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The Question of Evil — Part 2

In A God of Infinite Possibility on October 12, 2012 at 5:20 pm

If everything that is, is God, then what is evil?  Is it part of God?  Did God create it?  What is the purpose of evil?

What if there were no “evil” in the world?  What if everything was equally “good?”  No matter what you chose, the consequences would be equally happy, equally beneficial.  How would you choose?  Even simple choices would have no meaning, no significance, no basis for evaluation.  Should I have coffee or tea?  Should I wear the blue shirt or the red?  Should I turn left or right?  What do I prefer?  And on what basis do I prefer it?  When all is good, judgment becomes impossible.  Now the same would be true if there were only evil, of course.  If we could not perceive both good and evil, then choice would be arbitrary and meaningless.

It is interesting to note that the thing that is forbidden in the Garden of Eden is knowledge; specifically, the knowledge of good and evil.  This makes sense only if Adam and Eve are ignorant of both.  They cannot know evil without knowing good, or good without evil, because one is necessary to the other.  Something is good to the extent that it is not evil and vice-versa.  Something is better to the extent that it is less evil and more good; it is worse to the extent that it is less good and more evil.  Now, if it seems I am using evil almost synonymously with “bad,” it’s because I am.  If we believe that there are degrees of evil , or if we simply believe that an evil thing is extremely bad, then we can talk about good and evil as directions rather than places.  And we can see that our ability to understand great good requires us to imagine great evil to compare it with.  Our ability to believe in the Devil as perfect evil requires us to believe in God as perfect good.  Otherwise, what does any of it mean?

As an analogy, consider the idea that if everyone were rich, then no one would be.  An understanding of great wealth requires a contrasting understanding of great poverty.  But when does one become perfectly wealthy?  We have no agreement as to when someone would be so wealthy that no more wealth would be possible or necessary, because we have no contrasting image of someone so poor that greater poverty would be impossible.  Would ownership of literally everything make someone perfectly wealthy?  What if he owned everything and was owed an equal amount? Or twice as much?  Would that make everyone else perfectly poor?  Or would some owe more than others?  Would we have to adjust our understanding of wealth to mean “less in debt?”  At that point would it make any difference?  Perhaps we could even argue that at some point being even more in debt might be a form of wealth, because those who owed the most would be worth the most.  But what if we were to consider wealth and poverty not as places, but as directions?  We would be wealthy to the extent that our choices around wealth moved in a “wealthy” direction; poor to the extent that our wealth choices moved in the direction of “poverty.”

Consider also a bar magnet.  One end is “north,” and the other is “south.”  Or we might call one end “positive” and the other “negative.”  But these distinctions are arbitrary.  If the ends aren’t labeled, how do we know which is which?  And the “positive” and “negative” qualities are not just at the ends.  If we cut the magnet in half, we get two new magnets, each of which has the same qualities of positive and negative.  Cut the two magnets into four, or eight, or sixteen, or however many you want, and you will never reach a point where any piece is all one or the other.

This is the nature of good and evil in our choices.  All choices are actions, and all actions contain the possibility of both good and evil.  Large choices have greater possibilities for good or evil, smaller choices have smaller possibility, but no matter how you slice it, every choice has the potential for either.  In choosing, as in magnets, positive and negative aren’t ends, they are directions.  We can determine the “north” and “south” ends of the magnet if we can make it into a compass, which would allow us to position the magnet according to known, fixed points – one north and one south.  In the same way, we can know the directions our choices might lead us in if we can make magnets of them, orient them to some sort of fixed moral points labeled good and evil.

Morality is our compass.  Our particular standards of morality are the fixed points against which we can orient the positive and negative directions of our actions.  Morality is a set of judgments based on our perceptions of good and evil, of benefit or harm.  Something is evil to the extent that it causes harm, good to the extent that it creates benefit.  But these are arbitrary and human determinations.  That which benefits me might harm you, for instance.  That which I think is good, you might find to be evil.  Each of us has her or his own compass, and they do not all point to the same fixed pole.  And so we gather into communities of various kinds, both spiritual and secular, where we can be with others who have similar compasses to our own.  This doesn’t make the compasses any less arbitrary or human, but it does give us support for our moral judgments.

