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Respectively, Martin Buber and Richard Rorty imaginatively account for the philosophy and publicity of dialogue. Rorty’s account imagines dialogue as if the secularization of public political culture is inevitable. Buber’s account imagines a philosophy of dialogue in which religious considerations are unproblematic. Rorty’s repudiation of religion’s political influence results in an unnecessary estimation of the American government’s role in redressing social evils, especially those evils that are the result of the collective action of affiliated agents whose individual intentional choices are not presumed blameworthy.2 Social evils obtain when choices accrue in associations and institutions that cause cruelty on a mass scale.3 The Roman Catholic Church or National Association of Evangelicals’s systemic cover-up of choices by affiliated actors is a social evil. These two agencies sanction social evil. Rorty’s comparative logic bolsters the democratic processes he associates with the American government. He equates the church’s hierarchical procedure with the American government’s egalitarian processes. He then evaluates the processes morally based on the cruelty each is more likely to perpetuate and can be held responsible for so doing. Rorty’s argument rests both on his predictive judgment and a moral consequence thereof. Because a) the moral consequence necessarily follows from the likelihood of the prediction obtaining and b) the hierarchical processes are responsible for the negative moral consequence, Rorty unnecessarily burdens the government with the near-exclusive function of administering justice to eradicate social evils. Hence, Rorty hesitates to offer carte blanche publicity conditions to the governing bodies of political religions. In so doing, he upholds the government as singularly redemptive, particularly of religious institutions that, in his estimation, apportion blame and perpetuate [End Page 46] cruelty. Such institutions sanction social evils if they fail to embrace the supposed inevitability of secularization.

If religious institutions adhere to secular publicity conditions, they agree to participate in public dialogue. From the perspective of religious institutions that consider public dialogue a common good, they would agree to privatize philosophical anthropologies that evaluate individual good and evil actions. Such anthropologies serve as reasons why such institutions publicize their accounts of humanity. Rorty loathes religious agencies and institutions that render judgments on humanity and individual human actions as either “good” or “evil.” Although Buber does not state as much, he would also question such categorical judgments. However, his philosophical anthropology humanizes participants in dialogue by accrediting evil—not just social evil—with an important public role. Buber’s account of good and evil splits the difference, so to speak, between merely blaming or judging humans and holding individuals responsible for the moral consequences of their choices. To redeem Rorty’s redemptive politics, one would need either to statistically validate his predictive judgment or explain cruelty differently. By focusing on the prospects of the latter, Rorty’s redemptive politics would benefit from an explanation of cruelty that complements rather than competes with an account of public dialogue that includes religious considerations. By commending Buber’s understanding of evil as a worthy substitute for Rorty’s description of cruelty and sadism, the contours of a public philosophy of dialogue emerge that is theologically imaginative and broadly interreligious. Such a public philosophy need neither to presume secularization and the moral superiority of the government nor rush to unconditional judgments about the cruel actions done by humans to humans.

I. Governing Redemption

In Achieving Our Country, Rorty claims that “the government of our nation-state will be, for the foreseeable future, the only agent capable of making any real difference in the amount of selfishness and sadism inflicted on Americans.”4 Here, Rorty advocates for a redemptive politics, the likes of which he denies—in name only—in the following claim:

Relativists like myself agree that the collapse of Marxism has helped us see why politics should not try to be redemptive. But that is not because there is another sort of redemption available. . . . It is because redemption [End Page 47] was a bad idea in the first place. Human beings need to be made happier, but they do not need to be redeemed. . . . Redemption is what would occur when the higher finally triumphs over the lower, when reason conquers passion, or when grace defeats sin.5

The preceding two claims seem to be in tension with one another. The claims are contrastive because, based on the first claim, the role of the government should be, in relation to the last sentence of the block quote, solely triumphant or definitive. As for Rorty’s claims about the government’s singular role, in hindsight, after having witnessed the reelection of George W. Bush to the United States presidency, he was far less sanguine about the government’s redemptive politics. Rorty began to see the error in his wish to subject religion to mere toleration because of the government’s supposed success at redressing social evils.6 Rorty’s account of public dialogue willfully disregards a philosophy of dialogue that accredits evil with a complementary role in meaningful conversation about redressing social crises. Although Buber’s philosophical anthropology may not directly redress social evils, the practice of such a public philosophy would foreground the relevance of religious considerations that take theologically imaginative claims as worthy of publicity. Practicing Buber’s philosophy of dialogue would involve relational communication between religious and nonreligious agents. By describing his philosophical anthropology in a theologically imaginative way, as discussed below, Buber’s philosophy of dialogue complements Rorty’s idealized account of democratic processes.

Moreover, in an innovative book that puts Rorty’s pragmatic thought in conversation with Buber and other Jewish thinkers, Akiba Lerner contests the assumption that redemptive narratives are antithetical to liberal democratic theory.7 Lerner shows how Rorty’s thought cautions against comprehensive redemptive narratives that do not sufficiently account for the human condition and the realities of social evils. Lerner demonstrates how Buber’s account of hope correlates with Rorty’s idea of social hope. Lerner does well to note how controlling “redemptive rhetoric in the public arena” would require that religious narratives go through a process of public justification. Although Lerner is essentially right that “Rorty agreed with liberal theorists like Habermas” [End Page 48] about justification (or translation), Lerner does not mention the political implications for religious institutions and individuals of Rorty’s argument for privatization and public justification. Since, according to Rorty, claims and practices associated with religious institutions are not publicly justifiable, the public political sphere is responsible for addressing selfishness and sadism. With Rorty’s redemptive politics, the claims of religious institutions and individuals must be justified to address the social evils he claims only the government can redress.

II. Accrediting Evil

Martin Buber’s account of evil in Good and Evil infers that, as long as human life persists, the evil urge and the desire to become like G-d will do so as well. Evil persists because good and evil are not opposites; recognizing “good-evil” as noncontrastive is the result both of one perceiving introspectively and one attempting to become like G-d.8 The relevance of evil to public dialogue is based on one placing Buber’s account of evil in the context of his philosophical anthropology.9 A brief reading of the “I’s” of Buber’s philosophical anthropology—“being human”—is crucial to his philosophy of dialogue, which is central to struggling against social evil. Buber’s account of evil is relevant to public dialogue because he is committed to prioritizing evil over the good to address “the question of the point of attack to struggle against evil.”10 In short, Buber’s emphasis serves as a counterbalance to Rorty’s stipulative description of cruelty that places its social hopes in the American government. Evil is not prior to the good, as such, but is indeed prior when one attempts to struggle against evil. “Good-evil” is a noncontrastive word pair if properly construed in the midst of struggle of social evils. Evil need not be disregarded because, on Buber’s formulation, it is not necessarily opposed to the good. If evil were prior to the good, G-d could not be necessarily good and the content of truth could be rendered harmful. Although Buber does not interpret G-d as essentially good, he understands the content of truth to be good; that is, truth [End Page 49] as good for humans and therefore capable of being conceived by one who is in a dialogical “I-Thou” relation with other animate (e.g., humans and cats) and occasionally inanimate objects (e.g., tree).

In Good and Evil, Buber describes good and evil by offering both an exegesis of five Psalms and a connecting “bridge” between cosmogonic myths and one’s inner reality.11 In the first essay of Good and Evil, “Right and Wrong,” he is concerned with the place of good and evil in one’s observation of the human world. In the second essay, “Images of Good and Evil,” Buber locates the beginnings and development of good and evil in the way choosing one or the other—good or evil—seems to individuals. In “Images,” Buber explains one of the main points of Good and Evil: that the truths of myths are relevant to the inner realities of humans. Exegesis of these myths highlights the importance of perceiving introspectively to guard against one willfully disregarding social evil.

In his exegesis of each of the five Psalms, Buber addresses problems of truth, election, the prophetic, divine agency, and virtue (as happiness), among others. Buber addresses these as problems for particular human communities and specific people. Biblical texts provide Buber with resources to determine how humans have dealt with natural and moral evil. One’s life circumstances require self-reflection and the recognition of what Buber calls “oppositeness.” To deny self-reflection as an aspect of philosophical anthropology or the recognition of oppositeness as a condition for reflecting on one’s acts would rid philosophy of its relevance for individuals whose choice to perform a good or evil action should result in reflection about their having chosen one or other. Buber takes up perennial philosophical problems that can best be understood in the context of human action and subsequent communication about such actions.12

In Psalms 1, Buber offers clues about how one can interpret the entire Psalms as a means by which one can participate in dialogue.13 The Psalms have recurring key [End Page 50] words that hold a poetic and rhythmic significance. This particular Psalm speaks of the “truly happy” person; not happy in the sense of moral values (which he equates with self-satisfaction) but because of one’s potential to know or “intercourse” with G-d.14 According to Buber, “intercourse” is the basic theme of the book of Psalms. Psalm 1 presents the problem of divine foreknowledge, which Buber elides by suggesting that the original meaning of the word for “knowing” is not captured in the sense of reflection but in a relational or spatial sense.15 In this relational, noncognitive sense, one can be in “contact of being”; that is, in intercourse. Such an experience is unlike one who experiences nature. As such, one can be informed and directed by the Torah if one delights in one’s choice to do so. The happy, directed, blessed one, then, is different than the sinner and wicked one. Sinners do evil, while wicked people, he claims, are evil. The wicked, as a result, do not have the privilege of standing in judgment of their human community. Therefore, even though the way of the wicked is “closed” from a human perspective, the wicked are those with whom G-d can “intercourse.” Understood thus, perceiving introspectively and discovering the evil urge is not the result of a singular cognitive endeavor or revelation derived from a sacred text but involves relational knowing as a shared, communicative human action. Such communicative actions can be reflected on in public with those for whom dialogue with divine agents is not a possibility.

Less relevant for Buber’s purpose of previewing a public philosophy of dialogue is an answer to the problem of evil.16 If Buber elides the logical or evidential problem of evil and remains silent in the face of these formal problems, one may ask what he takes evil to reveal about humans or the human condition. For Buber, evil signifies as much about G-d as it does about humanity. Thus, “the abyss which is opened by this question advances still more uncannily than the abyss of Job’s question into the darkness of the divine mystery.”17 Since the ways and content of the divine is a mystery, Buber describes humanity as divided by a distinction between the “sinner” and the “wicked.” The distinction [End Page 51] corresponds to Buber’s two stages of evil and the progression of one from an “I-It” to an “I-Thou” relation.

At present, though, the following two points are important for understanding the extent to which Buber’s exegesis elucidates how “Images of Good and Evil” shapes his philosophical anthropology. First, putative opposites are not often what they seem—viz., judging and freeing (Psalms 12), Jew and non-Jew (Psalms 14), divine and human beings (Psalms 82), the wicked and pure in heart (Psalms 73), as well as experiencing God and knowing God (Psalms 1). Oppositeness is made manifest through relational knowing. Second, the fact that these Psalms were used in the liturgy makes them candidates for how one can go about answering “the question of the point of attack to begin struggling against evil.” One can name and struggle corporately—in religious or nonreligious institutions—against social evils with others while in communion (or intercourse) with or without G-d. Embracing struggle, as Buber suggest, is about one navigating life between good and evil actions and reactions.18 Such an embrace should cause one to recognize evil as a distinct and important part of one’s life-struggle with one’s actions and the actions of others.19

Moreover, in the preface to “Images of Good and Evil,” Buber privileges a point of attack that should not be interpreted as if humans are wholly different than or contrasted to what is “not human.” Instead, the point of attack should be based on what one knows from communally corroborated self-reflection. Buber claims that through such reflection, evil becomes accessible and demonstrable to a community of humans in the world. The specific opposition “good-evil” is unique to humans because it alone can be perceived introspectively. Lest one assume that only monotheism’s canonical texts yield such an account of evil, Buber explains the interiority of evil in the context of the following three myths and the theologically imaginative schema his interpretation of the myths yields.

III. Interpreting Myths

The transgression of the prohibition by Adam and Eve is not a decision one makes between good or evil. Buber mentions three common interpretations [End Page 52] of this episode: after partaking of the fruit, Adam and Eve acquire 1) sexual desire, 2) moral consciousness, and 3) “normal” cognizing capabilities. Buber argues that “knowledge of good and evil” means cognizance of opposites, which is to say opposites inherent in all “being” within the world.20 To be sure, opposites are latent in the world. G-d knows the oppositeness of “being,” though, because it stems from G-d’s creative acts. G-d knows these acts and is superior to them. Conversely, humans know opposites as temporal existents when one recognizes such acts as disparate. According to Buber, humans know transgressing the command of G-d as “evil”; that which is forgotten, for the moment, is the good.21 Lest one assume that transgressing divine commands is especially problematic, he claims that “the process in the human soul becomes a process in the world: through the recognition of oppositeness.”22 In recognizing oppositeness, humans experience shame, which is noticeably absent from Rorty’s account of cruelty.23 Subsequently, humans can relate to good and evil actions through dialogue. According to Buber, the narrator of the story of Adam and Eve supposes that humans become like G-d. The ironic dialectic theme is imposed by the narrator based on the corresponding theme that humans’ knowledge of “good and evil” is one of divine compassion.24 To be sure, oppositeness does not make performing evil actions a necessary condition of human existence. Though humans are deemed cursed, the curse is a blessing because humans are required to chart their own path. In so doing, humans narrate histories that are the result of their choices.

Likewise, Buber understands the episode of Kain and Abel to be best grasped as if in two stages.25 The would-be initial position depicts “a disposition to good and its absence.”26 The second stage addresses one’s lack of direction toward G-d. Furthermore, Buber claims that one knows factually what “evil” is if one perceives introspectively. Self-perception and self-relationship are peculiar human capacities that irrupt “a strange element into nature.”27 The inner threshold at which the irruption occurs makes one’s disposition to good—not its absence—an acute struggle. Buber’s reading of Kain’s action as something [End Page 53] other than a motive to decide (but as an occasion for murder) reveals the degree to which, when at the threshold, being indecisive can quickly lead one to perform evil actions.

