November 12, 2018

Monday with Richard Beck: Christian Assertions about Evil

Eagle Creek Reservoir (2017)

Note from CM: Thanks to Richard Beck for giving permission to re-post his thoughts about what the Christian faith says about evil. This is actually part two of a two-part post at his blog, Experimental Theology, and if you want to read more about the first two assertions, follow the link in this post to his first article.

• • •

Monday with Richard Beck
Christian Assertions about Evil

As I pondered yesterday’s post about the two Christian assertions about evil a third one came to mind.

To recap, the first Christian assertion about evil is that evil is not ontological, an eternal and permanent fixture of existence that we must become stoically resigned to living with.

According to Christianity, evil can be defeated.

The second assertion is that God is working to defeat evil, and we are called to that work.

A third assertion Christianity makes about evil is this: Humans are not the source of evil.

In Genesis, the snake is already in the Garden of Eden. Humans succumb to evil. That is, while the origins of evil are not described in the Bible the catastrophe predates human beings. Yes, humans frequently are a source of evil in our world, but they are not The Source.

I think this third assertion about evil is a helpful balance given the first. Evil is not an eternal, ontological aspect of existence. This prompts ethical resistance of evil over stoical resignation. But that ethical resistance must also recognize the third assertion, that humans are not the ultimate source of evil. This assertion is important for two related reasons.

First, the third assertion humbles the utopian aspirations of the Revolution. If evil were solely a human problem we’d be tempted to think that humans were perfectible. That’s the utopian fantasy of the Revolution, the moral perfection of human society. But if evil exists outside of the human sphere then no matter how good we become the snake is always there to tempt us back into the darkness. Even the best of us and the very best of our political projects–I’m looking at you America–can fall back into darkness.

Second, recognizing that humans aren’t the source of evil helps us fight the temptation of believing that our fight against evil is a fight “against flesh and blood,” against other human beings. If humans are the source of evil then fighting evil would mean fighting, ultimately and only, against other human beings. Resistance to evil becomes sorting the world into Angels and Demons and then eradicating the humans deemed demonic. This is the temptation that tips the Revolution toward blood.

(By the way, this is the temptation I name in Reviving Old Scratch when progressive, liberal Christians demythologize “spiritual warfare” to mean “social justice.”)

So, this a third Christian assertion about evil. One that I think, like the other two, is pretty good.

Humans succumb, submit and obey evil, thereby bringing horrors into the world, but humans are not the source and origin of evil.

Comments

  1. I agree with Beck’s list of Christian Assertions about Evil in terms of metaphhysics, but 1) some progressives would deny that evil exists per se, and would blame ignorance for the fallout of what is called evil and 2) many Christians who would concur with Beck’s assertions would still seek to curb what they see as the pervasiveness of evil in the world by eradicating the human evildoers. so you end up with what amounts to religious war against evil that is not much different than progressive revolutionary violence in terms of sorting the world into good and bad people, and eradicating the bad. This is the temptation that tips the Christian fanatic toward blood.

  2. senecagriggs says:

    a) As an Evangelical I believe there is an evil being – satan/lucifer – who is surrounded by evil spirits.

    b) For the believer, he may harass, but cannot do real harm – very much limited by God.

    c) satan is not the counterpart to God; God has no counterpart.

    I love CS Lewis, “That Hideous Strength.”

    • –> “For the believer, he may harass, but cannot do real harm…”

      Tell that to Job.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        –> “For the believer, he may harass, but cannot do real harm…”

        Distinct vibe of “Whistling Past the Graveyard”,
        i.e. “Can’t Happen to Me because I’m a Believer”.

        Anyone remember that tower collapse in Siloam?
        (AKA The Rabbi from Nazareth says “and sometimes, sh*t happens”?)

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        > Tell that to Job.

        +1

        These assertions are more cultural than “biblical”.

    • Like Martin Luther said, Lucifer can only go to the end of his leash. Unfortunately for us, God seems to allow Lucifer a lot of running room on said leash. :-/

  3. Christiane says:

    “Evil is a loss, a fall, a tragedy. Evil is wreckage, the devastation of a primordial goodness.” (excerpt from Richard Beck’s link)

    and

    “In Reviving Old Scratch, popular blogger and theologian Richard Beck reintroduces the devil to the modern world with a biblical, bold, and urgent vision of spiritual warfare: we must resist the devil by joining the kingdom of God’s subversive campaign to interrupt the world with love.” (excerpt from the write-up on Richard Beck’s book)

    and then we have THIS:
    “(By the way, this is the temptation I name in Reviving Old Scratch when progressive, liberal Christians demythologize “spiritual warfare” to mean “social justice.”)”

