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
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