I’ve found that one of the more interesting theological claims made by historical Christianity is in relation to the so-called problem of evil. Traditionally speaking, evil is not a significant problem in classical Christian thought because evil does not exist. In short, as I am sure you are well aware, the claim is that evil is not substantive–it is not material. Evil is a privation, a lack of the good (privatio boni). It is not tangible. It is, as Augustine suggested, akin to something like blindness. Blindness does not exist per se, rather it is the lack of a natural/created good: sight. Blindness is not material–it does not exist. It is parasitical upon the good and points to that which should exist.
So it is with something called ‘evil’. To paraphrase Athanasius, ‘Good is; evil is not.’ Of course, this does not keep the world from majorly sucking at times (or my blind husky from running into walls), but it does change the nature of theodicy-based conversations (and how such conversations can function).
It seems that most folk who reject the theory of privatio boni do so because they are bothered by the idea that someone would suggest that evil doesn’t exist. I, on the other hand, would think one would be more offended by the alternative–evil is a creation of God (and that is the alternative, if you come at me with that process poop, I’ll lob flaming pineapples at your face). Of course, the notion that God is the creator of evil is part of what the church was trying to avoid. And they had quickly figured out, at least by the time of Augustine, that the now oft-repeated response of free will does nothing to alter the reality of evil’s existence or non-existence; the response of free will only makes it more problematic. It assumes that humans, in their purely created state of goodness could choose the non-good–that the latter was somehow a choice, and that it existed outside of a good creation and could be chosen by that which had yet to fall. It is, as John Milbank suggests, an impossibility–a fiction.
That being said, and what may seem to be a totally different topic, a few people have pointed out to me the church marquee below. I know, it does seem to be a completely off topic, but hang with me a second.
For some admittedly strange reason, this marquee reminds me of Jean Luc Marion’s quote, “The non-existence of the devil is the devil.” (I know, huge leap, right? That’s how I roll. On another note, wouldn’t you love to see Marion’s words of wisdom on a church sign? I’d go to that church. I probably wouldn’t become a member, but I’d hangout on occasion.) Marion’s claim highlights the notion of the impossibility of the material existence of evil. Nothing, no-thing, can cause evil, and because evil is uncaused, there is, as Milbank argues, “a sense it which it possesses us like an anti-cause proceeding from a Satanic black hole.” In this sense, I think Milton got it right. His vision of hell is a metaphor for the absolute non-being of evil. Hell is where one chooses nonexistence (if such a no-thing can be chosen); it is the choice of nothingness. As Milton’s Satan claims, “Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell.”
Of course, free thinkers should not revel too much in this claim about the non-existence of some ontological personality known as Satan, for they don’t exist either. After all, what is a free thinker? Did that appellation arise in a vacuum? Of course not. It’s a designation that can only occur in a particular time and space where people think they can somehow escape the parameters of language. I mean, what are free thinkers free from? They are certainly not free from a cultural epoch that convinces its ideologues that free thinking is a possibility. The claim is that their manner of thinking stems from the kind of reason (with a capital ‘r’?) that is somehow free from authority and bias.
You know . . . the kind of ‘reason’ that does not exist.
I’m guessing it also indicates that they are somehow “free” from the “tyranny” of religious indoctrination (um, good luck with that), yet what about the tyranny that stems from a historical tradition that teaches a person they can be a free thinker although it is clear that such thinking is not free as it is rooted in an imposing tradition? Free thinkers like to think they can teach other free thinkers that they can think free from anything that would condition their thinking–which does not seem terribly free to me. It’s the old Kantian adage repeated in the horribly trite film, Dead Poets Society. You know the lovely moment . . . it’s where Professor John Keating tells his students, “In my class, you will learn to think for yourself!”
That’s genius. Think about that for a moment.
“In my class, you will learn to think for yourself.” (I wonder if that was stolen from Ayn Rand or Immanuel Kant? Let’s pretend it was hijacked from both and start all over.)
Rand/Kant Chimeric Hybrid: (in a booming, omniscient and terrifying voice) IN MY CLASS, YOU WILL LEARN TO THINK FOR YOURSELF.
Non-free thinking student: (rather sheepishly) How will I learn to think for myself?
Rand/Kant Chimeric Hybrid: WHY . . . I WILL TEACH YOU, OF COURSE. I WILL WRITE COUNTLESS BOOKS ESPOUSING THE RHETORIC OF THINKING FOR ONE’S SELF. I WILL CALL EVERYONE WHO DOES NOT THINK FOR THEMSELVES, THAT IS, THOSE WHO DO NOT THINK LIKE ME, IGNORANT AND STUPID. NOW, JUST LISTEN TO WHAT I HAVE TO SAY, AND THEN SAY WHAT I SAY, AND YOU, TOO, WILL KNOW HOW TO THINK FOR YOURSELVES. (Psst. Click the link!) YOU WILL BE A FREE THINKER. YOU WILL THINK USING ONLY THE TOOLS OF LOGIC, SCIENCE, AND REASON. YOU WILL BE FREED FROM THE TYRANNY OF AUTHORITY AND NON-OBJECTIVE BIAS.
Non-Free Thinking Student on Their Way to Becoming a Free Thinking Student: Hooray! I can’t wait for you to teach me how to think just like you!
Non-Free Thinking Student Who Is Unconvinced of the Possibility of Being a Free Thinking Student: Um, I’m not too sure of this guys . . . it sounds like we are just trading one set of masters for another set of–
Rand/Kant Chimeric Hybrid/Non-Free Thinking Student on Their Way to Becoming a Free Thinking Student: SILENCE! DID WE TELL YOU THAT YOU COULD THINK LIKE THAT? YOU ARE THINKING LIKE OTHER PEOPLE AND NOT LIKE US. QUICKLY, MAKE FUN OF HIM SO HE WILL UNDERSTAND THE SUPERIORITY OF OUR POSITION.
Silly Randian Kants (that sounds funny). You’re every bit as much owned by a particular cultural milieu as, say, the Amish are owned by their anti-zipper commitment. The only difference between the Amish and so-called free thinkers is that the Amish realize they are conforming to a specific culture/tradition. And I can’t help but imagine that my weirdo cousins probably find that to be a bit liberating. Maybe even funny.
Does this mean I am in agreement with the church marquee above? Nah. It’s a non-possibility. For in terms of ontology, free thinkers and Satan have one thing in common: neither exist (but, yet, both are a major pain in the arse).
[Post Script: I was thinking about how to make the above marquee work . . . maybe, if they replaced ‘Free Thinkers” with their close friends the Unitarians, the message on the marquee would be far more cogent. Interestingly enough, given the UU’s doctrinally non-doctrine anti-creedal creed, they may even agree. But this may all be beside the point–and was only made for my new friend, James, over at Monkey Mind. I like that guy. I hope he still likes me.]
About the Author
Tripp York teaches religious studies at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk, Virginia. He is the author of more than half a dozen books including, Third Way Allegiance, The Purple Crown, and Living on Hope While Living in Babylon. He is the co-editor of the forthcoming three-volume collection called the Peaceable Kingdom Series. An actor and a lighting designer, Tripp also surfs and spends his weekends shoveling elephant and giraffe poop.