Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Christian Dogmatics - Philosophy - Eschatological topics - Science

 

The problem of Evil, from Augustine
to contemporary Genetics
 
by Fr. Nikolaos Loudovikos (*) Professor of the Higher Ecclesiastic School of Thessaloniki
and the Orthodox Institute of Cambridge

Re-published, from : http://www.romios.bravehost.com/theologia/loudobikos/kako.html

 

 

 

Even before World War II was over, the important English author C.S. Lewis had published in 1944 his novel "Perelandra", in his desire to re-narrate the story of the Garden of Eden.

Perelandra is another planet of our solar system - the one that earthlings call Venus - inhabited however by logical beings which, along with their planet, miraculously live in Paradise - exactly the way that the latter was described by an Augustine or a Basil the Great:  in complete harmony, peace and incorruptibility everywhere, an absolute absence of pain, sickness, tribulations and agonies, and an unrestrained and undisturbed bliss.  God (who was called Maledi on that planet) will send an earthling sage (who according to the story is actually a university professor) by the name of Ransom (a word that also implies redemption), in order to inform the innocent denizens of the planet about the danger of Evil - represented in the book by a wily earthling named Weston, who confronts the denizens of the planet fully armed and seeking to corrupt them and then subjugate them. (It is not perchance that his name is a derivative of the term "West").

As soon as Ransom finds himself on Perelandra, he is dumbfounded:  he immediately realizes that his senses function in an entirely different manner - far more profound and clear - with his mind unexpectedly at peace and his body much lighter.  He had never felt his sense of taste, hearing and vision so vivid, while he is also overwhelmed by a complete fearlessness: wild animals are playful friends...  Amazed and overwhelmed as he is, he meets Eve of Perelandra - the Lady, as she is referred to in the book - and is not in the least shocked by her total nudity.  "I come in peace", he greets her, stammering.  "And what is peace?" she replies.  Having never confronted evil, she is afraid of no-one and nothing.  Like very young children, her entire life is that "peace" - she knows nothing else...

I will put aside the outcome of the battle between good and evil, which comprises the continuation of the novel (but of course not before reassuring you so that you won't worry, that the outcome was a positive one), in order to comment on this brief dialogue a little more, and then embark on our topic.

So, despite the undeniable bliss of the denizens of Perelandra, Ransom - the earthling saviour - appears to know far more than them, with all his tribulations and alienation.  The blissful inhabitants of the inter-planetary Paradise are truly defenceless, opposite the other side of the Being - Benevolence; I mean, opposite Nil - Evil, which - albeit a non-"being" - is absolutely real, acts subcutaneously and effectively, threatening to destroy everything - truly!  After all, that was the reason God sent the Redeemer-Prophet (Ransom) to them (and does not select one of them for this reason): it is the knowledge of Nil - or of Evil, if you wish - that renders the earthling sage capable of preserving the Being-Benevolence.  But does this mean that Evil is existentially and ontologically inevitable? That is it a prerequisite of the Benevolence, necessarily? That it belongs (we could boldly ask) to the being of Benevolence (and therefore of God)?  In the end, does Evil belong to the Being of beings, and if not, then where does it belong?

We shall attempt to give a first reply to these questions, by traversing philosophical and theological tradition and ending up at contemporary Genetics, whose quests are paradoxically linked with the aforementioned traditions.

 

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There is no doubt that the discerning between Good and Evil permeates ancient Hellenic thought, with many forms.  The fear of chaos, of immoderacy, of Hubris, of non-being, all hound the ancient Hellene profoundly, which is why as early as the pre-Socratics all the ontological meanings regarding the notion of Being (and these are not just Heracletus' "Logos", or Anaxagoras' "Nous", or Pythagoras' "Number" or Parmenides' "Being", but also Anaximandros' "Infinity" and Empedocles' "Philotes" and Leukippus' and Democritus' "natural individual as the opposite of Void"  - see Fr. N.Loudovikos' Theological History of Ancient Hellenic Philosophy, Book 1, Pournaras Publications, Thessaloniki 2003, pp. 31-138) - are contradistinctions precisely of that non-Being which, in different forms as we mentioned earlier express Evil at a moral level.  This is more so with Plato, in whose work Evil is linked - whether as Ignorance and an absence of Prudence (Prot.355e), or as a sickness of the soul (Sophists, 228e), or as the fall of the soul from its hyper-celestial place (Phaedros 246e), or as an intrinsic badness of matter in Timaeus (42e) -  to the deception and fooling of this fake world; which (world) - as seen in the myth of the Cave in Plato's "Republic" - is unable to turn towards the celestial Sun of Benevolence and the world of Ideas (as above, pp. 159-177).