    It occurs to me that ‘social justice’ in the above quote is NOT defined in accordance with my own Church’s definition of ‘social justice’;
    but seems more in accordance with an evangelical-fundamentalist-right wing view of the term ‘social justice’ which is despised and belittled.

    How did this ‘alternate’ definition of ‘social justice’ emerge? Was it because of some priests in S. America who took a stand against poverty, and became martyrs in the process? Like Oscar Romero?

    or

    was it just a way of dismissing ‘social justice’ as impractical to the cause of Capitalism, a threat to the power-brokers, by those who sought ‘laws’ to protect workers, to eliminate abuses in labor practices, an added ‘cost’ to take away from the ‘profits’ of the ‘owners’ in order to secure safety and fairness and humane conditions for workers?

    All I know is that I see ‘social justice’ in a different light from my evangelical-fundamentalist Christian brother, and I want to know how this happened; we both being influence by the same Holy Gospels of Our Lord (???????)

    something happened that politicized the term ‘social justice’ in a way that is far different from how it is expressed in my own faith, this:
    http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/justpeace/documents/rc_pc_justpeace_doc_20060526_compendio-dott-soc_en.html

    so what happened? Headless, I need your wisdom here. 🙂

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > It occurs to me that ‘social justice’ in the above quote is NOT defined in accordance with

      Yep.

      >How did this ‘alternate’ definition of ‘social justice’ emerge? … a threat to the power-brokers,

      Yep.

      Pro-corporatism and Pro-segregationists learned long ago they could throw money into the trays of the likes of Billy Graham and, in so doing, get their propaganda some stage time and some good Middle Class credibility. This schism of meaning is rooted back in the days of Anti-Communism which was used as a justification for all manner of nefarious nonsense. It is even right here in this essay with concerns about the utopian “Revolution”; which reads like something out of the 1960s.

      • Christiane says:

        Hello Adam,

        I always liked Billy Graham, but Franklin Graham is NOT a man like his father. Franklin Graham is something very different.

        There is a lot of greed in Dominionism: for money and for political power.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      How did this ‘alternate’ definition of ‘social justice’ emerge? Was it because of some priests in S. America who took a stand against poverty, and became martyrs in the process? Like Oscar Romero?

      Oscar Romero was formally canonized as a saint this past Sunday; a portrait of him was displayed at Mass.

      so what happened? Headless, I need your wisdom here.

      I think it’s a question of going out-of-balance.

      During the late Cold War (early Eighties), I experienced the Social Justice Movement at my local Newman Center. At the time, it was HEAVILY cross-contaminated with Marxism-Leninism, to the point of praise and adoration of Fidel Castro. Pope John Paul II shut down the movement a short time later because of this cross-contamination.

      (I think Chesterton spoke of an equivalent in his time (from memory): “He will tell you how much Christianity and Buddhism are really alike underneath, especially Buddhism.”)

      Part of the backlash about Social Justice might have come from that experience (which was all tied up with Cold War “Hearts & Minds Ops”). Part may have been the feud between a Social Gospel without Personal Salvation and an Evangelical Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation (“It’s All Gonna Burn”).

      React to going out-of-balance in one direction by going just as out-of-balance in the other direction. Communism begets Objectivism.

    • All I know is that I see ‘social justice’ in a different light from my evangelical-fundamentalist Christian brother, and I want to know how this happened; we both being influence by the same Holy Gospels of Our Lord…

      Richard Beck is a socially and theologically progressive Christian who makes weekly visits to a state prison as part of his discipleship, is member of poor urban storefront congregation as his church home, and takes liberation theology seriously. You can’t assess his take on social justice fairly from a quick dip into his blog and a “write-up” on his book. For a long time his focus on theological liberalism resulted in not taking traditional Christian understandings of the source of evil seriously, and he found his spirituality lacking because of this; he is now in the process of enriching his progressive theology by dipping back into the idea that evil of nonhuman origin is a real thing. I think you are not getting where he’s coming from. Click on this link for an idea of his immersion in and familiarity with liberation theology

    • David Greene says:

      I agree. And if evil can be defeated as the author states, and if we are called to do that work as the author states, then I think social justice can be part of that equation. I think some of the Old Testament prophets speaking for God would agree.