The Eden Dilemma and the Question of Evil — Part 1

In A God of Infinite Possibility on October 12, 2012 at 5:16 pm


                If we try to imagine life in the Biblical Garden of Eden, we run into a major problem.  Adam and Eve are depicted as living in a paradise of Godly perfection.  Until the appearance of the serpent, there is no evil: no violence, no corruption, neither illness nor death.  The inhabitants can look forward to an eternity of constant goodness.  But they are also both ignorant and naïve, and purposeless.  Adam is apparently given the task of naming everything in the garden, but why?  Is it just busy-work?  He is incapable of failing at the task, because there are no standards against which to judge his efforts.  Making a mistake is impossible, because a mistake would suggest that there are ”better” or “worse” choices; but this is Eden where there is only good.  But what does “good” mean without anything else to compare it to?  And what of Eve?  Except to provide companionship for Adam, she has no purpose at all.  And what sort of companionship can she provide?  What will they talk about?  There is no point in discussing the names Adam is giving the animals, because there is no basis for discussing them.  After Adam says that this animal is a “sheep,” for instance, and Eve acknowledges the name, what more is there to discuss?  It is impossible to ask whether it is a good name, because it must be.  She can’t even ask “why,” because there is no particular reason for any of it.  And if there were reasons they would all be good reasons.  It is an endless, eternal cycle of unrelenting “goodness.”

Except for three important details.  There is forbidden fruit, there is the ability to make a choice, and there is a possibility of desire.

Without knowledge of good and evil, choice becomes meaningless; and without choice there is no point in knowing about good and evil.  So Adam and Eve must have been given the ability to choose.  They must have had free will.  Otherwise, there would have been no reason for God to deny them access to the Tree of Knowledge, because they could not have chosen to eat from it anyway.  But the ability to choose requires that there be a choice to make.  What choices did Adam and Eve actually have?  They could choose to go to this place or that within Eden, but all places were equally perfect.  They could choose to eat any of the fruit from any tree in the garden, but all fruits were equally perfect.  They could interact with any of the animals in the garden, but all animals and all interactions were equally perfect.  Without the forbidden fruit, without a choice, free will had no meaning.  So how could they choose?

In the absence of reason as a basis for choice, we have to have desire.  If it is equally good to eat a peach or a fig, then perhaps we simply need to desire one or the other.  “I think I would like a peach today,” doesn’t require us to denigrate the choice of a fig, only to recognize a momentary preference.  If we do not think about our preferences, but simply respond to them, act on them, then knowledge of good and evil is only necessary if there is the possibility of evil in a choice we might desire.  This is the real meaning of the serpent.  The serpent doesn’t make Eve aware of the choice – she already knows that the fruit is forbidden – the serpent’s role is to convince Eve that she desires the fruit, so that she has a reason to choose it.  And the fact that the fruit is forbidden is an argument in favor of desire, because unless the thing is desirable, there is no reason to choose it, and consequently no reason to forbid the choice.

But there is still a problem.  The forbidden fruit gives Adam and Eve the knowledge that there is both good and evil in the world, but it doesn’t give them clear knowledge of which is which.  This they have to figure out as they go along.  They quickly understand that things have changed; but they have no solid basis for judging those changes.  They find that they are naked, and become ashamed by the knowledge.  Why?  They have been naked all along in Eden, and Eden is perfect, so why should nakedness be shameful?  Apparently, it is the knowledge of their nakedness that is shameful, not the nakedness itself.  Things get topsy-turvy pretty quickly after that.  In Eden, there is no death.  The lion and the lamb lie down together and both eat grass.  Adam and Eve eat only fruit.  But after they eat of the Tree of Knowledge, and know that they are naked, Got clothes them in animal skins.  They learn that not only are the animals now killing each other for survival, but that they must also kill in order to survive.  Before the fall, God had created a world in which killing was not possible; after the fall, the descendants of Adam and Eve kill each other – beginning with Adam and Eve’s first born sons – in order to have the things they need and desire;  and even more than that, they kill other animals, make sacrifices, to honor God.  So is killing evil, or good?

