Understanding the Source of Evil by John S. Spong Part VI “Think Different – Accept Uncertainty”

“Think Different – Accept Uncertainty” Part VI: Understanding the Source of Evil

Bad theology is inevitable when it is based on bad anthropology!  That is, the way we understand human life always determines the way we understand God. This becomes very clear when religious people begin to grapple with and to try to explain the source of evil.

One does not have to argue today about the reality of human evil.  Stories documenting that reality find daily expression on the front pages of our newspapers and are the lead stories on all news telecasts. Though an evil presence is all but universally acknowledged, defining what constitutes evil can, however, still vary widely and explaining the source out of which evil flows has been a major debate throughout the ages. The source of evil has been portrayed in a variety of mythological ways.  All people, however, seem to know intuitively that there is something deep in our lives, out of which hostile, spiteful, defensive and sometimes killing impulses flow.  The depth of this reality oft times surprises us.  It is as if it overwhelms our cultivated self image. Many of us are hesitant to own evil as something that is part of ourselves.

St. Paul, for example, saw evil as an external force that somehow held him in its grip. He explained its presence by saying, “It was sin, working death in me through what is good.” (Rom. 7:13).  Later, but in a similar vein, he explained that when he knows what is evil and still chooses to do it: “It is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me” (Rom. 7:17).

In Persia, where the Jews first ran into a radical dualism that divided the whole of reality into two realms, one good, one evil, another definition was operating.  Creation was a mixture of two competing and eternal powers, not just the beginning of God’s good world, as the biblical story of the Hebrews had maintained.  Life was a mixture of good and evil, light and darkness,  spirit and flesh and heaven and earth.  This dualistic idea found a major place in the writings of Plato, who describes human beings after the analogy of a charioteer being drawn by a pair of horses, one representing the higher aspiration of the soul and the other representing the lower yearnings of the flesh.  The task of the charioteer was to steer these competing forces so that the higher nature always led the lower.

Deep down in this theological divide that separated dualism from the biblical witness was their mutually exclusive images of God. For the dualists good and evil were equal divine forces contending for dominance. This counter force might be called the devil, Satan or evil, but it was portrayed as possessing a status equal to and independent of God.  For the Jews, to whom God was both ultimate and one, evil was not an independent power, but a corruption of the original goodness of God’s creation. This Jewish conviction was expressed in the Shema, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one,” and it was grounded in the Commandments where it was written, “I am the Lord your God…You shall have no other Gods before me.”  This meant that for the Jews evil had to be understood as a corruption of that which is good.  So, in the Jewish tradition, Satan was not an independent creature, but a fallen angel cast out of heaven by God for leading a revolution against God and human life was not evil in its origins, but became evil through an act of disobedience that corrupted the goodness of God’s creation forever.

Although these ideas were present in the mythology of the Jewish stories of their origins, they did not get developed in a systematic way until the fourth century of the Common Era and then by the hand of the most significant Christian theologian in the first twelve hundred years of Christian history.  His name was Augustine.  He was the bishop of a North African town known as Hippo. Today he is canonized, both in fact and tradition, and is widely referred to as simply St. Augustine.

Augustine had an interesting personal history before he was converted to Christianity. Much of that history he has chronicled in a book called “The Confessions.”  He was captured, he  says, by “the lure of the flesh.”  He had many lovers and lived with one of them long enough to father a son by her.  He identified himself as a Manichean, which meant that he was a follower of Mani, a Middle Eastern dualist.  Finally, however, inspired by the witness of his Christian mother, whose name was Monica, and under the influence of a Christian leader named Ambrose, he became a Christian and put his enormous intellectual gifts into the service of his newly-adopted faith.  He assumed that it was his task as a Christian theologian to explain all mysteries.  One of those mysteries to be explained was the source of evil in a world that Christians believed was created by a good God.  To accomplish this task, he went to the scriptures of the Judeo-Christian tradition, which he believed, as the Christians of that day did, that these words were the “Word of God” and, therefore, that they held the key to the understanding of all things.  Augustine knew nothing of the source or background of these scriptures, but assumed it was his job to mine them to discover ultimate truths.

In that sacred text Augustine found two quite different stories of creation side by side in the book of Genesis.  They were actually written in two different eras about 500 years apart and under very different circumstances.  He blended them, however, and used them as his starting place in the definition of evil.  From the first story (Gen. 1:1-2:4a), he took the idea of the perfection of creation.  This was the “seven day” story, which suggests that God, the source of all that is good, created out of nothing the earth, the sun, the moon and all forms of living things from plants, fish and birds to the “beasts of the field” and “every creeping thing that creeps upon the face of the earth.”  Then late on the sixth day, to complete the act of creation, perhaps as its crown and jewel, God made human life.

God made this human life both male and female, presumably as equal expressions of the divine image.  To this newly minted couple God gave stewardship over all things and commanded them to be faithful and to multiply.  This story ends with God pronouncing everything that God had made to be good.  There was no dualism here between good and evil.  All was good, all flesh, all desires, all creatures.  Because creation was now complete it was assumed to be perfect.  Nothing can be perfect if it is incomplete or still evolving.  Completeness was established in this narrative when it announced that on the seventh day of that first week, God rested from all the divine labors and thus established the Sabbath day of each week thereafter to be a day of rest for all creation.

This familiar narrative was a product of the period in Jewish history known as the Babylonian captivity, which would date it in the late 6th century BCE. It was written to accomplish two things.  First, the writer, who was a member of a group we now refer to as “the priestly writers,” wanted to have a Jewish story of creation that could be placed as a contrast alongside the Babylonian story of creation.  Second, this writer wanted to establish the peculiar Jewish Sabbath day custom as a defining mark of all Jewish people and to cause that practice to distinguish the Jews from all other people.

The Jews must become, this author believed, people who refuse to work on the seventh day of the week and, in the separateness of that existence, keep themselves from losing their identity by intermingling and ultimately intermarrying with members of other ethnic groups.  Only in a strictly observed separation could the continuity of the Jewish people be guaranteed and only in separation could they fulfill what was, they believed, their God-given vocation, namely to be the people through whom all the nations of the world will be blessed.  That was their calling, their messianic role and their divine, historical destiny.  This hymn of creation was designed to affirm the oneness of God, the goodness of creation and to justify the stance of separation in which their hope of survival as a people rested.

When this group of “priestly writers” later compiled the sacred scriptures of the Jews, an action that also took place in and following the Exile in the late sixth and early fifth centuries BCE, they placed this story of the earth’s beginnings as the first chapter of the first book of their sacred story, the first chapter of what they would later call “The Torah.”  This meant that it had to push a much earlier story of creation into a secondary position.

That displaced story of creation, which was written some 400 to 500 years earlier, was much more primitive and reflected its more ancient origins.  It was quite different and even quite contradictory when compared with the newcomer that now preceded it.  In the first story, the creation of living things came in an orderly manner from plants to animals to human life.  In the second story, the man was created first out of the dust of the earth and even after God had created a beautiful garden in which the man could live.  Then came the creation of all the animals, which were designed to give the man companionship, and finally, when none of the animals seemed capable of meeting the man’s needs for companionship, God created the woman.  The woman in this story was thus not coequal as in the earlier story.  She was quite secondary, made out of the rib of the man.  She was created to be the male helpmeet and support person.  The man had the power to name her as he had named all the other animals, which meant that he had the power to control her.  The names of this man and woman were Adam and Eve.  The garden in which they lived was called the Garden of Eden.  In both stories the perfection of creation was asserted, but how evil entered this paradise was yet to be told.  The Jews would come down on the side of evil being the corruption of that which was good.  St. Augustine would put these two stories together and make them the basis of his explanation of evil and just why it was that all human beings were corrupted, why they died and why they needed to be rescued and saved by an intervening deity.  I will turn to that story next week.

~John Shelby Spong

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