I’m friends with quite a few people that consider themselves, “spiritual, but not religious.”. Upon further prodding this normally means some form of “New Age” stuff – basically that God is within each of us, and as such we have no need of organized anything. If God is within, there’s clearly no need for communicating with the “heavens,” or that “divine dimension.” No, prayer consists of emptying oneself completely of all the “human stuff,” so all that remains is divine. We effectively become our own god. Much like those who “cherry pick” what they like to believe is right or wrong, we attend the “church of me.”
And so with this moral relativism it’s a natural progression to deny the existence of the absolute. I’m a pretty good person,” or “at least I don’t do such and such” becomes the new standard, and there are no inherent rights and wrongs. “Don’t judge me” is the new mantra, and we are therefore forbidden to refer to Natural Law. The best ideas of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, Cumberland and Locke, our own John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and certainly Augustine and Aquinas. Notice my omission of uniquely religious figures; these are philosophers of genius, who maintained that there is, in fact, absolute right and wrong, irrelevant of cultural and societal norms. So let’s throw out 2500 years of philosophical contemplation and wisdom, because so many people in modern society find the truth inconvenient, shaming, and esteem lowering.
When the trend of culture, or even within our individual consciences (or lack thereof) has no “standard,” setting the bar for right and wrong becomes completely arbitrary.
Likewise its quite trendy to deny the existence of “evil.”. I’m not talking about “doing” what society considers “evil things,” or even “being an evil person.” Again, when we are allowed to “set the bar” in different places, standards of behavior become contrived and arbitrary.
No, I’m actually referring to evil. Evil is not simply that passive void created in the absence of “good.”. Evil is a very real thing, a very active albeit insidious force that has been just as present as it was two thousand and ten thousand years ago.
And so – Most of us would agree that Oliver Cromwell did evil things when he massacred the Irish civilians in Wexford, and when the suicide bomber boarded the bus full of Israeli children, and when a man in charge of children commits pedaphilia or pederasty. However, it’s quite different to say there was an evil force guiding and driving these feeble minded to justify what they did. They aren’t simply confused, brainwashed, or even sick. Consciously or unconsciously, they participated with something truly sinister.
I’m neither naive nor an an idiot. I realize the whole idea seems absurd if you don’t believe in the existence of an absolute “good,” and in turn, the existence of God. Much like Paul’s description of the “foolishness” of the cross to those who believe they will simply perish, but the “Power of God,” to those who are confident of salvation (1Cor 1:18).
Nor has this moral slide happened suddenly. It’s been with us forever, And I think I’ve actually witnessed so many subtle, insidious instances of this slide of my culture before my very eyes. When I was a little kid, comedian Flip Wilson had us in stitches when his character Geraldine claimed “the devil made me do it” every time she did something wrong, and so it became a laughing matter. We clearly recognized it as facetious, Geraldine obviously was shirking her own accountability, and caricaturing the devil as a cartoon character. And who hasn’t conjured up the mental image of “the devil,” with cute little curved horns, a fork, dressed in a red leotard, and joking about the heat. As a child, I was probably in that costume one Halloween. You see, of course, the theme here – cartoons, jokes, funny.
In Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis makes this point much more eloquently than I can, as the elder devil, Wormwood, advises his nephew apprentice:
“The fact that “devils” are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination will help you. If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in his mind, suggest to him a picture of some¬thing in red tights, and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that (it is an old textbook method of confusing them) he therefore cannot believe in you.”
And if there is no Satan, no Prince of Darkness, no “evil spirit,” what of evil? Is evil a “positive” thing (actually something that exists), or simply the absence of good, a (void)?Clearly evil exists, but is it a “something (a power unto itself),” or a “nothing (like darkness in the absence of light)?”
I suppose being a 14 year old boy in 1973 Missouri when The Exorcist first played (Blatty’s version of real events surrounding a very credible possession in St. Louis, starring Linda Blair) made me really pay attention and fascinated me. Having been raised a Roman Catholic, I considered the whole premise plausible, and found these otherwise inexplicable events actually faith-strengthening. And the fact that Catholic priests are called in during these situations, as “the authorities” provides a subliminal affirmation that the Roman Church provides the most dependable road home.
So, to me, although scary “as hell,” I consider it a real thing. I realize that philosophers and theologians much smarter than I have also explored this question and come to both conclusions. Its easy to see how those in Auschwitz, My Lai, and Syria might feel much more confident with such first hand knowledge. But what about the 12 year old girl who is bullied? The 15 year old driven to self-destruction because of gay bashing? The woman beaten to a pulp by her prince every time he drinks? Is this darkness simply the lack of light?
One of the most emotionally powerful arguments against the existence of God is the “problem of evil.” People say that if God is all knowing, all powerful, all good, why does evil exist?
That drove me to bash my head against the wall for about ten hours, trying to read and understand what the best and brightest for thousands of years have said reconciling the existence of evil with an omnipotent, loving moral God. From Buddhism, Pessimism and Zoroastrianism to Christian Scientist and Jehovahs Witness. From Aristotle, Origen and Epicurus to Schopenhauer and Leibniz. Eckhart, Birmingham, and even Nietzsche. Gnostics and Deists, Monism and Pragmatism.
Frankly all I learned was that everyone knows that no one knows. Actually that this is another one of those things that humans just can’t know. Not that we should stop the great search for truths. On the contrary, this is exactly why we should continue to learn and explore and dig and think deeply.
I do find myself leaning towards Thomas Aquinas:
The existence of evil functions in the perfection of the whole; the universe would be less perfect if it contained no evil. Thus fire could not exist without the corruption of what it consumes; the wolf must slay the deer in order to live; and if there were no wrongdoing, there would be no need for the virtues of patience and justice. Let’s assume God did author evil in the sense that the corruption of material objects in nature is ordained by Him, as a means for carrying out the design of the universe; and on the other hand, the evil which exists as the consequence of the breach of Divine laws is in the same sense due to Divine appointment; the universe would be less perfect if its laws could be broken without punishment. Thus evil, in one aspect, i.e. as counter-balancing the attraction of sin, has the nature of good. But the evil of sin, though permitted by God, is in no sense due to Him; its cause is the abuse of free will.
Therein, St. Thomas proposes his explanation (apparently logical and sufficient to him) as to why God permits foreseen moral evil. Why would God, foreseeing that His creatures would use His gift of free will for their own injury, proceed with the plan, and not keep them (us) from misusing this “gift,” deny the gift altogether?
St. Thomas comes to the realization that God cannot change His mind, since the Divine will is free from the defect of weakness or instability. Such fluidity would be a defect in the Divine nature (and therefore impossible), because if God’s purpose were made dependent on the foreseen free act of any creature, God would thereby sacrifice His own freedom, and would submit Himself to His creatures, thus abdicating His essential supremacy—a thing which is, of course, utterly inconceivable.
In other words, I think, “It is because it He has willed it.” The great I AM.