Before the fall, Adam and Eve are ignorant of sex.  There is no need for sex, because there is no need for procreation.  In fact, procreation would be a problem, because there is no death.  There is no desire for sex, because there is no knowledge of sex.  Knowledge of sex would be a problem in Eden unless procreation was impossible, because if sexual activity is a choice, then desire may lead us to choose it, and in the absence of pregnancy prevention, choosing it would inevitably lead to procreation.  But is sex, therefore, evil?  Is procreation?  Is everything that did not exist in Eden before the fall evil by definition?  Note that eating the forbidden fruit doesn’t creategood and evil, it simply allows Adam and Eve to know that they exist.  It allows them to see the possibilities for good and evil in the choices they might make, and to consider those possibilities as they choose.

Thus, the lesson of the Garden of Eden becomes not the emergence of evil, or original sin, but the attainment of knowledge, and with it full humanity.  It is, after all, our ability to choose and to give meaning to our choices that makes us human.  Why would God set it up that way?  Perhaps because if good is the direction of God, then maybe God wants us to choose it; to go toward God consciously; to know what it is we are doing.  And we cannot always know which choice is the “good” one because life is more complex than that, and because the experience of life is, itself, essential to understanding the choices.  If it were easier, it wouldn’t mean so much.

An old folk song praises the day that Eve got Adam to eat the apple, because without that we wouldn’t be here at all.  The fruit of the tree of knowledge, in Eden, was the only fruit (other than eternal life) that was not to be eaten.  Now it is the only fruit we must eat.  We must not go ignorantly or accidently toward God (except of course in the case of children or other innocents), but must eat daily of the fruit of knowledge and then choose.

Unequal and Inequitable

In PeaceAble on October 1, 2012 at 4:11 pm

Equal and equitable are not the same thing when it comes to the distribution of the world’s resources.  Equal simply means that everyone gets the same share.  If there are twenty-five people and one hundred apples, each person gets four apples.  Equitable means that there is a relationship between the value of each individual’s contribution to the availability or acquisition of the resources and his or her share of them.  If you have twenty-five people and one hundred apples, but one of those people has nurtured and maintained the apple tree, another has picked the apples and a third has delivered them to the distribution center, while the other twenty-two have had no hand in any of that, but have been doing other things of value to the first three, then an assessment would be made of the relative value of each person’s contribution and the apples would be distributed accordingly: perhaps the grower would get six apples, the harvester five, the distributer three, and everyone else two each.

It has been said fairly often that the problem of poverty isn’t that there isn’t enough of the world’s resources to go around, but that they are badly distributed.  The same could be said about the current state of the U.S. economy.  The problem isn’t that there isn’t enough wealth in this country, but that it is badly distributed.  Does this mean that we need to do something about the redistribution of wealth?  Yes.  Peace cannot exist where there is a grossly inequitable distribution of resources; and wealth is simply a measure of that distribution.

Let’s understand, first of all, that all economic systems require the redistribution of wealth in order to survive and prosper.  Wealth tends to move upwards.  The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  Unless an economic system has ways of ensuring that enough of the wealth collecting at the top of the economic hierarchy is redistributed back to the bottom on a regular basis, then more and more people will lose the ability to purchase the goods and services which fuel the economic engine.  This is undisputed economic fact.  The question isn’t whether such redistribution is necessary, but how it should be accomplished.

Pure socialism would argue that all labor and all resources belong to the society as a whole.  In the ideal socialist society, everyone would be motivated by a genuine desire to serve the needs of the society.  They would go to work not for personal profit, but because their work served the greater good.  .  Wages would be irrelevant, because all the society’s resources would be freely distributed according to need.  From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.  Such a system would redistribute wealth continuously and immediately so that it would never have the chance to accumulate at the top or stagnate at the bottom.  There would be neither poverty nor great wealth.

