Earlier this week I wrote about Dealing with Demons – a progressive take, and in it I mentioned that the Devil was a personification of when evil is too big and too bad for us to comprehend as a human result … we outsource to an ancient, cosmic bad guy. Many were able to track with the demon thing but some hit a snag with the Devil thing.
Then what is evil? Where does it come from? Is it real? Is it ontological?
Augustine had a theory called “privatio boni”. Back in my apologist-evangelist days I would explain it like this: Evil isn’t something, it is the absence of something. Like darkness is not a thing, it is simply the absence of a thing. Wherever you do not have the presence of light, you automatically have darkness – so where God’s will is not obeyed, you automatically have sin and evil.
Of course, the problem with this is that it predicated by God being “all powerful” or omnipotent. Augustine explains:
For the Almighty God, who, as even the heathen acknowledge, has supreme power over all things, being Himself supremely good, would never permit the existence of anything evil among His works, if He were not so omnipotent and good that He can bring good even out of evil. For what is that which we call evil but the absence of good? In the bodies of animals, disease and wounds mean nothing but the absence of health; for when a cure is effected, that does not mean that the evils which were present—namely, the diseases and wounds—go away from the body and dwell elsewhere: they altogether cease to exist; for the wound or disease is not a substance, but a defect in the fleshly substance,—the flesh itself being a substance, and therefore something good, of which those evils—that is, privations of the good which we call health—are accidents. Just in the same way, what are called vices in the soul are nothing but privations of natural good. And when they are cured, they are not transferred elsewhere: when they cease to exist in the healthy soul, they cannot exist anywhere else.
An alternative to that comes from Process thought – which does not see God’s power as coercive (able to unilaterally act however God wills) but persuasive, engaging the possibilities of each moment, complete the contingencies of the past, to bring forward the possibility of a preferable future. John Cobb explains in Process Perspectives II that there are many factors that create the multi-layered web of evil. Human sin is just one element. He also names
- Chance and Purpose
- Survival instinct
- Communal Identity – and fear when it is threatened
- Deep held but mistaken beliefs
- Obedience of authority
among others, as potential ingredients in the creation of evil.
I want to make it clear that the systemic evil of degrading the Earth in our current situation is not primarily the result of individual sins of unnecessary wastefulness by those who know they are falling short of the ideal. The systemic evil results from our industrial-economic system. This system came into being out of a great mixture of motives. Some of them were narrowly selfish, and some of the decisions people made in the process were no doubt sinful. But not all. Some people rightly saw that the development of this system brought prosperity to nations and eventually to most of their people…
Since I believe that to some extent we all miss the mark or fail to fully actualize the initial aim, I do not exclude sin as a causal element in the establishment of this system. My point is only that to explain the rise to dominance of this system primarily in terms of sin is extremely misleading. The evil results from a mixture of good intentions, ignorance, and sin. It is also profoundly brought about by the power of the past in each moment of human experience. (p. 135)
A third option for thinking about this is a Relational Approach. I first encountered this through reading Native American approaches to theology with my mentor Randy Woodley (who’s new book Shalom and the Community of Creation just came out).
If you go back to the story of Eden and can resist the temptation to retroject a Greek understanding of ‘original sin’ and substance into the story, you will see that it is primarily about relationship. What happens in Eden is a fracturing and a resulting alienation in 3 directions:
- humans from God
- humans from each other
- and humans from the earth that sustains them.
As Genesis continues, the fractures stretch out and the impact of the alienation is greater and greater. Soon brother kills brother, generations are fractured … then tribes, peoples and societies.
I love this approach! Once you get away from the substance/material approach the whole Gospel reads differently! God’s relational covenant with Israel and the resulting Law, Christ’s relationship to the God and ushering in a new covenant which radically altered (and began to repaired) our relationship to God – to each other – and to the earth which sustains us (where do you think bread and wine come from?)
The gift of Holy Spirit re-connects us in an inter-related family of God. The perichoretic reality of the Trinity is about the relatedness of the Godhead and not primarily about matters of substance and matter (ousia). Evil in this picture, is that which results from brokeness and fracturing, which leads to alienation, and is then complixified through exponential increase of family systems, tribalism, social structures, societal realities and institutional frameworks … it becomes so big and so bad that it is nearly unimaginable to our mind. At this point we are tempted to outsource the badness to an ‘entity’ which is the personification of evil.
So those are three really good ways of beginning to address the problem of evil. They all have strengths and weakness – but in the end, they are better than saying ‘the Devil made me do it’.
I will end by quoting Cobb again:
The ways in which even what is good in human nature and society can and does become destructive are so numerous and so effective that the mystery is how good sometimes triumphs over it. This is where I see the need to emphasize God’s directing and empowering call to novel forms of goodness.
John B. Cobb Jr.. The Process Perspective II (p. 137). Kindle Edition which sells for $7.63
originally posted at HBC with an amazing follow-up conversation