  4. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    First, the third assertion humbles the utopian aspirations of the Revolution. If evil were solely a human problem we’d be tempted to think that humans were perfectible. That’s the utopian fantasy of the Revolution, the moral perfection of human society.

    From Citizen Robespierre’s Republique of Perfect Virtue to Comrade Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea, Perfect Utopia always beckons seductively from the other side of the “Regrettable but Necessary” Reign of Terror.

    • senecagriggs says:

      You nailed it Ken. Excellent assessment.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        And it also applies to actual Religions as well as Secular Para-Religions.

        Perfect Islamic State or Perfect Christian Nation are also Perfect Utopias, with the exact same baggage.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          P.S.

          “And me and mine all got to lay down and die so you can have your Perfect Society?”
          — Captain Mal Reynolds to “The Operative”, Serenity

    • Burro (Mule) says:

      In order to achieve this utopian goal, the state will have to abolish all… particular attachments (like patriotism), “irrational” belief systems (like Christianity), mediating institutions (like civic associations), and forms of the family that have proven most stubbornly resistant to the more revolutionary schemes of liberal thinkers throughout the modern age. Moreover, the state will have to free itself from “outmoded” restraints like limited government, individual rights (especially religious liberty), and quaint notions of “toleration.” If the gnostic liberal state is to right all that is wrong with humanity, it must become what Giles of Rome sought to make the medieval papacy: “a creature without a halter or bridle.”

      from Touchstone.

  5. Christiane says:

    Hello HEADLESS,
    and thanks for your input . . . . . concerning John Paul II, I did find this:

    “”John Paul taught that as priests follow the “precept of mutual love” which “implies rules of social justice,” they must do so in different ways from the laity. Strongly affirming the teaching of the 1971 Synod of Bishops, which was devoted in part to justice in the world, John Paul said that in circumstances in which there legitimately exist different political, social and economic options, priests like all citizens have a right to make their own personal choices. But since political options are by nature contingent and never in an entirely adequate and perennial way interpret the Gospel, the priest, who is the witness of things to come, must keep a certain distance from any political office or involvement.”

    https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2013/07/25/what-is-social-justice-from-john-paul-ii-to-benedict-xvi/

    the article does show some progression of thoughts on the part of JPII concerning social justice . . . . so there does seem to be some ‘progression’ (sorry for pun) in his own evaluation as time continued culminating with the publication of the Vatican Compendium on social justice concerns approximately a year prior to his death.

    My goodness, if only our evangelical brothers had someone to advise their ministers in this way:
    “But since political options are by nature contingent and never in an entirely adequate and perennial way interpret the Gospel, the priest, who is the witness of things to come, must keep a certain distance from any political office or involvement.”

    Maybe the catastrophe of the melding of evangelical-fundamentalist-Republican-Trumpism would not have occurred to the detriment of the Church’s gospel ‘witness of things to come’. The fall-out from this is, I fear, irrevocable, as even now, many evangelical Trump supporters urge ‘silence’ in response to Trump’s worst tendencies and impulses.
    That call for ‘silence’ came too late to save the evangelical community from contamination, and now that call for silence seems more to ‘conceal’ and ‘look away from’ the actions of one who has been ‘annointed by God’ according to some notable evangelical-fundamentalists who are prominent in our country. So keeping silent about politics is now the evangelical mantra . . . . . ? It doesn’t exactly pass the smell test, no. Silence when innocents are bullied is not becoming of them what preaches Christ to the world, no.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      “But since political options are by nature contingent and never in an entirely adequate and perennial way interpret the Gospel, the priest, who is the witness of things to come, must keep a certain distance from any political office or involvement.”

      When JPII shut down the Social Justice Ministry in the early Eighties, part of that was that clergy could no longer be directly involved in politics (i.e. hold public office); instead they were to educate the laity on Catholic positions and responses regarding cultural (and political) issues.

      At the time, there was a Jesuit in a Congressional(?) seat; he just finished out his term and did not stand for re-election.

    • Silence while journalists are abducted and murdered by national allies does not pass the smell test either. If our national leaders, including the president and those who lead Congress, do nothing beyond blowing a lot of hot air about Jamal Khoshoggi’s abduction/murder, and then continue business as usual with the Saudi regime, they will be selling the nation’s soul for a mess of pottage.