Pure free-market capitalism would leave all decisions about redistribution to market forces.  The capitalist, ever mindful of the need to keep refueling the economy, would arrive at a proper balance between accumulation and redistribution according to the value placed on goods, services and labor by the marketplace itself.  The principle means of redistribution would be through the creation of jobs and the management of prices.  Wages would be determined by the economic value attached to the specific labor relative to the real-market cost of goods and services.  In this way, People would be motivated to work by the promise of sufficient wealth to buy the things they needed.  The distribution of resources would be determined relative to the individual’s willingness or ability to perform the labor necessary to earn sufficient wages to purchase what was needed.  Those whose labor created the most value would become wealthy and those whose labor created little value would be poor.  The problems associated with poverty could be managed by a small redistribution of wealth through charitable giving.

Pure socialism imagines a world in which all resources are shared, belong to no one individually, and to everyone equally; a world in which greed is impossible because it would be unthinkable; a world in which the distribution of resources is equal.  Free-market capitalism imagines a world in which resources exist to be exploited by the individual, ownership is establish by that exploitation, first-come, first-served; competition for resources leads inevitably to the ascendance of those best able to use the resources; and greed is simply another name for motivation; a world in which the distribution of resources is equitable.  Of course, we don’t actually live in either of those worlds.

We live in a world that requires a distribution of resources that balances the forces of equality and equitability.  At the moment, that balance doesn’t exist, and the distribution of resources is both unequal and inequitable.

A purely equal distribution of resources can create a generally stable society with a generally static economy.  In the absence of both great wealth and great poverty, however, there is the risk of a leveling out, a sameness of experience that works to inhibit the kinds of conflict that lead to great innovation, great art, and the individual self-actualization that is necessary to becoming fully human and achieving genuine fulfillment; a world in which the lack of an equitable relationship between one’s contribution and one’s compensation can ultimately erode one’s commitment to the greater good.  A purely equitable distribution based on the market value of labor and resources can, in its idealized form, lead to a generally vital economy, but at the expense of a generally unstable society, in which the unequal distribution of resources leads to unrest, even revolution.  If people are motivated first by individual profit and only secondarily by the greater good, then constant competition for resources can lead not to greater innovation or improved goods and services, but to greater manipulation or circumvention of the system itself.

The reality is that there will always be some people who are motivated primarily by self-interest and others who are motivated primarily by a concern for the greater good.  There will also be those who are motivated by their place in the social hierarchy, and those who are motivated by their physical needs.  A society that seeks balance between equal and equitable distribution of resources would start by considering how and where these various motivations intersect in the economy, and use a mix of motivation and regulation to ensure that the redistribution of resources is consistent, and sufficient to keep the economy and the society both generally stable and reliably vital. This would require three difficult assessments.

First, there would need to be a clear differentiation between those vital resources necessary to life, which are the common property of all and not subject to private ownership; and those resources which might reasonably be considered discretionary, privately owned, and market-valued.  For me, the first category would include a clean environment, used sustainably; sufficient food and water and nurturing care to maintain health and vitality; sufficient shelter and protection against dangers both natural and man-made; equality of representation in government and the law; and equal respect and dignity as human beings and members of the society.  The second category would include individual labor; non-vital resources; manufactured goods and the provision of services; and the free use of one’s own property, including material, intellectual, emotional and spiritual.  And there would have to be recognition of the need to resolve inevitable conflicts between these things.

Secondly, there would need to be the establishment of a clear and reasonable baseline for the equal distribution of resources necessary for a minimal standard of living.  Ideally this would be a world-wide effort, but it ought to at least be possible for the wealthiest societies to offer all their citizens a life that includes the essentials, plus a bit more to give them access to those things which promote self-actualization and growth.  It isn’t enough to survive, a society needs to help its citizens thrive as well.  At the moment, the U.S. poverty line is generally acknowledged to be well below what is actually necessary for survival without assistance, and nowhere near what is necessary for real participation in all that the society has to offer.  Almost one in four Americans does not earn enough money to have to pay income taxes.  Nearly sixty percent of families receiving food assistance have at least one working wage-earner, but those wages are not enough to meet basic needs.

