Sunday, August 26, 2012


"No one believes that they are evil." -- Terry Anderson (former hostage)

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?


Tristan Alexander said...

For me Evil is real, it is spelled Republican! (didn't used to be, but is now).

it's margaret said...

As to original sin.... It's not that we are born wicked or tainted --it's that some how a big plate of soft poo got held up in front of the fan, and spread it all over the room --the room we are all born in to.... so we are not born all messy, we are born in to the mess... it is our common origin.

As to evil... wickedness is all around us --as is sin. But I think I have seen evil only once. I was at a panel discussion about the death penalty in the fine State of Delaware in the early 90s. After the Episcopal priest spoke against the death penalty, and was booed continuously throughout his talk, the then State AG spoke for the death penalty amid much applause. I gave a strong boo --and, I swear, he leaned forward and started to sweep his gaze over the crowd --it was like the eye of Sarum --it was like a red search beam came out of his eyes looking for me. Absolutely terrifying. He never did lock his eyes on me. I think if he had, I would have been a marked woman for sure.

patrick said...

I like your blog , I hope my english is good enough to express myself . For me ,there is nothing metaphysical about Evil : what is good and what is bad has changed so muchover the centuries and places so what could be the nature of it ? I agree with Arendt when she says that
it is so terribly difficult to think about it, since thinking, by definition, wants to reach the roots. It has no roots.Evil is a surface phenomenon, and instead of being radical, it is merely extreme. We resist Evil by not being swept away by the surface of things, by stopping ourselves and beginning to THINK .

JCF said...

Too late for a deep conversation, but just wanted to give a shout-out to Margaret, re your story: can SO relate!

Few things so rile people up as to suggest 1) killing people is ALWAYS wrong (even if you dress it up as "capital punishment") and 2) there's no hell afterwards for those you execute (or wish you had, "limb from limb"!). {*} Total Eye of Sauron stuff: they're under the sway of Evil...

...but then again that's probably due to stuff in their childhoods. And then I just feel pity again.

{*} And, of course, 3) a man having sex w/ another man [followed by 4) the suggestion that a woman may care to NEVER have sex w/ a man]. Can't forget those for making people go apoplective w/ raging Evil!

Unknown said...

Evil is real - today it's in any form that gives a person r persons the feeling that because of who they are, or what they believe they can abuse another in word or deed. I honestly never believed I would see it again so rampant after the 60s and the Civil Rights movement, but it has snuck back and this time it is mostly under the guise of religious beliefs...sadly.