I plan to respond tomorrow to Kristor’s comments to my post, “Orthodoxy and Evolution,” the topic of which was continued in “Kristor on the Fall.” Today, though, I would like to consider the prevalence of evil in Christianity. No, not like that! This isn’t the New York Times. Rather, I think that Christians are more wont than others to think deeply about evil, and I suspect that we are best constituted intellectually to do so. Evil is a special problem for us. For almost all pagans, evil is just a fact of reality; it is not something that holds much interest. The problematic aspect of evil for pagans simply means that it is to be avoided when possible; there is no inherent metaphysical puzzle. For the Abrahamic traditions, however, evil becomes a metaphysical thorn in one’s theological side. For we monotheists believe that God is the really real and that God is entirely good. Creation, then, is the product of God, having no origin or constituent reality apart from God. Whence, then, comes evil? For we follow not Zoroaster or Mani; we do not interpret the history of being as a perennial war between the forces of light and darkness. For us, light is all that there is, and darkness is merely the absence of light. The metaphysical status of evil is entire parasitic, though such a metaphor only suggests what is truly unintelligible. To speak of evil is necessarily to bastardize language.
Given this Abrahamic legacy, why do I propose that Christians have the peculiar burden of conceiving evil? After all, are not rabbinical Jews also the heirs of Job’s lessons? I think that Christians have thought more about theodicy simply because Christianity is more hospitable to philosophy than rabbinical Judaism, wherein the legal emphasis saps mental and spiritual energy. Despite the fact that rabbinical Jews have a long tradition of educational achievement and notwithstanding the natural advantages in intelligence so prevalent in the rabbinical community, there were not many Jewish philosophers after antiquity. I doubt that the legalistic focus of the rabbinical community was fertile ground for spirits such as Philo. Maimonides and Spinoza come to mind as the exceptions, though Spinoza represents the beginning of the secular age. Following Jewish emancipation and the widespread rejection of rabbinical tradition, there has been an explosion of Jewish intellectual activity in every philosophical domain. I attribute the paucity of Jewish philosophical contribution during that long interim to the rather antiphilosophical training of rabbinical study. After Spinoza, rabbinical Jewish philosophers have philosophized in tension with their rabbinical heritage. Strauss comes to mind as the best and most self aware example of this tendency.
I suspect that a similar explanation holds for the Mohammedans. In the first centuries of the Crescent’s conquest, there were many formidable philosophers who continued the Greco-Roman tradition. Yet, as the theologians (really, legal scholars) gained control of intellectual activity, fields besides legal theory became barren in the Dar al-Islam. I do not understand this history, though. It is possible to have a legal focus and still to have a flourishing culture of inquiry. Averroes was a lawyer, and yet he was one of the greatest philosophers of his time. Then, again, we have Thomas More. I suppose that exceptions will always surface.
Christians, however, have always engaged philosophy, as we can see in every age from Paul’s speeches to the pagans to Benedict XVI’s addresses today. While there have always been intellectual anti-intellectuals like Tertullian, Athens has always had a place in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem. Christians have also faced legalistic temptations, but even the law of God for Christians has been more of an exercise in natural law thinking than an exposition of particular commandments. The general commands in the gospel invite broad reflection rather than casuistry. Furthermore, as a matter of history, Christians were absorbing and transforming Greco-Roman culture just as the rabbinical Jews were purging such from their scripture and tradition.
So, Christians have historically been more engaged in and open to philosophy. What does this have to do with the problem of evil? Well, let us contrast a philosophical discussion of the problem of evil with one that works within a legal framework. The philosophical approach will examine all aspects of the problem of evil, forcing a religion to deal with rather indelicate questions. For it is in the nature of a believer to fall before God and to submit to a higher wisdom. The problem of evil, though, requires God to be put on trial in a way. For it is an explicit inquiry into the justice of God that calls into question basic theological and metaphysical doctrines. By contrast, an inquiry into the problem of evil within the context of religious law does not impugn the goodness of God or of God’s law. Rather, it presupposes the goodness of the law to comment and act upon the human condition, where the problem of evil is one of human moral failing. The law’s reputation is only reinforced as the legal scholar notes the sagacity and justice of the divine legislation.
It is then no surprise that the profound treatment of the problem of evil has come from Christian thinkers, especially ones well acquainted with the philosophical tradition. Note that I previously mentioned that almost no pagans have an interest in the problem of evil. The Greek philosophical tradition shows some counterexamples. To see the problem of evil, one must have a Parmenidean understanding of the stakes involved. One must consider being as such rather than merely commenting on various phenomena that one witnesses. For only an attempt to get to the ultimate will make contradiction problematic. Oppositions (such as good and evil) as diverse elements of reality are not that interesting. Yet, when one tries to get to the really real, such oppositions become very important. For how do both opposites inhere in or come from the same source?
In addition to this Parmenidean concern, one must have an understanding of the good. Whether we attribute his awareness and love of the good to Diotima or to his daimon, we must admit that the pagan Socrates devoted his life to pursuing the good, even unto death. Providence combined Parmenidean metaphysical inquiry with the Socratic devotion to the good, and God thus created Plato. Beyond the Platonic legacy, I know of no other pagan for whom there really is a problem of evil. Evil just is. For Platonists and their heirs, evil is not. Christians knew the same truth, and they took the spoils of Egypt from philosophy.
Update: See “Unde Malum,” “Kristor Promotes Ignorance,” “Kristor Elucidates the Darkness,” “Before Choice,” and “Kristor Poses Evil Problems” for this post’s continuation.