Thirdly, there needs to be a realistic and fairly objective assessment of the real value of goods and services, of labor and resources that is not strictly market-driven.  We need to go beyond supply-and-demand to questions of value based on the greater good of the society.  Do we really have a need for good baseball players, for instance, that justifies compensation for their services that is hundreds or thousands of times greater than what we justify for teachers?  If the monetary value we place on something reflects its social or moral value, then what we pay for someone’s labor reflects the society’s social and moral values overall.  Is physical labor more or less valuable than intellectual labor?  Is the actual production of goods or provision of vital services more, or less, valuable than the management and manipulation of money or economic resources?

Then we need to develop strategies and policies that help us to meet the challenges that those assessments would make clear to us.  These would include decisions about taxation, minimum wages, environmental protection and development, the balance between individual needs and social responsibilities and between individual beliefs and the social contract, and about the management of conflicts that arise when people with different needs and different perspectives are all trying to exercise their rights as individual human beings.  None of this is easy and requires dedication to and protection of a social and political system that encourages and facilitates equal and enthusiastic participation by all citizens.  And it requires not just tolerance for our differences, but a recognition that those differences are our most important assets, and the source of our best hope for the future.

Peace is Possible

In PeaceAble on October 1, 2012 at 4:05 pm

There is an attitude, fairly broadly held, that war is inevitable; that human beings are war-like creatures, and that pacifist ideals lead ultimately to tyranny – either because they make us weak in the eyes of our enemies, who then will defeat and enslave us, or because the idealists who eventually take power are corrupted by it.  If we want to bring about a more PeaceAble world, we must assert, through our words and actions, the principle that war and peace are choices; and human beings are, first and foremost, capable of choosing.  In the face of all that happens in the world, we can choose to live peaceably among ourselves and with others.

The idea that humans are genetically programmed for war confuses, I think, biological evolution and cultural evolution.  Certainly it can be argued that the biological human creatures of the 21st century have not evolved significantly during at least the period of recorded history.  We are still the same creatures that spread throughout Europe and the Mediterranean under Alexander or Caesar, seeking control over vast empires.  We are still the same creatures who swept from the east in hordes to bring down the Romans.  We are certainly the same creatures who colonized Africa or the Orient at the point of a gun.  And we Americans have clearly not evolved biologically since we drove the Native Americans from the land, and fought for independence from Britain, or to preserve the Union during the Civil War.  We are only a few generations away from the doughboys of WWI, and those in power now are the sons and daughters of the people who fought in WWII or Vietnam.  The veterans of Vietnam are getting gray while their children or grandchildren fight in Afghanistan.  It would seem self evident that war is in the very nature of the human species.

But we also have the example of people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, and more recently the protesters who forced political change in the Middle East.  In lots of ways, human culture is evolving more quickly than human beings are.  At the same time that some of our leaders are continuing to advocate for war as a solution to our problems, humans are learning more about how to coexist, how to understand and appreciate the diversity of human experience, and how to solve our problems in peaceable ways.

Conflict, of course, cannot be eliminated and should not be eliminated.  Conflict serves an essential role in the lives of individuals and nations alike.  Conflict happens.  Peace isn’t about eliminating conflict, it’s about learning how to manage conflict in ways that are peaceful rather than violent, or abusive, or destructive.  Conflict occurs when there is more than one possibility and a choice has to be made.  Choosing forces us to put our values and beliefs to the test.

Becoming PeaceAble will require something of us that war does not.  Pacifists don’t need to have a definitive answer for questions about conflict or whether the species is inherently war-like, but we do have a responsibility to help frame the debate, so that peaceful resolutions to our problems can be found.  And we have to be confident that they can be found.  We need to rethink our relationships socially, economically, and politically. And war is just that: a solution to some perceived problem.  Wars happen when a nation – or those charged with representing the nation’s interests – perceives a need, a problem, to which war seems to be an appropriate response.  War is almost always about problems of access to, or control over, resources and power, not about ideology.

