Accordingly, when the Catholic Church declares that God is the author of all natures and substances, those who understand this understand that at the same time that God is not the author of evil. For how can he who is the cause of the being of all things be at the same time the cause of their not being – that is, of their falling off from essence and tending to non-existence? For this is what reason plainly declares to be the definition of evil.
Augustine, On the Morals of the Manicheans.
If God is, whence come evil things? If He is not, whence comes good?
Boethius Consolation of Phil.
Evil like goodness are realities on the level of the world, and indeed the two things belong together as members of an inevitable duality, as shadow belongs to light and cannot help doing so. Indeed, without evil, there could be no goodness. Yet the argument put forth by a disbelieving culture is that “if God is all powerful, how is it that He created a world so full of evil. Answers provided by most religious writers – that God ‘permits’ evil in view of a greater good, or that evil derives from the misuse of our free will, while theologically valid, fail to satisfy those who can readily point to innocent victims of disease or disaster. Why indeed did not God create a world free of evil, pain and anxiety?
Those that would absolve God of responsibility are forced to embrace a duality, ascribing to the powers of evil a separate and distinct source which inevitably leads to seeing the world and our involvement in it as evil, rather than as a reflection and manifestation of God Himself. Still others, bred in the agnosticism of our age, ascribe all evil to the forces of evolution which removes from the reproductive field those who are biologically inferior and at the same time keeps the world from being overpopulated. Neither of these solutions solves the “problem,” if indeed, a problem exists.
Genesis, properly understood, provides us with many answers. First to be noted is that within the Garden of Eden a snake, symbol of evil, existed. There is a Muslim story of a man who asked a saint who was in the habit of visiting paradise, to bring him back an apple from that “perfect” place. On eating it he exclaimed, “there is a worm in this apple!”
How is it possible for snakes and worms to exist in Paradise? Metaphysicians inform us that in Creating anything other than Himself, imperfection was inevitable. “Only God is Perfect,” as the Scriptures say. If God created something other than Himself that was perfect, it would be another god which would mean that God was dual, whereas His very nature is Unity or Oneness. The world He created was “good,” but not perfect. But what of man? – for evil exists, not only outside us as “powers and principalities,” but also within us. Here again Genesis gives us a clue.
In the center of the Garden of Eden is the Tree of Life, corresponding to the axis of the universe. Adam, primordial man, dwells at peace with all his fellow beings, and they along with him participate in the center so long as his attention remains focused there. Along comes the snake and offers Adam a hitherto untasted experience, that of fragmented unity, of things unreferred to the center and valued for their own sake as if they were self-sufficing entities. It is not without reason that the Tree now becomes a tree of Good and Evil. A Tree, as Marco Pallis has said, “bowed under the weight of its fruits, light and dark, containing the seed of indefinite becoming… regarded from the viewpoint of ignorance, the Tree of Life becomes the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.”
Once we enter the world of duality we are forced to choose and hence it is true that free-will plays a significant role. War, surely one of the greatest evils, is a result as Paul assures us, of our “lusts and greed.” And these in turn are subject to our wills. Adam and Eve’s disobedience is in fact their choosing to follow their own wills as against the will of God. And this makes clear the relationship of evil to sin, for every sin is in principle a rejection of truth or a rejection of God’s law. This centering of reality on ourselves is an act of egoity or pride, which unfortunately is with each and every one of us down to the present day. Yet God continues to love us and want what is best for us, and hence, in His Providence, he draws good out of and despite our evil acts.
Theologians inform us that God created the world out of love, and that love, being His intrinsic nature, He cannot help but love us. He desires us in turn to love Him – to love Truth, Beauty and Justice, which are but His various names. Had He created the perfect world, a world in which we could not choose Truth, Beauty and Justice, a world in which we could not love, we would be robots and would lack even the possibility of dignity. Instead of raising the “problem of evil,” we might well ask why God bothered to create the world at all. In fact, why do we exist?
God who in creating us, places us in the realm of relativity, does not will evil qua evil; that is evil as it appears to us. As Marco Pallis puts it, “He is the creator of the relative, as is required by His infinity, and that relativity which we call evil, is a necessary function, being in fact the measure of the world’s apparent separation from its principle, God – an illusory separation inasmuch as nothing can exist side by side with the infinite, however real it may claim to be at its own relative level.” As Frithjof Schuon has put it, “One cannot ask of God to will the world and at the same time to will that it be not the world.” The world is a whirlpool of contrasts as is so well expressed in the Hindu word samsara. It is not a unity in its own right. It is no limitation on the Almighty that He cannot produce another Himself, a second Absolute. The world is there to prove it.
What then of those who are victims of evil. The almost inevitably are led to ask, “Why me.” The very question demands an erroneous answer. We are part of the relativity. Just as posing the question in terms of a “problem of evil,” leads one away from truth, so also asking of “why me” centers the problem on our individual ego and begs the issue. The real challenge is to recognize that one is part of the relativity of creation and that one is therefore forced to choose and act. Suffering seen in this light is always a gift, leading us to, as it were, abandon the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and turn again to the Tree of Life, for it is only in this way that one can escape from the samsaric sea in which we all are forced to swim. As St. John said: “Him who overcomes I will permit to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of my God.” (Apoc, 2:7)
“We have eaten of the fruits of the tree of knowledge and the taste of ashes is left in our mouths.” – Anatole France.
Tags: Rama Coomaraswamy