The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples




Now and then I find myself beginning to feel despair at the selfishness and determined ignorance of what seems the majority of humankind. There are so many things right now: the mean-spiritedness of our politics, the ravages of hate, the refusal to belief evidence against our prejudices…. At such times I use almost as a mantra a comment by G. K. Chesterton, or rather by his de­lightful character Father Brown, that he had often heard of the problem of evil, but he really didn’t understand what was meant by that. He had no problem un­derstanding evil at all. What left him in wonder and gratitude was the amount of goodness in the world. I have not, in spo­radic attempts, been able to find the ex­act quotation, but I know that it was to­ward the end of one of Chesterton’s sto­ries. If one of you would like to see if you can find it, and are not familiar with Fa­ther Brown, I can promise you a most charming romp through a series of classi­c mystery stories. There’s also that statement itself which struck me power­fully by its truth — true even in times like these. In one sense, of course, the problem of evil is a very real and troubling one. Much of theology is spent in trying to deal with it, whole books have been written about it, and it is arguable that the richest source of converts to Unitarian Universalism is from those who have de­spaired of finding a believable response to it in more tradi­tional religions. The is­sue is two-pronged. Half of it is the ques­tion of why human beings cannot always avoid doing evil, even when they wish to, and the other half is that of unmerited suffering. One of my confusions has al­ways been that some people don’t seem to think that the second half is about evil at all. They seem to think that the term can only be used in relationship to inten­tional harmfulness on the part of human beings. No one, however, will ever be able to convince me that a genetic pre­disposition to breast cancer or the birth of a retarded child are not evils, and since some divine being is often made respon­sible both for merited and unmer­ited suffering as well as being concerned (usually as punisher) in the commission of human evil, I think they are both part of the same issue. After all, if bad things hap­pen as a result of human evil that is on some level an acceptable understand­ing. If something else is causing them, it may be another question, but the evil is still there, and people also want to un­derstand it. The need to understand and justify it is, I think, a part of the vast inci­dence of good that Chesterton viewed with baffle­ment. There is a need in hu­man beings to find and believe in justice, and therefore they need also to justify the evil that they see.

I agree with Chesterton that evil is easy enough to understand, both that of human beings and that of the universe. They are both a condition of existence. It is my conviction that the origin of human evil lies in the survival instinct, and is therefore almost universal in human beings. One, perhaps the only, universal characteristic of living things is the ability and need to survive, both individually and as a species. It is true of plants and animals alike. It makes sense in the context of evolution. Those things that have a great ability to survive pass that ability on to their offspring, and the ones that have the ability are the ones who have the off­spring. The greater the abil­ity the more offspring, and so on. The tenacity and abundance of life seems almost miracu­lous. In every place on this earth, even in the middle of the desert or the bot­tom of the ocean, or the frigid poles, there are living things. In more friendly places there is an abundance of them — always too many even for their own survival, but the species does continue in part because of this overabundance. Human beings are not different from their cousins in this. On the contrary, the survival instinct in humans is more powerful even than their own wills. The very same person who is preoccupied in seriously deciding in what way to take his or her own life, will be just as quick to jump out of the way of an oncoming car as the person who has just reached the peak of happi­ness and expects it to continue.

One of the characteristics of a sur­vivor is the ability to recognize danger and escape from it or overcome it — the fight or flight syndrome of which we have heard so much, which has physical mani­festations in our hormones. It seems to me that if you look carefully at all the things that we call evil that humans do, they can be traced ultimately to fear — the fear that we naturally feel as the result of our ex­traordinarily well-developed survival qualities. The narcissism and greed and lust for power that do so much damage are bulwarks against extinction. Our human sins may actually be self-de­structive, and in the socio- and psy­chopaths they are clearly hideously twisted, but they have the same begin­nings in fear as a consequence of the in­stinct for survival.

We are not simple organisms, of course. We are very complex in many ways, and it is sometimes difficult to see how our fears are related to simple sur­vival, but if you examine and analyze them carefully, they eventually can be understood to come down to that. We are not separate from the rest of the life on this earth. We share in our deepest selves the same basic needs, the same vital characteristics. That is not, however, as Chesterton noted, all the story. It is not even all the story in the other aspect of evil, the destruction and damage of be­ings and things in what often seems a most arbitrary way, and in fact is arbi­trary, no matter what stories we try to in­vent to make it seem otherwise. Unmer­ited suffering is real; vast holocausts are real; that the earth itself will finally die either in fire or ice is also, it seems, in­evitable. Where is the justice there?

