we choose maximalist solutions, uncompromising to human problems and pains, when we incarnate ourselves into the role of a divine creator of a new earth and new heavens, when on the rubble of Satan’s world we desire to erect an Arcadia spun out of our delusions. Milosz writes:

The world beats on us like unreason incarnate, like the creation of some mad gigantic brain. Can one accept that entire burden and agree that what is simply is, and that’s that?… If we are capable of compassion and at the same time are powerless, then we live in a state of desperate exasperation. Here surely is one of the causes of that ferocity which I have elsewhere called neo-Manichean.9

Does not hatred for evil create evil people? Does not the spasm of compassion mutate into ruthless cruelty that opens the road to even more monstrous abysses of evil? The attempt to unify God the Creator with the world in its whole reach is a strategy undertaken by theodicy projects, especially in their classic Leibnizian form. Theodicy is ruled by a logic of non-contradiction and systematic wholeness. Ricoeur underscores that theodicy strives to be unequivocal. It is an instance of three generally considered judgments: God is omnipotent, God is infinitely good, evil exists. The aim of the arguments is clearly apologetic: God is not responsible for evil.10 Evil here constitutes an indispensable element of the universe, which seems all the more perfect when it has written into its structure the right amount of evil. Already St Augustine judged that evil, which when compared to the good, seems all the worse, whereas good confronted with evil seems all the more beautiful. The general view of reality deprived of that which is imperfect would be less beautiful than the view of that reality along with sin and crime. Thus the function of evil is highlighting the uniqueness of the good.

This is what Leibniz has to say:

From the highest perfection of God it follows that when creating the world He chose the best of possible plans in which the greatest variety is joined with the highest order: space, place and time are best thought out, the highest ends are caused by the simplest means and there is as much power, as much knowledge, happiness and goodness in creatures as much as the universe can hold. This is because all possibilities contend for their existence in the mind of God, and according to their perfection the result of all these steps must be the present world, as perfect, as it is possible.11

By studying his own mind Leibniz knew how God’s mind works. The world as it is comes from a reckoning of everything, whereas God is a great programmer, reckoner, who counted everything, and calculated the proper dose of evil for building the best possible whole. Leibniz’s theodicy, with it admirable logic, was already sufficiently scoffed at (Voltaire, Schopenhauer – the world is the worst of possible worlds) for us to further ironize it. Let’s only look more closely at the consequences of its logic. Evil has its indispensable role in the remarkable adventure of the world, that is, it highlights the magic and majesty of the good. God is present here in the general plan, robustly embedded in the world, granted, His role is unclear in the particular plane, but, after all, it is reason that makes access to Him possible by reaching for that which is general and universal. Evil succumbs to rationalization, reason controls it, the whole is the best of all possible wholes, whereas God is its final reason. To be honest, Leibniz’s solution does justice to the requirements of logic, but it is opposed to simple moral sensitivity. The reason of the most consequent rationalist in the history of European thinking is a calculating, reckoning and deductive reason. He builds a compact ontological theory that grows out of axioms. Yet, he is not capable of submitting the indomitably mysterious presence of God within the complications of our world to human reason. It is a disengaged reason, which while noting logical structures remains blind to multi-dimensional reality. Will it not in some measure contribute to the building of the crematoria ovens? Did it not take part in the organizing of Kolyma? Is the sensitive thinking of Scheler, who says that we are all too close to the world, not closer to the questions we are dealing with here? This kind of placing of man seems to warn him about the temptation to be seduced by the vertiginous perspectives of theodicy, which can frost the human heart with the abstractions of a calculating reason or with technical variations of a presumptuous and insensitive theology that cares more about the clarity of scholastic distinctions than the cry of a suffering person.