Evil is also non-being in Aristotle (Met. VIII, 9, 1051a), given that it does not belong in the world of realities, while in Plautinus Evil ultimately relates to matter (Enn.1,8,3) as it is so far away from the One/Benevolence which is, however, its distant source.  As an ontological principle, Evil will appear in its essence with Manichaeism*- that Judeo-Christianizing, eastern, diarchic heresy, which supports two principles in the Universe, both opposing each other.  In this theory, entire sections of the world are bad - made by Evil - while other sections - the more spiritual ones - are made by the Good, thus, reconciliation of the two is impossible.

* Manichaeism:
  • The syncretic, dualistic religious philosophy taught by the Persian prophet Manes, combining elements of Zoroastrian, Christian, and Gnostic thought and opposed by the imperial Roman government, Neo-Platonist philosophers, and orthodox Christians.
  • A dualistic philosophy dividing the world between good and evil principles or regarding matter as intrinsically evil and mind as intrinsically good.
  •  

     

    III 

    Now, with regard to Christian theology, the position both of the Eastern-Hellenic and the Western-Latin traditions appears initially the same as that of ancient philosophy.  Thus, Origen on the one hand reassures us (De Princ. II, 9,2 Ě In Joh. 4, II, 17) that God is not the Creator of evil (no longer with a capital E, since only God comprises the true Being) and that it does not possess a hypostasis or life or essence of its own, but exists as a denial of Good - an idea that we shall encounter many times in Western thought, up until Hegel.  Augustine on the other hand (for example Conf.III, 7, 12) similarly reassures us that evil does not exist as one among beings, but is encountered as a denial of Good, privatio boni.  It is a mere absence of Good, whose creator of course is not God (De quaest. 83, 24).

    Nevertheless, with Augustine begins a series of huge problems on the subject of evil, which continue to torment both East and West, to this day.  You will understand what I mean, when I mention that Augustine is, on the one hand, the one who linked evil to the renowned (as named by him during the year 396) "Original Sin" which, to him is a historical event - much like the siege of Troy or the Persian wars - an entirely inconceivable notion for the Hellenic-speaking Patristic tradition however.  So now it is Sin that "gives birth" to Evil, and not vice-versa.  To understand the difference, I will point out that for Saint Maximos the Confessor (for example) the cause of Evil is the "ex nihilo" creation of the world; in other words, it exists, not only towards the direction of Being, but also in another direction - towards the "decomposition" (apogenesin) of beings: evil -fundamentally- is a deterioration of the being, and not a "moral" event. Thus, while for Saint Maximos (or Athanasius the Great) it is precisely the primeval seed of nihil inside the bowels of the being that gives birth to the potential of sin and consequently of evil (if and provided it is activated by Man's free will), for Augustine it -reversely- is the moral decision of humans (Adam and Eve) that gave birth to evil (with all its guilt); Augustine is the... father of guilt, in the West.

