Tuesday, April 13, 2010


I have written an essay (which will be in this coming weekend’s parish bulletin: see www.oursaviorparish.org) on the nature of evil, reflecting on a quote from N. T. Wright’s book Evil and the Justice of God. For those who might not know his name, he is the Anglican bishop of Durham in England and the leading Biblical theologian in the English language.

The essay was triggered by the new (old?) revelations of sexual abuse of children by priests, in America, in Ireland, and in Germany (need I add the Catholic Church is scarcely the only institution afflicted with this sin?). It was also triggered by my thoughts at and after last evening’s Yom ha-Shoah commemoration, remembering the Holocaust. Among the speakers was a woman who survived the death camp of Auschwitz, and an American soldier who was a liberator at Dachau.

What is there to say about the problem of evil, especially when we are confronted by abuse of children or systemic genocide? Whatever else is true, there better not be any cheap answers or pretending that the problem is only a “problem.”

I would like to offer two observations. The first is a quote from Wright’s book and is a commentary on pedophilia. The other comes from the writings of a survivor of the death camp, but its importance is much larger than that.

Wright accuses much of “modernity” (or, more properly, “post-modernity”) with having several tendencies, including looking at the world with blinders that encourage us to ignore evil until it smacks us upside the head. He writes:

Choice is an absolute good for everyone… We all know that sexual licentiousness creates massive unhappiness in families and individual lives, but we live in the twenty-first century, don’t we, and we don’t want to say that adultery is wrong. (We should perhaps note that only two generations ago many communities regarded adultery the way they now regard pedophilia, which is worrying on both counts.)

This last parenthetical comment is almost a throwaway line, but it is crucially important for us as we grapple with evil.

The second comment comes from the conclusion to Part I of Man’s Search for Meaning, the masterpiece of psychiatrist/Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl:

A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determing. What he becomes—within the limits of endowment and environment—he has made out of himself. In the concentration camps, for example, in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.
Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who has invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who has entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.

The question “Why is there evil?” is less important than “Why are there evil tendencies in me?” And both are less important, by far, than the answer to the question “What will I do with my tendencies?” It’s terribly embarrassing when such questions are brought home. But where else should answers be sought? If charity begins at home, so do accountability and responsibility. And that means “me” before it means “us” or “them.”


  1. The main emphasis for me to ponder is taken from Victor Frankl:'Man ultimately self-determining'. Man has both potentialities within himself-- which one is actualized depends on decision, not on conditions. Perhaps it's not fair to insert another frame of reference, but it has intruded in my thoughts. Speaking only of the varied psychiatric diagnoses of the mentally ill, and the ambiguity faced by society, what is truth? Is the evil perpetrated by an abnormal mindset caused by some genetic factor? Or is the perpetrator one with a pronounced spiritual deficit who chooses evil
    because he is a sociopath with no conscience? Yes, God does know, but meanwhile, what is the most just way of making such a determination?

  2. In the long run, and in light of Matthew 7:1, I think the only proper questions are "How do I choose? How have I formed MY conscience?" Here, the "just way of making such a determination" is based on truth--willingness to see and acknowledge the truth about my own desire/inclinations/choices.


  3. We all know that sexual licentiousness creates massive unhappiness in families and individual lives, but we live in the twenty-first century, don’t we, and we don’t want to say that adultery is wrong.

    We should perhaps not let rhetoric get in the way of reality when making a point. Most people, in fact, DO find adultery morally wrong:


    An excerpt from the article:

    The overwhelming majority of U.S. residents believe adultery is morally unacceptable, a Gallup poll released Thursday indicated.

    The Values and Beliefs update, done last month, found 92 percent of those surveyed said extramarital sex is wrong.

    Other polls find similar results.

  4. There is no doubt that confusion among the faithful is continuing, as clergy, lecturers, religious and teachers differ on fundamentals. For whereas the orthodox accept the teaching authority of the Church as established by Christ and that there is such a thing as objective truth, the modernist mindset asserts one's own authority and declares that truth is subjective or relative. An example would be the question that Pontius Pilate asked of Jesus Christ; What is Truth? It seems that from Pilate's perspective, Truth is subjective, and relative to what (I) want it to be, or what is convenient from the frame or formation of my own conscience, even if formed outside the parameters of TRUTH/Jesus Christ. As satan put forth to Eve, you can be a God, or as God.
    Are we Gods? Has pride and arrogance reached this climax? In deed we have a serious problem