Let’s now recall the principled rebellion of Ivan Karamazov, which reacts “emotionally” to the soulless logic of theodicy in the face of little children suffering,

Listen! If all must suffer to pay for the eternal harmony, what have children to do with it, tell me, please? It’s beyond all comprehension why they should suffer, and why they should pay for the harmony. Why should they, too, furnish material to enrich the soil for the harmony of the future?… While there is still time, I hasten to protect myself, and so I renounce the higher harmony altogether. It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to ‘dear, kind God!’ It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for.12

It would be a great oversight if we did not bother ourselves with Hegel for a moment. He calls his philosophy of history “an authentic theodicy”. The aim of philosophical understanding of history is the justification of God:

[S]o that the ill that is found in the World may be comprehended, and the thinking Spirit reconciled with the fact of the existence of evil. Indeed, nowhere is such a harmonizing view more pressingly demanded than in Universal History; and it can be attained only by recognizing the positive existence, in which that negative element is a subordinate, and vanquished nullity. On the one hand, the ultimate design of the World must be perceived; and, on the other hand, the fact that this design has been actually realized in it, and that evil has not been able permanently to assert a competing position.13

Once again we see that in the rays of reason evil melts like snow in the spring. Reason can actually use evil to realize the goals it has set for itself, but with a final decree reason nullifies it as evil. What remains for those who suffer? Either like Konrad from the third part of Forefathers’ Eve they can spit in the face of such a Godreason, “A liar, is the one who called you love. You are only wisdom”, or they act according to the precepts of Spinoza, “non ridere, non lugere, neque dtestar, sed intelligere [not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them]”. Nothing else desensitizes the human heart and human sensibility like the abstractions of theodicy. We should add, nothing else provokes evil like it. Since it is the manure of the final reconciliation (or rather maybe the triumph of one group over another) if every evil can be justified, then the more acute the evil, the more beautiful the reconciliation. Spinoza recommends understanding as a medicine for emotional disturbances unworthy of man as reasonable creature. Theodicies of all stripes underscore (i.e. Leibniz) that man’s protest against evil arises out of the inability to simultaneously encompass with his reason an infinity of things. The sad traveler that man is catches only a tiny strip of his journey with the eye of reason. Does this epistemic limitation equal the groundlessness of indignation and protest against unjustified evil toward a world of threatening evil? Does the quality of the cry and complaint become inferior, immature, deserving of an indulgent smile of all stripes of besserwisser, the representatives of a metaphysically faultless God and the proportional perfection of the world created by Him?

The Deconstruction of Theodicy?

Odo Marquard writes,

The world is defended – it no longer is evil, even though it is not fully good, free from evil – but with allowance of evil it is only optimal and that is why, comparably, it is the most worthy of existence. God is also defended, He is not evil, neither is He worthy of love because of his detachment from the world, but He is optimally reasonable in the sense of a wisdom that implements and sustains.14

Leibniz by defending and demonstrating the goodness, reasonableness and almightiness of the Creator, allows for all kinds of evil: metaphysical, moral, physical. The good exists exclusively through evil: bonum through malum. It is as if evil becomes the condition for the possibility of the good’s existence. The consequence of presenting the matter this way (allowing evil in the aim of defending God and the world) is the appearance of the next strategy, which relies upon taking away the characteristics of evil from evil. If evil is allowed as an explanatory principle then we have to make it more decent. Evil is either unacknowledged or gainsaid good. Now it is time for valorizing finitude, historicity of man, wandering (epistemic evil) and ugliness (aesthetic evil).

Philosophy of history is born. When the God of theodicy becomes expendable, history appears in His place. But evil does not disappear. From here emerges the need for historiodicy, meaning the conclusion that everything that happened in history was probably crucial for the further progress of humanity and for the good of the whole. Marquard says,

Theodicy is radicalized through relieving God of his duties, thus the philosophy of history differs from traditional theodicy by regarding evil in the present world and making man, in place of God, the absolute defendant.15

Now there is a need for anthropodicy. We must justify man in the face of the evil breeding in the world. You will not be accused in such a situation, instead other people will be accused, because you yourself are only the accuser. Now other groups of people will be responsible for all manifestations of evil. This whole process of depriving evil of its characteristics will consequently lead to the branding of traditional goods of human societies as evil. Let’s let Marquard have a say one more time,

