Manfred Deselaers

God and Evil
Anthropological – philosophical Reflexion


Not only since Auschwitz have we been tormented by the question of the power of evil, the essence of man and his relationship to good and to God. The following considerations ask about the “Sitz im Leben” (setting in life) of “God” and “Evil” with regard to the human biography. This is done with the help of Emmanuel Levinas’s philosophy, which is based upon Immanuel Kant. Further essential elements of this reflexion are: Paul Ricoeur’s work about ‘the Phenomenology of Guilt’, Søren Kierkegaard’s reflexions “The Concept of Anxiety” and “The Sickness Unto Death”, Józef Tischner’s examination of ‘the Drama of Human Existence’, Bernhard Welte’s analysis of Evil in the work of Thomas Aquinas, and thoughts of Karol Wojtyła. Elsewhere I have explored these ideas in great detail1; here I wish to sum them up in a more easily readable form.

I The Structure of Goodness

Evil is evil, because it hurts or destroys something that is good. Behind every evil, good shines, and thus evil unmasks itself as such. Good, therefore, exists before evil. It is with this precedence of good over evil that the message of the Bible starts. In the beginning there is the goodness of God which leaves its indelible mark on the creation: “And God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen 1:31). In the following chapter we will try to form a picture of the original goodness of man. Then we shall ask about the reason for the fall from goodness, about the nature of evil and finally about the possibility of redemption.

Vocation for Love

Only someone who has been spoken to and gives an answer can say “I”. Before man is anything, he is “pre-original receptiveness”2, in which he can hear the call that gives meaning to his life. A mother communicates: “It is good that you are there. This world wants you to be.” That is like a promise for the future. This motherhood is a fundamental dimension in every inter-personal relationship. It conveys acceptance of the person, constitution of freedom and opening to the future.

It is part of the essence of love to give substance immediately to that freedom which it constitutes. Love wants love as a free response coming from the other person’s heart. Love does not only mean acceptance but also a calling. Just as motherhood can be seen as the prototype of a love that holds and gives life, the love that finds its beginning through erotic encounter can be considered as the prototype of a love which calls for total dedication and self-giving. In this love I receive my identity as being-with-the-other and as being-for-the-other. This “external determination” does not alienate. By giving a loving answer as a being affected by love, I experience the “external determination” which increases with deepening love as more and more humanely fulfilling. Although it might be possible – for love does not violate, it liberates – fundamentally I do not wish to turn away from love. It would never even enter my mind, since here I find all my life’s bliss! Human will is always inclined towards good.

The relation to the other person has one decisive characteristic trait: it never reaches him. For the essence of the encounter is not the outward appearance of the other person. When he or she looks at me, something moves me that comes from “beyond” the outward appearance, from a dimension of infinity. What lies behind, cannot be “grasped” and yet, it is the truly essential thing. It remains a mystery whose call does not ask to get acquainted and then know it for a fact, but only to approach with respect and awe. I can never know where I am with the other person. I can only trust.

Even the deepest self-giving to the other is only in the second place an activity. The lasting basis is a living passivity: open pro-existence, readiness to be moved, listening and willingness to serve. It wants to help the other person’s life to thrive, it is responsible for that person’s free initiatives. Only thus do I take the other person seriously as another person. Waiting and patience are, therefore, essential elements of the relationship. Love does not coerce; it lives on promise.

The World of “There is”

What can reach me from the other person and what I can “have”, is his visible expression. That with which alone I can reach the other person, what I can give to him, is my visible expression. This manifestation evolves between us, between myself “on this side” and the other person “on the other”, in that the world which lies between us becomes the carrier of our message. When I give the other person a bouquet of roses, they say infinitely more than is contained in a description of their outward beauty. When I caress the beloved person, I caress more than the physical form; in fact I do not caress the visible body but that being in its entirety which is the manifestation of the other person’s truth that lies beyond that which is outwardly tangible. And yet, it is only by means of such external expressions of the senses, that encounter and love are realizable. Only corporeal love is love. It alone reaches the other person in a transcending, graceful way and can cause joy. The flowers are put in a vase, the kisses touch the skin, but what is meant reaches the heart. The countenance, the whole body are only traces of the other. All that is between us therefore is of kerygmatic character, is a declaration of its significance for our relationship. All that is between us bears this meaning: it is a gift in the living expression of love.

The time of love is essentially a time of work. In order to be good to the other person, I shape our world for the benefit of the person with whom I am sharing it. I bring together, plan, administer, control all that “there is”. Everything is subjected to my giving it a meaning, which in turn is illuminated by the other person’s countenance. My concrete being-in-the-world is basically determined by the preconditions into which I find myself cast. My character is determined by the conditioning I received at my birth and by the history that preceded my experiences of life. This finiteness limits my human possibilities, but not my freedom; it only gives my freedom a place in which to operate. My freedom receives its decisive concrete form from the countenance of the other person who calls to me in my given situation. This dependence on the concrete is even valid for the imagination which gives me orientation. Since love exists only in a physical manifestation, also my ideas of the objectives which move me are physical and aim at a physical, finite fulfilment that gives expression to the infinite significance. Therefore every concrete tangible expression of happiness is provisional and must be surmounted. It is a symbol, which points further.

