First, a confession: I view nature as being full of indestructible polarities. They’re everywhere. Things like positive/negative, male/female, competition/corporation, chaos/order, are all examples of these type of naturally occurring complementary pairs. Further, I really like when Integral Philosophers like Steve McIntosh talk about the dialectic advance of Evolution in which the two polarities are brought together and synthesized to create an entirely new and novel stage of development.
However, I strongly believe that “evil” is not the proper diametric for “good.” In fact, I do NOT think the term “evil,” as a label in regard to people or nature, is very helpful at all.
Richard Beck wrote a series on Warfare and Weakness a while back comparing John Caputo’s weak theology with Greg Boyd’s warfare theology. It got me thinking again about my perspectives on evil in the world. I’m glad about this, and I think that’s exactly what Beck’s blog series was designed to do–make people think.
Basically, with this essay I want to do a few things:
- explain why why the age old problem of good vs. evil is really problematic for me
- show that there is no such thing as “evil”
- show that by getting rid of “evil” (as a label for people and natural phenomenon specifically) the desire for justice does not vanish, but in fact puts us in a better position to therapeutically heal the world
The problem of evil
It has always been a big one for me.
God’s all powerful
God’s all loving
You just can’t have all three, can you?
(Atheists of course add a fourth line to this syllogism: God does not exist. I leave that one out because, for me, some conception of God is as vital to being human as is some concept of “the real.”)
In the Christian tradition, I’ve observed that different flavors of Christianity handle this problem in different ways (Apologies in advance for my sweeping generalizations here):
- Calvinists generally, for example, don’t believe in a loving god. Sorry, but any way you slice it, allowing for pre-determined damnation and the existence of some type of conscious eternal torment is just not loving.
- Catholics, via Augustine, deny the existence of evil (privatio boni). Essentially, evil is the privation or lack of good.
- Lastly, streams like Process Theology deny the coercive omnipotence of God.
I propose that the problem of evil is a problem because we, as humans, innately and reflexively attempt to find meaning in suffering. But we must be honest with ourselves, sometimes there is no meaning to be found, and that’s the real problem.
The Devil and Demons
At the risk of sounding super pretentious here–but at the same time attempting to be intellectually honest–I’ve matured past the point where I can believe in a literal, personified, supernatural, evil force called Satan. Now please, that’s not to say that I don’t appreciate mystery, or that I claim to possess some gnostic, all encompassing, enlightened understanding of reality. If a literal Devil is your thing, fine. What I am saying is that I take this question too seriously, and to take the easy way out by blaming all my troubles on some malicious force in the universe would be, for me, disingenuous. The recipe I’m using at the moment is a special blend of two of the above solutions (Privatio Boni & Process Thought) mixed with an Evolutionary perspective.
Privatio Boni & Omnipotence
When it comes to the classical formulation of the problem of evil, I resonate quite a bit with Augustine and sophisticated theological streams like process thought. Here is a brief theological detour which is important in understanding how I’ve come to think about subject of evil:
I think that conceiving of evil as an entity is really misleading. It’s part of the reason why I’m not completely on board with Beck using Greg Boyd’s “warfare theology.” To say you’re fighting against something literally implies you are fighting against some-thing! The enemy is going to have to be some type of entity, a force, a person, a system, a demon…whatever.
With the Warfare Worldview, the point is that–and this is exactly Beck’s/Boyd’s point as well–there is a constant struggle happening in the world between the forces of “good” and “evil.”
The main reason I like Privatio Boni is because it attempts to conceive of evil in a different way, a more poetic way, and a less antagonistic way. All things are good and good has a presence in the world, but according to privatio boni, evil has no presence of it’s own. Evil does not truly exist, it’s a no-thing, it’s dependent on goodness the same way darkness is dependent on the light. Good and Evil are not two opposing forces battling each other for victory. No, when the light is present, it shows us that it’s simply impossible for darkness to exist.