Thus depriving evil of the characteristics of evil, whose aggressive manifestation is the deprivingof moral evil of the characteristics of evil, becomes the imputation of the characteristics of evil to traditional goods and usually it heartily provokes suspicion toward accepted values: the economy becomes the embers of alienation, the state takes on demonic characteristics, the family becomes an agent serving to torment and deform each successive generation, reason the enemy of thinking, the spirit the enemy of the soul, toleration becomes repression, religion an illusion, and so on.16

When Rousseau shifted moral evil from the human soul onto social structures, institutions and civilizations, then the remedy for the total elimination of evil became the revolutionary overthrow of society and the building up of heaven on earth. This is how modern gnosis is born (above all, communist gnosis), which by removing all transcendence from the field of human interest opens up the perspective of man’s fulfilling himself within the frames of mundane reality. The bad times of the present are countered with the enlightened future to which the iron laws of historical predestination are leading us – laws already known by those initiated into the intricate sentences of history. Since in the final analysis man does evil, is the perpetrator, then man also can deal with it, be his own savior. There are irrefutable reasons for making the present world undergo total destruction in the name of another world, but this time within the frames of historical order. This kind of stand mutatis mutandis already showed itself in ancient gnosis, which was supposed to be overcome by theodicy, but in a strange coincidence it lead to the renewal of the gnostic vision. However, this vision will lock the world in immanence leaving human institutions in the grips of unrestricted experiments of social engineering. These experiments, in their Nazi dictatorial form, showed what they are capable of. They relieved the individual from the responsibility of moral reflection and transformed crime into a production process that really only requires routine. This principle was frighteningly simple, “You need the courage to do evil in order for good to come come out of it”. These are the words Himmler directed at members of the Einsatzgruppen SS,

The majority will find out from you what it means to kill a hundred people, five hundred people or a thousand people. To endure something like that and at the same time to remain a decent person… this is a page in our history that is full of glory, it has not been written by anyone yet, nor will it be written by anyone else.17

Voegelin writes:

[Modern] gnostic speculation overcame the uncertainty of faith by receding from transcendence and endowing man and his intramundane range of action with the meaning of eschatological fulfillment. In the measure in which this immanentization progressed experientially, civilizational activity became a mystical work of self-salvation. The spiritual strength of the soul which in Christianity was devoted to the sanctification of life could now be diverted into the more appealing, more tangible, and, above all, so much easier creation of the terrestrial paradise.18

Immanence closed its gates to any kind of voice flowing from the outside. We find ourselves right in the middle of the darkness. We ask, “In what way can a light appear that will problematize that which happens within the most intense concentration of violence: crying out, weakness, what is more powerful than the strength of madness, perhaps goodness?” We could say that an optimistic and enthusiastic theodicy, which wanted to justify everything, opened up the way to justifying unimaginable violence, thanks to which the fantastic and arbitrary projects of intellectual extravagances, totally divorced from reality, were to be realized (let us recall the judgment of Marx: violence is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one).

What Kind of God?

When facing the unparalleled of concentration of evil in a 20th century saturated with cruelty we ask about a good and omnipotent God. Simultaneously we ask about man – does he really produce evil like a bee produces honey? Is he really trapped within the reciprocal nets of social, economic and political dependencies, and cannot act other than according to the actions predetermined, marked out, by these structures? Kant thought that there is a tendency toward evil in man, but not a compulsion to evil, because as reasonable beings we have a space to decide what maxims will become the springs of our action. Then is man capable of rising above his conditioning? What if, as Simone Weil claimed, society is a Great Beast whom people serve and it is the sphere of the devil? Maybe an ordinary person, tangled within the net of institutional dependencies, is capable of serving as a functionary of a giant murdering machine? Let’s recall the wellknown judgment of Hannah Arendt about the banality of evil:

With its aid she wanted to characterize a method – pragmatic, concrete, bureaucratic, conscientious – thanks to which strikingly normal people keep the whole death machine moving.19

