If creation and the natural order are good, indeed very good, then unde malum, from where does evil come?
Our reading of the opening chapters of Genesis has considered creation as orderly and in principle intelligible. We have asked ourselves about where our humanity fits in with respect to the pageant of creation. Genesis 1 argues that we are at once connected to everything in creation but are also uniquely said to be made in the image of God and are charged to act in the image of God the Creator in terms of our care and concern for creation. This, we suggested, counters the more modern idea of our exploitation, manipulation, and so-called technocratic dominance of nature.
The second Chapter of Genesis read on Tuesday complements the first chapter with respect to the place of our humanity. In a more intimate manner than the thundering and impressive pageant of Genesis 1, our humanity (‘adam) is said to be formed of dust from the ground into which God has breathed his spirit. Nothing could emphasize better the connection of our humanity to the natural world. In short, it humbles us. As we have noted before, the collective term ‘adam plays on the word ‘adhamah referring to the dust. We are dirt, as it were! Dust! But we are the dust into which God has breathed his spirit. Such is the dust of dignity, the dignity of our humanity. And in this account, ‘adam is given a commandment not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. To be given a commandment presupposes human rationality. It further confirms what it means to be made in God’s image. All good but, then, whence evil?
The story of the Fall in Genesis 3 provides an account of evil and in an intriguing way, namely, through the contrast of questions. The very first question in the Bible is that of the beguiling serpent, a symbol of human reason in denial and in contradiction with itself. Did God say? But we know what God said. The serpent insinuates another way of thinking, another interpretation, not to understand but to undermine what in fact is known. Thus, we disobey and act contrary to what we know. The story reveals the age-old nature of the human condition in the conflict between reason and will, between what we know and what we do. Paul captures this dilemma succinctly and brilliantly: “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do” (Rom. 7.19). It starts here with the questions of Genesis 3.
The first question seeks to undermine what is known; the next four questions of God to our humanity awaken us to self-consciousness, to an awareness of our separation from God and truth. This is the great insight of the Jewish Scriptures which informs the thinking not only of Judaism but of Christianity and Islam and of the forms of ethical discourse that are perhaps still with us. Where are you? Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat? What have you done? These questions confront us with ourselves and with the paradox of the Fall. At once a fall away from God, it is also a falling into reason albeit from the side of the experience of suffering, the experience of good and evil self reflectively.
With the question of the serpent, we turn away from what we know. With the questions of God, we are returned to truth.
This way of thinking marks the beginning of the journey of learning. In our separation from God, we become aware of the truth of God and the created order from which we are separated. Our way back to God can only be through repentance. The word is metanoia which is our thinking upon what our thinking and being depend, God; it is, literally, our thinking after God. Even in our awareness of our separation from God and nature, we are being returned to God albeit through the path of suffering and death.
“Where does evil come from?”, the Polish-American poet, Czeslaw Milosz, asks and answers in his poem, Unde Malum. “It comes from man/always from man/only from man”. But it comes through an awakening to truth and reason. Later theological traditions will speak of the story of the Fall as felix culpa, O happy fault. Why? Because in being awakened to self-consciousness, we begin to enter upon the path of redemption, the journey of learning about the much more radical nature of God whose goodness is prior to all our sins and follies and whose goodness is greater than sin and evil; the God who alone brings good out of evil.
The questions of Genesis 3 re-echo and reverberate down through the ages from the story of Cain and Abel to the Parable of the Good Samaritan, for instance. We are reminded of the primacy of intention in such questions. Are our questions cynical and in denial and despair of the pursuit of truth and goodness? Or do they belong to the desire and longing for the truth and goodness of God? The great insight is that the good is always greater and prior to evil which in itself is nothing. A lie, after all, is powerless without the truth which it presupposes. A lie only works on the assumption of truth. So too, evil is but a privation of the good.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, Head of English & ToK TeacherChair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy