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Manfred Deselaers – God and Evil. Anthropological-philosophical Reflexion

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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. 

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