Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Origin of Evil: A Dialogue, Pt. 1

Two friends speak of the origin of evil. Each is Christian, but neither understands how evil came to be. Indeed to begin, it seems to them that, since humanity is a creation of God, the Fall was an impossibility. Together they seek for a solution to this riddle - a riddle central to human existence. N, we will see in a later post, provides the key insight.

F: God is perfect, of course.
N: On this we both agree.
F: But how then can we attribute imperfection to his creation?
N: Indeed how can we? It would seem impossible.
F: Though it seems impossible, we must. For quite plainly the world is imperfect; there is evil within it. But God cannot have willed this evil for its own sake, for God is perfectly good. Thus he either willed it for the sake of a greater good for which it is necessary means; or he allowed it to arise, though he did not will it.
N: These seem the only two possibilities.
F: Let us consider the first possibility - that God willed evil solely as a means to a greater good that could not have been achieved if that evil had not existed. Can we truly suppose that God did such a thing?
N: What is your worry, friend?
F: It is this: to will something evil, even if that evil is a necessary means to a greater good, is yet to will something evil. But how can a perfectly good being will something evil? To make evil one's goal seems to imply that one is imperfect.
N: So it would seem.
F: Moreover, can we attribute to God the state of affairs wherein some evil is a necessary means to some greater good? A world in which there is such a state of affairs seems less than a perfectly good world, for in a perfectly good world, every good that is an effect is an effect of something that is itself good.
N: I do see your point. The state of affairs in which some good is such that it cannot be realized if there is not a prior evil to bring it about seems to infect the world which contains it with imperfection.
F: You will agree, then, that a certain conclusion is inescapable. God cannot have willed a state of affairs in which evil is necessary to bring about good. But if he cannot have willed it and yet such states of affairs do obtain (as indeed they do - some goods can be brought only out of evil), we cannot attribute them to God.
N: I do agree to this conclusion.
F: How then do we account for such a state of affairs if it is not from God?
N: It seems we must return to a point often made by theologians: it is not God but we who are responsible. God but allows it to happen.
F: That's it exactly. Here's where we are, then: God does not will evil. Thus we must embrace the only other possible explanation of its existence. It comes from creature, not Creator.
N: When we say this, we say only what all before have said before. It does appear to be inescapable Christian doctrine. But we haven't put the issue to rest yet. For a new riddle arises when we consider why creature might have turned from God and sinned.
F: I believe that I can guess at what you mean, but instruct me.
N: Consider humanity in its original state, its state before the Fall.
F: It must have been just as God wished it to be. It must have been perfect.
N: Yes, this is so. God in his perfection makes all things just as he intends; and since he intends their perfection, he must have made them perfect. But now the question that I wish to ask must arise: How can humanity, if first made in a state of perfection, ever have sinned. Would not that first sin have implied imperfection in the author of humanity? Do we not say that a defect in the product implies a defect in the producer?
F: So it might seem. But before we spoke of theological tradition. Can't we make use of it here? Tradition tells us that we are free creatures, and that this is part of (indeed the chief part of) our perfection. But since free, we were free to turn from God and seek to make our way on our own. This we did and thus did sin make its entrance into the world.
N: As you know, I am well aware of this move. Indeed I have often made it myself in the past. But I've grown dissatisfied with it. It seems to leave a crucial question unanswered.
F: What is your worry?
N: My worry is this: that we are free to do a thing does not mean that we will do it. Moreover, when we do a thing, even when we do it freely, we are never without motive for what we do. Free action is not arbitrary action. It is not random. It comes with a reason, though that reason does not necessitate it. As Leibniz says, reason inclines only.
F: I begin to share your worry. Will you let me spell it out.
N: Please.
F: The first sin - whatever precisely it was - was freely done. But though it was free, it had a reason. There was something that the sinner hoped to achieve by it. But this very hope is itself a sign of imperfection. That hope - whatever it might have been - was a hope that, if acted upon, would carry us away from God. Thus its very existence in the soul must have been an imperfection in the soul, as would anything that would tend to separate us from God.
N: Yes. It seems that God made us to want that which we should not want; and though he did not make us act upon that desire, the mere fact that it was in us implies that we came into the world imperfect.
F: Simply put, if humanity were created perfect, it could never have motive to sin; and if it never had motive to sin, it would never had sinned. But sin we did. Thus . . .

The friends sit in silence. The afternoon passes. Each is afraid to speak, for to continue on this path is to fall into heresy and perhaps even atheism.

But F summons the courage to speak again, and courage he did need. For he will not attempt a solution of the problem. Rather he will attempt to sharpen it. He has realized that the problem is even deeper than first suspected.

- Pt. 2 to follow -

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