light and darkness

Good and evil – and beyond - Part 1

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Is there a sense in the never-ending game of good and evil? We can get some insight into this issue which can lead us beyond our world.

Some people often use the words: “Everything is well”. They include things like relaxing in the evening, reading or watching a thriller. On the cover of a crime story (a number one bestseller) I recently read the words: “It is simply good: perfidious, abysmal and complex”. These aspects seem to be successful. 

What fascinates us about such an advertisement? Why are crime stories so intriguing? Do they tell us something about ourselves? Can we find an analogy within us? Do we unconsciously want to get to know that which we feel within us?

“I cannot imagine a crime that I have not committed in my thoughts”, is a sentence that was supposed to be said by Goethe. Bad things are in the thoughts and feelings of everybody.

In the New Testament Jesus explained to a youngster who called him “good master”: “Nobody is good, except God” (Mark 10, 17). 

Assaults of others, interference into the life of others have always happened. It often begins harmlessly. Someone meant well, it was just a joke. But then things turn. People are carried away and do things that are sometimes so monstrous that there are no words to describe it.

What is there within us that we can suddenly become afraid of each other? We are friendly to each other and then something happens and we are scared of each other.

About the place of evil

After the time of the Nazis, a philosopher of the 20th century, Hannah Arendt, intensively dealt with the question of what evil actually is. She came to an amazing and important conclusion, namely that “the great evil is not radical, it has no roots and because it has no roots, it has no limits, it can become unimaginably extreme and spread across the whole world.“[1]

Not being radical and without roots means: Evil does not reach into the deepest depths of a human being. It stays in an outer region to which also our thoughts and feelings belong, despite its horror. There, it can form monstrous figures. It can grasp almost anybody and yet it has no access to the innermost core of a human being, to that which is his true identity.

In the first letter to the Corinthians in the Bible there is a sentence that we would like to quote in this context: Love “does not reckon with evil” (1st Cor.13, 5). The love, which is meant here, is the divine love, the power of the center of the human being. It is also said: “It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1st Cor. 13, 7). This means that it is tolerant towards evil, but it never attributes it to the innermost core of a person, since there is no evil.

In our life reality things are a bit different. Here, we ascribe the evil deed to someone, we must do so because this is where it takes place. Everybody must take responsibility for what he does.

Where do the impulses of evil come from?

There is an important aspect: What happens in the world and in the life of each individual is influenced by their past. We live according to certain patterns. A part of this is also the wealth of experiences which are within our memory. Everything that happened continues to have an effect. Nothing is ever completely over. The past is present as an undissolved shadow, invisible and hazy. Our self-assertion, our fight for the development of the ego are shown in it. This is true individually as well as collectively. Sometimes the forces of the past are so compacted that they discharge over individuals, groups and peoples like a downpour of rain. This is also happening on a global scale right now.

Paul sees real and invisible powers in that and calls them “the evil spirits in the heavens”. He says: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.“  (Eph. 6, 12).

Why is that evil? A lot of good has been done in the past as well. All of that which comes from old times and continues on binds us to the earth if it is constantly repeated. It keeps us from behaving out of the present and its possible inspiration. The past must be processed, transformed and redeemed. Our earth is a huge working field and everybody has a task here, mostly without our knowledge.

The Manichees, a worldwide spiritual trend from the first centuries of our calendar, professed this task and united with the love which comes from the divine. Being touched by it, they said: «Transform the evil through Love so that it will be good.” Their way led beyond this world. Not without reason did the ruling authorities fight them with fire and the sword.

About the relative and the absolute

So, what is good? And what is evil? The two terms are connected, they are related, they define each other. We can only know what is evil if we know what is good. Good and evil, the way we know them, are something relative. That which is good for someone, might be evil or bad for someone else. From our perspective we cannot reliably know what is good and what is evil.

Let us look at an example from the Quran: The 18th sura tells us how a person who is gifted by God’s grace commits deeds which, from our perspective, are evil. He makes a hole in the floor of a ship so that it sinks and he kills a person (sura 18:16 ff.). Moses accompanies him and protests against it. But his eyes are opened and he recognizes that a positive development for the future has become possible through these deeds.

Besides the relative there is also the absolute. This means that there is a superordinate perspective. We also have a relationship with the absolute. The mysterious center of the human being is a part of the absolute. It is the divine element in man. It is, as the wisdom of the peoples say, the absolute good, the sole good which Jesus talks about. Our conscience is a distant echo of this, at least if we still have some access to the absolute within us.

From our perspective we cannot see a deeper sense in evil. However, it is different when seen from the perspective of the absolute.

to be continued in part 2 )

 


[1]  Hannah Arendt, Some Questions of Moral Philosophy, Chapter 2, in: Responsibility and Judgment, Penguin Random House, 2005.

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