We need a paradigm that does not depend on winners and losers for its measure of success.  We need a paradigm that allows us to envision competition in mutually beneficial ways; that allows us to view profit and success as something shared, rather than something hoarded.  And we must start to live that paradigm ourselves.  If, in working for peace, we see ourselves as revolutionaries, we have already lost the battle, because revolution is itself a war metaphor.  If we see ourselves as having to win the peace, we have already lost the battle, because in our common language our winning means that somebody else has to lose.  It is necessary in the broadest philosophical sense of things for us to find another way.  The reality is that our situation is built into our culture in ways we cannot do much about.  We cannot have an election without somebody winning and somebody else losing.  But you can have an election in which the winning and losing are seen not as a competition between individuals, but as a discussion of ideas, wherein the individuals simply represent ideas or directions, policies, perspectives and so forth that from time to time will shift.  Ultimately, the important thing is that all are heard.

The nice thing about peace is that it isn’t something anyone has to own, it doesn’t require us to acquire more of it than our neighbor.   We don’t have to compete for it, in fact, if we did compete for it, no one could actually acquire it.  You don’t have to hoard it or accumulate it.  It is a way of being that can exist even in the presence of conflict.

And we need to deal with the related problems of disconnection and dehumanization.  What is it we’re disconnected from?  A lot of things.  We’re disconnected from our
lives, because we don’t think about them enough.  It’s hard to define what we’re disconnected from.  Partly from each other.  Except in the smallest kinds of groupings, we are disconnected from one another.  Membership in larger groups doesn’t really connect us.  It connects us to the idea of group, often, rather than to each other.

People will, of course, say that’s not true.  They will look at the aftermath of a great tragedy at the people gathering, but that’s more of an attempt to connect, rather than an actual connectedness.  It’s evidence that we are in general disconnected from one another.  If we were connected to the rest of humanity and connected to the idea of that, would we need to involve ourselves in other people’s grief, the grief of strangers, in this kind of voyeuristic, heavy-handed way?  If we were, in fact connected to the rest of humanity, would we not, instead, respect the privacy of their grief, respect their need to grieve without our interference?  Would we not, in fact, let them grieve; feel something for them — empathy, compassion, love — and leave them alone.  Leave them to their family, to those who can comfort them the most?  Would we need to thrust microphones in their faces to find out how they’re feeling?  Would we need to make a show of their mourning? Or would we already have sufficient empathy to understand how they might be feeling; would we already know how to mourn for their loss without imposing our vicarious grief on them.

We are disconnected from our own and others’ human-ness and so it becomes easier to dehumanize the other.  War requires the de-humanization of the enemy.  If I am to kill the other, then I cannot see him as anything like me.  The soldier of the enemy is just the enemy, not a human being who is someone’s son or daughter or mother or father or husband or wife; and certainly not someone with honorable or patriotic or noble purposes in trying to kill me.  And this dehumanization outlasts the war.

Dehumanizing the other also dehumanizes us.  It invades other aspects of our lives.  The metaphor of war is a metaphor of dehumanization – in our relationships, in our sports and other entertainments, in our politics, in our lives.  The metaphor of war is a metaphor of us against the dehumanized other.  As soon as we begin to humanize each other war begins to become less desirable as a solution to our problems.  As soon as we connect to the consequences of our actions on for ourselves and others as human beings, then it becomes more difficult to justify killing each other.

And therein lies the possibility of peace; because we can do these things, each of us, one person at a time.  We can make a commitment to remind ourselves each day of our own humanity; we can commit to try each day to see the others we encounter as human; we can use these commitments to help us reconnect to the world in PeaceAble ways.  Then we can begin to seek leaders (or become leaders) who are ready to see the world the same way, ready to reconnect; and we can work for change in the larger community of humans.  Each of us can find her or his own specific way to reconnect: with the environment, with children, with the hungry or the dispossessed; starting with people like ourselves and reaching out to (or at least not building walls against) those who are different.  I am only a war-like being if I choose to be.  I can be a PeaceAble being when I choose to be.

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