“… we ignore evil except when it hits us in the face. Some philosophers and psychologists have tried to make out that evil is simply the shadow side of good; that’s it’s part of the necessary balance in the world, and that we must avoid too much dualism, too much polarization between good and evil. That, of course, leads straight to Nietzsche’s philosophy of power and by that route back to Hitler and Auschwitz. When you pass beyond good and evil, you pass into the realm where might is right, and where anything that reminds you of the old moral values—for instance, a large Jewish community—stands in your way and must be eliminated.
“… we are surprised when evil hits us in the face …”N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God. (IVP Books, 2006), pp. 24-25
I am not among those who regards evil as an evolutionary social convention evolved and adopted in order to protect the community over many millennia. There has been change, or evolution (which just means change, after all) in the way people perceive morality and apply it in ethics. But humans are built and born with a sense of right and wrong, good and bad. It is part of being self-aware, self-conscious, human.
The evolutionary adoption and adaptation theory of morality is the prevailing paradigm of the West’s intelligentsia. But a strange thing happens “on the way to the Forum” when a whole community, rather than an individual or family here and there, is confronted with the close personal tragedies of death and severe illness, or other traumas. The intellectual construct of a sort of evolved, community-approved code of evil drops away like a mask in a Greek tragedy and the malevolence of some things in the Kosmos becomes very personal and very real.
For me and everyone I know, when death passes near it has an amazing faculty of clarifying the mind and focusing the spirit. This seems true even for those who choose to deny that they are spiritual beings as well as physical. In the community where I live and another one just a dozen kilometers down the road two seniors’ residences have been very hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Multiple people have died and are dying, many are quite ill, and the courageous staff are under siege. Because of the quarantine, the rest of the community is powerless to do anything of the usual “practical” stuff in the face of this tragedy. Those who pray believe that is at least something, while the rest voice moral support and offer whatever other aid the afflicted sub-community can accept.
Today we are witnessing what Bishop Wright stated above: that we only seem to clue in to the existence of real evil, not a mere intellectual construct, “when it hits us in the face”. For us here in our town, we are staring into the very real face of evil, and it has taken on a very personal dimension. The pain, suffering, and anguish are right at home.
Why have we as a people become so divorced from the reality of evil, so unwilling to name real things that are just plain WRONG? Tell the suffering that they have been “selected according to the laws the universe” and see what they say. The laws of survival of the fittest and chaos theory bring no comfort to the “chosen” and their loved ones.
As Jordan Peterson tirelessly points out in 12 Rules for Life, an Antidote to Chaos, if you trundle along through life adopting the posture of the victim of cruel fate, the personal prey of a sort of dark conspiracy “out there” to crush you, you will sink into a quagmire of bitter despair and hopelessness. Then we all become the butt of a supremely cruel joke, sentient beings who seem innately built to seek and find meaning only to discover that there is none—unless you somehow contrive to invent one for yourself. But is there an alternative? God, perhaps?
The heirs of the Enlightenment, as Steven Pinker calls the West’s intellectual elite, Voltaire’s Bastards as John Ralston Saul terms them (and among whom he numbers himself), cannot countenance putting God anywhere near the equation, let alone in it. But, in that universe, when the shit “hits us right in the face”, all that is left is to “rage, rage” like Dylan Thomas, cursing the soulless universe as we go into the night of oblivion.
Every generation has a wake-up moment or two. It comes when evil hits them right in the face without a mask on. Remember 9-11? This is one for us now. Even an impersonal “act of God” (a phrase now quite inappropriate in our culture) is really intensely personal when it is your loved one killed by brutal terrorists or dying in the disaster. There seems no justice in death’s selection process, good and evil people died together on 9-11 or Hurricane Katrina. Or perhaps it is perfect justice, since we are all condemned to die by some means at some time.
We are told over and over again that evil is the main reason we should not believe in God. Well, maybe it’s OK to believe in a sort of impersonal, generic Power that generates everything and keeps it being and moving. “The Force” anyone?
