From Parabola, Winter 1999


The Evil

That Men Do


(Author of The Best Spiritual Writing, and Gifts of the Spirit)

(Reprinted with permission from the author)

Alas, another popular icon has lost its luster. The New York Times (July 6, 1999) reports that dolphins, those benevolent sea mammals famed for rescuing shipwrecked sailors and leaping through hoops at aquarium sideshows, have been stringing us along. Dolphins don't enjoy the company of humans, we learn; they don't save drowning victims, but play with them "as they would a piece of debris"; they have no language; they really aren't very smart after all. These disclosures, as disappointing as they may be to those who like their beasts on pedestals, are nothing compared to the real revelation: that dolphins sometimes act like ruthless killing machines. They "bludgeon porpoises to death by the hundreds." They slaughter fellow mammals "in droves." They even engage in zestful infanticide: "Off Scotland, a scientist watched in shock for nearly an hour as an adult dolphin repeatedly picked up a baby in its mouth and smacked it against the water, over and over, until it sank from view.” Worst of all, they do all this for no apparent reason: they do it, the evidence suggests, for a lark.

Now, the evaporation of widespread dreams about the dolphin's role as spiritual messenger and herald of the New Age (one Internet site even offers the "magic" of "Dolphin-Assisted Healing Programs") is in itself a notable event. But the most significant aspect of these revelations lies in the response of the Scottish scientist who "watched in shock..” For the dolphins' behavior shocks us all. It does so for the same reason that we don't mind puncturing New Age balloons about dolphin wisdom: because we understand that, when all is said and done, animals remain animals, creatures of habit. They do what they are created to do, be it to hunt, sleep, copulate, or frolic in the surf. When an animal steps out of character, when a dog growls and foams at the mouth or a squirrel bares its teeth, we don't look for conscious intent. We suspect rabies or some other ailment; in the case of dolphins gleefully killing their young, we wonder about a parasite, lack of food, overcrowding, or some other social disorder. Animals, unless diseased mentally or physically, simply do not engage in wanton murder. Only human beings have that honor. The question of why human beings (and only human beings) are capable of intentional evil--we leave aside for now the issue of angels and angelic rebellion--has bedeviled philosophers for millennia. The problem has a twin: if God is all-good, how could He create a world that contains evil? So many solutions have been offered to these linked enigmas that one might be tempted to shrug one's shoulders and move on. But this would be, I believe, a grave mistake. For the light that study throws on these questions also illuminates a more pressing query, "How can I deal with evil in my own life?" Principle and practice are one; in understanding, I will find the way.

The Christian answer to the problem of evil derives from Neoplatonism, by way of Saint Augustine. The argument hinges on the idea of the "great chain of being": that God has created a universe filled with a hierarchy of beings, each sharing in God's absolute goodness and perfection. Every creature--man, spider, cherubim, rose--is good per se, for everything that God (who is Goodness) makes is good. Goodness and being are thus synonymous. Evil, then, is synonymous with nonbeing. That is to say, evil is not a thing in itself (and therefore not anything created by God), but a vacuum, an emptiness. A creature is evil to the extent that it lacks a portion of the good that belongs to it as God's creation. Now, how can a being lose the goodness which it naturally possesses? Only by stripping the good from itself with conscious deliberation; that is, by freely turning its back on God.

This, in a nutshell, is the Christian teaching on evil. Evil is the province of conscious beings who possess free will; that is to say, of humans and angels. When we say that a man "is less than a man," or we compare him to a rat, a weasel, a snake, we are getting close to this truth. A man ravaged by evil is indeed less than a man, for he has ripped off part of the goodness that identifies him as a human being, made in the image and likeness of God. As for angels, the mythological apotheosis of this process of stripping away the good is found in Satan, who retains no being of his own, but who survives, according to some esoteric teachings, as a vampire feeding on the being of others. It is worth noting here that the Seven Deadly Sins are all perversions of a good; that is, they are a good with something lacking; thus gluttony is eating without moderation; envy is admiration without detachment; sloth is rest without surcease; anger is righteousness without humility, and so on. This also explains, inter alia, why good so easily turns to evil, why one finds this inversion even in the history of religion, so that the wish to save Jerusalem becomes the Crusades, and the doctrine of karma becomes a tool for suppressing the lower classes. Evil is opportunistic; it is a vacuum, sucking out the good whenever the smallest opening appears.

