Wednesday, April 11, 2012

from Understanding the Source of Evil

by John Shelby Spong

Bad theology is inevitable when it is based on bad anthropology! That is, the way we understand human life always determines the way we understand God. This becomes very clear when religious people begin to grapple with and to try to explain the source of evil…Though an evil presence is all but universally acknowledged, defining what constitutes evil can, however, still vary widely and explaining the source out of which evil flows has been a major debate throughout the ages.

St. Paul, for example, saw evil as an external force that somehow held him in its grip. He explained its presence by saying, “It was sin, working death in me through what is good.” (Rom. 7:13).

In Persia, where the Jews first ran into a radical dualism that divided the whole of reality into two realms, one good, one evil, another definition was operating. Creation was a mixture of two competing and eternal powers, not just the beginning of God’s good world, as the biblical story of the Hebrews had maintained…For the dualists good and evil were equal divine forces contending for dominance. This counter force might be called the devil, Satan or evil, but it was portrayed as possessing a status equal to and independent of God.

For the Jews, to whom God was both ultimate and one, evil was not an independent power, but a corruption of the original goodness of God’s creation…So, in the Jewish tradition, Satan was not an independent creature, but a fallen angel cast out of heaven by God for leading a revolution against God and human life was not evil in its origins, but became evil through an act of disobedience that corrupted the goodness of God’s creation forever.

Although these ideas were present in the mythology of the Jewish stories of their origins, they did not get developed in a systematic way until the fourth century of the Common Era and then by the hand of the most significant Christian theologian in the first twelve hundred years of Christian history. His name was Augustine…He assumed that it was his task as a Christian theologian to explain all mysteries. One of those mysteries to be explained was the source of evil in a world that Christians believed was created by a good God. To accomplish this task, he went to the scriptures of the Judeo-Christian tradition, which he believed, as the Christians of that day did, that these words were the “Word of God” and, therefore, that they held the key to the understanding of all things.

In that sacred text Augustine found two quite different stories of creation side by side in the book of Genesis. They were actually written in two different eras about 500 years apart and under very different circumstances. He blended them, however, and used them as his starting place in the definition of evil. From the first story (Gen. 1:1-2:4a), he took the idea of the perfection of creation.

This familiar narrative was a product of the period in Jewish history known as the Babylonian captivity, which would date it in the late 6th century BCE. It was written to accomplish two things. First, the writer, who was a member of a group we now refer to as “the priestly writers,” wanted to have a Jewish story of creation that could be placed as a contrast alongside the Babylonian story of creation. Second, this writer wanted to establish the peculiar Jewish Sabbath day custom as a defining mark of all Jewish people and to cause that practice to distinguish the Jews from all other people.

That displaced story of creation, which was written some 400 to 500 years earlier, was much more primitive and reflected its more ancient origins. It was quite different and even quite contradictory when compared with the newcomer that now preceded it. In the first story, the creation of living things came in an orderly manner from plants to animals to human life. In the second story, the man was created first out of the dust of the earth and even after God had created a beautiful garden in which the man could live. Then came the creation of all the animals, which were designed to give the man companionship, and finally, when none of the animals seemed capable of meeting the man’s needs for companionship, God created the woman. The woman in this story was thus not coequal as in the earlier story. She was quite secondary, made out of the rib of the man. She was created to be the male helpmeet and support person. The man had the power to name her as he had named all the other animals, which meant that he had the power to control her.

The names of this man and woman were Adam and Eve. The garden in which they lived was called the Garden of Eden. In both stories the perfection of creation was asserted, but how evil entered this paradise was yet to be told. The Jews would come down on the side of evil being the corruption of that which was good. St. Augustine would put these two stories together and make them the basis of his explanation of evil and just why it was that all human beings were corrupted, why they died and why they needed to be rescued and saved by an intervening deity. I will turn to that story next week.


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