      • Burro (Mule) says:

        Business as usual with the Saudi regime? That’s like saying Edgar Bergen conducted business as usual with Charlie McCarthy.

        Sheesh. The Saudis are our creation.

        • I wonder what Khoshoggi knew that the Saudis felt compelled to send a 15 man team out to get him; that certainly wasn’t caused by a few critical articles in the Washington Post. Perhaps it had something to do with the real extent of the Saudi’s involvement in Osama bin Laden (who Khashoggi was friends with in the 1980s, when the Reagan administration treated bin Laden as a “freedom fighter” against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and gave him funding and materiel), A-Quaida, and 9/11. Maybe it was something that would’ve been embarrassing not only to the Saudis, but to people in Washington D.C. and the American powers-that-be. I’m convinced of it, though it may never come to light. Maybe all those kooks who said that 9/11 was an inside job were right after all; I guess the job never really ended.

        • Hey Burro, what are you thinking about the Russian Orthodox Church’s severance of all ties with the Patriarchate of Constantinople over Ukrainian autocephaly? Do you think it will lead to a schism?

          • If it does lead to schism, which side will you choose? It probably won’t come to that, since the Russian Orthodox Church is so much wealthier and more powerful than Constantinople, and can easily blackmail them into reversing the newly bestowed Ukrainian autocephaly; the Russian really call the shots — Constantinople is an old toothless tiger. But if, against the odds, it did happen, I wonder which side you would, Protestant-like, choose?

            • Burro (Mule) says:

              I am under the omphorion of Constantinople, thus technically I am on their “side” although it remains to be seen if the “schism”, which at this point is real and in force, is going to be honored on the ground here in the States. I expect to be communed in the Russian and Antiochian churches here in Atlanta.

              There are some Russophilic and Hellenophilic sorts that are making a great deal about the schism, but poor, broke ‘Constaninople’ has been owned lock stock and barrel by the CIA since 1948, and the Moscow church is Putin’s in pretty much the same way. It was bound to happen sooner or later. Ukraine is a mess. It never was a country. It barely has a separate language, and almost no government.

              There is no shelter from the storm that is coming on poor sundered Christendom. Evangelicals have embraced a wild man, causing their brethren overseas to shake their heads in disbelief. Rome continues to suffer from sexual scandals and the ‘close but never quite over the line’ heterodoxy of Francis, and the Orthodox continue their time-honored shenanigans of climbing into bed with Caesar. I guess you could just throw up your hands and surrender to disbelief, but that’s what the architects of the storm are counting on.

              • Dostoevsky in his fiction often seems to be thinking of Russia, not Constantinople, as the true home and center of Eastern Orthodoxy. Is that a typical attitude among Russian Orthodox?

                • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

                  “Two Romes have fallen;
                  A third — MOSCOW — stands;
                  NEVER SHALL THERE BE A FOURTH!”

                  And the ROs have a long, long history of sucking up to the Autocrats of All Russia. The RO Church gets to be the official State Religion (with all the accompanying perqs); the Tsar or President and Autocrat gets Divine Right to Rule. Kinda like the deal the Saudi royal family made with the Wahabi decades ago.

              • Maybe Calvin got this much right: we will be saved in spite of ourselves, or not at all….

              • Wait — are you saying that the Central Intelligence Agency “owns” the Greek Orthodox Church? Really?

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            “Two Romes have fallen;
            A third — Moscow — stands.
            NEVER SHALL THERE BE A FOURTH!”

  6. johnbarry says:
  7. Billy Graham welcomed all to his meetings, racially and religiously. He was criticized and ostracized by some Christians for allowing those Christians whom the first group considered non-Christians to be active supporters of his ministry. He also was bold enough to go minister in Russia in 1982, way before the fall of the Soviet Union. He also took a set salary and didn’t just pocket the money that came in. He was a man of integrity. For whoever is interested in learning about Billy Graham, I suggest his autobiography “Just As I Am”.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Unfortunately, his sons and grandsons (except for Boz) are well on the “Rags to Riches to Rags in three generations” route, making bank on being Heirs of House Graham.

  8. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    A comment from an IMonk thread last May:

    Evil is the side most obsessed with Purity.

  9. Hey, Thanks for pulling this together. Loved this post. Very insightful.