The “place” in man at which relatedness to the beyond and reference to this world, narrowness of character and width of intentions come together is the restless heart. The heart is always restless, because it lives by giving answer, longs for concrete fulfilment and yet desires to go beyond. In dialogue I offer the world to the other person and ask whether he accepts it. This question is not yet the gift of my world. I only offer it, represented in the word, and still keep my distance. The sense of the representation is precisely to be questioned, to search anew and eventually to find a mutual level of understanding. The significance of reality is a function of the inter-related network of my conversation. Thus reflexion, division into space and time, the memory of history, finally philosophy as the fruit of dialogue come about as the wisdom of love. Therefore true philosophy without kindness of heart is not possible. The light which illuminates the world for me and gives meaning to it only shines up in loving self-giving in answering to a call. Ethics is the first philosophy3.

Living Together in Society

I find my task and my special place in the inter-related network of society because of others. Therefore, the wish to be acknowledged in their eyes and to receive my life-task from there stands at the beginning of my relationship to society. But how can my life receive an unambiguous destination in this multitude of encounters? I cannot treat them all in the same manner. A place, a person or group of persons will, with regard to all the others, be the foremost challenge for my love. In the many demands my conscience searches for the one, the deepest, in which all the others are united.

But does this not lead to the ethics of a clique? Can something like justice exist at all in the face of mankind? The categorical imperative (Kant) demands to “act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means”4. Such “a priori” knowledge about this order of morality is part of the human endowment. Levinas sees an approach to humanity in speech. The basis of all historical languages spoken by people is formed by the same original experience of being spoken to, the same “ur-doxa”, with the help of which they bring order to the variety which they deal with. Therefore, different languages can be translated from one into one another. And therefore, a kinship expresses itself in them.5

The answer, called forth by love, is activity which shapes the world. Human work looks like a “rationally organized fight against nature”6 (Ricoeur); wearying mastery of nature is necessary in order to find one’s place within it. The social group organizes itself in the widest sense always as a participation in the “We” of a community and as a participation in actions that go beyond the individual, as comradeship in the struggle for an idea. In this interplay every individual has his main task, his place at which he is responsible for “everything”, for the success of the whole endeavour. Passionate commitment to this task is deeply in accordance with human nature. Work requires discipline in shared tasks; even purely technical demands need rational organization, subordination of different abilities under one plan, command and obedience. In larger structures it is always one person or one group that makes use of other persons’ labour force. This political structure of power shapes all economic and social forms of society. “Authority is not bad in itself. To command is a ‘differentiation’ necessary among men.”7

The Divine Dimension

In considering that original responsibility which creates coherence we come to think of the word “God”. God does not meet directly, in a single encounter among others, but only concealed in love, as its own deepest cause. When turning to a concrete person a call reaches me in such absoluteness and validity as if, as Levinas says, “one were searching for me in the universe”8. Like an absent third partner the “Source” of this call remains invisible in the background. Therefore, “He” does not withdraw any attention from the encounter with concrete persons, but turns all my love to them. “God” does not occur in the “world” other than as a trace, as a vocation to love, as first and last meaning which only reveals itself in the response of my life. If the word God should be meaningful in our speech, it can only be as a sign for that inconceivable mystery, a word which reminds us of the openness and relatedness of the world. When in the following I speak of God in this sense, I mostly write “G’d” in order to express this relatedness into the mystery.

The entire coherence of the world is given through the unambiguity of love. All that exists receives its meaning only through love, is marked by its trace. “And God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good”(Gen 1:31). That is in accordance with Thomas of Aquinas’s doctrine about the inner direction of all that is towards good9. The gravitational force of a stone, the spontaneity of an animal, the recognizing will of man, they all have the striving into the unity of good, the striving for G’d written into their innermost principles. From this results that the attentiveness for what exists coincides with the love of G’d, as Simone Weil writes10. Originally there is no separation between the relation to the sensory world of existence and the relation to G’d. Therefore the experience of nature can become a religious experience. Since the concrete is the path to that which is beyond, it is and remains “divinely” promising; the relationship to that which exists decides the whole of my happiness. Decisive for my relationship to G’d is not my relationship to the material world, but to the other human being, in which everything else finds its proper place. I am called by a demand which also reaches out to all other human beings and which means a fatherhood that makes us all brothers and sisters. Through this demand I understand myself as one who is called into a worldwide family. The moral order which shapes our living-together is, therefore, a religious order.

When we try here to imagine a primordial state before the fall, no synagogue or church is necessary as a special place where one can encounter G’d, since all are living as the children of G’d. The Decalogue, too, whose commands call to do good against the power of evil, and the Cross, as the sign of redemption and deliverance from the power of evil, are still without meaning here. Paradoxical as it may sound, the original belief in G’d is a life as if there were no G’d. The relationship with G’d as a topic needing expression only begins with its uncertainty.

Fundamental is not the desire to live, but the desire to love, and that means being able to die. Love means making oneself a gift for the other, to leave oneself behind and to trust in the mystery of a shared life, a mystery which promises a future. Every loving is a dying.

Basically it is the fundamental movement which constitutes human life. It is always grace then to find life, it is always a miracle of resurrection. And the calling already bears this promise in it. “Beyond existence” is not Nothing, but love. Death only becomes hard when it loses its pure location in love.

II The Fall from Good

Evil exists

A machine, a computer, even an animal, cannot be evil, even when they are dangerous, for they cannot take a critical attitude to their own deeds. Only man can do that. Contrary to a physical “evil” a moral “wrong”11 is an act of the freedom of man. Therefore a behaviour is only bad if it is willed as opposed to good. Whether it is so cannot be perceived from outside. Only the acknowledgement of guilt proves that the harm inflicted on the other person through the deed was not only a mistake, an error or unfavourable consequences, but an abuse of freedom, moral guilt.

Being evil means not doing justice to the responsibility to which we are called. To hurt love. Not to share the bread. Evil is a form of dialogue, it occurs between human beings; it is a betrayal of trust, breach of a promise. Goodness is faithfulness12. Since all single responsibilities in the life of a human being converge in the one fundamental responsibility, being evil concentrates on the denial of a Yes to that basic relationship. A human being is evil who does not carry out his innermost vocation, who does not give his life for the other and for humanity. One can say pointedly: a human being is evil who does not love G’d. We have, in fact, to do with a fundamental option decided in man’s heart by which he determines freely about the basic direction of his life.

In this fundamental option man cannot will evil as evil. He cannot become free from his inclination to good. Therefore, turning away from G’d is only possible when an idol starts to exist which becomes the object of all dedication. This is possible because man has been created as a “finite infinity”, a being called to realize its infinite vocation in finite steps. Human existence is characterized by a seemingly paradoxical situation: since this existence is all about G’d, man can be free in his ties to the finite world, and since he is bound to the finite world, he can become free from G’d.

Turning Away From G’d

Love means total dedication to the other person on the basis of trust. Saying “No” to G’d is the mortal fear of love, which dreads the an-nihil-ation of identity and that no resurrection follows after death. When saying “No” to G’d the promise is not believed in any more. Why?

I need approval and acceptance as essentially as daily bread, in the truest sense of the word. But not always do I meet with approval. The absence of the “Yes” of love is not experienced simply as “Nothing”, but as a refusal, a “No” which means me. The other does not will me. In his world I am not meant to be or at least not to be as I am. It is like a deadly assault, the only reason for which – before all guilt – is my existence. It is the experience of a revocation of the original promise of life which the creative act, the “motherhood”, gave me at the beginning of my life. Because of this “divine” power inter-personal relationships are most deeply sensitive and at the same time all-decisive in a person’s life. All that is good or evil is born here.

And does this not lead inevitably to the violation of the trust in G’d? The cry: “My God, why…?”13, which results from the radical experience of suffering, proves this personal-relational character of a wrong endured that precedes all experience of evil as nothingness and emptiness. Fear is afraid of G’d who is against me and threatens me with nothingness and annihilation. When the other kills me in this sense, he kills me, as it were, in the name of G’d. He kills my faith in G’d. He destroys the foundation of my hope and confidence, because he gives the lie to the promises of that “motherhood” which cause basic trust. The most important question in theodicy, the justification of G’d, is not whether G’d exists, but: what makes you think that G’d could be simply good?

With fear at the root all composure is lost. As with a person drowning the only alternative can be: to drown desperately or to seek a hold desperately. Often the two go together. The existential instability is usually suppressed and covered over by the seeming security which the finite world offers and into which one escapes. But under the surface fear gnaws at the heart and secretly regulates all conduct. An incongruity comes into existence in man, a despair, which Kierkegaard calls “the sickness unto death”. I cannot want not to be. The desperate person despairs of himself as not-beloved. Only now does death as a force which annihilates the “I” play a role. This vulnerability is the deepest cause for man’s abandoning G’d and seeking refuge with an idol.

But it is not clear that God is not good. There is also that different memory of fundamental goodness. Because of it and on account of the experiences, which also exist confirming that fundamental goodness, I live. Prior to despair, therefore, is the feeling of insecurity. An alternative to basic trust has begun to exist. Deep-rooted freedom: that I can decide against God and must decide for God. Thus sin is a free act, after all. All guilt is entanglement in guilt, it never begins in a “pure” state, and yet, it is also unambiguously guilt that has to be answered for, and that is why it can be confessed as guilt. In the Bible the “heart” signifies the innermost part, the centre, of a person, not only the feeling, but also the free will as the location of good and evil. It is in the heart that the renunciation of the vocation for love happens, in the heart G’d is replaced by an idol.

On this level there is no agnosticism, for with regards to my fundamental attitude I have always decided in advance. The basic question of conscience is, therefore: do you heed the dictates of your heart, which connect you with love? The break with G’d has a personal character as a decision against G’d, before it ends in the impersonal structure of godlessness. The abandonment of the sphere in which G’d is encountered makes it appear empty and cold. It loses all meaning and only signifies “Nothing”. Then G’d has died for my world. Getting used to a responding basic attitude in the long run leads to one’s not even recognizing the call of the absolute Other in its radicality. A life begins which settles in a world devoid of love, in which the other is no longer a mystery.