In his chapter titled “Imagination and Impulse,” Buber portrays the story of the Flood as another instance of evil-as-indecision in which the production of one’s imagination construes “play with possibility” and “play as self-temptation” as opposites. Play as self-temptation produces social evil. Buber claims that violence does not proceed from a decision but from being distracted from divine reality and what the divine has revealed in narrative and poetic compilations like the Psalms.28 Humans “image evil” because they attempt to overcome the (fictitious) tension of omnipossibility, what Buber calls a “boundless possible.” The Talmudic doctrine of the two urges emerged from the idea that human imagination is both evil and good. Humans have made the “evil urge” the fundamental urge because humans have attempted to banish the evil urge instead of joining it with the good urge.29 On the present interpretation, the two urges are constitutive features of being human and being in dialogue.30

Furthermore, Buber interprets Biblical and Zoroastrian myths because they correspond to the two different kinds and stages of evil. The first of these stages is indecision, which the myths of Adam and Eve, Kain and Abel, and the Flood typify. Buber portrays the second stage of evil—the actual decision to affirm one’s evil choices—through an interpretation of Zoroaster myths in Avestic and post-Avestic literature. In Zoroastrian myth, good and evil are primal moving spirits that are set in opposition to one another. Here, evil is independent and substantial. Zoroaster God’s primal act is an “internal” decision that makes the choice of good and evil possible. In the case of Ahriman—the evil spirit—the choice takes place in pure paradox since choosing evil means affirming one’s self. The paradox is developed further as King Yima’s lie; the primal lie after which he lets demons lose in the world. In lying, Yima has given himself over to non-being and is defeated by the demons. Yima’s episode reminds one that one can give oneself over to a lie of one’s choosing. This episode reveals the degree to which one can have an introspective crisis of the self and, therefore, make a decision to commit an evil act. The decision would be evil if the introspection resulted in a self-affirmation rather than relational knowing, which is constitutive of dialogue. One who ultimately affirms oneself resembles Yima. In affirming himself, Yima acts as if he is his own creator. In Adam’s case, one [End Page 54] endeavors to become like G-d, whereas Yima wants to be like G-d by believing that one created both one’s life and the values by which one’s existence is judged. In the second stage, “radical evil” is possible because one wills what one finds in oneself.31

Buber claims that both the biblical interpretations and myths can be considered true insofar “as they can be of real assistance to one in attaining the necessary insight into the nature of evil and its relation to good.”32 The experience one factually encounters with evil in the world and in one’s soul is embodied in myth and can be taken as a human reality when evil preoccupies one in a way that causes a transformation of one’s orientation to one’s reactions to evil actions. Buber admits that one must accept the presupposition that human reality is structured as such where “things happen differently than otherwise in the life and the soul of man”.33 Human reality does not only consist of the constitutive impermanence of moral valuations. Even those ensconced in Enlightenment, that is, liberal democratic cultures, should seek out this inner experience that, on Buber’s account, portends the existence of an ontological differentiation. By making the experience one’s own, one can interpret the experience to others in a way that could be corroborated. The primordial mythic intuition of certain narratives and direct experience of one’s reality corroborates the legitimacy of myth. The mythic intuition evinces the theme of becoming like G-d, and the personal experience manifests one’s being like G-d. According to Buber, the state of good presupposes the state of evil. Good and evil, then, should not be understood as polar opposites. Moreover, Buber differentiates the personal experience he describes from both self-analysis in psychology and a robust understanding of the superego.34 The proper point of departure for Buber is an image of the biographically decisive beginnings of evil and good that are attested to in the creation myths in the Hebrew Bible.

During the first stage, humans attempt to cognize themselves and, through direction and willful disregard, act in ways that make evil manifest. Humans have no criteria by which to correctly assess the problems presented. The criteria [End Page 55] for the assessments come in the second stage. The connecting link between stage one and two is presentiment, what is unique to each yet neglected by most. Because most humans either do not engage in self-introspection or incessantly question the worthiness of shared, relational, communicative existence, Buber recommends a third way in which an extreme effort of unification—a willful decisive act of conversion—leads one from an interior personal search for being because “one is what one wants and one wants what one is.”35 Humans perceive as subjects natural acts “where ‘I’ and ‘X’ take part.”36 “X” refers to the hidden strata of the objective world; image-work brings forth the hidden strata of the world. Image-work, then, is “faithfulness not to the appearance, but to being—to the inaccessible to which we associate.”37 “Being” requires association to the inaccessible, which all humans experience as “oppositeness as perception.” The initial experience of indecision may not give one the explanatory grasp necessary to reveal the inaccessible (or what Buber calls “divine mystery”). It should, as Buber understands it, illustrate one’s faithfulness to being human as relational dialogue. One would presumably ascribe meaning to dialogue when one engages in image-work. All humans, at some point, image (not merely objectify) what opposes them. Artists are known for such imaging. One who consistently chooses to objectify one’s oppression would be identified as “wicked.” Buber does not denigrate those who have urges to objectify because experiencing the urge is necessary for acting decisively and resisting the evil of indecision and willful disregard. If one acts decisively and resists willful disregard, how can recognizing the evil urge contribute to dialogue with others? Simply put, dialogue can occur if one has “I-Thou” relations with others.