Well, who ever said life was fair? This is the most common of common wisdom, and yet huge structures of myth and reason have been built up somehow to make it seem fair, and we continue to cry out against its injustice from our first comprehen­sion of it in early childhood. The most troubling, and perhaps the most beautifully written book in the Bible is the book of Job. Throughout the Old Testament we are told of God’s rewards for goodness and punishment for evil, and yet Job, a good and pious man, is afflicted with suffering. His “comforters” tell him that it must be that he has done evil and is being punished for it, but he and we know that that is not so. It is just because of a bet God has with the devil that Job will remain faithful to him what­ever horrors are visited upon him, and when Job cries out for an explanation, the only answer he gets is a scolding for his puny chutzpah in daring to question the actions of the creator of the universe. Despite that cautionary tale, even believ­ers in the literal truth of Biblical writings continue to believe that there are good reasons that some seem to suffer through no fault of their own, and that God has it all in hand anyway, and besides it will all be made fair after we die. Besides which, most of us are not as upright and pious as Job was, and we can usually, if we search our souls, find something we’ve done worth a bit of punishment. Theolo­gians in the west have struggled with this question over and over again, and the best they have finally come up with is that God has reasons that the reason can­not know. He is so far beyond our com­prehension that his good may seem evil to us. It’s a good argu­ment, but I find it inadequate, nevertheless. If God has a really good reason for al­lowing babies to be born blind or retarded, it’s still not good enough for me, and if this be hubris and blasphemy, make the most of it. 

In eastern religions, the answer has been karma. For many westerners, too, that has seemed a more adequate answer than the ones we have made for our­selves. If bad things happen seemingly undeservedly, it’s because of what hap­pened in a previous life. The same with undeserved bounty. You lay up debts or savings for a future ex­istence, and every­thing that happens is a playing out of that. It has increased in so­phistication over the years and larded with psy­chotherapeutic notions so that every­thing that happens to you not only has a reason but is a lesson to be learned, and once you learn it, it will quit happening. It is a way out of the dilemma, but it is, when you think of it, a rather odd dilemma to be in. There really is a much simpler ex­planation for all of that. Evil happens be­cause it happens. It’s the way of the uni­verse. Fires burn down vast tracts of for­est and certain areas of human habitation because fires burn. Floods drown people because floods happen and people can’t live in the water. Earthquakes happen, and sometimes, as in the great quake in Portugal which was such a crisis of faith for eighteenth century believers, they de­stroy a whole church full of worshippers. Babies are born with genetic flaws be­cause genetic flaws happen. Whole species are destroyed because a meteor or a comet strikes the earth. It just hap­pened. That’s the way things are. Like Chesterton, I have no prob­lem under­standing evil.

Should it not, then, be just as easy to understand good? There is so much more of it. The universe is mostly a beautiful and friendly place to human survivors. The sun warms us by day and the moon and stars light the darkness. The earth turns through the seasons and each one brings health and delight to us. Most ba­bies are born normal and healthy, most adults escape the consequences of trauma until the last and fatal one. We complain because all we hear on the news is violence and sin and suffering, but it is news because it is not our com­mon lot. Murders are too fre­quent and too horrible, but very few of us are mur­dered. Peculation and fraud among our leaders seems sometimes to be universal, but if it were we would not be shocked and angered. In fact, there is goodness all around us. Most people, as long as they feel no threat to their survival, desire to be not only just but generous. They want to both do and be good. They create things of genius and beauty, and all of us enjoy and use those creations. We can be warm in winter and cool in summer, surf the net, fly to Europe, lobby for clean air and water and the well-being of our young and old, give with generosity and love with honor and passion. Why should good­ness be hard to understand when it is so common? Why is it not just the way of the universe and the product of evolution?

 It can certainly be convincingly ar­gued that that is precisely what it is. The world seems good and beautiful to us be­cause it fits our adaptations for survival. Altruism, the promptings of conscience and the development of reason can also be shown to be survival traits, an evolu­tionary advance. Yet this answer doesn’t satisfy me as the same answer satisfies me when I think of evil. Perhaps it is because I care very little, on some level, about the survival of the human species, or of any species, simply as a matter of survival. It is essentially meaningless. I am no idol­ater of life. Yet I do care very deeply about the existence of goodness. If in fact, the product of evolution is this great incidence of goodness, then it is more meaningful than one could oth­erwise imagine. If it is simply the means of our continuance its meaning is lost. To be successful survivors is nice for us, but not in itself good. It is even sometimes pro­ductive of evil.

 I think often of the story I read to you from Genesis of the genesis of the knowl­edge of good and evil. I would argue that we only achieved humanity when we learned to distinguish good from evil, that before we evolved to that level, we were simply another of the animals who lived in the innocent violence of life on this earth, where living things prey upon one another but there is no blame in so doing be­cause the instinct for survival is all there is.  The world could be full of goodness and beauty and we could never know it. With the knowledge of good and evil life becomes more than pure sur­vival. It achieves meaning in the connec­tion to good­ness, it learns of beauty and of the need for creation. Those who know good and evil become, according to the story, equal to the gods. It tran­scends survival. Those for whom good­ness has meaning may choose it over their own survival, may choose it over the survival of their gene pool, may choose it beyond all other things. They may lay down their lives for their friends for no reason except a commitment to love and justice. They may accept un­merited suffering for the sake of their faith in the holy, and a desire for the increase of the good and the creation of loveliness — the goodness and loveliness that is to­day all around us. If its source is really in our­selves, then we are, even in our flawed and fearful weakness, akin to gods indeed. If the grace that we receive is merely its recognition and the urge to participate in it and increase it through our own practice of justice and compas­sion and our creation of beauty then we are graced beyond all things. I do not know and understand the source of goodness as I seem to do that of evil, but I celebrate it now and forever­more.