This is a theme that confronts us each year during Passiontide as the Church brings us to meditate on the rising wickedness of Scribes, Pharisees, Temple clergy and others against Christ, culminating in his death by crucifixion inflicted by the Roman occupying forces.
Some time ago I read Frederick Forsyth’s Odessa File, in which the diary of a former Auschwitz prisoner who had committed suicide is unfolded. It lays the entire foundation of the quest of a German journalist in the 1960’s to find the evil SS officer who was responsible for millions of deaths at the concentration camp and of his own father. The old Jew had written in his diary about when the Nazis killed his wife:
After her death, my soul died inside me. But my body and mind remained alive. I was determined to survive…
This is certainly the most poignant quote in the whole novel. It is the testimony of absolute destructiveness of evil. There is nothing positive in it. It does not build the personality, but destroys it. We will only find redemption by seeking a higher power, the good and true – which we call God.
Where did evil come from? There are any number of myths (not something that isn’t true but expressed via a narrative not intended to be literally understood) that try to answer this question from the Book of Genesis to the Gnostic scriptures and others in other world spiritual traditions and religions. Whichever narrative most describes the origin of mankind and evil, whatever happened in that parallel universe we will never understand fully in this life, man was driven from paradise into a world of evil. Thus we would encounter people who care about nothing, who lie, kill, swindle, are cruel bullies and everything we read about in the news. There are also the catastrophes that happen independently from human causality. It is a mystery that goes all the way back to origins.
In each of us remains the imago Dei, the spark of divinity that no amount of evil can extinguish. This enables us to choose to seek the truth, beauty and goodness. We can find our place among many philosophers and prophets, lessons of wisdom and the highest aspirations. This has to be our cause for optimism however dark the world becomes. Notwithstanding, as it comes and goes in waves, evil seems to win out until some miracle comes from where it is least expected. As a theological student, I often asked myself what was the point of the Redemption, since it seemed to have failed to change the evil in the world, or that its effect was limited in time. What I failed to understand – as we all fail to understand – was that we expected something that was never to be. The Redemption is situated at another level that abolishing evil in this world.
The power of the Archons continues in its full force. Everything is in our understanding of goodness and truth. Wars and persecutions continue in their fury against us, but we have not to fear those who kill the body, but who can annihilate the soul before sending both body and soul to hell.
It is a spiritual battle, but not only. We are endowed not only with the eternal and transcendent spirit of God, but also with reason and optimism about our lot in life. In the Renaissance, something new emerged, optimistic and filled with light. Human reason can choose to seek truth and goodness. It brought us to another understanding of sin and our dependence on God’s grace. The Enlightenment brought us awareness of our capacity to make ethical judgements, that our humanity may shine forth. Thus we reacted against the notion of the Church being the only ark of salvation, something which was necessary to cast off the evil that had entered its institutions. However, the Enlightenment also had its dark side in pride and arrogance. The foundation of the United States of America was a wonderful opportunity for a New World, but slavery and racism were accepted. When God, spirit and humanity are rejected, there are no moral constraints and only the motivation of pleasure and bestiality remains.
Nietzsche, is his own tormented way, showed us the consequences of nihilism and the loss of any meaning to life. Power and money have no knowledge of good and evil. We live in that nihilism from when our world died in the trenches of World War I, the gas chambers and battlefields of the second, and in the mounting evil of politicians and businessmen. We become no more than brute animals, like in the depiction of an English public school in the 1830’s. Nietzsche was right in that as religion and faith died, they would be replaced by the political ideologies of Soviet communism, Nazism and fascism. What is being concocted in the present British chaos can only lead the same way. When evil grows, it stifles everything, enters our homes and makes our clothes smell like old cigarette smoke. Humanity ceases to have the strength to resist the disease, and life ceases to have any value. It becomes normal for the weak to be killed without compunction by the strong, wealthy and powerful. At the end of World War II, Hitler committed suicide, Mussolini was shot and hung upside down by his feet in Milan, Franco died of old age – but the disease remained like bubonic plague in hibernation.
Is there any hope now? It is for us to find it, to be philosophers and prophets and create new values of truth and goodness, to shine like lights in the darkness. We can do something. I am trying to do so by studying and writing, since the pen (or computer keyboard) is mightier than the sword. My vocation is one of education, of taking my humble part in this great movement of spiritual renaissance and humanism.
Whilst we can say that humanity died in the twentieth century, not everything was annihilated. As our world is increasingly absurd, something remains of the old humanity. If I am thinking and writing like this, there is me – and others must be thinking and writing along similar lines. Indeed I know they are, because I read them. What constitutes the difference?
W.H. Auden asked himself in 1947:
If, as I’m convinced, the Nazis are wrong and we are right, what is it that validates our values and invalidates theirs?
It is a good question, when I read Theresa May’s record on human rights when she worked for the Home Office. There are many threats, and the anxiety is mounting as I write. If the end justifies the means, then anything is allowed like the killing of “undesirables”, the banishment and exploitation of the poor, racism, slavery and everything we keep reading about. What is the source of morality? What happens when self-interest is the only “good”, at the cost of freedom and justice? We don’t seem to want to know. As Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor levels at Christ:
People do not want freedom, they want to be happy; the burden of the choice between good and evil is too heavy. People want to relieve their conscience by submitting to the miraculous, the mysterious, to authority! That is what we, the Church, offer them.
In other words, Huxley’s Brave New World. We go beyond good and evil to modern corporate values: money, efficiency, market, being competitive, etc. This has become the modern “paradise”. Not only is there no morality. There is no truth. We live in a “post-truth” era and language has no value. The next stage is the amalgam of man and machine, the final death of the soul. Reason, technology and science have brought many benefits, but evil is still lurking, and always hidden or disguised. It is easy to understand the populist reaction as nationalism and xenophobia are resurrected. This revolt is utterly unpredictable, until the demagogue goose-steps onto the stage and has them all mesmerised like the guru of a sect. Like in the 1930’s mainstream political parties are discredited and they no longer have any usefulness. They are dinosaurs. Liberalism and social democracy seem to have outlived the usefulness and have to be replaced. By what? This is my concern when people tell me that Macron must go! Mme Le Pen doesn’t convince me! She too is in it for the money.
We live in anxiety and fear. Fr Jonathan Munn has just written Custard Pies, Spacetime, Joy and Brexit in which he expresses the same concerns as most of us at this time. Like Germans in the 1930’s, we are paralysed by fear and helplessness, and we are faced with the temptation to give in, to accept evil becoming banal. Even the “Remainer” Facebook groups contain many comments advocating the execution by guillotine or hanging or whatever of the chief powers behind Brexit: Boris Johnson, Rees-Mogg, etc. A women who watched an execution in France in the early twentieth century expressed her disappointment: “It’s already over?” I find myself having to look away from these groups, because they saturate me with anxiety.
Our historical period seems to be one of the Night, a new middle age of purgation and conversion, a long and hard Lent. I have resolved to read more, good philosophy from past eras and our own times. I get piles of grouped e-mails about the problems in the Roman Catholic Church and its Pope – and see parallels with the government of my country. That said, Pope Francis seems to have a higher moral calibre even though he is not a conservative or a traditionalist. I have to filter the saturation of information and concentrate on what is essential and fundamental to truth, beauty and goodness. Bad news, whether true or false, builds anxiety and bad judgement. Things are not easy to understand, and that is why there are conspiracy theories – some of them as ridiculous as they are absurd. We have to filter and be aware of our own limits. Otherwise we burn out!
Both reactionary politics and technocracy will promise us paradise and a solution against evil. Paradise is not attainable in this world. The battle between good and evil is eternal and never ending. However, we can look within ourselves and make a difference there… It may seem to us that Christianity has been mortally wounded, something I often think about. There may be any amount of evil in churches as in secular politics, but Christ remains as does his message to us all.
Every time my faith seems to be flickering away and dimming, it always bounces back with every spark of goodness and light. The sunny weather of our mid-February is already a sign and an encouragement. A full order book assures me of being able to earn a living. Blessings abound where we look for them and have the gratitude to receive them from the God who is pure love.
The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. Romans xiii, 12.
This is a great post that presents a concise picture of the problem of evil and key marking events that offered a way to understand it and how to combat it. I found these words
The battle between good and evil is eternal and never ending. However, we can look within ourselves and make a difference there…
a salutary reminder about the futility of thinking evil must be defeated by being evil oneself, or leaving moral responsibility in the hands of others whoever or whatever they may be or whatever claims to offering the solution they assert.
It also encapsulates, I think, the insight that the secret of Christianity lies in understanding and taking to heart that love of God and love of neighbour are inseparable and should be indistinguishable, so to speak.
I’ll find myself coming back to this reflection of yours, Father Anthony, repeatedly, I’m sure.
Read the two books by Rob Riemen. I may be meeting this amazing man sometime this year. It will be a great privilege.
In each of us remains the imago Dei, the spark of divinity that no amount of evil can extinguish. This enables us to choose to seek the truth, beauty and goodness. We can find our place among many philosophers and prophets, lessons of wisdom and the highest aspirations. This has to be our cause for optimism however dark the world becomes.
What a beautiful encapsulation of a beautiful idea! I believe it.
It is for us to find it, to be philosophers and prophets and create new values of truth and goodness, to shine like lights in the darkness.
This is the essence of what it is to be a follower of Jesus: to be a light for others. It is not therefore to tell people what they must believe, or punish them for not believing a particular dogma, or to insist that loving God must take one form rather than another, or to sit in judgment as if one oneself were not liable for judgment (which is what nearly all of us do at some time or other).
This is the reason why I find infra-religious dispute so cacophonous: you don’t like women priests? Then form your community and don’t have them but otherwise shut up and stop castigating others from having them! You don’t like high Masses with spiralling incense and symbolic hieraticism? Then form your own community but otherwise shut up and stop railing against those that want them! In the end, are you a “Christi-ian’? That is, are you (am I) a person who has to study and work at and ask for help in knowing how to love my fellow beings? How to be a light to others?
I am working at this myself. I rate my light wattage very low at the moment!
I have to say that I have become allergic to church groups on Facebook, especially when they start arguing that everyone has to be the same. You will find the key to understanding these problems when you read Rob Riemen’s analysis of fascism, mob humanity and the refusal of the transcendent person. Man remains a competitive animal, devoid of empathy or care. It is just as much the case in “one true churches” as in each country that spirals down into totalitarianism. Dostoyevsky understood this very acutely as he saw Russia collapse into nihilism and Bolshevism.
The problems of women priests and the gay agenda are not so much seeking an end to “toxic masculinity” but the same mob humanity on both sides, the same intolerance and refusal of dialogue. I am grateful that in my little Church, a few of us priests are getting together to work on questions of philosophy and going beyond the stereotypes and slogans. It will take a long time, and our influence will be negligible.
Don’t fall into nihilism, but read, write, walk, cycle, sail, fly or whatever brings you to a sense of wonder and discovery…
It may seem to us that Christianity has been mortally wounded, something I often think about. There may be any amount of evil in churches as in secular politics, but Christ remains as does his message to us all.
The mistake we can all fall into making is to think that Christianity is identified with human institutions, e.g Roman catholic Church, Anglican Church, Greek orthodox churches, Lutheran church etc. No, Christianity is essentially the message you refer to – the idea that I think Jesus was trying to get across – that as a rancorous or divided community we would never know peace and love, so we had to open our hearts. He knew it wasn’t easy [cf. Mk 14:38] but like all convinced spirituals he had to persist. People had to love and forgive and to illustrate what this might mean he described all sorts of crazy counter-intuitive things: turn the other cheek, give the shirt off your back, help people at personal risk to oneself, speak to people you can’t stand or over whom society will punish you.
You could be forgiven for thinking Jesus was unrealistic at best or insane at worst. But what he preached is the essence of Christianity. The churches, and the corrupt clerical hierarchies (under whatever name) have been mortally wounded by such things as their venality, materialism, their abuse of the weak and vulnerable, their love of authority over truth and scientific fact and justice and even regard for their honest colleagues who suffer reputational damage by association, but for all those reasons, it is good that they be mortally wounded. The churches and hierarchies must die. Nothing human is entitled to live forever. A new outlook and endeavour and enterprise seems needed and since a happy home cannot have two women (i.e mother-in-law and wife) or two men (i.e. father and son) competing for influence – the old has to go.
People often also make the mistake of divorcing institutions from the people who make them up. “Institution” – “Church” – etc are collective terms for a concept of one kind or another: what counts is what happens and this is the result of people thinking, feeling and acting here and now. I want people to always reflect on Jesus’ message, not ascribe to tribal membership more worth than integrity and mercy and compassion.
Ut Christus remaneat atque evangelium suum”</em (i.e. May Christ and his message remain!)
Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose left a deep impression on me, the book more than the film. It is fiction, therefore entitled to take liberties with historical fact. Like Von Hardenberg’s Christenheit oder Europa, it is a Romantic parable intended to convey a subtle message. What is particular about Eco’s story is the return of karma at the end: the monastery is so toxic and corrupt that only its destruction by fire would bring resolution. Fire for fire, just after the auto da fe when the “heretics” were burned at the stake.
Decay and mortality are part of our condition. As I hope with our Europe, I hope for the eternal Church that it may not know only burning and death but also new life, spring and renewal. When I say renewal, not the mendacious euphemism, but something based on spirituality and a true ethical sense of right and wrong. We continue (since the 18th century) to live a time of nihilism and meaninglessness, an existential clinical depression. We can come out of it but it begins with each one of us, however dim the wattage is.
I believe, as Tolkien himself believed, that evil can only be understood as the partial or complete negation of good. If you would understand more of Tolkien’s theories about the nature of evil I’d recommend the essays he wrote in volume 10 of The History of Middle-earth.
This is always how I have understood evil, as something having no ontology. It is a vacuum, nothingness – the archetype of nihilism, something very well expressed by Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche. Some of my Fribourg professors touched on the question when teaching Christology and the Redemption. I will also read the Tolkien essays you mention. Would you like to write me an article on this subject (Tolkien and the mystery of evil) for this blog which now takes the place of the Blue Flower?