IV. Practicing Dialogue

To be sure, Buber’s philosophical anthropology is nonobjectifying and draws on his concept of images. Images represent the world through the senses and express how one relates to the world. The two separate cognitive functions complement one another and intrinsically connect. Human existence unfolds both in the “I-It” world and in a realm where one enters through “I-Thou” dialogue. According to Buber, humans still desire “to live in a world of which one can form an image—not merely imageable in a symbolic way, but as a [End Page 56] real world constituted in a certain way. For to live in an unrepresentable world entails a contradiction.”38 On the present interpretation, Buber’s account of the public practice of the philosophy of dialogue is the “certain way” humans seek to constitute a real world and struggle against evil. Although the dialogical philosophy behind such a way is well-known, the degree to which it draws on his discussion of good and evil is not.

In I and Thou, Buber argues that humans have two primary attitudes or basic words, “I-Thou” and “I-It.” These basic words, when spoken, establish a mode of existence.39 When one says “Thou,” one does not objectify or have an object “in mind.” Moreover, one who experiences things in themselves—if, by chance, that were possible—does not experience them in relation; that is, between oneself and the world. The basic word “I-It” experiences the world, while the basic-word “I-Thou” establishes the world of relations.40 When seeing and then contemplating exclusively on a tree, one is drawn into a relation where the tree ceases to be an “It.” Because the tree confronts one bodily, the meaning of the relation is understood thus, relation is reciprocity.41 When one says “Thou” to a human, one does not experience the other but stands in relation to the human in the sacred basic word. Saying “Thou” is a deed that involves a sacrifice and a risk. One risks that the basic word can only be spoken with one’s whole being.42 Speaking with one’s whole being amounts to a repudiation of the self-alienating implications of Rorty’s privatization of public religious claims and practices. Committing to saying the basic pair means one can only actualize the pair as present. To actualize, then, is to uncover. “Thou” encounters one by grace in an unmediated relation so that all mediated things become negligible. The basic word “I-It” only has a past and not a present. Presence is what confronts one and is durable, not ceasing and standing still. Because Buber speaks of “I-Thou” as a bodily encounter of the actual human, one cannot invoke a “world-of-ideas” as a third mediating element. Therefore, being “liberal” or “secular” would add more heat than light.

It is difficult to determine the element of action or practice in the relation to a human “Thou.”43 Buber uses love as responsibility of an “I” for a “Thou.” A [End Page 57] responsibility to love, which Rorty could affirm, is a relation between “I” and “Thou.” In the world the humans inhabit, though, “Thou must become an It in our world.”44 Becoming an “It,” it seems, is one’s nature and the original drive for self-preservation. The body that has not yet recognized it’s “I-ness” makes and uses things. When the “I” is detached from the “I-Thou” basic word, the basic word “I-It” is made possible.45 The basic word “I-It” is a word of separation where one must separate one’s private ideals in hopes of placating or satisfying the good of the whole. Because the primal encounter as beginning is one of relation—“in the beginning is the relation”—“I” and the “It-world” are made possible when the relation is separable. Put differently, such a relation is separable when dialogue, or the philosophy of dialogue, does not occur. To be sure, there are privileges to the “It-world.” One can live a comfortable, ordered life in space and time because “without It a human being cannot live. But whoever lives only with that is not human.”46 “I-It” relations and the corresponding “I” of that relation are necessary yet insufficient conditions for “being human.” If evil persists because “I-It” relations are necessary for “being human,” then a question arises: is the “I-It” relation analogous to, or simply put, evil? Three passages in I and Thou, discussed below, note the difficulty in determining if alienating “I-It” relations and evil are analogous. “I” in the “I-It” relation is not necessarily evil if indecision is not the result of one’s introspective perception or willful disregard of evil as one source for cruelty, selfishness, and sadism.47

The basic word “I-It” does not come from evil—any more than matter comes from evil. It comes from evil-like matter that presumes to be that which has being.48

When matter presumes to be something it apparently is not, then it claims to originate from evil. Matter and the “I-It” relation are not evil but may originate from evil. Evil, here, seems to be a sort primal or natural state from which matter and the “I-It” relation can come. In this brief quote, evil seems to be [End Page 58] more natural than matter and the “I-It” relation when it is construed as having “being.” On the reading of the next quote, evil, however, does not have “being.”

Man’s will to profit and will to power are natural and legitimate as long as they are tied to the will to human relations and carried by it. There is no evil drive until the drive detaches itself from our being; the drive that is wedded to and determined by our being is the plasma of communal life, while the detached drive spells its disintegration.49

Buber suggests that nature’s evil urge to make the “It-World” comfortable (for some) and orderly is legitimate if the urge is tethered to and substantiated by the will to practice dialogue publicly. When the “I” detaches itself by ceasing to engage in unfolding the meaning of being through image-work, evil and “I-It” seem similar. When, through image-work (and exegesis of passages like the Psalms), the meaning of “being human” is discerned, the “I-It” relation is not seen as evil but as a stage in the process that leads to relational knowing and dialogue.50

Only he that funnels all the force of the other into the doing of the one, absorbing into actualization of what has chosen the undiminished passion of what was not chosen, only he that “serves God with the evil impulse,” decides—and decides what happens.51

To step out of the “It-World” requires a nonarbitrary decision. Such a decision is attentive to the presence and potential dialogical encounter of another. The decision requires that one willfully regard one’s commitment to public dialogue for the benefit of others as an attempt, in part, to name and address the “evil impulse.” The evil impulse/drive/urge is, again, a necessary but insufficient condition for “being human.” What’s more, Buber claims that the “evil impulse” contains a “holy spark” that is released through one’s choice to heed the summons of the other.52 Though “serves God with the evil impulse” is in quotation marks in the block quote above, it seems clear that Buber understands the evil impulse to serve a worthy purpose; such an impulse is a precondition for participation in public dialogue and relational knowing. Relation, according to Buber, requires that one “participates in an actuality, that is, in a being that is neither merely a part of him nor merely outside of him. All actuality is an activity in which ‘I’ [End Page 59] participate without being able to appropriate it. Where there is no participation, there is no actuality.”53 “Between,” on the present reading, is constituted neither by one’s self nor by the other but is possible if one willfully engages in public dialogue. Nevertheless, no human is entirely actual or entirely lacking in actuality because everyone lives the lives of a twofold “I”; namely, the “I’ of the “I-It” word and the “I” of the “I-Thou” word, which are different yet not opposing “I’s.” Recognizing one such difference—as noncontrastive and as oppositeness not opposites—is constitutive of being human and establishes a condition for public dialogue that need not bracket religious claims.

Rorty should find the preceding account of evil compelling because 1) the evil urge is necessary to human living, and 2) the “I-It” relation is a necessary condition for one’s progressing to a public dialogical relation. As long as humans inhabit the earth and use language, evil urges will persist and be made manifest in the world as indecision and willful disregard. Such indecision and willful disregard need not be equated with social evil if one progresses to the second stage of introspection that leads to communicative action. Humans may perceive the evil urge introspectively but, as indecisive and willfully dismissive, perpetuate it, as Rorty certainly seems to do, by not engaging in self-affirming public dialogue. Introspectively perceptive humans recognize both the evil urge and oppositeness in themselves first, and then seek to act decisively on behalf of and with their community and/or religious institutions.54 Furthermore, reasons 1) and 2) show that Buber’s philosophical anthropology does not downplay the complexity of theological image-work, the difficulty of determining the meaning of being human or the possibility of the priority of the good. Meaning making requires that one unintentionally enact evil (e.g., evil as indecision) and “split the difference” between the evil of judging humanity and the good of holding humans and institutions accountable for the actions or lack thereof. Such betweenness is readily apparent in Buber’s answer to “the question of the point of attack to struggle against evil.” Insofar as one struggles imaginatively with others in public dialogue, one displays betweenness in Buber’s understanding of oppositeness and the dissolution of good and evil as opposite. Though the point of attack against evil need not privilege introspection as its point of departure,55 the degree to which the “I” is twofold and requires relational [End Page 60] knowing of others (that intersects in the eternal Thou) makes such a departure better than no departure at all.56 One could literally act as if evil is inconceivable—as Rorty seems to do—thus eliciting the very evil that Buber perceives introspectively with others, namely, indecision and willful disregard.

V. Concluding Application

In all, Buber’s account of evil demonstrates how one can think theologically about sadism, cruelty, or evil by using myths to imagine alternatives to narratives about origins of evil. The alternatives would serve the purpose of inter-religious public dialogue if they cast such narratives in a theologically imaginative light. Although there are various narratives about evil’s origins, religious narratives are recognized as origins because they often refer to mono-casual accounts of evil. Buber does well to develop his account relative to multiple stories rather than an interpretation of one. Buber’s interpretive account offers a corrective to Rorty’s willful disregard of such an account because it a) introduces the relevance of G-d-talk to public dialogue concerning the limits of redemptive politics, b) helps one think theologically in public dialogue about cruelty/evil, and c) has the potential to foster interreligious public dialogue. The consequence of one willfully disregarding cruelty as a kind of evil leads either to paralyzing indecisiveness or overconfidence about how well an institution can redress social evils. By registering Rorty’s overconfidence in the government’s role in otherwise politically naïve attempts to redeem sadism, the preceding account of evil interprets sadism as a kind of evil. Such an evil cannot be best addressed unless one has a capacious, nonalienating, relational sense for how to imaginatively account for it.