This Christian understanding of evil, I have come to believe, is more than an elaborate metaphysical construction, a charming cat's cradle of ideas gussied up with some colorful folklore. It is, in fact, an invaluable guide to combating evil in ourselves. In order to see how this may be so, I would like to examine two of the pivotal moments in the Christian story: the Temptation of Eve and the Fiat of Mary.

Genesis records what must be, at least from the standpoint of Judeo-Christian mythological priority, the birth of evil in the world: Eve's plucking of the fruit of the Tree of Good and Evil. Now, the first curious thing about this episode is that it is called the Temptation of Eve, and yet temptation itself is never evil. Temptation is in the nature of things. It may even be considered a good, for it signifies a mind that possesses free will, that which sets us apart as the imago Dei. Even Christ suffered temptation, most famously in his post-baptismal desert retreat.

Eve's temptation must have been similar to the desires that each of us experiences every day. Let us try to imagine Eve's state, as the serpent pours its honeyed poison into her ear. She sways back and forth, tugged in one direction by what tradition aptly terms "the glamour of evil" and in the other direction by the absoluteness of the divine edict: "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat" (Gen 2:17). One moment she leans toward self-gratification, for she sees that "the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes" (Gen 3:6); the next moment, she inclines toward surrender to the Divine will, for she knows that the Tree contains knowledge appropriate to God, but not to human beings; that hubris is unthinkable. All the while, the serpent whispers his seduction, "ye shall be as gods" (Gen 3:5), seeking to snap the great chain of being. Eve totters this way and that; she weighs the gifts of God against the promise of the serpent; she wonders; she hesitates; and then she snatches the apple from the Tree and shares it with her mate.

What must Eve have felt in that instant? A hollow in the pit of her stomach, the somatic echo of the hollow that she and Adam have created in the fabric of the cosmos. Even as she tastes the sweet fruit, that hollow grows, eating away the integrity of her being and that of her spouse, dissolving the perfect goodness of Eden. Before the tasting, Adam and Eve stand, in Milton's impeccable phrase, "God-like erect, with native honor clad in naked majesty." But afterward, as the Bible reports, "the eyes of them both were open, and they knew that they were naked." A string of disasters ensue: the splendor of their bodies becomes a source of shame; the primordial unity of the sexes is destroyed; the bliss of fruitfulness becomes the pangs of childbirth; the dignity of work becomes the disgrace of toil. The Bible presents this as God's justice; it must also be understood as the inexorable consequence of turning one's back on the good, the true, the beautiful.

According to Christian teaching, there can be only one possible response to the evil set in motion by Adam and Eve. The real problem of evil is not why it exists but rather how to resist and rectify it. Christianity points, as an answer, to that event which reverses the selfishness of Eve: the selflessness of what has come to be known as "Mary's Fiat."

Fiat is a Latin word, the third person singular present subjunctive of fieri, "to become"; it means "Let it be done." According to the New Testament, "Fiat" is Mary's exclamation when God's messenger, the angel Gabriel, appears to her at the Annunciation and offers her the impossible honor of becoming the Mother of God (Theotokos). Despite the mythological elements that trouble modem sensibilities--the appearance of the angel, the virginity of Mary, impregnation by "the power of the Highest"--this is no pious text at great remove from our daily concerns. Whether one reads the Christian story on a literal or symbolic level, the import remains: if evil is manifest in self-gratification, then restitution must come through self-giving; Eve's feeding of herself must be countered by Mary's emptying of herself, by offering her very body as a vessel for the birth of the God-Man.

