Odilon Redon, "It is the Devil..." lithograph, 1888
Evil is one of those things that is impossible to explain, and yet we all know it when it comes up and bites a pound of flesh out of us.
Regular readers of this blog know that I describe myself as an agnostic believer. I believe less because I'm convinced and more because I want to. Like all good moderns, I am very uncomfortable with the supernatural. Like all good agnostics, I don't take a firm position one way or the other as to whether the supernatural exists. I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.
I've never been comfortable with the idea of evil as something spiritual, as something metaphysical. I'm sympathetic to the old 19th century liberal theologians who wanted to "domesticate" the supernatural and who confined evil to the realm of the material and the human. And yet, I recognize the limitations of this argument, the implicit folly that evil can somehow be eradicated through improved education and better hygiene.
I draw a clear distinction between what is evil and what is sin. Sin is the inevitable shortcomings and foibles of being mortal. No one is perfect, and certainly no one is perfectly good. By the same token, I don't believe that anyone is perfectly evil either (though some have come very close). Everyone of us at some point in our lives ends up hurting those around us, usually many times. But few of us set out to deliberately prey upon our neighbors, and even fewer of us make a career out of it. The truly evil, like the truly good, are always small in number, but always enough to do great harm and cause much sorrow.
I'm reluctant to ascribe evil to nature. Nature is indifferent to us. It isn't malicious. Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, crocodiles, disease, etc. are impersonal natural phenomena. They kill us because we are in their way or because we are food, not because they hate us.
I don't believe in karma. What goes around does not always come around. I don't believe people are necessarily responsible for the misfortunes that befall them, in this life or in a previous life. Shit happens, and it doesn't mean a damn thing except that we are mortal.
I don't believe in Original Sin. I don't believe in some taint that we all inherit at our birth that makes us God's enemies. I suppose my position is closer to Eastern Orthodox teaching that the consequence of the Fall was death, not some spiritual congenital defect. We inherited the consequences of the Fall, not its guilt. (*Please note, I do not believe in the Adam and Eve story as literal history).
Most of all, I am not a Manichean. I don't believe that the struggle between good and evil is an even match and that the outcome is in any doubt. I grew up in a fundamentalist region that definitely was Manichean, and where the outcome was always in doubt. Folks I grew up with took the Hollywood depictions of demonic possession and the devil very seriously. Their world swarmed with demons and malevolent spirits. They saw the world as a great battleground between the forces of God and the Devil's legions, and victory was never assured.
Like St. Augustine, I'm reluctant to give evil any positive definition.
So what do you think?
Is there a metaphysical dimension to evil? Is evil a spiritual power?