Regarding a), b), and c), suppose reading Rorty’s account of sadism and cruelty both through and with Buber’s philosophy of dialogue does invite secularists to think theologically in public about redressing social evils outside of an institutional framework. How does such a reading exhibit the potential to foster interreligious dialogue, rather than just dialogue between monotheists and secularists? The preceding conclusions are applicable to arguments [End Page 61] from Christian scholars whose recent engagements with Rorty seem to merely supplant the primacy of one political institution—the United States government—with another, namely the church.57 Arguments regarding which institution 1) “relativizes every other social, political and economic arrangement,” 2) has the potential to be less coercive or less imperialist, or 3) engenders less alienation in American public life inadvertently affirm the realities of secularization. Theologian Barry Harvey need not suggest that replacing the Judenfrage with a proverbial Christenfrage will be necessary because fewer Americans self-identify as Christians and presumably will eventually be more alienated than other religious groups.58 Harvey should not lament declension narratives about Christianity in America, accuse liberal democracy of precipitating such a decline, or analogize the impetus for the Judenfrage as if their respective “declines” are relatively similar. He would do well to understand discussions about cruelty and social evils as an invitation to think theologically in public, not just about the public. Such invitations elicit capacious, relational, imaginative theological interpretations not unlike the one offered above. As such, generative engagements need not obsess over theological method or institutional apportionment. Although Rorty is not keen on the social value of Christian institutions—hence his anticlericalism—Christian scholars who debate that point incessantly miss an opportunity. Presuming secularization continues and, alas, Christianity eventually becomes alienated, Christians scholars would have done well to have learned from (and with) Jewish theologians and philosophers. In what could be called interreligious dialogue, learning from (and with) Jewish thinkers who have been attempting to account for cruelty and social evils through the categories of good and evil from positions of relative political powerlessness would be an example of, as well as an occasion for, humanizing dialogue. [End Page 62]

Julius Crump
University of Chicago Divinity School
Julius Crump

Julius Crump is a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago Divinity School. In addition to coediting African American Theological Ethics: A Reader with Peter J. Paris, his work has been published in Black Theology: An International Journal and A Dictionary of Philosophy of Religion. His research interests are in public theology, political philosophy, African American religious thought, and issues in contemporary theory. His dissertation, “At the Limits of God-Talk: Publics, Politics, Conversations,” describes the value of public religious inquiry both within and in spite of a liberal political framework.


1. William Schweiker and Paul Mendes-Flohr provided valuable feedback on earlier drafts of this essay.

2. For Rorty’s explanation of his disdain for such religious institutions, see Richard Rorty, “Religion in the Public Sphere: A Reconsideration,” Journal of Religious Ethics 31, no. 1 (2003): 141–49.

3. This description of social evil is loosely based on a theoretically rich explanation of the concept in Ted Poston, “Social Evil,” Oxford Studies in the Philosophy of Religion, vol. 5 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 3.

4. Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 98.

5. Richard Rorty, An Ethics for Today: Finding Common Ground between Philosophy and Religion (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 13.

6. By focusing too much on the kind of justice the government can exact, Rorty disregards social evils that seem neither religious nor governmental. Consider the spate of “mass shootings” in America, some of which are enacted by nonreligious, nonstate actors.

7. Akiba J. Lerner, Redemptive Hope: From the Age of the Enlightenment to the Age of Obama (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015).

8. I appropriate the term noncontrastive from Kathryn Tanner, Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1997). In this section, “perceiving,” “conceiving,” “cognizing,” and “self-reflection” are best understood interchangeably. Throughout this essay, I focus more on perceiving introspectively than on Buber’s understanding of becoming-like-G-d.

9. The term philosophical anthropology may not be the most appropriate phrase to apply to Buber’s understanding of the human. I am unaware of his explicit refutation of the phrase when others have applied this designation to his anthropology. To be sure, Buber does not argue for an essentialist understanding of human nature.

10. Martin Buber, Good and Evil (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1997), 64.

11. Ibid., 66.

12. Examples of such philosophical problems include lying, the universal vs. the particular, privilege (election), and judgment. I am interested in how Buber employs his interpretation of Psalm 1, not in the degree to which his interpretation adheres to a tradition of scholarship on the Hebrew Bible.

13. For other clues about how Buber interprets the Psalms, see Martin Buber, “On Translating the Praisings,” Scripture and Translation, trans. Lawrence Rosenwald with Everett Fox (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994). To better understand Buber’s understanding and use of the Bible, see Buber, “People Today and the Jewish Bible: From a Lecture Series,” in Scripture and Translation, 4–21; and Buber, “The Language of Botschaft,” in Scripture and Translation, 27–28.