III The Structure of Evil

From now on man searches for the infinite underpinning of his life in the finite world – and cannot find it. A coherence of reality comes into existence, a structure of evil, which develops its own dynamic and radically changes the situation of man’s life.

Fundamental Idol BEING

Where basic trust is lost, man’s fundamental motivation becomes the safeguarding of his own existence in the realm of the finite. I deal with things now in such a way as to expect from them the approval which I no longer hope for from “beyond”. As I remember – and be it only in the depth of my subconscious – that the sensory gifts bring to me with the delight in their enjoyment the message that a call reaches me from the infinite which speaks to and encourages me: “It is good that you are!”, I now hope to gain this acceptance by taking pleasure in sensations. Levinas characterizes the fundamental structure of evil as that attitude to life which is “fastened to being”. “Being” in itself is not bad, only that attitude which attributes absolute value to it. Therefore I use capital letters when BEING, set as a non-transcendent absolute, signifies the essence of the idolatrous.

As the fundamental structure of evil is essentially a fearful search for something to hold onto in the flight from death, “salvation” must offer some kind of soothing. In the biblical myth of the Fall, the first words of the serpent offering an alternative react precisely to this fundamental fear. With a lie it quietens the decisive question: “You will not surely die”14. But it remains a lie. I cannot escape from dying. It is part of me. I can only suppress it or deceive myself about its true character. The paradox is complete: with this lie, death comes into the world. For BEING, to which I now cling, is transient, only “beyond BEING” can the immortality of love be found.

Master and Servant

Love is substituted by the relationship of master and servant. The master is in a position of power over the servant because he gives him what is necessary for life: bread, water, shelter… The master’s interest is directed towards the securing and justification of his own life. There is no relationship face to face, but all is about the servant’s subordination to the master’s system of self-assertion. As a servant, man loses his dignity and essential freedom. Dignity must be renounced for the enhancement of the master’s dignity. What remains is a share in the master’s dignity and livelihood. If this relationship is internalized, the master becomes the ethical principle of orientation for the servant. Then the rejection by the master works like a curse which condemns: it communicates to the servant that he has no right to be in the master’s world and should justly be dead. This ethical fear of death makes the servant unable to revolt.15

The same is true for the erotic relationship. It is unthinkable without the force and the stimulus of sensuality, yet unthinkable, too, without the subordination of sensuality under the responsibility into which I am called through the other person’s countenance. A misguided erotic relationship means missing the call which goes out from the other person. The deep longing for absolute acceptance is not waited for patiently but demanded. The other person has to be there for me, because I need him. That is the basic attitude of rape. Similar, too, though, is the fundamental attitude of the self-abandoning subordination, the servile mind. It does everything in order to remain in the favour of the beloved person. Since man is the site of encounter with the transcendent, he can easily become an idol. To be an idol and a victim of rape lie close together, just as master and slave. That is true for all inter-personal relationships, also for the desire for appreciation in society, fame and power.

If, in inter-personal relationships, one does not succeed in securing the other person’s approval, we can try to deal with one another in a “factual” way. For the other person, who contemplates me and calls to me, to lose his dangerous, questioning character, he is treated as a phenomenon which can become understandable and therefore integrated. Thinking which is made for dealing with things is applied to people. Conversation with the other person does not take place on a level footing; there is no coming together, but subordination to a system. When a conflict occurs, the other person is, in this system, shown his place by “dialogue” or education. In order to get to this point, our freedom (our own and the other person’s) is subordinated to “higher reason”; we get the task to look for the truth of this reason and to lose ourselves in it. Ethical behaviour towards the other person becomes political behaviour. In political life, if it remains without counterbalance, humanity defines itself by its actions. Hence the immense importance of money. Treating a human being like a thing entices to manipulation. “If once power has been gained over him like over a thing, then from the very speech which should lead to the one reason there arise all the temptations of deceitful language, of advertising and of propaganda”16. The other person is not met face to face; his will is acknowledged, it is true, but suppressed, ill-treated, hurt in its incarnation. Torture is the attempt to rule over the transcendence of the other. And this attempt is even awarded success – as long as the other himself clings to BEING and is afraid of dying.

If the other person who intrudes into my world can neither be won over nor neutralised, catastrophe occurs. For hereby I lose control over my world, I lose my grip on it. The other person, since in his essence he cannot become part of me, means the possibility of war with all its consequences that may mean my destruction. Thus hate starts to exist. I cannot comprehend the otherness of the other person, it eludes my power, but I can kill. War is, therefore, the fundamental way of relating for humans bound to BEING. War aims at eliminating the other as such. According to Levinas, this consciousness characterizes western thought which is inclined “to see the true use of reason in politics as the art of foreseeing war and winning it by all means”17. Such thinking can show no alternative, no way to true peace. It remains totally bound to the rationalityof war, which starts out from the irreconcilable oppositeness of others. Peace which can be made in this way remains an offspring of war.

“Conscience” Conforming to a System

A living coherence which is orientated towards BEING makes an idolatrous order appear from which I draw my orientation and which means everything to me. Thence the inevitable tendency towards totality and totalitarianism. In this new context, a conscience in conformity with the system functions: that which upholds the system that secures my BEING is good; that which attacks it is evil.

