Tuesday, February 01, 2005

After blogging my thoughts on the problem of natural evil, I was rightly taken to task for dismissing any link between freewill and natural disasters. Firstly this was due to traditional Christian theology that dates nature's hostility to man from the Fall. But even if we do not exactly subscribe to such a doctrine, there are other links between the two subjects.

It is fairly clear that God grants the universe a great deal of freedom in the way it operates. The whole point of natural laws is that the universe can function without the need for God to step in and make adjustments the whole time to keep the show on the road. At the same time, those natural laws are not deterministic and so God has not set everything up in advance to come out a certain way. However, he does know the way it is going to turn out and so must think of the result as being good. Thus, I would say that the universe is allowed a 'radical integrity' and given the trouble this can cause we must assume that it is central to God's purposes.

So why did he not create a world where things are better than they are here? Why does he tolerate the inevitability of scarcity, evil and pain? Why not create a world where everyone has what they need and do not have a desire for more than that? I suggest that the reason for this is tied up with the idea of 'radical integrity' and God's obvious desire that we should be our own creatures and not simply automatons.

Imagine a perfect world. In that world, there are animals who never need worry about where the next meal is coming from, never need worry about finding a mate and never need worry about getting eaten. We can be absolutely sure that these animals will never evolve into conscious beings because there is simply no need to. They won't be happy because the concept of happiness can never occur to them. Evil doesn't exist but neither does the concept of good. They simply do not have the ability to comprehend either concept. What about love? I can't see how that can have appeared either because love almost always involves some sort of self-privation which is impossible in a world without scarcity. Of course, God can step in and create the difficult conditions in which these ideas can develop, but that makes him even more responsible for evil than he is already. If you want a universe that enjoys radical integrity and you want love and good to develop, you have to ensure that the conditions exist for them to appear. Without scarcity, they won't. The flip side is that scarcity gives rise to other consequences. The human desire for status is a direct evolutionary result of the fact that there is not enough to go around.

In our universe, love and good have developed to a quite remarkable extent. This has happened because natural evil exists. This natural evil has also given rise to much moral evil because pride, violence and promiscuity have all evolved because of it. But without it, we would not be conscious of good either or, if we were, we would not be free as the concept of good would simply have been planted in our heads by God rather than being something we discover for ourselves. Thus beings who know love and good through their own efforts can only evolve in a world of privation. Otherwise, everything we value, including freewill and consciousness, simply won't exist.


Anonymous said...

Imagine a world where the lion lies down with the lamb....

What a horrible, literally God-forsaken , place that would be.

Anonymous said...

The idea that man must evolve to conquer evil, or be conquered by evil sounds quite Nietschzian.

jon said...

For what it's worth, here's a transcript of a
sermon I heard relating to the Tsunami.

Jesus made no secret of his view, when he explicitly
contradicted people who thought that those who were killed in a
disaster were being punished by God - read Luke 13:1-5 if you don't believe me.
But I want to take you further than that, because many people talk as if God actually causes earthquakes, floods and the like, and then ask why.
It's important to recognise that although God is the Creator of all
things, he does not move things around on the earth as if he were a
cosmic thug playing games with us. "Ooh lets give them a storm… oh
it's about time someone had an earthquake… mm maybe I'll give those people some sunshine.. etc etc."
The world God has created is a freely running system in which he has delegated to us significant responsibilities
(Genesis 1:28). We know now that we can affect the weather (global
warming?) and that our relationship with our planet is more than we
imagine. God has put things in our hands and does not intervene except through us
Now I hope you're already trying to challenge me on this statement.
Your first challenge should be from the Old Testament where God does cause an earthquake which swallows up some bad people. The answer to this is that although the Old Testament is an important background to the New, and many important Christian teachings begin there and are developed in the New, where the New specifically contradicts the Old, then we must approach it differently. The Old is a record of a people struggling towards an understanding of the one invisible God only fully revealed in Jesus, and so it sometimes expresses itself in a pre-Christian way. So we cannot quote it as Gospel.
The second challenge you should give me is that often we appear to pray as if God did intervene in the natural world. "Thankyou God for good weather etc" There are two things that need to be said here.
One is that our prayers and speech sometimes reflect our own pre-Christian pagan past. In England you will hear people say "The Sun shines on the righteous" as if it's Gospel truth, when actually it's a flat contradiction of what Jesus says in Matt 5:45. The other is that prayer is often shorthand for what we really should mean. So thanking God for the sunshine is not about God sometimes making it sunny and sometimes making it rain, but a more general thanksgiving that there are such things. And asking God to prevent earthquakes is really sharing with God our terror and our longing for a world in which such pain no longer exist.
This takes us neatly onto a very important point about the world. God has given us a world in which if you fall over a cliff, it hurts. If you put your hand in a fire you soon pull it out again. This is the way the world works and how we learn to live and survive in it. To say that pain is wrong is nonsense. Pain is just part of what the world is like.
We might like to dream of a world where things never hurt, but it would be a very drab world, for without pain there is no need to care for one another. We wouldn't have needed a mother to cuddle us when we fell over as children, nor would we need friends to comfort us now, if nothing hurt.
Your final challenge to me might be to turn to Jesus himself. He prayed for the storm to be still and it was. I think the answer to this must be back to the idea that we humans actually have more effect in our interaction with the natural world than we realise. St Paul certainly suggests that our problem as fallen human beings actually leads to the whole world struggling like a woman in labour (Romans 8:19-23) When we pray for anything, we are not meant to be treating God like that cosmic thug I mentioned earlier, who might change his mind. We are actually opening up ourselves and other humans to a bit more of God's love and peace. As we do this, amazing things can happen through us, and sometimes that might include the weather.
What then is our response to the terrifyingly powerful world of nature that we have just seen kill so many? Our readings today give us part of the answer. Recognising with humility that we are not in control of everything means we approach life differently. Weakness then becomes strength. Not thinking we can sort everything out, but in our weakness just doing what we can to care, to help, to sacrifice our over-comfortable lives so that others may live. Thus Jesus in the Gospel points to the greatest virtues - to be gentle, merciful - to hunger for what is right - to be peacemakers - to be pure.
Out of the horror, it has yet been wonderful to see that such a
disaster can bring many people nearer to these important truths.

boon said...

The most important thing to recognise about evil is that it goes to the very heart of choice and freedom. I am not saying that evil exists for us to overcome but that having the freedom of choice must necessarily mean having the freedom to choose between good and evil. It is possible to conceptualise a world without evil but such a world is necessarily less diverse and rich in choices than one with both good and evil. But that is not the whole story.

Evil exists within us. Not only that, evil can also happen without any human cause. This suggests that God is comfortable with the existence of evil. I think this is because, in God's perspective, evil is well within God's control. Even in the story of Job, where God gave Satan free rein to do what he will to Job, God was clearly in control. He established the limits of Satan's power and he has the power to undo the damage caused.

This can be demonstrated in life itself. What is exciting and challenging to the adult or the expert is dangerous to the child or the novice. Can we expect a dancer not to jump for fear she might injure herself? To stand up is to risk falling down. This is why we are protective with a child learning to walk but as adults, we not only walk, we run, climb, jump and dance. We do not see these latter activities as evil nor dangerous, but in the sense that they are dangerous to the child, they can also be seen as evil.

The same applies to the things that we find evil. To God, I believe that overcoming evil is just part of maturing to his level. Let me explain by speculating on a kind of hell that is not the kind of hell Christians commonly imagine. First imagine heaven as you would like it to be - perfect, no evil, you are yourself perfect and you are with God. Now consider an 'evil' person in this place - he is jealous of what others have, he still has lust in his heart, evil thoughts in his mind. Can he be happy, even in heaven? Will he not, instead, be in living hell? I am not saying that this is the real hell, but rather that it is not necessary for God to punish the evil person.

On the other hand, consider the good Christian. On earth, he is already comfortable with the evil in the world. He knows how he should conduct himself and he knows how to respond to those who suffer or who are evil. When he finally meets God, will he not be in heaven? Will it matter what heaven is like?

I think we need to see evil as simply part of the richness and diversity of the world that God created. Indeed, the more we try to eliminate evil from our lives, the less rich our lives will be. And the less wisdom we will have. Rather, we should recognise evil for what it is, that we can be in charge and not be controlled by it. When we realise this, we will also be able to appreciate the good qualities that exist in us because of this world of true freedom and choice - the ability to be humble because we too are sinners, to sympathise and respond to those who suffer, and to love (as James Hannam suggests).

When Jesus came to earth, he said he had good news, that his yoke is light, and that we will be saved. Although he cured the sick, healed the paralysed, and forgave the sinners, he never removed the possibility of sin or evil, nor said that this was a possibility. I think we should not tremble in the presence of evil but see it simply as part of the richer, more interesting world that God has created. Once we understand this, and our right relationship with it, then the argument about the existence of evil is, I think, moot. I think that recognising the presence of both evil and good in this world, and in ourselves, is the first step to true wisdom. This does not, of course, in any way suggests that we should accept evil. We need to learn how to deal with evil, how to respond with anger, sympathy and love. We then need to see that like learning to walk, we can overcome evil and if we do, the full richness of a life of choice is available to us.

Ixidor said...

Bede, it seems like you think that evil (natural evil in this case) is necesary in order to know about love, goodness, etc. However, such a view is challenged by the fact that there is, supousedly, already a being who knows about love and goodness without actually experimenting any suffering: God. How does God knows about love, kidness or happinnes??