The other way to tackle the problem of evil, for me, is by addressing God’s omnipotence. Without going into too much detail here, I identify most closely with Process Theology’s conception of God’s power, which is by most measures considered pretty darn heretical, but I’m OK with that.
Basically, God acts as a weak force in the world, and unlike some other theological attempts, the Process God is not self-limiting, i.e., God doesn’t limit God’s power in order to create free-will. Yes, free-will is important, and process thinkers are in accordance with the existence of free-will, however the God of Process Theology does not forcefully determine every event according to God’s will. God’s power in the world is persuasive and relational, not coercive. In the process conception of things, it is completely possible that humans will destroy the Earth, and that “sin” and “evil” will win in the end.
–an important side note–
Full disclosure, what made me eventually abandon the all-powerful Zeus-like conception of deity was the question of love. If God is indeed all powerful, in the traditional sense (coercively), and does not act in the world by stopping senseless acts of violence or misery–like preventing a child from being hit by car–God’s benevolence is still up in the air, as far as I’m concerned. I know the self-limiting, free-will folks would disagree with me, but look, I would do all I could to prevent a child from dying senselessly; I would use ALL my power, as I think most people would. Accordingly, when a loving deity with the ability to step in and stop something terrible fails to do so, or picks and chooses which “miracles” to enact, this, to me, is evidence of either a God that does not have ALL the power and literally can’t step in, or that this God is very arbitrary and/or not very loving.
Bad Things: What is evil?
At this point, I must pause and admit that it’s very hard not to agree with people when they attempt to call out and name “evil” in the world. I completely understand this impulse. Going down the road I’m going–claiming that evil does not exist–it’s easy to anticipate the worry some folks might have for how justice is to be brought about in the world. This of course gets into philosophical questions of ethics and morality.
But let me just say this. I am not, by any means, denying the obvious tension I see when I honestly assess the world around me. As Doug Pagitt likes to say, we sometimes know things are just not quite right. Our realities (inner and outer) can be described as an ordered chaos, which is always threatening to teater to one side or the other. So many things happen in the world that make us sad, sorrowful, desperate, angry, hateful, resentful or dis-eased. Things like suffering, systemic oppression, death, torture, natural disasters, racism and murder, most would agree, are all bad things; “evils” if you will. Again, I understand this basic human impulse to point out bad things, judge them and attempt to bring order back. It’s part of our nature.
‘OK,’ you might concede, ‘so maybe there is no evil force, but the question still remains: What about the bad things?’ Good question. What is evil if it’s not some malicious force in the universe? The philosophical theologian John Cobb gives an answer to this unlike any I have read:
Accordingly, if God is to bring an ordered world out of a chaos of finite actualities, any development that God can promote will have to conform to these correlations. The positive correlation between the capacity for intrinsic good and intrinsic evil means, as already indicated, that the increased complexity that makes greater enjoyment possible also makes greater suffering possible. Greater complexity of experience overcomes triviality, but it does not guarantee bliss, for it may open the door to discord so great that the positive enjoyment of experience will be virtually eliminated. The reason is that the condition for great enjoyment is the capacity to receive the feelings of others into oneself. This is good if the feelings the others contribute are by and large harmonious. But if they are not–if one’s body is wracked with pain, if loved ones are mutilated–then the sympathetic appropriation of their feelings becomes the source of great suffering. In fact, the suffering can be so great that sympathetic appropriation can seem more a curse than a blessing, and practices can be undertaken to seek to eliminate or at least minimize this capacity. One can choose harmony over intensity, thus reverting to a more trivial existence in order to advert discord.
Cobb’s writing here is profound. It seems if one is to live a life of abundance, one cannot use anesthesia to dull the senses. With great enjoyment inevitably comes the potential for great pain, and we must feel this pain to fully live.