“Living as if there were no G’d” means living with a broken relationship to the whole of reality. Not only the beyond is excluded, the finite world itself disintegrates with the loss of basic trust: one half of reality is seen as dangerous and threatens with annihilation, the other half gives life and future. The whole world is not a home any more, but only that part which concretely gives something. The rest is inimical. The evil person only loves by half. It is not as if he did not love at all. For apart from himself he loves his wife, his family, his friends, his people. But just not the whole of reality. He does not love his enemies. The enemies he hates. From the perspective of the approving interior the negation of the exterior always happens with a “clear conscience”. One’s own set of references calls into duty and demands sacrifices. The unrestrained egoism of the individual must also here subordinate to the “higher values” of the community. There are the “covetousness of the flesh”, the servitude of fear etc, lesser and greater “sins”, which can destroy the community and the goal that is being pursued. There are clear internal morals. If the well-being of my family or even of my whole people depends on my behaviour, then that asks for a lot of discipline.

From the perspective of the victims, of those who are outside and fought against, evil always appears as a powerful an-nihil-ation. The evil person wants the others not to exist. He kills because he fears death. In its last consequence the opposite of love is always murder, because the humanity of the other person, its infinite demand, is eliminated from one’s own world. The evil person does not see that he is evil. Or rather: he does not want to see it. The evil person does see that he makes victims, but under certain circumstances he can even boast of this. By proclaiming the victims as evil, he makes clear that they deserve the “mal”treatment, that it is, therefore, justified and good, for in his defeating the others “the good person” is victorious.

Idolatrous Relation to G’d

Religion becomes idolatrous when it is not an answer to the call of G’d, which is felt as a call to love, but when it serves instead the assertion of oneself. A God that confirms egoism does not exist. He is invented so as not to encounter the true G’d and have to lose oneself in love. In the life of an evil person the relation to G’d, the absolute responsibility, is destroyed. It becomes the true enemy, because it makes one responsible also for the “enemy”. The point is to get control of the final, decisive “source”“ of anxiety. Such religiousness is in reality a “relationship to God” “as if there were no G’d”, and thus atheistic.

If the relationship to G’d is not lived in love – and it can only be “comprehended” in the loving dedication to others – it is thought of as an extension of BEING. Thus the idea of a “backdrop” behind our world comes into being which appears like a projection and therefore confirmation of inner-worldly (non-transcendent) wishes in a “poor infinity”. – The death of this G’d in modern times is one consequence of that. G’d was searched for where he was not to be found. But adherence to BEING in the long run always leads to a “return of the mythical gods18, to a deification of non-divine BEING. The ideology of National socialism is an example of that.

Idolatrous religion enters into the service of evil, the service of the fight against the enemy. This commitment is described impressively by Józef Tischner: “He goes to the temple in the presumptuous conviction of surpassing in holiness both those who stay away from the temple and those who are standing next to him. He has come in order to continue his fight against the other and against earth that is inimical to him. In the temple, in this holy place, he imagines himself to be at the source of supernatural powers, which he wants to make use of for his own aims. He considers the grace coming from God as a kind of strength and power. His belief in God has been constructed over his disbelief in man. […] On the altar man does not offer himself any more as a sacrifice to God; the altar becomes the place where his judgment over others is executed. At the altar man produces his own private <host of the condemned>. There is no room any more for (an) encounter”19.
It has to be said again that the relatedness to love is the absolute criterion for a religion free from the idolatrous and idols.

Destructive Malignant Growth of Evil

Instead of trusting that my identity is taken care of in God, in the structure of evil the whole world becomes transformed into a bulwark for the troubled heart. And a battle against reality is fought. True inter-personal communication is impossible here. Man becomes most deeply lonely. That also concerns the inner forum of his own world. In “comradeship” and among “companions” he remains lonely, because he defines himself by the “common cause” and is not accepted in his transcendent mystery. That is also true for marriage when the meaning of “love” between the partners is limited to finding a place in this world. This loneliness is a fundamental alienation which leads to a destructive illness. BEING cannot fulfil the metaphysical longing; it frustrates the search for the promised land in the long run, because the appreciation of the innermost core of the persons remains missing. Man realizes that he is not wanted as a human being. In the degree in which this becomes felt the wound from being betrayed deepens. The servant exposes the master as the oppressor and the enemy, and the whole world which connects them appears in an inimical light. The master, too, who tries to bend the servant to his will, by seduction and threats, becomes frustrated. For he does not receive the true appreciation of the free person, but the hypocrisy of the one who is subjected to him. His position, too, is founded on a lie. Therefore also for him the servant becomes the enemy. Now the enemy is not only outside “his” world, but also inside. In the world of idols nobody can become happy, for its promise is a mighty, but empty illusion which proves to be deception.

