Saturday, December 22, 2012

In Layman's Terms: On Evil

And the Serpent said to the woman: “No, you shall not die. For God knows that on the day you shall eat the fruit, your eyes shall be opened; and you shall be as Gods, knowing good and evil.
-Genesis 3: 4-5

                  In our last post on the Catholic Worldview, we talked about God. Today, we’re gonna talk about the opposite of God: Evil. 

                  Thomas Aquinas said, correctly, that the problem of evil was the strongest argument for the non-existence of God. If God exists and if God is all good and all powerful, then how can evil exist?

                  Before I delve into this question, I would like to just note an interesting fact; the reality of evil is axiomatic. No sensible person would ever deny it, and if he did no one would believe him. Now, the question arises: what does that do to the idea that morality is not objective? If evil is so real that it is the best philosophical weapon against God, then moral standards must be equally real (since evil is nothing but a failure to meet moral standards). Evil might or might not disprove God, but it certainly disproves Relativism.

                  The indispensable G.K. Chesterton wrote of people who denied evil: “If it is true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.”
"There is no cat...there is no cat..."

                  So we shall waste no time proving that there is such a thing as evil. Instead we have to ask two questions; what is it and why does it exist if God is all powerful and all good?

                  The answer to the question “what is evil?” is, to put it bluntly, nothing. Evil is nothing. It’s non-existence; unreality.

Catholicism is an encounter with Reality. It’s a striving to become more and more ‘Real:’ more as we ought to be. As Jesus says, “I have come that you may have Life and have it more abundantly” (John 10: 10). Last week we discussed how God is the core of Reality, the absolute principle of existence. The more like Him we become, the more ‘Real’ we become.

                  Evil, therefore, is a kind of corrosive unreality; something that makes an object less ‘as it should be.’ It’s like rust on metal, progressively weakening the thing until it’s corroded away entirely. 

This is your soul on evil; any questions?

There is no such thing as “positive” evil: no Ahriman, no ‘It,’ no monolith at the center of the Earth that the Legion of Doom can re-purpose as a laser-cannon. Evil is entirely a negative force, involving the removal or rejection of some good. Nothing is created evil, and nothing is ‘pure’ evil, not even the Devil. To exist itself is good, because to exist at all is to be, to some extent, like God. Evil is always parasitic; it can’t exist on its own. As Frodo says in The Lord of the Rings, “The Shadow…can only mock; it cannot make.”

Frodo’s point is emphasized in the climax to A Nightmare on Elm Street. At the end of that picture, it’s revealed that Freddy doesn’t actually exist at all. He’s just, well, a dream; a parasitic force dependent on the frustration and disorder of his victims for existence. Once Nancy refuses to keep ‘feeding’ him, he vanishes into nothingness. 

"I'm your boyfriend now, Frodo!"
 As noted, therefore, nothing can be ‘pure evil.’ However, something can be so entirely corrupted that it is irretrievably evil; so twisted and corroded that it hates the very thought of good. Creatures like that long for non-existence, both for themselves and for everything else.

How does that happen? It happens because the world isn’t as they would want it. The first sin, you see, is always, always Pride: the desire to put oneself before God. When we steal, we are saying “I’d rather God made the laws governing property differently.” When we kill, we say “I wish I had the power over life and death.” Most of us do this unconsciously; justifying our sins with things like “oh, who could it hurt?” or “well, he deserved it, didn’t he?” But such decisions are not ours to make; we don’t get to personally decide that, say, this person is undeserving of life, or my need of this money is greater than his, or I should be able to enjoy sex without worrying about what it might lead to. God made the world and made us a certain way. If we live the way He intends, we will be happy and whole as we can never imagine. But for most of us, it is so hard to live as God wants, and it’s so much easier to live as we want.

