A Field Guide to Evil

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Whether we talk about it or not, we hold strong views about evil. So I’d like to share with you some vocabulary about evil that I’ve learned, which can allow us to describe evil a little more accurately than we usually do, especially when our feelings get roused up. I’m not interested in catastrophic evil or cosmic evil. I’m interested in the day-to-day stuff – the times I forget to say thank-you or the times I take a shortcut and inadvertently hurt somebody else who doesn’t take the shortcut.

My personal goal in studying evil is to be able to notice it, to be able to think about what I am doing and why. I am trying to develop my own “Field Guide to Evil.” I want to be able to say: If this evil has this weird shape and that kind of a beak and it feeds on these particular things, then it must be this species, and I can make these predictions. The point is not just to identify evil, like identifying a bird. The point is to avoid it in the first place. Or if not avoid it, then at least not ignore it, and at least know when to say, “I’m sorry.”

The topic of evil is fascinating to many of us. A significant reason behind our fascination lies in the question, “Why does evil exist?” Or more precisely, “If God is good, why does God allow evil in our world?” We are desperate to have that question answered. Some of the greatest minds in history have grappled with this question and have concluded that we don’t know; it’s a mystery. But in spite of this, it’s critically important that we ask the question and try to come up with a response. Not an answer, but a response.

Responses to the question, “Why does God allow evil in the world?” are called “theodicies.” Leibnitz coined the term in 1710. I’m going to describe three theodicies for you. Charles Matthews classifies all theodicies into these three categories. There are a lot of variations, and people continue to make differences and embroider, but theodicies can generally be lumped into these three categories.

The first is the rabbinic theodicy. It says: “We don’t know. It’s a mystery. Never mind. Just wake up and smell the coffee. There’s good and evil in the world, learn to deal with it. And the way you learn to deal with it is: You have an impulse to good and you have an impulse to evil, and whichever one of those impulses you follow, you strengthen it.” And by the way, this very simple, common sense notion is backed up by an enormous amount of psychological experimentation that explains why, neurologically, when you follow one impulse, it gets strengthened. So those rabbis were onto something.

The second theodicy is called the maturational model. This is the “evil teaches you a lesson” approach. You have a teenager in the family, and you give him the keys to the car, and he goes out and drives and doesn’t follow the rules of the road and gets in an accident. The next time he goes out in the car, assuming you ever give him the keys again, he’ll remember the accident, he’ll remember to follow the rules, and he’ll become a better driver. That’s the maturational explanation.

I can imagine a number of situations in my life when that makes perfect sense. Some bad thing happens to me and – not that I feel that I deserved it – but secretly, I am glad because it reminds me not to make that mistake again. But I can also think of situations where this explanation does not fit at all. For example, I had polio when I was one year old. I don’t think my polio was supposed to teach me a lesson. The maturational theodicy is the wrong model to apply to that situation. Unfortunately, a significant number of people misapply this theodicy – believing, for example, that a disability is the result of a mistake or a sin. And if you should find yourself in a discussion with such people, it might be helpful to remember – they’re not idiots, they’re not bad people, they’re just applying the wrong model to this particular situation.

The third theodicy is a little bit complicated. Developed by Augustine, it’s called the privational model. What Augustine said was, “Evil does not exist. There is no thing in the world called evil. What there is is an absence of good.” The best way I can think about this is by thinking about a hole in a shirt. There’s no such thing as a hole; the thing is the absence of fabric. But that absence of fabric has consequences in your life – it lets out heat; it lets in dirt; and it weakens the fabric so that it’s more likely to tear. Now, by extension, you can also imagine that there is no thing called evil in a human community, but you can see how an absence of good can affect people and weaken the community.

The reason that Augustine conceived of evil in this way was to avoid the problem of dualism. Many ancient religions were based on dualism – a good god and a bad god, fighting each other eternally, and our job being to take the side of the good one. Augustine saw the effects of dualism, and he didn’t like it. This was not an ivory-tower problem for him. This was people trying to kill each other. A lot of people tried to kill Augustine over these kinds of questions. It was not theoretical to him. So I think that’s one reason he came up with his overly clever idea that evil is the absence of good.

Now, the key question about these theodicies is not which one is true and which one is false. The question is: Can they be useful? A model is only useful if it fits the task. If you have a map of San Francisco that’s one-hundred-percent accurate, your map will be the size of San Francisco. Then it won’t fit in your glove box. So what we do is simplify. We take out a whole bunch of details until we can fold up the map and put it in our glove box. It doesn’t have to be one-hundred-percent accurate, it just needs to help us get where we want to go. That’s what we need to do with these models of evil. We need to scale them. We need to use them in the right places at the right times.

At one point in my studies I started to worry, maybe I was getting caught in something I shouldn’t be.  But I concluded that if the result of studying evil can be to encourage forgiveness, then it’s worth the trouble.

So, I hope I’ve given you some vocabulary that you find useful in talking about evil. It’s hard to speak clearly about this subject, especially when we hold strong views. But with practice and care, we can begin to talk about evil a little bit more among ourselves and in the wider world. ~~~

Bruce Folsom is a member of San Francisco Friends Meeting (PYM) and helps organize the Western Region of Christian Friends Conference.

This essay was excerpted from a much longer text – the transcript of an eighty-minute talk that Bruce Folsom gave to San Francisco Friends Meeting in January 2013. Read the full transcript here.  Listen to a recording of Bruce's presentation here.