The more I feel my own moral dishonesty, the more unbearable are those that appear morally justified. For they function as a constant accusation, as a guilty verdict. Therefore they are met by my hatred, “blind hatred”, as they show me something which I consciously prefer not to see. The “clear conscience” of the evil person flees from the encounter with good – to confront it is impossible for him. “The demonic is the fearof good”, says Kierkegaard20. In order not to admit that my life is wrong, I look for a scapegoat with the help of which I can seemingly explain the inner contradictions. The scapegoat saves me from having to have my world questioned. Thus grows the “hardening of the heart”. Man becomes more and more cut off from the demands of moral reality and at the same time more and more violent against them.

This leads to a vicious circle of evil. Evil bears in itself the tendency to spread. The evil person wants all humans to share in his egoism, his view of the world and his value judgment. The consequences of sin prepare the ground from where the succeeding generations make their decisions. We always find ourselves in “waste land”, on devastated ground: personally (in our hearts), socially (in inter-personal relationships) and religiously (in our relation to G’d). Our moral sensitivity is shaped by society, by tradition and religion, by family and by personal circumstances. Part of this is negative conditioning, hostile images, patterns of aggressive behaviour, all of which we adopt unconsciously. In this way a moral helplessness comes into existence, which is part of the ground on which we stand and from where we come to our decisions.21 Without wanting to go into the Catholic doctrine aboutoriginal sin now, I yet wish to point out that its essential message is to be understood from here. Original sin affects all of mankind, “namely through the passing-on of a human nature which is wanting in original sanctity and justice. Therefore, original sin is “sin” in a metaphorical sense: it is a sin which one has received with life, but not committed – a state, not a deed“22. The philosophical tradition distinguishes between actus hominis and actus humanus. Actus hominis is the deed of a human being, which – under circumstances – can have evil, fatal consequences for another one, but it is not necessarily an actus humanus, a free, moral deed for which that human being is responsible as a person.

IV Redemption

The question which poses itself is: How can good have a chance? Does there exist the “radically good in human nature”? And can it assert itself against the power of evil?

The Claim of G’d

The radically good in man lies in the possibility of addressing him ethically in his receptiveness to the demands of morality. It never stops constituting the true identity and it always makes itself felt against all totalitarian isolation of the proud “I”. This “pre-original” possibility of addressing him ethically connects with all other human beings and with G’d.

I am myself only in this connectedness – and I fail myself apart from it. The discrepancy between this identity in connectedness and my failing makes itself felt as pang of conscience. The call of the other person always reaches me and always compels to a reaction. Therefore, the “clear conscience” of the reasoning of BEING, which is in truth – since murderous – evil, does not have the final say. That conscience which is first concerned about the other person exposes the one who is bound to BEING and its systems. There is a pang of conscience against the “clear conscience”. Against this background Levinas distinguishes between clear and troubled conscience23: a “clear conscience” characterizes the human being who is self-asserted and cut off from others; a “troubled conscience” characterizes the one who is open for the other person.

When I encounter another human being, truly encounter him, speak with him and look into his eyes, he dispels my possibilities to categorize or classify and to dominate him. The other person’s look pulls me away from my revolving around myself and brings me down from the throne of my supremacy. This look which has entered my world and which I cannot forget any more changes everything. A sense opens itself, deeper than BEING and in which all BEING finally finds its meaning: love. All the bread which I kept for myself now becomes meaningful only in sharing. But being meant to be there for the other awakens existential anxiety. I am expected to let go of that BEING to which I cling. Thereby I become most deeply vulnerable. Only someone can love who is vulnerable, and that without reserve. Only someone who is able to take his leave from this world can love. – But who can do that? How can one accept the other person, if he brings death? Redemption comes from the loving and accepting approach that characterizes G’d. Only he who can put his trust in G’d, is able to love. But how can one find such trust?

The Revelation of G’d

From its beginning the biblical revelation is opposed to the imprisonment in the structure of evil. Already the message of Genesis and the History of Creation, which the tradition of the People of Israel has bequeathed, is a miracle, different from the mythologies and theologies of other peoples: here the unambiguous goodness of the one Creator is professed, together with the original goodness of the Creation and the human being. “God saw all that He had made, and it was very good.” The inferiority of evil, which is rooted in the free will of the beings created and beloved by G’d, runs through the whole Jewish-Christian revelation like a red thread. The greatest danger to man comes from his idols; therefore the Ten Commandments begin with the strict prohibition of image worship (Ex 20:3-6 and Deut 5:7-10). To hold on to G’d is the foundation on which alone life can succeed. The fundamental command is therefore: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts.” (Deut 6:4-6) The consequence of love for G’d is responsibility before one’s neighbour. Jesus of Nazareth is of one mind with the teachers of the law: “The second is this: Love your neighbour as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mk 12:31) This second commandment is to be understood in the light of the love of G’d: as an absolute. “But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Mt 5:44-48) Jesus lived this love, until the surrender of his life on the Cross.

Here the essential difference between being Jesus’ disciple and the cult of a leader becomes evident: Jesus renounces himself completely, empties himself – even unto death, in order to awaken the faith in the Father and to liberate to the sense of basic trust in the wisdom of the Creation. He is, as it were, not a new addition to the truth of the Creation, but within himself the deepest revelation of this very truth. To follow Jesus’ example means to put one’s trust in the Father by trusting in him and radically to take up the challenge of the personal appeal of reality. – An idolatrous leader alienates from reality and proclaims himself as the event in which something new and additional has entered into history and to whom all trust in G’d and all insight into truth must from now on be transferred. All salvation now depends on blind faith in him – blind(!) since it alienates from the claim of reality. An idolatrous leader cult distrusts the Creation and the Divine Covenant which is rooted in the reality of Creation.