    This has an immense impact at the level of ontology. And yet, with all the above, evil was regarded by Augustine as something "invented" by man (abetted of course by the devil, whose position however is not a powerful enough one - something not so unusual in Augustine's work), even though this invention reveals a complete and witting destruction of man's nature. In other words, with this invention man showed that his nature - albeit created innocent and good by God - wittingly became evil in essence, especially female nature; because woman (even before her encounter with the Serpent-Devil) already had within her the thirst for power and the audacity for an easy acquisition of divinity, into which she guilefully dragged Adam also, thus proving him to be similar to her.  In plain words, according to Augustinian theology man is not evil because he wittingly or after being fooled participates in - and abandons himself to - the worldly deterioration that is already under way, but because he himself finds deterioration within his own nature.  (I am not ignorant of the possibility that we can find similar positions in the Hellenic-speaking Fathers, however, I think that these do not prevail theoretically in the Patristic tradition, inasmuch as they probably have the character of a kerygma**).  Thus was born the idea of inherited guilt, as well as that of absolute predestination.  Given that man's nature is now absolutely perverted, it is impossible for man to truly seek God and His Grace - the latter can only be an involuntary and irresistible (a word that Augustine characteristically uses) gift of God, to those whom He - for unknown reasons - prefers.  the rest are just a doomed crowd: "massa damnata".  But this way, very little is mentioned about man's freedom.  Indeed, human freedom is of minimal significance here; or, rather, there is no freedom at all - as a choice - but only as a compulsory acceptance of the irresistible Grace of God.

    ** Kerygma:  (Greek: ŕŮ˝§Ńýß, érugma) is the Greek word used in the New Testament for preaching (see Luke 4:18-19,Romans 10:14, Matthew 3:1).
    &     It is related to the Greek verb ŕš˝řˇˇ¨ (kērússō), to cry or proclaim as a herald, and means proclamation, announcement, or preaching.

    IV

    To recap:  While all of ancient philosophy and Christian theology (with the exception of Manichaeism) agree in essence that Evil is merely a denial of Good, with Augustine man actually became the cause of evil, and ever since, has also become evil towards his very nature; so now, evil and its guilt both become inherited, together of course with their condemnation.  Thus, while for Saint Irenaeus of Lyons - for example - the first couple had sinned involuntarily (because of their spiritual immaturity), with Augustine, sin is an expression of a pre-existing and conscious natural perversion ("pervertio").  And of course at this point it is impossible to describe the fear and the guilt that positions like those had instigated through the ages, along with the constant temptation to accuse God Himself, Who had created a human nature so easily and profoundly and permanently perversion-prone.  Thus, man is a "sinful automaton"; it is impossible for him to not sin, because sin and evil have become a part of his nature. Only God's unfathomable intervention can stop this drama, and absolutely no well-meaning human intervention or attempt whatsoever.  God may possibly collaborate with human freedom, however He alone decides, independently of that freedom.

    Positions such as these persisted tenaciously in Western theology, in spite of the immense turnabout that the other great Westerner, Thomas Aquinas, had attempted by likewise ascribing (like the Hellenic-speaking Fathers) the cause of evil to the createdness and the changeability of beings, and not to the Original Sin.   During that same period, Hellenic Patristic theology had crystallized its positions regarding the justification of evil, in a manner that we could schematically describe as follows, on the basis of what we have already said.  The causes, therefore, of evil are mainly three:

    The first cause is the very state of createdness and the "ex nihilo" creation, a fact that renders the nature of beings prone to "slipping" easily towards the absolute Nil from which they came - especially if man considers his existence self-sufficient and not in need of divine Assistance and Grace.

    The second cause of evil is man's free-willed disposition, whereby as a person, he sins or errs but simultaneously undertakes the responsibility of his choices: the perverting or the destruction of man's nature and the world's is a simple manifestation of his own, erroneous choice; it is consequently a non-permanent but remediable event (gradually, even from now, and completely healed, by the end of time), with only a change in man's will.