Further, aside from human “sin,” Cobb also names a few other ingredients that make up “evil” in the world:
- chance and purpose
- survival instinct
- communal Identity (and fear when it is threatened)
- deep held but mistaken beliefs
- obedience of authority
- natural disasters
Cobb writes: “…evil results from a mixture of good intentions, ignorance, and sin. It is also profoundly brought about by the power of the past in each moment of human experience.”
How Bout That Bible?
There are two bible verses I typically refer to when thinking about what (not) to do with evil:
God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day. (Gen. 1:31)
…but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (Gen. 2:17)
These two Bible verses lead me into my final reflections on evil. The first verse addresses some of what we have already sort talked about. Namely, there is no evil, everything that was created is good. The second verse, for me, gets into the notion of ethics, morality/values and modern day scientific understandings of “evil.”
Values, Morality and Evolution: The Nature of Evil
So, since we’re stuck in this situation, i.e. being able to recognize that some things aren’t quite right, how do we go about determining what’s right and what’s wrong? Where do we get our values and morals from? What’s the difference? Next we’ll look addressing these questions of value and personal morality.
What are values?
Steve McIntosh defines values as “shared societal agreements that generally arise out of the struggle to find solutions to the problematic life conditions faced by those who participate in a given worldview. Each stage of culture thus develops a discrete set of values that are tailored to its location along the time-line of human history. This is one reason why values are ‘location specific’ — as life conditions change with the progress of cultural evolution, that which is most valuable for producing further evolution likewise changes.”
McIntosh’s definition here is very helpful. It shows us that values do not arise super naturally, but quite the opposite–they emerge naturally, and evolve over time.
In his book, Evolution’s Purpose, McIntosh explains that “purpose plays a key role in the emergence of value. It’s obvious to most that all forms of life have a purpose–unlike non-living things, even the simplest organisms strive to survive and reproduce…as life evolves, the semi-automatic purposes of primitive organisms develop into more conscious and powerful forms of purpose that can make complex choices and solve problems creatively…with the appearance of self-conscious humans comes the dramatic emergence of a wholly new level of purpose. This unique form of emergent purpose possessed by humans is a kind of “second-order purpose”–a self-reflective type of purpose that includes rational, moral and aesthetic aspirations.”
As humans evolved, so did our purposes, and so did our values. McIntosh designates three particular values which are our primary values: beauty, truth and goodness. McIntosh again:
these are the fundamental values that have been recognized since antiquity as the intrinsic qualities from which all values are essentially derived. Just as a million shades of color can be mixed from three primaries, so too can a million shades of quality be traced back to these primary values.
So, we have our values, and we understand that they are, somewhat, location specific, i.e. different cultures, depending on where they are “developmentally,” may have different blends of the three primary values. The question of where the three primary values originally come from, however, can be answered different ways depending on your worldview I suppose. You could–and many people do–split the world into “purposeless nature” and “purposeful humanity” (ignoring the significance of animals). But I, along with Plato, Whitehead and McIntosh, find it impossible to ignore the Divine Eros, pulling us toward greater levels of beauty, truth and goodness. This God, however, is not super-natural. In fact, this God is the exact opposite.
What is Morality?
Here is how I understand the difference between values and morals: morals do not determine values, values form morals (which is why I explained value first). Morality is more or less a system of belief that is taught in order to determine right from wrong (e.g., the Ten Commandments).
Interestingly–and ironically–perhaps the best insights I’ve read on how morality tends to work, have come from Richard Beck, using the work of psychologists Richard Shweder, Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Grahm in his book Unclean. Haidt and Grahm, inspired by Shweder, developed five moral foundations that cultures typically employ in gauging what is right or wrong:
- Harm/Care: Harming others, failures of care/nurturance, or failures of protection are often cited as reasons for an act being “wrong.”
- Fairness/Reciprocity: Inequalities or failures to reciprocate are often cited as evidence for something being “wrong.”
- Ingroup/Loyalty: Failure to support, defend, and aid the group is often cited as evidence for “wrongness.
