Whence cometh evil? Why, if everything is so good in the Genesis accounts of creation, are things, well, so often so bad? The Judeo/Christian/Islamic understanding offers a way to think about the question of evil, of suffering and death that speaks, perhaps, to our contemporary world in its certainties and uncertainties.
Simply by beginning with the idea of creation as an orderly process whereby things are called into being and distinguished from one thing and another, order as good is strongly affirmed. This changes the whole perspective on the question of evil because the problem can’t be with the created order, with the world itself, as it were, nor with God, the intellectual and spiritual principle of the being and knowing of all things. In some cosmogonies - accounts of reality - order arises out of primordial chaos but, as a consequence, there is always a sense of uncertainty about the order of things, always the fear that chaos might overturn the order of the world. This ancient fear has its counterpart in the fears and anxieties of our own world. It is part of the contemporary disconnect from the world and from our own embodied being. Evil, it seems, is somehow ‘out there’, somehow external to us.
Genesis suggests to the contrary that the problem is not simply ‘out there’ in the fabric of the world nor is it simply ‘other people’ whom we demonize. The problem is with us, at least in terms of an aspect of our humanity. Are we not part of that good order of creation? To be sure, as made in the image of God, as the dust into which God breathes his spirit, at once connected to everything else in creation and yet distinct and having the responsibility of care for the order by acting out of the image and spirit of God that properly defines us. Unde malum, then? Whence evil? The poet John Milton offers an answer in his great poem, Paradise Lost. “Of man’s first disobedience and the fruit of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste brought death into the world and all our woe”.
‘Adam in the garden is given a commandment not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The commandment has to be seen as also being good, as being part of the good order of things. At issue, then, is how do we come to know good and evil? Or to put it in another way, how do we come to know that we know? Milton names the problem as disobedience. We learn but through separation, through contradicting the basis of our own knowing and being, through the experience of suffering and death, quite unlike God who knows evil through knowing the good. Yet we learn and indeed embark upon the arduous journey of education, not to return to the Garden, for there is no going back, no unthinking what we have thought and done. There can only be our learning through repentance - metanoia - literally, our thinking after the things of God. We learn the good in part by learning and experiencing evil.
Genesis Three presents us with the story of the Fall. The serpent is a creature and therefore good, but the serpent represents an important aspect of our humanity. We are questioning, thinking creatures. But in what kind of way? The serpent asks the first question in Genesis. “Did God say?” Yet we know what God said: “do not eat of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil”, as the woman affirms. The serpent proposes another interpretation, a subversion really of what we know as good. It is a partial truth. Thus, the first question seeks to undermine truth rather than encourage a deeper understanding of reality. True questions seek to know and illuminate our minds, not deceive and betray.
Thus, the importance of the next four questions in Genesis which are all God’s questions to us, and which awaken us to ourselves, to self-consciousness, albeit through the realization of disobedience and separation. “Where are you?” “Who told thee that thou was naked?” “Hast thou eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” “What is this that you have done?” Powerful questions that awaken us to self-consciousness and as such launch us on the longer journey of learning through the experience of suffering and death about the deeper truth and goodness of God. The problem is with us in our wilful contradiction of the truth which we have received.
This story complements the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels which enlarges upon the theme of evil cosmically. Angels, too, like us, are spiritual and rational creatures. Unlike us they are not embodied beings. They are the ideas and thoughts of God in creation but, in the biblical view, there is the idea of that which opposes God pictured in Revelation as “the great dragon”, “that old serpent called the devil and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world”, echoing Genesis 3. The devil, the serpent (our reason too in disarray), exists in contradiction with his own being. To use a later image for the devil, Lucifer, meaning light-bearer, turns his back on the light of God and thus is darkness: the Prince of Darkness and the Prince of Lies. Every lie, after all, depends and has no power apart from the truth.
St. Michael and the Angels who hold to God and his truth overcome that old serpent, the fallen angels and his company. We are reminded yet again that the power of the good is always greater than the power of evil which can only seek to undermine and destroy. They do so through the blood of the Lamb, Christ as the lamb of God in the Christian understanding.
Such ideas belong to the radical meaning of human freedom and dignity for they recall us, albeit through the negatives of sin and death, to the truth of our humanity and to the beginning of the long journey of redemption. It is about coming to terms with ourselves and being open to reclaim what belongs to our truth and dignity which is found in God.
Michaelmas is the name for the first academic term at the ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge from which our School derives its traditions and history. We are meant to think with the Angels about the principles that belong to God’s creation and to the radical meaning of ourselves as spiritual and rational creatures. Angels strengthen our wills and illuminate our understanding by reconnecting us to God and creation. They show us the better way, the way of questions which open us out to truth rather than seeking to manipulate things to our own interests and pursuits. We are in the company of angels in thinking the thoughts of God in creation and in thinking about the good of one another in the land where we find ourselves.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, Head of English & ToK Teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy