Monday, July 17, 2006

Pondering the Powers

Thinking Anglicans linked an essay by Monsignor Roderick Strange:

...We recognise that human evil has many causes. Sometimes it may be caused by sickness, mental imbalance or delusion, and sometimes by conditioning, rejection and insecurity. The evil that is done may be carried out by individuals or by groups, by nations or an alliance of nations. We strive to understand in order to prevent such evil happening again. We say that to understand is to forgive, and that too is important. Without forgiveness, without reconciliation, while grudges are still being harboured, evil can grow again. What we call the Second World War is more commonly acknowledged today to be rather the second part of the war that began in 1914.

Such reflection is invaluable, but we must beware of making a false turn. Just as our bewilderment in the face of natural disaster may mislead us into denying the existence of God, so our accounting for human evil may tame it. The mitigating factors may explain it by explaining it away. But we need to take evil seriously. Evil is not merely a name for bad human behaviour which, once explained, can be excused. There are devils to be exorcised.

Evil is more than something negative, the absence of the good. There is a phrase made trite by overuse. We talk of “Man’s inhumanity to Man”, and perhaps we speak more truly than we know. Confronted by grave evil, we are not denying our own responsibility, but acknowledging something which cannot be accounted for within the orbit of human behaviour alone, a dark force which exists on its own terms.

There is no need to lapse into dualism. Good and evil are not equal powers. God is supreme. But there is still another power to be reckoned with. We need only consult our own experience. When conscience brings us to the point of decision and we find we choose deliberately the darker way, what is influencing us? What malign spirit is supplying excuses and pampering our limitations?

When faced with evil beyond mere human fallibility, while we must acknowledge our own responsibility, we should recognise as well that there is more to such evil than human wrongdoing. And if at the root of evil there is a being, spiritual but fallen, committed to corruption, determined on our ruin, then we lower our guard at our peril.

We must take evil seriously and cast out its demons...
In our striving to "understand," we sometimes discount the urgency of the situation. We want to identify who is wearing the black hats, so we can don our own white one. My experience, and undoubedly yours, is that real life is rarely so black and white, and such dissection is often the equivilant of pretending that we are doing something about the crisis, to allieviate our own sense of urgency, while actually doing nothing, or, even more troubling, making the situation worse.

I agree that there is a need to respond quickly to evil. But my concern, especially in light of recent world events, is that in such quick responses, we grab the nearest set of assumptions available regarding the problem of evil. Consequently, I'm suggesting that it may be prudent to engage in alittle dissection after all, at least in regards to the underpinnings of our response to evil. Consider this my own justification for "doing nothing" if you will. And that may be exactly what it is. But, regardless, there's some things bouncing around in my head that I want to liberate by tossing them out.

Sometimes, it seems that we feel compelled to bring order out of chaos, which assumes that chaos is the natural state of things (an element in the still ongoing Locke/Hobbes debate). As Walter Wink, among others, has pointed out, such a view is not rooted in the story from scripture, but finds its origins in another myth, that has become deeply imbedded in our culture; the myth of redemptive violence:

...In this myth, creation is an act of violence. Marduk murders and dismembers Tiamat, and from her cadaver creates the world. As the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur observes, order is established by means of disorder. Chaos (symbolized by Tiamat) is prior to order (represented by Marduk, high god of Babylon). Evil precedes good. The gods themselves are violent.

The Biblical myth in Genesis 1 is diametrically opposed to all this. The Bible portrays a good God who creates a good creation. Chaos does not resist order. Good is prior to evil. Neither evil nor violence is a part of the creation, but enter later, as a result of the first couple's sin and the connivance of the serpent (Gen. 3). A basically good reality is thus corrupted by free decisions reached by creatures. In this far more complex and subtle explanation of the origins of things, violence emerges for the first time as a problem requiring a solution...
Although I find much of value in both the Monsignor's and Wink's thoughts, there's aspects in both that I find myself wondering about.

There is the notion of "casting out demons" (or the Powers, as Wink would speak of them) from the Monsignor, using the language of scripture (translated from the original, of course), that I find troubling. It is troubling on an experiential level, as the most horrendous acts being passed off as "Christian" that I have witnessed has been some of the so-called "deliverance ministries". Having seen the effect of telling a person struggling with schizophreniaa that they are "demon possessed" was one of the main reasons I distanced myself from the Pentecostal movement. But, beyond that, there is this notion that is implied that somehow evil, or the potential for evil (sin) can be surgically removed. Can it?

My experience is that trying to cut out sin, or cast out evil, can often result in it being repressed, but not transformed, and so becomes manifest in another way later on. What has been more helpful for me, as I have prviously mentioned, is to consider sin as "twisted good." The goal then becomes to untwist it, and return to its good root.

Wink suggest something similar in regards to evil. In Engaging the Powers, he explains it this way:

...Nothing is outside the redemptive care and transforming love of God. The Powers are not intrinsically evil; they are only fallen. What sinks can be made to rise again. We are freed, then, from the temptation to satanize the perpetrators of evil. We can love our nation or church or school, not blindly, but critically, recalling it to its own highest self-professed ideals and identities. We can challenge these institutions to live up to the vocation that is theirs by virtue of their sheer createdness. We can oppose their actions while honoring their necessity...
We can transform them, rather than imagine that we can destroy them. Note that this perspective, if taken to its logical conclusion, would suggest that Satan is not beyond the power of being transformed by God's redemptive love. There's a challenging thought!

I would be remiss if I didn't take issue with something Wink has said, however. In the excerpt above regarding redemptive love, he repeats a popular perspective:

...Good is prior to evil. Neither evil nor violence is a part of the creation, but enter later, as a result of the first couple's sin and the connivance of the serpent...
Wink has presented us with Augustine's solution to the problem of evil; a solution that I find quite problematic, as have many others. If evil was not created, then how did it come into being? Is there another creative force? If so, would not that force be considered to be equal to the God of Abraham and Sarah? From there we fall into dualism; the notion that there are two forces engaged in a bout of cosmic fisticuffs, and that there is some danger that the God of our fathers and mothers might lose the match.

As an alternative to Augustine's definition of "the fall" as humanity created perfect, and then fell, Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons in the 2nd century, offers another perspective:

...Here, some may raise an objection. "Could not God have made humanity perfect from the beginning?" Yet one must know that all things are possible for God, who is always the same and uncreated. But created things, and all who have their beginning of being in the course of time are necessarily inferior to the one who created them. Things which have recently come into being cannot be eternal; and, not being eternal, they fall short of perfection for that very reason. And being newly created they are therefore childish and immature, and not yet fully prepared for an adult life. And so, just as the mother is able to offer food to an infant, but the infant is not yet able to receive food unsuited to its age. In the same way, God, for his part, could have offered perfection to humanity at the beginning, but humanity was not capable of receiving it, being nothing more than an infant...
And for this progression towards maturity to occur, there was need of humanity to develop moral reasoning. For this to happen, there had to be choices presented:

...Now it was necessary that man should in the first instance be created; and having been created, should receive growth; and having received growth, should be strengthened; and having been strengthened, should abound; and having abounded, should recover; and having recovered, should be glorified; and being glorified, should see his Lord...
We choose the Powers that dominate us. Evil is a choice. We have free will. It is through the choices we make that we progress towards perfection.

But such choices cannot be relegated to the realm of the personal, or "individual" (which I've argued before is an erroneous comcept). Evil within ourselves cannot be transformed unless the Powers that feed this evil are also transformed, or at least subdued to the point that another perspective can be explored.

We confront evil, not only for our own sake, for our own growth, but also to assist in the transformation of the fallen Powers. To do this requires that we recognize the hold such powers have on us, and resist the temptation to use force against force, violence against violence, and to imagine our mission as bringing order out of a chaotic creation. Our mission is redemption, reconciliation and transformation.


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