Friday, May 09, 2008

The Problem of Evil

Odilon Redon
L'ange déchu (1890-95) (The Dethroned Angel)
Paint on canvas H. 24 ; L. 33.5
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux

John Habgood, formerly Anglican Archbishop of York, reviews the book Out of Eden: Adam and Eve and the problem of evil by Paul W. Kahn in this week`s Times Literary Supplement.

The review is entitled: The sanctity of evil - Is the capacity for evil one of the defining characteristics of our humanity?

A book which begins with the sentence “Evil makes us Human” must surely compel attention. This is no ordinary account of what is usually meant by the problem of evil, where the main emphasis is on justifying the ways of God to man.

Instead, Paul W. Kahn’s aim is to explore the nature of evil itself.

He interprets it, not just as doing or experiencing bad things, but as “a way of being in the world”. Evil, he claims, is about making ourselves the source of our own meaning, a meaning inevitably negated by death, the certainty of which gives urgency and depth to the way life is lived. It is this consciousness of our mortality, and the refusal to accept its implications, which can lead to the worship of false gods.

Ascribing ultimate value to what is essentially nothing at all results in what he calls “a pathology of the will”. Personal evil is essentially about wilfulness rather than reason, nor can it be subsumed within our rational understanding. Evil in this sense, as part of our humanity, is not a fashionable concept, but we have good reasons to recognize it, not least in ourselves.

Such a crude summary of a profound and complex thesis cannot begin to do justice to this strange and thought-provoking book.

Its starting point is a prolonged meditation on the first two chapters of Genesis, with their contrasting stories of creation.

Humanity, so the myths tell us, belongs within an ordered world, which can be seen to be good, and of which it is possible to make sense.

This is the message of the first story, in Genesis 1, which in the light of our present understanding can be interpreted as a charter for rationality and science. But that is not the whole story.

As human beings we are also aware of our radical incompleteness, of being terrifyingly alone, of the need for action as well as contemplation, and of possessing a finite will that seeks to realize an infinite meaning. This, according to Kahn, is the message of the second account of creation and the story of the Fall, in Genesis 2.

He sets both creation stories in sharp contrast to the tragedy of Oedipus, for whom the problems of existence lay not in the order of the world, nor in the assertions of his will, but in the limitations of his knowledge and the apparent malevolence of fate. In Genesis, however, there are no hidden traps. The choice is clear. We can know good and evil only by sharing in them. There is no failure of reason, which is why, in biblical terms, the Socratic maxim “know thyself” can never be enough.

To know ourselves is to know our mortality and that, acccording to Genesis, is precisely the origin of our disordered wills and all that flows from them.

Which of these accounts is nearest the truth of our human condition?

Will knowledge save us? Or does the problem lie within ourselves?

Kahn has no doubts about the answer, and his repeated criticism of liberalism’s optimistic remedies for the world’s problems, as if rationality could save us, points to a much deeper source of evil than mere ignorance. Our human problem, he writes, is that nothing we can do as human beings is adequate to the ultimate meaning we intuit.

No life ever realizes its full potential; no state policies or actions are a full realization of a state’s sovereignty; no work of art is adequate to the artist’s full aesthetic vision; no narrative is adequate to the fullness of experience. In every direction, man knows himself to be more than he can realize. If we begin with this tension, the problem of evil has less to do with the body’s uncontrolled desires than with the problem of a finite will that seeks to realize an infinite meaning. Evil is not the pathology of the body, but of the sacred.

In the story of the Fall, the reason for the disaster is fixed firmly on the desire to be like God. Idolatry is the prime symptom of this fundamental pathology. Its evil character lies in our human attempt to make ourselves the source of the sacred.

A religion of law, for instance, runs the risk of becoming idolatrous in so far as it closes the gap between ordinary life, and the power and mystery of the transcendent. The point is relevant to the distinction between covenantal religious communities, such as Judaism and Islam, which are united by common obedience to a code of practice, and organic communities, such as Christianity, which are united by a common relationship as expressed, for example, in the Eucharist.

At stake are fundamental questions about how and where we encounter the sacred – in the law, or through self-sacrifice? Some of the misunderstandings and animosity between Christians, Jews and Muslims can be traced to this distinction.

“Where one sees ultimate meanings, the other sees only negation; where one sees God’s presence the other sees only the obstinate refusal of belief; where one sees the sacred, the other see idolatry; where one sees life, the other sees death”. These differences are experienced as being matters of huge importance, because evil is perceived “not in the failure to meet internal norms of a system of belief. Rather it is the external assault on the claim to have located the point of the sacred in a fallen world”.

In Christian belief this identification of the sacred is associated, not so much with obedience, as with love and self-sacrifice. On the face of it neither love nor self-sacrifice makes sense, yet often each will seem to be the most sensible phenomenon in the world.

“Love” says Kahn, “is the sole necessity in a meaningful universe . . . without love we would still know good and evil but we would not care”. Love and evil are linked together as opposites, two sides of the same coin. This close relationship is perhaps one reason why suicide bombing has its attractions. Love expresses itself in sacrifice, and evil in murder.

Both are represented in the story of Cain and Abel. Why did Cain murder his brother? Jealousy because Abel’s sacrifice was recognized by God, whereas Cain’s was not, cannot be the whole story. Was it that Cain could not face recognition by God, a recognition that would have entailed the acceptance of a love he could not tolerate? It is in loving and being loved that we discover our finitude and mortality, a discovery which the story hints would for Cain have been unbearable.

We are told that he could not himself accept the prospect of death; hence the mark of Cain, with its assurance that his life would be spared. Paradoxically, the first murderer in this extraordinary myth eventually becomes one of the founding fathers of humanity.

Killing and being killed also lie at the heart of the nation state. The wars we fight tell us who we are. A willingness for self-sacrifice may appear senseless to those who observe only the suffering, but without such willingness there can be no love, and without love there can be no meaning to our communal identity.

A chapter on America’s guilt over its history of slavery raises uncomfortable questions about how its acceptance and persistence were possible in a supposedly Christian nation, and why the slaves never rebelled.

The obvious answer is that, at the heart of the experience, there was a readiness to see slaves as less than human, a prejudice confirmed by their supposed moral failure in not fighting back. The subsequent fear that they might, after all, be a threat to their oppressors provided a further motive for dehumanizing them. Safely relegated to the world of nature, rather than as part of civilized humanity, they could be treated as objects of shame, like Adam and Eve whose expulsion from Eden was the expression of their moral and physical nakedness.

It is no coincidence that humiliation and the shame of nakedness also featured so largely in the Nazi death camps.

...[T]here is much to be learnt from the way in which a scholar deeply immersed in both Judaism and Christianity interprets some of the foundation stories from both traditions.

Evil, he concludes, is not banal; it is the opposite of love, a symptom of our rage against mortality, a false understanding of who we are, and what we are meant to be.

... Even with the best will in the world, as Adam and Eve discovered, “knowing good and evil” is not as easy as one might think. It is also salutary to recall, as Paul Kahn so powerfully demonstrates, that evil is often uncomfortably close to the sacred. "

Redon made several studies of the Fallen Angel.

This Fallen Angel (above) probably represents Satan or one of his acolytes.

Many of Redon`s works were inspired by the poetry of Poe, Baudelaire, and Flaubert.

One of the great themes of Baudelaire is that of the Fallen Angel. One of his poems which explores this theme is De profundis clamavi (from Les Fleurs du Mal). The translation is underneath.

De profundis clamavi

J'implore ta pitié, Toi, l'unique que j'aime,
Du fond du gouffre obscur où mon coeur est tombé.
C'est un univers morne à l'horizon plombé,
Où nagent dans la nuit l'horreur et le blasphème;

Un soleil sans chaleur plane au-dessus six mois,
Et les six autres mois la nuit couvre la terre;
C'est un pays plus nu que la terre polaire
— Ni bêtes, ni ruisseaux, ni verdure, ni bois!

Or il n'est pas d'horreur au monde qui surpasse
La froide cruauté de ce soleil de glace
Et cette immense nuit semblable au vieux Chaos;

Je jalouse le sort des plus vils animaux
Qui peuvent se plonger dans un sommeil stupide,
Tant l'écheveau du temps lentement se dévide!

Charles Baudelaire

De Profundis Clamavi

Have pity, my one love and sole delight!
Down to a dark abyss my heart has sounded,
A mournful world, by grey horizons bounded,
Where blasphemy and horror swim by night.

For half the year a heatless sun gives light,
The other half the night obscures the earth.
The arctic regions never knew such dearth.
No woods, nor streams, nor creatures meet the sight.

No horror in the world could match in dread
The cruelty of that dire sun of frost,
And that huge night like primal chaos spread.

I envy creatures of the vilest kind
That they in stupid slumber can be lost —
So slowly does the skein of time unwind!

— Roy Campbell, Poems of Baudelaire (New York:
Pantheon Books, 1952)