In a world in which basic trust is most deeply hurt, the encounter with the revelation, which in concrete history bears witness in the world of BEING of divine love, gives the courage to commit oneself to love where it costs one’s life.


Wishing to respond to G’d, I become aware of how often I have rejected him. In this rejection, not in my finiteness, lies my infinite guilt which I can never make amends for. For wherever I have rejected a human being, I have killed him: he should not be there in my world. In doing so, I have, in a manner of speaking, killed G’d who spoke to me through him: he should not be there in my world. By my own criteria I have, therefore, from the perspective of the other deserved damnation: such a murderer as I am must not exist.

The message of the Revelation, namely that G’d does not condemn the sinner but, in spite of everything, turns to him full of mercy, is the message of redemption which in truth makes one humble and free. The love with which G’d loves the sinner is a love which suffers24. G’d lets himself be hurt, so to speak, by the sinner and killed, and yet he says “Yes” to him and accepts him. There is no sin which G’d would not forgive; there is no guilt which would make repentance and conversion to him impossible. Where this repentance is dearly longed for, this desire is already the gift of grace; it means I am already being moved by that love which comes towards me and which alone makes the longing for conversion possible.

The return through conversion to the relationship with G’d means the end of the lie, a new realism, return to the relationship with that reality which calls me into the absolute responsibility for others. Orientation towards G’d happens in the orientation towards love. Seen in this light, G’d does not alienate man. Quite the reverse: the humaneness of the human being that comes to itself and finds its true identity in love is strengthened and deepened.

In this acceptance of his vocation, man defeats the power of evil. The subject traverses a “night of the subconscious”. In this night the new identity is born. The fear of death transforms into the fear of committing a murder, into the impossibility of leaving the other person alone in his mortality. The other person’s countenance weakens my strong self-confidence, makes me humane, shaken by the misery of the other. It is these tears which distinguish truth from ideology and bear witness to a new identity25.

To break free from one’s self in order to live for the other is a painful process. My life becomes a sacrifice for the other person. True communication is only possible when I am willing to bear and endure him as he is, a person who cannot be dominated, I must bear with him in his poverty, especially also with his guilt, even when he hurts me. This emotion leads to atonement for the other person. When I do not only somehow bear the pain which I suffer because of the other person, but in so doing remain in a positive relationship to him, then suffering because of the other person becomes suffering for him. Because of his pre-original sanctity, the human being is called – as it were against his will – to be a martyr of love in the world of today. The path of dedication to the other is always taken without certainty. In suffering there is an excess of pointlessness and meaninglessness which prevents it from becoming offset against inner-worldly sense. Patience and prayer, waiting for G’d and sharing time with one’s fellow human being are the fundamental attitudes of the loving person.

My response would be perfect and adequate to the calling of G’d, if it did not first have to be called forth from clinging to BEING by the ethical imperative. There is so much old conditioning, conscious and subconscious, which co-determines behaviour that the response to G’d can only be like a deep longing, like an infinite desire, like the relation to a far-away light which gives orientation on an uneasy road. Discipleship is possible only to one who offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death26. And yet, it never succeeds fully. Also the “saints” must apply the petition of the Lord’s Prayer for forgiveness to themselves “in truth and not only from humbleness”, as the Council of Trent proclaimed27.

Civilization of Love

Through prayer as “work of the heart” the “ruins of the Creation”28 are repaired and new life and peace become possible. In our everyday living-together there is a transcendental foundation thanks to which we can deal with one another in a way that is different from the competition for Lebensraum (living space). If evil can be described as a “crisis of speech”, since it breaks off the relationship to the other person, then good can be described as a lasting responsibility and the capacity for speech even in suffering. “Peace comes about as this capacity for the word. The eschatological perspective shatters the totality of wars and empires in which one does not speak”29.

It can happen that I must protect the other person, who is close to me, against the evil that a third person does to him. The poor man’s call for help almost always contains this plea. Not to respond to that challenge would mean flight from responsibility. When in such a situation direct dialogue as a way out of the crisis has become impossible, the use of force may remain the last resort. That is true also for war. The true fight is inextricably linked to the spirit of love and patience, which does not desert the other, the enemy, even in his guilt. Patience “is born from a deep compassion. The hand which seizes the weapon must suffer precisely from the violence of this gesture”30. For the waragainst war not to make stronger that which it wants to fight against, “a second-degree weakness of being is needed: in a just war which is fought against war to tremble incessantly – yes, to shudder – precisely for the sake of this justice”31, precisely for the sake of the humaneness of all.

Therefore an understanding of society and state has to be attained which starts with the unexchangeable responsibility, — unexchangeable in the sense “that which cannot be given up” — for the individual, and which makes it impossible to see the single person only as a part of an anonymous mass. We have, in this sense, to do with the search for a religious order32. The foundation for a justice understood as living is the dialogue33 which sees itself as an open encounter and which presupposes the readiness to have the seclusion of one’s own BEING harmed by the other person.