- Authority/Respect: Failure to grant respect to culturally significant groups institutions, or authority figures is often cause for sanction.
- Purity/Sanctity: Anything that demeans, debases, or profanes human or religious dignity or sacredness is also a cause for sanction.
In Unclean, Beck shows that, depending on your worldview, people will deploy these five moral warrants differently. For example, liberals tend to restrict their normative judgements to the Harm/Care and the Fairness/Reciprocity foundations. Now that’s not to say liberals are not moved by the other three foundations, they just appeal to those other three less frequently than conservatives do.
The Conclusion (for now)
Contract and Covenants
So, Adam and Eve ate from that darn tree. The tree’s name was “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Typical Christian readings of this story state that sin entered the world when Adam and Eve ate that delicious fruit, which, to me, raises the question: Did Adam and Eve not commit sins before they ate that fruit, or were they just unaware that they were indeed sinning the entire time?
Anyway, I’d like to bring Greg Boyd back into the mix at this point because, although I may part ways with him on the literal existence of demons, I love when he talks about Agape.
Essentially, I could not agree more with theologians and biblical scholars like Boyd and Bruggeman when they talk about the story of Genesis 3 being a story about transitioning worldviews. Specifically, a transition from an Agapic covenantal worldview to a contractual worldview. Boyd makes some great distinctions between contracts and covenants that are extremely relevant to the subject of evil:
- Contracts are associated with agreements, like what you find in employment or home ownership. Covenants are associated with things like marriages. Unlike contractual agreements, marriage covenants are meant to be unbreakable. They are not 50/50 deals. Marriages are 100/100 deals–you’re very being is to be invested in a marriage.
- Contracts are essentially deals that are made between two parties. Covenants have to do not with making deals, but with making pledges between two people. A deal is between us, and a marriage is us. In this case, a contract is about law, a pledge is about love.
- Lastly, contracts are associated with law, they are always conditional and evaluative. Agape covenants on the other hand, are always unconditional. While contracts may be obsessed with evaluating, assessing, measuring and judging, Agape Covenants are about accepting the other as they are.
So what does happen when we start thinking about what is right and what is wrong? Well, usually we start to talk about it. Then, since we’re talking about it, one may feel the need to define it in order to get a better handle on it, right? Before you know it, people dedicate their entire lives to studying moral philosophy and creating words like “law,” “sanctification,” “purification,” “holiness,” “virtue,” “ethics,” and so on.
Now, just to be clear, I like the branch of philosophy called “ethics,” I think it’s great. Formulating concepts and principles that guide us in determining what behavior helps or harms sentient creatures is absolutely critical. My only point here in citing Gen. 3 (which is also the point of the story itself, I believe) is to show what kind of condition we human beings find ourselves in. We absolutely do have a sense of right and wrong, and sometimes it can be a very big burden.
So, there it is. More and more I am trying very hard not to use the term “evil” when describing the wrongs I see. Accordingly, I especially try to refrain from calling people “evil.” It’s an all around good practice I’d say, considering the plethora of stories, experience, details and context that accompany each and every one of us.
If there is one reason that would convince me to to keep this term/concept of evil in my lexicon, it would be solely for lamentation purposes. What I mean by this is that when we say something is “evil,” what we mean is that the web of existence, and all the bad things we experience in life, has become too big for us to comprehend. When life turns rotten, when all of those aspects and ingredients of evil gang up on us at once, it’s completely understandable (and actually healthy) for one to lift their fists to the sky and curse the name of God for letting evil happen. But, at the same time, we should also try to remember, what privatio boni poetically whispers to us: when the light returns (and it will), it shows us that the dark never really existed. Further, I feel–if nothing else–that it’s essential for the Agapic love which Boyd speaks about, or what Mirislov Wolf call “the willingness to embrace,” to replace our need to divide and asses using the moral category of evil.