    And the third cause of evil - and indeed considerably linked to the previous two - is the fact that the world is not constituted as a "monologue" by God, but as a "dialogue" between Him and mankind.  For every benevolent will of God, therefore, an equally "benevolent" response by man is required.  If the latter is missing, the former is annulled.  God cannot "impose" good directly, if man refuses it.  So, He does it indirectly, which means He utilizes the produced evil in defence and vindication of Good, exactly as with Ransom - the story hero that we mentioned in the beginning.  Ransom was made to (quite painfully) pass through evil, however, he is now the best defender of Good - he, and not the blissful and unbruised inhabitants of Perelandra, who precisely because of their paradisiacal bliss were strangely unable to discern the evil behind the deceitfulness of the wily Weston (much like what happened with the Serpent and Eve in the Biblical narration of Genesis).  The fact that Ransom - despite his knowledge of evil - desires Good and defends it to the death, signifies precisely that - as opposed to Augustine - evil does not belong to man's nature, and that  man is not perverted entirely, but that depending on the free inclination of his disposition, he is able to display all the innate benevolence of his nature - which after all does reflect the benevolence of God Himself. Besides, according to the Patristic tradition evil is something that man is subject to, even when he is committing it - he does not invent it, hence the absence of moralism or legalism in the Hellenic-speaking Fathers.  Man suffers the pre-Creation Nil, when he does not partake of God's Grace: that is the mystery of Evil.

    Furthermore, it is wrong to regard God's Biblical expression of the world being "very good" as pertaining to the "beginning" of the world; it is actually an eschatological expression, which refers to the eschatological perfection of the world, according at least to the Patristic tradition, as I have tried to indicate elsewhere (see: "Eucharistic Ontology", Domos Publications, Athens 1992).  This expression definitely also signifies the final transcending of death, which clearly (naturally) existed before man's creation, otherwise the world and mankind would have been - by nature and compulsorily - gods, from the very beginning.  Death was pre-existent, precisely (as we said) because of creation "ex nihilo", without this of course negating the prospect of transcending it by Grace and not by nature, otherwise, (if Adam knew nothing about death), there would be no meaning to God's warning to him that he would "suffer death" if he were to consume the forbidden fruit. 

    Adam received an ontological proposition by God for the transcending of death (and not a proposition to make a moral choice); Adam is the being that is defined existentially (we could say) by that very proposition by God, that it be the one through which the Uncreated enters the created, of its own free will.  The ontological 'texture' of this dialogue between man and God is at risk, within the boundaries of recent subjectivism, inasmuch as evil - whether moralistically or rationalistically - is either placed inside the person as a part of his nature, or outside the person, as an "objective", external event.  Apart from the fact that the above necessarily end up as various forms of theodicy, they conceal the fact that evil does not exist as an Augustinian natural perversion (pervertio) because of sin, but as an interruption -partial or complete- of that dialogue between man and God, Who freely attaches death to life - the created to the Uncreated.  As a matter of fact, if the above are correct, it is that very dialogue that constitutes the process through which the eschatological elimination of evil becomes possible; that is, as a predisposition by the created Being to be incorporated in the Resurrected Body of Christ, as a "communion of opinion" per the expression of Saint Nicholas Kavasilas, and not simply a compulsory resurrection of the dead.  With this dialogue, therefore, man eliminates from creation certain pieces of the pre-Creation Nil, according to his disposition, by transforming it by Grace into an uncreated Body of Christ.  A stance such as that allows God to intervene more in the world, confining evil even when man is inadequate to do it; however, evil (as the denial of dialogue with God) will never vanish altogether - not even during the end - despite the obligatory incorruptibility of beings. What will become apparent then, however, is that evil is not a part of Creation, of Being, of Life, but an elective denial of these.

    In contrast to Augustine, Maximos the Confessor further regards only the "fall of disposition" as something corruptible, whereas the fall of nature as incorruptible.  There is no such thing as "evil nature", according to the Patristic tradition; the event that is described in the Genesis narration as the Fall of man is a voluntary departure from God's experientially "incorruptifying", uncreated Providence, and it does not interest us as a historical event.   

     

    V 

    But now let us return to the West once again, to take a brief look at the continuation, in order to come to contemporary Genetics.  My evaluations are of course subjective and certain points of the story cannot possibly be discussed differently.  The two major problems that arose in the West on account of the propagation of Augustine's positions (which we analysed previously) were, I believe, to begin with, the problem of defending God and thereafter the problem of defending nature (of man and of the world).  The first opus was undertaken by the German philosopher Leibniz, and the second one by the French philosopher Rousseau.  Leibniz (1646-1716) attempted an entire "theodicy" - a term coined by him, and the title of his homonymous book (1710). The philosopher tries to vindicate God, by supposing that He tolerates evil, in His desire to eventually evoke some kind of good from it, in a world created by Him - a world that is "the best possible of those that could be created", according to his famous expression. That people can think of better worlds does not signify that those worlds would in fact be better ones, given that human judgment errs, inasmuch as it is confined by subjective passions and ignorance.  God therefore created the best possible world, under the provision that we would see it in the light of His choices, which are far superior and wiser than our own.