“Auschwitz” has become synonymous with inhumanity, remoteness of God and mass murder. With the annihilating fight against the Jewish people at its centre, it was also a frontal attack against the biblical revelation and its image of man. “Auschwitz” must not be victorious. We must not allow ourselves to become hardened and embittered by the shock of “Auschwitz”, but must instead re-institute humaneness in its rights and regain the hope which enables us to believe and trust in love. Stronger than the force which perpetrated “Auschwitz” must be our commitment to create a civilization of love “after Auschwitz”, at the core of which stands the Jewish-Christian revelation about man as being in the image of G’d. – This work is intended to be a contribution to that.

  • 1 Manfred Deselaers, „And your conscience never haunted you?” – The Life of Rudolf Höss, Commander of Auschwitz, and the Question of his Responsibility before God and Human Beings. Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum 2013.
  • 2 Emmanuel Lévinas, Humanisme de l’autre homme, Paris 1972, p.75
  • 3 Cf. E. Lévinas, Totalité et infini. Essai sur l’exteriorité, The Hague 1961, pages 18, 175, 281
  • 4 Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals 3rded, Hackett (1993), translated by J.W. Ellington, p. 36
  • 5 E. Lévinas, Totalité et infini, op.cit. p. 189
  • 6 Paul Ricoeur, Philosophie de la volonté II: Finitude et culpabilité, vol 1:L’homme faillible, Paris 1988², p. 132
  • 7 P. Ricoeur, L’homme faillible, op.cit. p. 134
  • 8 E. Lévinas, Autrement qu’être ou au-delá de l’essence, The Hague 1978, p. 147f
  • 9 De Veritate, Quaestio XXII
  • 10 Simone Weil, Réflexions sur le bon usage des études scolaires en vue de l’amour de Dieu [in:] Attente de Dieu, Paris 1950; quoted in German [in:] S. Weil, Zeugnis für das Gute, München 1990, pages 45-53
  • 11..The differentiation between the more general term “Übel” (evil) and the specifically ethical “Böse” (wickedness, wrong) is less clear in other languages than in German. Both in English and in French as well as in Hebrew and in Greek the same word is used for the two meanings. The term “sin” refers exclusively to the religious relationship. All have in common that they are dangerously life-threatening. Cf. article “Das Böse” in. Theologische Realenzyklopädie, VII (1981), p. 9
  • 12 Józef Tischner, Filozofia dramatu, Paris 1990, p. 204f
  • 13 In Psalm 22 God’s absence is experienced against the background of the erstwhile presence in motherhood: “Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you even at my mother’s breast. From birth I was cast upon you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God. Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no-one to help” (vv 10-12).
  • 14 Gen 3:4 (In Buber-Rosenzweig’s translation: “Sterben, sterben werdet ihr nicht.” – “Die, die you will not.”)
  • 15 J. Tischner, Filozofia Dramatu, op.cit. p. 165
  • 16 E. Lévinas, De Dieu qui vient à l’idée, Paris 1982, p. 217
  • 17 E. Lévinas, Totalité et infini , op.cit. p.9
  • 18 E. Lévinas, Totalité et infini, op.cit. p. 165
  • 19 J. Tischner, Filozofia Dramatu, op.cit. p. 201f
  • 20 Søren Kierkegaard, Der Begriff Angst, Düsseldorf 1958, p. 144
  • 21 Piet Schoonenberg, Der Mensch in der Sünde [in:] Mysterium Salutis, Grundriss heilsgeschichtlicher Dogmatik II, Einsiedeln, Köln, Zürich 1978³, p. 895
  • 22 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1994, no 404
  • 23 The French word “conscience” is the same for “conscience” as for “consciousness”
  • 24 E. Lévinas, De la prière sans demande. Note sur une modalité du judaisme, “Les Ètudes Philosophiques” 2 (1984), p. 163
  • 25 Cf E. Lévinas, Autrement qu’ être, op.cit. p. 58
  • 26 Hebr 5,7
  • 27 Denziger-Schönmetzer, Enchiridion Symbolorum, definitionum et declarationum de rebus fidei et morum, Freiburg 1965, nos 228-230
  • 28 E. Lévinas, De la prière sans demande, op. cit. p. 162
  • 29 E. Lévinas, Totalité et infini, op. cit. p. XI
  • 30 E. Lévinas, Difficile liberté, Paris 1976³, p. 219
  • 31 E. Lévinas, Autrement qu’ être, op. cit. p. 233
  • 32 E. Lévinas, Totalité et infini, op.cit. p. 220
  • 33 E. Lévinas distinguishes between two fundamentally opposing forms of dialogue. Cf re negative form of dialogue ch. III

Translated by Annegret Fuehr. The translator thanks Dr. Trevor R. Allin for his help.
Published in: God and Auschwitz. On Edith Stein, Pope Benedict XVI’s Visit, and God in the Twilight of History. Edited by Fr Manfred Deselaers, Fr Leszek Łysień and Fr Jan Nowak. UNUM Publishing House, Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim, Krakow 2008. P. 145-164.