DEFINITIONS AND DISTINCTIONS
Evil, then, is the frustration or destruction of a potential for enjoyment in living beings. It is experienced as suffering. It arises when sentient actualities (1) fail to achieve or lose organized stability and/or maximum actualization of their potential for enjoyment for internal reasons or (2) undergo destructive conflicts with entities external to them. Evil, then, in the most comprehensive sense is the disruption or destruction of a potential for enjoyment in sentient beings, especially animals and humans. Hence, evil is not primordial but emergent and occurs when a possibility for good is frustrated or destroyed. Given the nature of finitude and the complexity of organization that enjoyment in organisms requires, evil can and will most probably occur. Sentient beings are vulnerable to destruction because of internal failure and external conflict.
Evil includes not only a strong aspect whereby some structured potential for good already in existence is frustrated, disrupted, or destroyed but also refers to a shadow side comprising the good that is missed. The latter is the joy, the success, the satisfactions, the happiness, the loving relationships that never came to pass because the requisite conditions were not present or because calamity struck. It is the absence of the good that might have been but was not, and we suffer from that. The shadow dimension of evil is the failure to achieve the finest that could have occurred within some appropriate frame of reference.
The strong dimension of evil is usually what we have in mind. Evil in the primary sense refers to the partial ruination or total annihilation of a given potential for healthy or just enjoyment. The evils that break our hearts are those real and present instances of misery and affliction that threaten or shatter the pleasure of living -- raging famine, ravaging illness, devastating accidents, uncaring cruelty to people and animals, natural disasters that waste life and property, senseless abduction and murder of children, brutal torture of political enemies, hatred and violence toward racial, sexual, and ethnic minorities, vicious subjugation of the helpless, and the like.
Two types of evil need to be distinguished, depending on whether
it does or does not involve human irresponsibility.
1. Natural evil: We are complex organisms dependent on the healthy functioning of all the systems and subsystems that make up the body. Something can go wrong. We are vulnerable to accident, disease, and all kinds of malfunctioning. This suffering arises from the nature of things and involves no human irresponsibility.
2. Moral evil: Because we are free beings, we can do harm to each other by bad intent or through carelessness. This form of suffering involves human irrresponsibility.
Absolute evil is suffering that is pointless, unnecessary, purely destructive with no redeeming elements or outcomes for anyone ever. Relative evil is suffering that is partially, wholly, or more than compensated for in some larger context or in the long run. The connections of suffering and evil to some compensating or justifying good are complex.
THE MANY FACES OF EVIL
A full accounting of life would require the opposites of the categories. Not only are wrongdoing and injustice present in life, so are love and fairness. Not only is the demonic a troubler from the past, the angelic is blessing from the past, those humanly- created good influences woven into the structures of individual and social life that work themselves through the generations to enlighten and uplift. Not only is there tragedy, there is also the fortunate, grace, those fortuitous, propitious, and serendipitous occurrences that happen to us that enhance life beyond what we deserve. Not only must we wrestle with those ambiguous trade-offs in life, sometimes we enjoy unequivocal benefaction or suffer from an absolute curse.
Freedom also involves the capacity to reorient the self around a new ensemble of motives, values, aims, and norms. Character changes may occur when, for whatever reasons, the previously effective system becomes unsatisfactory, unworkable, or too full of anomalies to serve the larger and deeper ends, needs, and wants of the self. A creative transcendence of the dissatisfied self may take place by an imaginative construction of a fresh pattern around a novel organizing center of aims, preferences, and commitments
We are responsible for what we do in the sense that what we choose expresses what we are. This does not mean that in every circumstance we could have done differently from what we did in actual practice, though in principle and abstractly other possibilities were open to us. Since we are self-determining in our actions, we are accountable for them. A fine line may separate our being unable to choose better than we do and our being unwilling to do so.
GOD AND OUR SUFFERING
Life keeps coming back from defeat and rises up to try again. When one path is blocked, another is sought. This is what the cross and resurrection symbolize for human life on this earth. Life comes with a built-in resurrection potential that never ceases to look for a way to overcome and press on to success. That urge to live, that drive toward fulfillment of the potential for enjoyment, I believe, is present in all living things. It is displayed in the effort seeds make to sprout and grow into a plant with its leaves spread before the nourishing sun. In the face of adverse conditions, a seed takes advantage of every bit of moisture and food value in the soil and of every other circumstance and uses it for its own purpose to grow to healthy maturity. This opportunism that seeks a way around obstacles is characteristic of all life, including human beings. God is the source and basis of this indwelling impetus toward fulfillment (eros) that will not be quenched until every energy has been exhausted.
My belief, then, is that God takes advantage of every opportunity provided in every situation to increase happiness for all in accordance with the health of the individual soul and the requirements of social justice. God is opportunistic within the limits of the possibilities for good compatible with the facts in a given case. God does not supernaturally orchestrate events from beyond to carry out a secret divine scheme. Surprising, unexpected, unlikely things bordering on the incredible can occur. We should be circumspect about putting limits on what is possible. If someone wants to call these astounding events in which good beyond reasonable expectation blesses our lives miracles, I have no objection. I do not believe in supernatural occurrences, but we should be cautious about drawing the boundaries of the natural that demarcate the possible from the impossible.
I have problems with miracles defined as supernatural interference with the law-abiding character of nature and with human freedom on two grounds. (1) They have not happened in my experience, nor have I observed such happenings in the world around me or in the lives of other people. (2) Supernatural miracles pose for me an insuperable theological problem: How do you account for the relative rarity and seeming arbitrariness of such occurrences? Why don't they happen more often? Why does God interfere supernaturally to benefit some and not others? I have heard no satisfactory answers to the questions. The usual and appropriate response is that God has purposes not known to us, and we must simply trust in God's wisdom. The notion that God has secrets that we cannot be let in on is unsatisfactory to me. Equally unsuitable is the idea that God manipulates events from the outside to deliver some but to let others perish. Such beliefs attribute to God mysterious ways of acting that are unworthy of a God of pure boundless love, in my view. As the Creator, instills into every life an urge to make use of every opportunity to actualize the potential for good with which we are born. As the Redeemer, God continues to work to bring new good out of evil, new life out of death, hope out of despair, and resurrection from every cross. Such consolation does not remove the heartache and pain. It does provide us with the courage to keep on living and trying, knowing that we are not alone.
IS GOD LIMITED?
If we ask what hope means specifically in our lives today, the answer
can be put under three headings. A. We can triumph spiritually over suffering
in the midst of suffering. B. We can change some things for the better
here and now. C. We can live in the hope that life will be perfected in
a realm beyond this world. To put the same points in different words, we
can transcend the actual, transform the actual, and live in hope that the
actual will be ultimately perfected.
I invite comments, questions, and refutations.