    These positions became a favourite target for a host of attacks on the part of atheists, even though they do not differ essentially from their long past processing by Hegel, who, as we mentioned, saw in evil a necessary "negativity" which is utilized by God the Spirit for a more superior  synthesis that includes the fusion of the two (Good and Evil or Being and Nil) within Being.  However, I think that the other philosopher had a far greater influence on the West; the defender of human and cosmic nature, Rousseau (1712-1778).  The French philosopher's position has the merit of exceptional simplicity: the nature of man and the world - he says - is profoundly good and benevolent.  As opposed to Augustine (or Calvin), he regards nature as the best possible teacher of Good, and a concordance with it a rule for life and truth.  Death, consequently, is not a product of a sin or a fall, and furthermore, civil inequality is entirely unfounded.

    With Rousseau, the West regained the fundamental Christian position that the nature of man and the world are the benevolent work of God - except that it regained this position as an opposition to the official ecclesiastic teaching which (either in Calvin's Geneva where Rousseau grew up, or in the remainder of Roman Catholic or Lutheran Europe) sees nature - usually in the Augustinian manner - as fallen and perverted.  Thus the Europeans - with Rousseau, then with the Enlightenment - re-discover a fundamental Patristic position, but only as a protest against the Church or Her theology, by formulating an anthropology which they regarded as atheistic (as does the Church), even though it is even more Christian than the ecclesiastic one. But the worst does not stop here.  Without any theological reference, this re-evaluation of nature saw the theoretical path by De Sade opening before it.   Indeed, the latter was nothing more than a vehemently anti-Christian student of Rousseau, who reveals that nature does not only teach harmony, but also violence and murder.  Natural life would therefore thus signify the reception of those "natural" performances, "beyond the Good and the evil" as Nietzsche would have said (who was also the culmination of the road that the West took, with Rousseau, in its opposition to Augustine).  Nature, finally, dictates as the supreme criterion of life the will for power.  I have shown in older books of mine (Fr. N.L. "The Closed Spirituality and the Meaning of Self";  "The Mysticism of Power and the Truth of Nature and Person", 2nd edition, Ellinika Grammata Publications, Athens, 1999) that in this way, Nietzsche not only doesn't distance himself from Augustine, but in fact adopts the latter's deeper form of thought:  that the place of fallen nature (which according to Augustine is governed by the immortal and spiritual soul) is now taken up by all this unsubstantiated "spirituality" which is governed by vital natural instincts.

     

    VI 

    This is in brief the spiritual atmosphere in which latter-day, theoretical contemplation on the matter of Evil was born in the space of Genetics. In recent years, the development of psychology and sociology have significantly advanced all this rationalized quest for the cause of Evil, within the boundaries of human nature and never beyond it.  Pursuant to this, was the acceptance of Evil as an element of nature with a suitable "scientific explanation" - or at least a partial exoneration of it.  From the complete debilitation of nature, to the unconditional acceptance of it however, the ontological backdrop still remains unchanged:  there is no foreseen, essential prospect for freedom being a possibility for transforming that nature, and not simply the acceptance or the rejection of it.

    At this point I would like us to briefly examine three recent books which place the problem of Evil in the perspective of a Genetics explanation.   The first of the three is the book by Robert Wright, "The Moral Animal" (1994).  In his book, Wright sets down for discussion what he calls "the psychology of evolution", with biological conditions:  everything is explained as deriving from people's desire for survival, which is determined one way or another by natural selection.  Consequently, there is very little genetic basis in the distinction between Good and Evil, moral or immoral: with regard to the sexual behaviour of women, for example, those who are "reserved" and more "moral" are simply the ones who are more confident in themselves, whereas the more aggressive ones are the more insecure.  But the objective remains the same; it remains the same, for every behaviour.  Morality in reality conflicts with evolutionary logic, which is determined effectively by genes and the environment.  If we were in a position to accept this - the author argues - we would have had a far greater tolerance and forgiveness towards each other. Of course every kind of altruism or selflessness would also have to be ascribed to a genetically determined, superior evolutionary self-interest.