The precise words employed by Mary, as given in the King James Version, are "Be it unto me according to thy word." This is followed close after by the Magnificat, Mary's canticle of praise to God, in which she describes herself as a "handmaiden" and declares "my soul doth magnify the Lord." Here lies the solution offered by Christian tradition to the problem of evil. It may justly be called "the Great Paradox." Evil, which is emptiness of being, comes through filling oneself; good, which is fullness of being, comes through emptying oneself. Evil is stuffing oneself--it is no wonder that the primordial evil of Adam and Eve involves eating--thus leaving no room for God; good is giving of oneself, making of one's being a temple so that He may dwell within. This is accomplished through self-surrender, humility and silence; that is to say, by being a "handmaiden," a servant.

The image of the servant, bereft of all but the companionship of God, as the type of human goodness, and of the king (Herod, Caesar), surrounded by pomp and power, as the type of human evil, runs throughout the New Testament. Thus Jesus, despite his divine prerogatives, declares that "I am among you as he that serveth" (Luke 22:27). On the night before his trial, he strips himself naked, divested of all signs of possession and property--from the viewpoint of symbol, he presents himself in his innermost being--and washes the feet of the disciples, sealing his humility and revealing the true hierarchy of heaven, in which "the last shall be first."

These images have given rise through the centuries to a profound study of humility as a crucial element in the spiritual life. St. Benedict writes of the "ladder of humility," on which one climbs higher by denying oneself, until finally one arrives at knowledge of God through total self-denial. "We go up by humbling ourselves and down by praising ourselves.... We may think of the sides of the ladder as our body and soul, the rungs as the steps of humility and discipline we must climb."1 Thus Jesus binds his will to that of the Father: "For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me" (John 6:38).

How is this self-surrender to be achieved in the rough and tumble of daily life? How can I open to the good, especially when pinned on the horns of moral crisis? A vital clue may be found by returning to Mary during the Annunciation. What is it that Mary does, that Eve fails to do? When Mary finds herself in the presence of Gabriel an archangel "whose thinking process imitates the divine," who "receive[s] undiluted the original enlightenment" (Pseudo-Dionysius, The Celestial Hierarchy, 4:2), she turns to him for guidance, asking "How can this be?" Eve, by contrast, listens to the serpent. In the language of hierarchy--that is, of the divine order that governs the cosmos--seeks counsel in that which was highest, while Eve gravitates toward that which is lowest.

And what of we, far removed from the biblical worlds of Eve and Mary? To what high angel may we turn for guidance, when faced with a choice for good or evil? Christianity has always offered a single answer: we may turn with confidence to the light of conscience.

What, then, is conscience? It is, the tradition teaches, neither the superego, nor the inner representation of societal norms, nor a Pavlovian response to childhood training, nor a subconscious wish for self-consistency. John Henry Newman defines conscience with characteristic grace: "Conscience is the voice of God in the nature and heart of man ... it is a messenger from Him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil."

Conscience, then, is to each of us what the Archangel Gabriel was to Mary: the emissary of God, the articulation of His presence within the heart, a moral compass that points toward divine truth. In The Transcendent Unity of Religions, Frithjof Schuon observes that from the viewpoint of the initiate seeking wisdom, evil is dissipation, a scattering of one's energies and attention, whereas good is that which leads to spiritual concentration, that is, to unity. If Schuon is right--and I believe he is--then it is instructive to note that conscience is the point of concentration within man; conscience is the node that connects heaven to earth, human to God; when we turn within and consult our conscience, when we incline our inner ears toward God, we undertake that very act of unifying concentration urged upon us by the prophets: "Hear, all ye people; hearken, O earth, and all that therein is" (Micah 1:2).

Conscience has had a hard time of it lately. Images of Adolf Eichmann sitting serenely in a bullet-proof glass cage in an Israel courtroom, protesting his innocence with the bland insistence that he was just following orders, shocked an earlier generation, but today they seem ... par for the course. Presidents, evangelists, attorneys, athletes--all seem to have cast conscience to the wind. Newman glimpsed the dimensions of the problem a hundred years ago:

“All through my day there has been a resolute warfare ... against the rights of conscience. Noble buildings have been reared as fortresses against that spiritual, invisible influence which is too subtle for science and too profound for literature. Chairs in universities have been made the seats of an antagonist tradition .... We are told that conscience is but a twist in primitive and untutored man; that its dictate is an imagination; that the very notion of guiltiness, which that dictate enforces, is simply irrational, for how can there possibly be freedom of will, how can there be consequent responsibility, in that infinite eternal network of cause and effect, in which we hopelessly live.”2