Can God still break through the darkness of such human mechanisms and entanglements, if so, then what kind of God? The following words from Lévinas give us a lift:

It is a great glory for the Creator to have set up a being who affirms Him after having contested and denied Him in the glamorous areas of myth and enthusiasm; it is a great glory for God to have created a being capable of seeking Him or hearing Him from afar, having experienced separation and atheism.20

Man is capable of incessantly creating gods and intoxicating himself with them in a remarkable way. The enthusiasm of worshiping the gods often takes on the form of cruel violence. Buber writes:

It’s true that caricatures painted by human hands were given the name of ‘God,’ that they used to kill each other and said ‘in the name of God.’ But when their madness and lies pass, when they face Him and no longer say ‘He, He,’ but pant with ‘Thou, Thou,’ when everyone cries out with only ‘Thou,’ and when then they add the word ‘God’ – do they not then call upon the true God, who is the only living God of the sons of man? Has not this word, ‘God,’ an invocation which became a name, been sanctified throughout the ages by all human languages? We must respect those who forbid its use, because they are rebelling against the lawlessness and willfulness of the people who so often relied upon receiving self-justification from ‘God’; but we are not allowed to rid ourselves of this word. How easy it is to understand when some people, who want to rescue overused words, propose that we remain silent about ‘the final things.’ But they cannot be rescued in this way. We cannot purify the word ‘God,’ we cannot perfect it; we can, however, even though the word is stained and tarnished, pick it up from the ground, so that it becomes our aid in an hour of great anxiety.21

Within the word God there are limitless layers of that which has always concerned people: hope, love, the most hidden desires, and an ardent faith that what people do is not just a tangle of hasty actions, but a remarkable story which utters its final word in a Word which reveals the whole miracle of human existence. Human language that speaks about God becomes, in a certain unobservable moment, God’s language about man. We can adequately speak about the human being only with the language which God uses to speak about man. It is the language of the good. The good is invisible, inscrutable, and it does not submit itself to any inquiries like God. The good is beyond being. It is not possible to talk about the good with the language of being. The language of being, in some measure, is the language of power and it often changes into the language of violence. The instinct for self-preservation expresses itself in this language which, in a ruthless manner, strives toward preserving its own being through differentiating itself, distinguishing itself, and multiplying itself, right up to the point of impugning others in the name of my own life-space. The language of being causes people to become increasingly opaque. This gradual disappearance of transparency causes distrust, then violence. It is a language that ties man to this world, and threatens with destruction in the name of the greater beings of this world. It is a language that leads to mudanism.

This is how Tischner characterizes it:

Mundanism ties man’s whole hope to temporality, it demands that he agree that the scene of the world is his finality. It is blind to fortuitousness, metaphor and the relative character of the scene.22

We can observe in what way the language of concentration on oneself, of this being enmeshed within oneself (incurvatio in se ipsum), moves into the field of religion. It appears in the so-called soteriologicalegotism, in the exclusive concern for one’s own salvation. Let’s again listen to the incomparable Lévinas:

Concern about our salvation constitutes the remainders of self-love, a trace of the innate egocentrism, from which we should be torn away by the progress of religious life. So long as you only think about your own salvation, then you will be turned away from God. God is God only for the one who overcomes the temptation to lower Him in order to use Him for his own aims.23

The language of the good is the language of grace. Grace is lightness and etherealness. It is a raising up of man above the blind fate of economic, political and biological determinisms. Simone Weil contrasts grace against the power of gravity. Goodness liberates from the darknesses of earthly gods, it relativizes that which is raised by man into the rank of the absolute. Real religion does not allow man to fell like a fully-fledged citizen of the world, it reminds him that he is only here in passing – a traveler with a limited visa. God comes through the goodness of the other person. Tischner again,