So, we try to ‘cheat;’ to get around God, to ignore or deny the reality of creation in favor of something more amenable to our own wishes. It’s similar to those “scripture scholars” who try to explain that most of the Gospels were later additions, and that the only ‘genuine’ sayings of Jesus are the ones that (by an astounding coincidence) agree with their own views! In the same way, we like to find reasons to ‘cut out’ the bits of reality that we don’t like in order to do, well, pretty much what we’re doing right now! Therefore we do things like overemphasizing the ‘fun and bonding’ aspects of sex while trying to cut out the (rather vital) ‘makes babies’ aspect. Or we ignore the fact that it’s wrong to take innocent lives because, well, it’d just be so convenient if that little village weren’t there! Or we deny the right to own one’s own property because, damn it! Why does he have so much and I don’t?

                  This ‘cheating,’ this attempt to get around God, is amateur evil. Oh, it can corrode our souls and send us to Hell, all right, but only if it graduates into what we might call ‘mature evil.’ Those who are in ‘mature evil’ are smarter than we are. They recognize that you can’t get around God; you can’t pick and choose the parts of Reality that you want to follow any more than you can choose the parts of the Gospel you want to believe. It’s an all-or-nothing deal; the world is as God has made it and you have to either accept it or rejected. So, rather than submitting to a world in which they are not God, they will have nothing; no world, no God, and not even themselves. As Nietzsche put it, “If there were a God, how could I stand not to be Him?”

 In other words, some men just want to watch the world burn.

You knew I'd get to him at some point in this post, didn't you?
                   The Joker is a good image of ‘deep evil.’ Ra’s Al Ghul and Bane are amateurs; they think they can cut out bits of the world to make it as they would like. The Joker just wants chaos; non-existence. That’s why he only laughs when Batman beats him, why he practically wants Batman or Two-Face to kill him; what’s pain or death to someone who longs for non-being? The world, as he sees it, is cruel, meaningless, and corrupt; just like him. So he wants is to tear it to pieces as much as he can before dying. He doesn’t want anything to be at all. Everything is meaningless, so everything burns.

                   Another example of this comes in The Lord of the Rings from a character who is not actually evil himself, but who succumbs to evil: Denethor. Faced with what he is convinced is the inevitable victory of Sauron and the end of his own reign even if Sauron is defeated, Denethor declares that if he cannot have things as they were, he will have “nothing.” And so he kills himself.
             In the end, this is the choice we will all have to make. When we face God, we will see the world as it truly is and ought to be, and almost all of us will see something we won’t like. Will we accept reality as it is, or will we prefer unreality? If we can’t have things as we would like them, will we accept them anyway, or will we declare that it is either “our way or the highway”?

                  When we last left our story, God was poised on the act of creating Heaven and Earth by His Will. At the uttermost beginning of beginning, in the very first act of creation, God made the creatures that we typically call ‘Angels.’ Angels are beings of pure spirit; pure intellect. They have no bodies, only minds (though they can assume bodies when they need to, in the manner of what you might roughly call “uniform”), and they participate in God’s act of Creation as secondary causes.

J.R.R. Tolkien, writing to his son, described an image he had of his own guardian angel while praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament. He said that he envisioned it as God’s own concern and love for him personified into a separate being of its own. That, I think, is as good a description of the angels as any; they are God’s ineffable love for every aspect of His own creation made into beings themselves.

Or, another helpful image comes from one of the villains of C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, who (after his materialistic fashion) called them ‘macrobes:’ the opposite of microbes; beings as far above us as we are above bacteria, and who influence the world even more than microbes do, but just as invisibly. 

In any case, for our purposes it might help to think of angels as being ‘lesser gods;’ something akin to the pagan deities (with a lot less sex and a lot more contemplation).

Aren’t I getting sidetracked from the subject of evil? A little, but I have a point. You see, the angels exist in a hierarchy. No two angels are alike, and they are arranged each in their own place in creation. The greatest of all the angels; the being closest to God in power and beauty, was called Lucifer (which means ‘light bearer’). Now, as part of their contemplation of God, the angels each discerned part of His plan for creation. Lucifer, together with many other angels, foresaw the coming of man. Not only that, but they foresaw that they, the glorious creatures of light and spirit, would one day be required to serve and even worship a certain Man.

To Lucifer, this was intolerable. Here he was, the beautiful, glorious first work of creation, and he was expected to submit to something made out of dust; something that sweated and ate and excreted. Something born out of a woman, that nursed and played and worked in the dirt. Moreover, he foresaw that in addition to having to worship a man he, Lucifer, the bearer of light, would one day be considered lower in the celestial hierarchy than a mere woman.

Dazzled with his own greatness and furious at the thought of relinquishing it, Lucifer rebelled; he refused to go along with the plan. Together with many other angels who shared his indignation, he tried to attack the others who wished to remain with God. But there was another angel named Michael from much lower down in the hierarchy, who rose up in righteous indignation against Lucifer’s pride. Asking “Who is like God?” Michael drove Lucifer out of Heaven.

Unable to corrupt or harm the other angels, Lucifer and his angels turned their sights instead upon ‘earth:’ the physical creation, introducing corruption, death, and decay into the world and, once man came on the scene, inducing him to fall as they had fallen (but all that will have to wait until next week).

The above is a crude, symbolic outline of an event that is simply beyond our knowledge or comprehension. Don’t worry about taking it too literally. The important thing to take away is that Lucifer’s fall happened because he preferred himself, or his own vision of reality, to God. In so doing, he was embracing a false vision of reality; one in which he was the center of the universe. And if he couldn’t have that, he’d rather have nothing.  

So, what happens then? What does the image of being ‘driven out of heaven’ mean? Well, the way I like to think of it is that a fallen angel (or demon) is like a black hole. A black hole is a star that has collapsed upon itself and grows progressively smaller and smaller by the force of its own gravity. It’s black because its gravity is so strong that light can’t escape its pull.

Wisconsin farmer Harold Swanson took this photo of an actual demon. Anyone with information about the current whereabouts of Mr. Swanson is encouraged to call...
A demon is a ‘collapsed’ angel; it’s an angel that is so wrapped up in itself that it actually ‘shrinks;’ becomes progressively smaller, less Real for all eternity. Like a dead star it compacts upon itself. It never ceases to be (since God never ‘unmakes’ the things He has made), it just progressively ‘decays;’ a little like how even if you divide by two an infinite number of times, you will never reach zero. You can only reach zero by removing exactly as much as was put in, and God is the only one who can do that.

And it is this state of ‘progressive unreality’ that is what we mean by “Hell.” Some people try to rather sneeringly claim that God made Hell, but Hell is not a thing or a place that needed someone to make it. Hell is a state of mind; a state of being so wrapped up in yourself that you basically fade into near-nothingness. The Devil wasn’t thrown out of Heaven; he fell out because Heaven could no longer hold something so insubstantial.

But there is one point I need to make before we move on; a black hole may be smaller than the star it once was and may create darkness rather than light, but the interesting thing is that it has just as much mass and, consequently, just as much gravity as it ever had. Even so, a collapsed angel is just as powerful and as intelligent as it ever was. The devil may be an infinitely ‘small’ creature now, but he’s still unfathomably dangerous.

Another point is this; the devil’s fall didn’t just affect him, it also affected all of creation. Somehow the fact that the angels turned away from God caused a change in the world. Death, decay, and disease, the progressive dissolution of all that is, became a fact of life. The angels, therefore, are intimately connected with the world as we know it.

So, that’s a broad view of what evil is. Now the bit question; why does evil exist? Why does an all-powerful, all-good God permit evil to exist?

The first thing to remember is that God does not see things the way we do. For instance, we generally consider death to be the worst thing that can happen to us. When someone dies, particularly if they die young, we see it as a great disaster. For God, however, death is not the worst thing; sin is the worst thing. Death can bring us to Him; sin separates us from Him. Hence, when someone dies in the State of Grace (in communion with God) He sees that as a good thing because it means that that person has been saved and will be with Him for eternity. We see it as a bad thing because we miss that person and don’t know whether we’ll see them again.

This is not to say that death itself is good, or that life on Earth is bad, or that we shouldn’t mourn the passing of loved ones. It’s merely to remind us that sometimes we are wrong to call a certain event evil in the sense that God could not have willed it.

But that only delays the issue; what about genuine evil? What about the evil committed by men, or demons, or seemingly by God Himself? Why does He permit genocide, or war, or the abuse of children? Why does He send hurricanes, earthquakes, and other disasters?

I must warn you, there are no easy answers to this. Nothing that I am going to say here will make you say “oh, well that explains it! I’m not bothered by X event anymore.” The ideas I am going to present may be philosophically and theologically sound, and they may even be comforting (I tend to find them so), but they are not a ‘cure all’ for grief or anger or anything like that. In short; there’s an answer, but you’re probably not going to like it.

There are, as far as I can tell, three reasons why God permits evil: in order to give us Free Will, in order to chastise us, and in order to bring about something better.

Whenever someone asks the question “how could God allow this to happen?” I always want to answer “Well, what would you expect Him to do about it?” If a man decides to murder his wife, do you expect God to turn the knife into rubber, or make the gun misfire, or cause the poison to fail? Do you expect Him to stop the man’s brain from forming the plan, or conceiving the desire to carry it out? And if so, what would that make of the world? If every time someone tried to do something wrong the world altered itself to prevent him, that would be a pretty chaotic world, wouldn’t it? And why stop there? Wouldn’t it be neater if God simply prevented the synapses of the brain from forming in such a way as to conceive of evil thoughts?

You see, if God stepped in to stop us from ever doing anything wrong, we would cease to be free. God permits us to do evil because He is willing to risk sin in order to grant us freedom. God always knew that, given the choice, some would prefer their own will over His. He thought that the chance for the rest to freely choose to love Him was worth it. God creates us to love, and love can only exist in freedom. If He didn’t make us free, He wouldn’t have bothered to make us at all. And since He made us free, we can freely choose to reject Him.

The other question people typically ask in the face of a disaster is “why? Why did this happen?” Typically, there is no clear answer to that, but even on the rare occasions that there is, typically we don’t actually want to know it. Think about: what’s your response whenever you’re being punished for something? Isn’t it usually to protest that the whatever it was wasn’t that big a deal anyway, or it “wasn’t what you think,” or that you’re sorry enough as it is? Have you ever once greeted an explanation for your punishment with “Oh, I see. Yes that’s quite reasonable and just; carry on”?  If you have, I’m impressed.

God punishes us for the same reason parents punish their children: to draw attention to an unacceptable situation. It’s a cliché to say that the ‘God of the Old Testament’ (as if there were two Gods for the two parts of the Bible) doesn’t sound like a very loving God. I wouldn’t vouch for everything in the Old Testament, but the idea that a loving God would never send the punishing plagues or earthquakes or exiles to his people simply doesn’t square with what we know of love. Fathers may punish their children. Mothers may order their sons to go cut them a switch. Coaches make their players run laps. Drill Sergeants ‘smoke’ their worthless maggots cadets. Punishment is hardly contrary to love, and punishment of a whole nation must necessarily involve disaster.

Now, what I want to emphasize about God’s chastisements is that He does them to make us see that something is not right. He  “whispers in our pleasures, but yells in our pains” (as Lewis puts it). God let’s evil happen to us because we can’t really ignore evil. We can ignore good; we can pass by a beautiful garden with our nose buried in our iPhone. But if one of the plants suddenly started sending feelers in your direction and singing “Feed Me” in the voice of the late Levi Stubbs, you’d forget about your iPhone pretty quickly and start taking notice of your surroundings. Evil gets our attention in ways that most other things do not. So, when God wants to wake us up and snap us out of our atrophy, he lets something bad happen.

"Change your ways, Seymour!"
In C.S. Lewis’s delightful Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape complains about how whenever the forces of Hell manage to make the majority of men despise virtues like courage and self-sacrifice, God sends a war or an Earthquake, ruining all their work. Once you actually see extreme virtues like that on full display, as happens in almost every disaster, they become so obviously good and admirable that all the selfish, materialist lies of the Devil are blown away. In the same way, God sometimes allows us to hit absolute rock bottom before He brings us out of it. That way the illusion of self-sufficiency is destroyed, and we can fully understand just how absolutely we need Him. That’s why it’s fairly common for people to have conversions in jails, or half-way-houses, or warzones. Faced with the full brunt of their own helplessness, it’s only natural for men to turn to God.

The final point is related to the above, but is the hardest to understand. That’s because the first two reasons are familiar to us; we do them ourselves sometimes. We allow someone to rant about “the Jews” because we think a few assholes are worth Freedom of Speech. We punish those we are responsible for in order to help them grow. But this last point is something we can’t and shouldn’t do.

The final reason God allows evil to exist is so that He can bring good out of it. Think back to what I was saying about the Devil’s fall: he didn’t want to have to be counted as less than a mere woman. But his fall is precisely what led to Mary’s position as the Immaculate Mother of God. Now, I wouldn’t want to speculate what might have happened if the Devil had never fallen, but the point is that because he rejected God, he helped bring about the very scenario he found so repulsive. It’s the classic prophecy storyline: in attempting to prevent a dire prediction from coming true, our protagonist has inadvertently brought it about.

God integrates evil into His plan so perfectly that we cannot conceive of the world without it. The devil introduces death and decay; God uses it to bring about his creatures through evolution. Pharaoh hardens his heart against the Israelites; God uses him to show His saving Power. Christ is killed; God opens the gates of Heaven.

Does this seem impossible or contradictory? It shouldn’t. Imagine playing chess against a master. No matter what you did, no matter what move you make, he could integrate it into his strategy. He doesn’t make the moves for you, or tell you what to do, but everything you do unwittingly serves his purpose, and in the end the only one all your bluster and attempted cunning will hurt is yourself.

"Oh, come on! How about best 51 out of a 100?"

Likewise, from God’s perspective no one can do true, lasting harm to anyone else. They can hurt, kill, and take, but unless the other person rejects God it’s all temporary. The only person truly harmed by sin is the sinner. That’s why Jesus reserved some of His harshest condemnations for those who tempt others to sin (Luke 17: 1-3), and that’s why God permits men to sin; in the end, they’re only hurting themselves, and He will use them to bring others to Him. 

                 This faculty of God to bring good out of evil is necessary, because God would not be God if anyone could thwart His Will. Not that He wills men into Hell, but the fact that some choose Hell does not subvert Him (since He wills that men have the free choice to reject Him). He will use them, even in Hell, to bring others to Heaven. 

                  Before I end, I should say a little more about Hell, since that’s one of the doctrines that tends to scare people away from Christianity: “I don’t like the idea of a God who would send people to Hell!” (they never seem to ask whether “I don’t like” is in anyway shape or form related to “it is philosophically unsound”). 

                  The truth is that God doesn’t send people to Hell; people choose to go. “The gates of Hell are locked from the inside.” It’s what I was talking about earlier: Hell is filled with people who would rather have their own vision of Reality than Gods, and who are perfectly willing to suffer in Hell for all eternity rather than not get their own way. A Saint is someone who prefers God to everything; a damned soul is one who prefers nothing to God.

                  Remember, damned souls become more ‘unreal’ for all eternity. In fact, to enter Hell you have to be pretty unreal to begin with. In The Great Divorce, Lewis described Hell as being infinitesimally small compared to Heaven; so much so that the Saints are literally unable to fit inside.

This is due to the nature of sin. In the act of committing evil, we are always accepting some ‘untruth;’ that we have the right to murder this person, for instance, or that sexual urges are uncontrollable anyway, or that all the world’s problems are the fault of (insert group here). In so doing, we invite a little ‘nothingness’ into ourselves; a little bit of unreality that unmakes a tiny part of us. And, of course, the more we ‘unmake,’ the easier it is to continue ‘unmaking’ and the closer we come to breaking down completely (going all the way back to the ‘rust’ analogy).

How many of you have seen Batman Beyond? Do you remember the episode “Sneak Peek,” the one with the tabloid reporter who could make himself intangible? As time went on and he used his power more and more often, the effect slowly became permanent. In the end, unable to touch or hold onto anything, he sank through the ground itself into the center of the Earth.

                 I think that’s a good metaphor for Hell: the more you embrace sin and make it a part of your life, the more unreal you become, until finally you’re lost forever. God tries to hold you, but there’s nothing there to hold; you simply slip through His hands into near-nothingness.

                 Next week: the Coming and Fall of Man.

Vive Christus Rex!

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