But that is not whom we curse when the virus is slaying thousands, the bullets and bombs are flying, the terrorists are destroying, and ISIS or the SS is carrying out genocide. Dylan Thomas, Voltaire, Nietzsche, et al, all go raging into “that good night”, (which is not a good night at all, in case the ironical meaning of Thomas’s poem escaped you) because, underneath it all, they intuitively know that it all really should mean something, not just appear to.
Who says about the mass-murder victims, “Oh well, that’s the luck of the draw?” No one! Instead, we turn in rage against the Personal God we spend so much time denying exists or totally ignoring because, way down in our heart of hearts, we wish and believe that He/She could and should exist. Way down in our innermost soul we know that that Being is our only real hope. The deep truth is that we cannot live without hope that somehow, sometime, things will and must “be set to rights” as C.S. Lewis puts it. But we know very well that we can’t do it. Only a real, personal Creator with all the power and wisdom necessary could ever do that.
Viktor Frankl’s landmark work on Holocaust survival (Man’s Search for Meaning) was conclusive in pointing out that those who found God or a spiritual anchor like God in the midst of the most senseless horror conceivable found the will to live. By contrast, those who did not tended to die much more often despite not being chosen for summary execution/extinction.
While COVID-19 is not a human genocidal agency, it is still evil come in the guise of the brokenness of the world and a universe where natural things have gone terribly awry. Earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, tornados, hurricanes and typhoons, blizzards, forest- and bush-fires (those not caused by human neglect), are more “spectacular” natural agencies of death and destruction. But a killer-virus-generated pandemic is another form of this evil face of nature.
It is easy to identify evil as bad stuff that humans do to other humans and life-forms. It is less obvious to call an impersonal natural force “evil”, but our gut tells us that when nature runs amok, it is inflicting great suffering and mass death on us and, as with the typhoon and volcano, on all the other living things in its path. All this death and destruction cannot be good, can it?
I am not advocating a return to animism or the polytheism of capricious gods and goddesses playing deadly games with us and the world as their toy-box. I am suggesting that we take a reflective look at our culture’s inadequate categories to relate to and understand the kind of Kosmos that actually exists. We ignore the evidence at our peril – both individually and collectively. As Peterson says, the universe is not a placid, benevolent place. There is a duality to it all, everywhere we look. Powerful forces and entities abound, with the ability to affect us for good and ill.
What is within moves us to act benevolently or maliciously. We are capable of both. More simply, the spirit within wills to use the body without to do good or bad things. If we are honest, we can all recall things done by people who we know acted from an evil intent within. All of us have the capacity to choose either mode of action, but sometimes we meet people who we know have taken the dark road. They exude it even when they are not actually acting it out. That’s why some people just make us feel “creepy” or “cold” when we are around them. The more darkness we choose, the less light we have. The more often we choose to do right and good stuff, the easier it gets to keep doing it. But the converse is equally true.
The ancient Christians educated new disciples about this dual path to life or death in a document called The Didache. It is still worth reading.
But what about a virus? Does it choose to be evil? Of course not! It is just doing what its chemistry and nature make it do. It is not a conscious agency. Same for the wind and the earth and the chemistry of fire raging out of control. Then why does it feel “evil” (although not in the same way as the Nazi SS doctor coldly selecting victims for the gas chamber)?
The short answer is that we humans are also made to work according to our nature, to see and sense things farther than a mere calculation of the preponderance of one or more physical factors over another or others. It is who and what we are, creatures who see inside, who look beyond the seen into the unseen. For we have another kind of sight. We have In-sight, the power to see within, to see into. Call it the spiritual nature.
Humans are creatures which bridge the physical and non-physical sides of reality. Unfortunately for we Westerners (and, via our invasion of every other culture, everyone else now too), we have cultivated and inculcated a way of seeing (or, more accurately, not seeing) without reference to the unseen. In other words, we have deliberately forsaken Insight, the very human and precious ability to See In. Thus, we have crippled our humanity.
Ergo we have a very hard time even admitting that real evil, evil which is not just a convenient, malleable social convention, exists. We are often self-blinded when it takes personal form and, on occasion, even inhabits actual living persons and beings. We excuse perpetrators of horrendously wicked deeds as somehow “victims” themselves – of bad parenting, of social conditions, etc.
But how does this transfer to the non-living side of nature and being?
TO BE CONTINUED