Sanctum is holiness and goodness. You get on your knees before the good and love. It is much more than an aesthetic experience. You can observe this quite well in the arts. For example, an icon is a sanctum, not a sacrum. On the other hand, you have a Nietzsche or Hieronymus Bosch, who pile on the mysterium tremendum fascinans, and there you have the whole of baroque religiosity with its dances of death. Jean Delumeau, when writing his Sin and Fear: The Emergence of a Western Guilt Culture, documented, step by step, how the sacred expelled the elemental experience of sanctum… All totalitarian tendencies within the Church are tied to the replacement of sanctification with sacralization. This is why, in a specific sense, desacralization is necessary, so that we can sanctify the world… First of all, a sanctum is always a person. Second, it is a good person, sanctum is goodness. This person expresses his goodness through ‘words of life,’ through deeds. The good, when it is accepted by man, comes to life. In Christianity there is only the sanctissimum – holiness, the highest good, then there is sanctum, meaning, holy people… Within sacrum you cannot distinguish good from evil, whereas sanctum is goodness itself. This is the key to religion.24

Colliding with evil opens up man to experiencing God, who is Deus Semper Maior, always greater than our ways of thinking about Him, of picturing and capturing Him. Within creation He can only be present in the form of absence, as Simone Weil said.25 Simultaneously, to a greater degree, we come to experience a God who is Deus Semper Minor (A God always smaller than our habit of thinking Him in terms of power and authority, of ruling and triumphing – the might of being. It is a God who bears the marks of violence). This is the experience of God about which Simone Weil writes, “In this world God divorced the good from might and kept the good for Himself”.26 God is omnipotent only in order to save those who want to be saved by Him. He gave the rest of his power to the Prince of This World and inert matter.27 “He only has spiritual power. Spirituality, here on Earth, has the minimal amount of power necessary for existence. Mustard seed, pearl, salt”.28 If we follow Weil in saying that, “Contradiction is the lever of transcendence”, then God (as Goodness) is a continual retreat from the world of violence, He is a presence that steps aside.29 He creates the world, then he removes his control and leaves it to its own course. God being goodness itself wants a world without the good, indifferent, below the level of good and evil.

When facing such contradictions the reason of theodicy should capitulate. It should bow down before the experience of the God of the Gospels, divested, kenotic, debased. Waldenfels captures the matter well,

The always greater God shows his greatness in that He always hides from that which is smaller. The Lord becomes a slave and servant. The Lord of Life submits himself to the law of human mortality, He is even killed. (The problem of theodicy can be solved only thanks to the death of God in the death of Jesus.)30

It becomes apparent within this perspective that the omnipotence of God is the omnipotence of love (it appeared most fully on the Cross). It is not a physical omnipotence which becomes a metaphysics of interference within the world and in corrections of the world (usually man takes up this task in the name of “God”). The merciful love of God constitutes not so much a solution to the problem of theodicy, as it does a negation of it. Tischner writes,

The Incarnation of the Word, accomplished in the sort of world we live in, for many reasons had to end in tragedy. Again, the logic will be relentless. If God is love, since the Son is in the Father, and the Father in the Son, since human despair puts God in the role of the defendant, then the Son must share the fate of the despairing to the end. The accusations of the despairing will only then lose their primordial strength when the despairing hear from the Cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’31

God is in solidarity with human suffering, by stepping into the abyss of abandonment, despair and the varieties of pain.

We should let the cry resound, the cry which is a question directed at the God hidden in human suffering. The question about suffering (that is, evil undergone) cannot be expressed by the language of ontotheology or theodicy. It is a question that grows out of truly radical religious thinking which has an antinomic, downright paradoxical character if we follow Hryniewicz. A paradox communicates that which is not communicable. Human language cannot cope with transcendental reality. The paradox is not a logical contradiction, rather it is the conscious expression of the fact that the transcendental mystery of God cannot be expressed directly, exclusively with the aid of logical discourse. Likewise, lament and complaint and protest are the appropriate languages to express the immensity of suffering which is the continual lot of man.