    The second book that we shall examine is the one by Lyall Watson, "Dark Nature : a Natural History of Evil" (1996).  Watson argues that nature is profoundly non-moral; it exists beyond Good and Evil.  This can be seen clearly in the cosmos of genes, which simply do whatever they can for survival, mainly by applying the following methods:

    1) by being hostile towards strangers
    2) by being friendly towards friends
    3) by deceiving as much as possible.

    All human behaviour is in reality built on the basis of these principles, the author argues, although there may be other, not-so-apparent biological principles like altruism, martyrdom, asceticism, which also play a part except with basically volitional objectives, allowing a relatively minor emergence from the ocean of natural selection : a tiny but essential differentiation of man from animals. 

    Lastly is the book by ┬. Appleyard, "In Brave New Worlds. Staying Human in the Genetic Future" (1998).  In this book of his, the author confronts what he calls "genocentrism" and dares to pose the question of human freedom and responsibility, if almost everything in behaviour were determined by genes. The true unconscious, he notes, has to do with that latent, deeper activity by the genes inside us, which follow their own biological way regardless of morals and our supposedly conscious choices.  Appleyard mourns the possibility of a complete prevalence of "genocentrism", which would clearly allow for totalitarian solutions in the future but at the same time with nothing to juxtapose.

     

    VII 

    It is obvious that a series of ontological and mainly theological questions still continue to arise.  The West of course is teetering between contemporary, complete acceptance and its ancient Augustinian and Calvinist complete rejection of nature, but the question that their theology still hasn't answered is the one that refers to the possibility of an actual relationship between this nature and the uncreated God.  If God - acting as a Person - has uncreated energies, and if man - also as a person - can receive God with his own energies, then nature is transformed, not lost, and every compulsory natural determinism disappears.

    But what is the meaning of "person"?  And what is "freedom"?  Is there a biochemistry of freedom? (If it does exist, then there is no freedom...).  Where are "person" or "freedom" seated inside man?  Inside his soul?  And what is the soul, when in fact the Hellenic Patristic tradition has rejected every metaphysical notion of "soul" and has regarded it as material in essence?  We truly have many more things to learn about man, precisely because - according to Patristic theology - man is not a given being, but a being that evolves, that is constantly being created, and it is only in the end that we shall see what it finally is.  The immense contribution of Orthodox theology in this anthropological query is that it has taught us that it is impossible to separate the question of man from the question of God, and that only the answer to the latter can forebode the answer to the former.

     

     

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     (*) Father Nicholas Loudovikos was born in Volos. He studied Psychology, Pedagogics, Theology and Philosophy, in Athens, Thessaloniki, Paris (Sorbonne Paris 4 and the Institute Catholique de Paris) and Cambridge. He has a Doctorate in Theology of the University of Thessaloniki, and has also worked at the ôresearch center for Primeval Christianityö, Tyndale House, Cambridge.  He has taught at the Cambridge Universityĺs School of Theology (C.A.R.T.S.) as well as the University of Durham.  He is a Professor of Dogmatics and Philosophy at the Higher Ecclesiastic School of Thessaloniki; a scientific associate at the post-graduate Theological program of the Open Hellenic University and also a part-time lector at the Orthodox Institute of the University of Cambridge.  Works in book form by him:  Eucharistic Ontology (Domos, Athens, 1992);  Closed Spirituality and the Meaning of Self (Hellenic Letters, Athens, 1992) and The Apophatic ecclesiology of the Homoousion. The primeval Church today (Athens, 2002).

     

    Translation:  K.N.

    Article published in English on: 9-10-2011.

    Last update: 9-10-2011.

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