It is difficult to argue with this bleak assessment, which does much to explain the course of events in the twentieth century, the bloodiest in history. Nonetheless, at one time or another, almost everyone still experiences the prick, if not the stab, of conscience. We still find meaning in the exalted tales of those who chose martyrdom rather than betray their conscience; and we still find fidelity to the moral compass in the most nitty-gritty of circumstances. A friend of mine, a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, wrote to me about this in a recent letter; his observations, coming as they do from hard-won experience, are worth quoting at some length:

“In the beginnings of sobriety, or at least the beginnings of mine, the hunt is on for something solid to lay hold of. I myself had experienced the fact that books couldn't remove the desire for drinking or drugs, and when I came to AA, one of the first things that I was given was the suggestion that there was a self to which I could be true; a self that did, in fact, know good from bad. In step six [of the AA program] a strong argument is made for the existence of perfection. And without a very solid belief in the reliability of conscience--as something within us that is real, in fact more real than all the daily nonsense that we create for ourselves--the ideal of striving for perfeccion wouldn't be possible. If perfection is real, and what we call conscience is in fact the felt evidence that we have, like it or not, of our connection with and responsibility to that perfection, as AA suggests, then most of the twelve steps can be seen as ways of bringing this truth out into the open. Ideally conscience becomes, in the recovery situation ... a sensory faculty. It tells us where we stand in relationship to God. And the funny thing is, I think most alcoholics recognize this fairly easily.”

Conscience, the mirror of perfection, is perfect per se; there is nothing that we can do to strengthen or tarnish it. Our work lies rather in clarifying our relationship to conscience. Specifically, we can learn to check our moral compass with greater attention and care. The Christian tradition is explicit on how this is to be accomplished: the means is "watchfulness."

"If thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness," declares Christ (Matt 6:23). Our task is to cleanse the eye, to learn how to keep it clear, bright, discerning. The Philokalia, that astonishing collection of texts on Christian contemplation, is entitled in Greek The Philokalia of the Niptic Fathers, nipsis being the Greek term for watchfulness. In its pages, St. Hesychios of Sinai, an eighth-century desert monk, defines nipsis as "a spiritual method which, if sedulously practiced over a long period, completely frees us with God's help from impassioned thoughts, impassioned words, and evil actions."3 He adds that “watchfulness is a continual halting and fixing of thought at the entrance to the heart.” In this way predatory and murderous thoughts are marked down as they approach. Here Hesychios is speaking precisely of conscience, whose role is to stand guard at the heart's gates. Temptation cannot be avoided, as we know. But temptation can and must be "marked down," transfixed before it enters into the heart, the most intimate chamber of our being. Once an evil thought invades the heart, Hesychios insists, we instantly "enter into impassioned intercourse with it," and all is lost. The heart must remain inviolate. Attention ensures this, for "attentiveness is the heart's stillness, unbroken by any thought. In this stillness the heart breathes and invokes, endlessly and without ceasing, only Jesus Christ who is the Son of God and Himself God." Then comes the possibility of true union with God, as the monk explains in a passage whose enthusiasm is matched by its bright ring of truth. Through watchfulness of the conscience, he writes, we will enjoy "joy, hopefulness... and understanding of ourselves and our sins, mindfulness of death, true humility, unlimited love of God and man, and an intense and heartfelt longing for the divine." Such a state, we need only add, may not be available to dolphins; but to humans beings who truly seek goodness, who follow the way of Mary rather than the way of Eve, such blessings will surely be realized, for God, who is Goodness, has promised that “ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye search for me with all your heart" (Jeremiah 29:13).

1  The Rule of St. Benedict,

2  John Henry Newman, "Letter to His Grace the Duke of Norfolk," in Newman and Gladstone (University of Notre Dame Press: Notre Dame, Indiana, 1962), p. 129.

3  All quotations from St. Hesychios from SL Hesychios the Priest, "On Watchfulness and Holiness," in The Philokalia, Volume I (London: Faber & Faber, 1979), p. 162-198.


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