  • 1 J. Manemann and J. B. Metz (eds.), Christologie nach Auschwitz, Münster 1998, p. 109.
  • 2 As cited in: Schalom Ben-Chorin, Als Gott schwieg, Mainz 1986, p. 24.
  • 3 K. L. Koniński, Uwagi [Observations], Poznań 1987, p. 170.
  • 4 S. Weil, Wybór pism [Selected Writings], trans. and ed. Cz. Miłosz, Kraków 1991, p. 90.
  • 5 J. Tischner, Spór o istnienie człowieka [The Controversy Over the Existence of Man], Kraków 1998, p. 37.
  • 6 E. Lévinas, Trudna wolność. Eseje o judaizmie [Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism], trans. A. Kuryś, Gdynia 1991, p. 151.
  • 7 K. Dorosz, Maski Prometeusza [The Masks of Prometheus], London 1989, p. 211.
  • 8 M. Bierdiajew, Głoszę wolność [I Proclaim Freedom], trans. H. Paprocki, Warszawa 1999, p. 119.
  • 9 Cz. Miłosz, Widzenia nad Zatoką San Francisco [Visions from San Francisco Bay], Kraków 1989, p. 99.
  • 10 Cf. P. Ricoeur, Zło. Wyzwanie rzucone filozofii i teologii [Evil: A Challenge to Philosophy and Theology], trans. E. Burska, Warszawa 1992, p. 23.
  • 11 G. W. Leibniz, Wyznanie wiary filozofa [A Philosopher’s Profession of Faith], trans. S. Cichowicz, Warszawa 1969, p. 289.
  • 12 F. Dostojewski, Bracia Karamazow [The Brothers Karamazov], vol. 1, trans. A. Wat, Warszawa 1970, p. 296-297.
  • 13 G. W. F. Hegel, Wykłady z filozofii i dziejów [Lectures on Philosophy and History], vol. 1, trans. J. Grabowski and A. Landmann, Warszawa 1958, p. 24.
  • 14 O. Marquard, Szczęście w nieszczęściu [Happiness in Unhappiness], trans. K. Krzemieniowa, Warszawa 2001, p. 43.
  • 15 O. Marquard, Rozstanie z filozofią pierwszych zasad [Farewell to the Philosophy of First Principles], trans. K. Krzemieniowa, Warszawa 1994, p. 63.
  • 16 O. Marquard, Szczęście…, op. cit., p. 51.
  • 17 Cf. R. Safranski, Zło. Dramat wolności [Evil: The Drama of Freedom], trans. I. Kania, Warszawa 1999, p. 241.
  • 18 E. Voegelin, The New Science of Politics, Chicago and London 1952, p. 129.
  • 19 R. Safranski, Zło…, op. cit., p. 251.
  • 20 E. Lévinas, Trudna wolność…, op. cit., p. 17.
  • 21 M. Buber, Zaćmienie Boga [The Eclipse of God], trans. P. Lisicki, Warszawa 1994, p. 10.
  • 22 J. Tischner, Myślenie według wartości [Thinking in Values], Kraków 2000, p. 354.
  • 23 E. Lévinas, Trudna wolność…, op. cit., p. 50.
  • 24 A. Michnik, J. Tischner, J. Żakowski, Między panem a plebanem [Between Altar and Pew], Kraków 1995, p. 503-504.
  • 25 Cf. S. Weil, Wybór…, op. cit., p. 68.
  • 26 S. Weil, Świadomość nadprzyrodzona [Supernatural Consciousness], trans. A. Olędzka-Frybesowa, Warszawa 1986.
  • 27 Cf. S. Weil, Wybór…, op. cit., p. 69.
  • 28 Ibid., p. 70.
  • 29 Ibid., p. 86.
  • 30 H. Waldenfels, Fenomen chrześcijaństwa wśród religii świata [The Phenomenon of Christianity Among the Religions of the World], trans. J. Marzęcki, Warszawa 1995, p. 118.
  • 31 J. Tischner, Miłość nas rozumie [Love Understands Us], Kraków 2000, p. 35.

Translated by Artur Sebastian Rosman

Published in: God and Auschwitz. Kraków 2008, s. 189-204.