14. One’s ability to have “discussion” with G-d will lead to one being unable to answer, as is evident, Buber says, with God’s “discussion” or lack thereof with Job. See Martin Buber, “Interrogation of Martin Buber,” Philosophical Interrogations, ed. Sydney Rome and Beatrice Rome (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964), 36.

15. Understood thus, perceiving introspectively is not a singular cognitive endeavor but involves relation.

16. For an analysis of Buber’s thought that addresses its relevance to evil, see Maurice Friedman, Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue, 4th ed. (1955; repr., New York: Routledge, 2002), esp. chaps. 2, 15, and 17.

17. Buber, Good and Evil, 60.

18. The idea of between is central to Buber’s thought and was foregrounded in his early essay “What is Man?” Buber writes, “Between is . . . the real place and bearer of what happens between men . . . in distinction from the individual soul and its context, it does not exhibit a smooth continuity, but is ever and again re-constituted in accordance with men’s meetings with one another.” Martin Buber, “What is Man?,” Between Man and Man, trans. R. G. Smith (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955), 203.

19. Asking questions of G-d can be an important theological practice by which one can struggle against evil.

20. Buber, Good and Evil, 73–74.

21. Ibid., 76–77.

22. Ibid., 76.

23. Ibid., 77.

24. Ibid., 78.

25. The initial position is taken initially, “so to speak” (ibid., 87).

26. Ibid.

27. Ibid., 88.

28. Ibid., 91.

29. Ibid., 95.

30. Buber conceives of G-d’s love as encompassing both urges and, thus, as perfecting.

31. With Buber, “radical evil” and the evil urge are not the same. Radical evil exists in the second stage of an actual life when one has abandoned oneself to a “life” of indecision and affirms this radical evil precisely as one’s own. Buber argues that evil radicalizes itself and humanity ought to co-operate in its deradicalization. See Buber, “Interrogation of Martin Buber,” 111.

32. Ibid., 115.

33. Ibid., 117.

34. In other words, the “I” in the word-pairs is not a superego or a self-analyzed psychological phenomenon.

35. Buber, “Interrogation of Martin Buber,” 137.

36. Martin Buber, “Man and His Image-Work,” in The Knowledge of Man, ed. Maurice Friedman, trans. Maurice Friedman and Ronald Gregor Smith (New York: Harpers & Row, 1965), 158.

37. Ibid., 159.

38. Ibid., 155.

39. Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 53.

40. Ibid., 56.

41. Ibid., 58.

42. Ibid., 60.

43. A genuine occurrence of the I-Thou relation happens when one affirms and confirms another as a unique person. While it is true that the lines of this relation intersect in the eternal Thou, the relation is grounded in the fact that one who says “Thou” ultimately means one’s eternal Thou. Buber, “Interrogation of Martin Buber,” 114.

44. Ibid., 68.

45. Ibid., 73.

46. Ibid., 85.

47. This method is merited because I and Thou does not have a precise logic of argumentation. Moreover, I am employing a form of existential exegesis not unlike the method he uses in interpreting select Psalms.

48. Buber, “Interrogation of Martin Buber,” 97.

49. Ibid., 98.

50. For example, one will move from desiring to become-like-God to being-like-God.

51. Buber, “Interrogation of Martin Buber,” 101.

52. Ibid., 102.

53. Ibid., 113.

54. For a treatment of Buber’s understanding of the value of community, see Ronald C. Arnett, Communication and Community: Implications of Martin Buber’s Dialogue (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986), esp. the introduction and part 1.

55. By privileging introspection with respect to evil, Buber places a primacy on thinking or cognition in a way that elides determining permanent criteria for naming evils in the world. It seems as if evil is permanent as long as human life persists. Are the criteria for determining what counts as evil impermanent? Moreover, if recognition of the evil urge is the primary result of thinking/perceiving/conceiving/cognizing, what constraints or criteria for thinking, if any, does Buber prescribe? Do the criteria redound to exegesis of specific mythic texts? Moreover, does Buber have a preferred hermeneutic?

56. What would relational knowing entail if “being human” was communally construed? In part 2 of I and Thou, Buber alludes to alienation and his disagreements with Marxist thought and communalism.

57. See the essays in Rorty and the Religious: Christian Engagements with a Secular Philosopher, ed. Jacob L. Goodson and Brad Elliott Stone (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012). Although every essay in this volume does not argue for the primacy of the church, none argue against it.

58. Barry Harvey, “For and Against Richard Rorty: Christian Convictions, Liberal Democracy and the Christenfrage,” in Goodson and Stone, Rorty and the Religious, 68. Such a claim may seem odd given that American Protestantism intentionally initiated what many recognize as America’s political culture. For an argument that identifies a variant of American Protestantism as responsible for America’s political culture, see Thomas G. West, “The Transformation of Protestant Theology as a Condition of the American Revolution,” in Protestantism and the American Founding, ed. Thomas S. Engeman and Michael P. Zuckert (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004), 187–223.

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