Not-love: the paradox of evil

The Christian tradition’s best minds concluded that evil has no existence in and of itself.

Contrary to supernatural-themed horror films and “folk theology”, there is no substance called evil that exists anywhere in the universe, corrupting people and causing bad things to happen.

Instead evil is defined as privation or absence of the good, in the same way that darkness is simply the absence of light and cold the absence of heat.

In broad strokes, consider what happened in Genesis:

God created everything, and at each stage saw that it was good. So we have the creator, the ultimate authority, giving each aspect of creation the stamp of approval.

We have God observing Adam and saying “it is not good for the man to be alone”, which is the first instance of something “not good” in creation. Note that God didn’t create the “not good” directly; it is presented as a foreseeable but unintended outcome of good actions, and is soon remedied by the creation of Eve.

So everything is good, and the only “not good” is immediately remedied by God, and everything is good again.

God is love

The significance of everything being good is made apparent when we find out much, much later that God is love. The New Testament reveals that the nature of God is love itself, and God’s love for humanity is expressed in His desire to give us good things, the greatest good being communion with God in love.

Hence “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

The problem of evil

The problem is that despite the assurance of an all-powerful all-loving God, our experience of life contains many things that are not good.

Reading the news and talking to others, we hear about things that are even worse than “not good”, things that are tragic, horrific, and evil.

There may even be things in our own experience we can categorise as evil. But more broadly, anything “not good” comes under that category. As in Buddhism, life itself can seem “unsatisfactory” even if we achieve our goals and satisfy our desires.

The promise of mysticism

Mystics from different religious systems promise that we can experience true love, joy, or bliss in this lifetime. Various saints and mystics have said that they experience great love and joy despite the apparent suffering and evil in life.

They say we can experience this transcendent love, joy, bliss, peace, and so on, because it is the very nature of God, and God is, ultimately, all that exists.

The mystics grapple with paradox in trying to convey their answer to the problem of evil: if God is all-powerful and all-loving, why does he permit evil to exist?

For a mystic, the question has a slightly different angle: if God is love, and God is all, how can there be anything other than love in my experience?

This problem arises in every system of mysticism.

Troubleshooting my own experience

The fundamental question is not theological but pragmatic: why is my experience anything less than the love and joy described by the mystics?

But the pragmatic question is also theological: how is it possible for there to be anything but love and joy in my experience?

The Christian remedy is to love and know God. Non-Christian mysticism echoes the same, with varying emphasis on love or knowledge of the ultimate reality.

But this answer is not complete, because there remains in me something that resists or fails to embrace love and knowledge of God to the necessary degree.

A two-fold problem

So here it is: I need to know pragmatically why I am unable to fully and consistently embrace love and knowledge of God to such an extent that my experience is characterised by perfect love and complete joy.

At the same time this brings us back to the theological problem of how anything other than love and joy could exist in the first place. In other words, the problem of evil.

This is not just a Christian problem. Non-dualist systems like Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta struggle with the same fundamental issue. They posit that the nature of reality is non-dual – that the sense of separation between ourselves and God or the ultimate reality is false. But how does this sense of separation arise in the first place? What sustains it? How can “ignorance” or “nescience” or “delusion” exist if there is nothing but God?

Back to a Christian context: if God made everything good, why do human beings suffer?

I’m skirting around a whole lot of theology here, not because I want to avoid it, but because it faces the same problem from a different angle and I’d prefer to steer clear of the free will debate for now.

Knowledge of good and evil

The answer lies in the very mysterious tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Adam is commanded not to eat of the tree. The serpent tells Eve that if she eats of it she will become like God. God subsequently reiterates that implication…”The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.”

But as we saw at the beginning of this post, evil has no positive existence. Evil is the absence of good. Everything in existence up to that point was good, because God himself created it.

So what evil is there to know? We might think this means “evil things” or “evil options” as if the tree gave Adam and Eve the ability to make malicious moral choices.

But in a universe where only good things existed and where an all-loving God is all-powerful, evil could only have theoretical significance.

Questions that should not be asked/how to ‘break’ a perfect machine

My old boss once told me that when he was at university the department still had old mechanical calculators. Apparently if you divide by zero on a mechanical calculator, it goes into an endless loop of calculation and has to be unplugged or switched off to stop it.

There’s nothing wrong with the machine. It isn’t broken. It’s not technically a design flaw. It’s just that when presented with the absurd or impossible command to divide by zero, the machine goes nuts.

But even thought it’s stuck, the machine is still not broken. If you could find a way to stop that calculation, it would be back to normal.

I think this provides an apt analogy for the knowledge of evil in the human mind. Evil is the absence of good, yet it takes on positive significance in our minds.

What I think happened, what Genesis signifies, is that in the fullness of love and communion with God, Adam and Eve entertained the idea of God’s opposite – God’s absence – and the corresponding absence of love, of goodness, of joy.

Maybe God is capable of knowing his absence, but human beings are not God. We aren’t (obviously) sustained by our own nature, but depend instead on God for our existence. God cannot help but be God, but humans could cease to exist at any moment.

An absurd idea

The idea of evil is absurd.

Yet when we entertain this absurd idea, our peace and joy are shattered, our love falters, and like the machine, we go a little nuts.

Our suffering in life, our failure to embrace love and knowledge of God, is due to entertaining this absurd idea: the idea of not-love.

If you spend enough time examining your own psyche, you will find that all fear and sorrow stems from this idea that the love and joy we desire are or will become absent. At the most basic level we are all afraid of the deprivation of love – the idea of “not-love” as a real or potential threat to our happiness and our existence.

In this sense, the more conventional Christian narrative still holds true: our faith in God is insufficient, because we continue to entertain the possibility that his love is not enough, will not come through for us.

We continue, despite the promises of the Gospel, to fear the spectre of God’s absence or insufficiency.

We’re like a young child secretly worried that his parents will abandon him. And as parents we think we should be able to reassure the child that this will never happen; yet the child himself must see that his own fear is not an unlikely or improbable outcome, but an absurdity, a mistaken conclusion that entirely missed the mark.

Light and shadow

God is often described as light. Evil is appropriately compared to darkness.

In this context, our fundamental error is akin to turning your back on the source of the light, and being terrified by your own shadow.

The shadow has no positive existence in the light. It doesn’t even exist. Yet if we mistake it for a real substance, we might imagine it could swallow us whole and we would never see the light again.

But as John wrote: “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.”

The answer therefore is to recognise the absurdity of the idea of God’s absence. God himself could never doubt his existence or his power or his love, and so for us the corresponding answer is faith in love while refusing to entertain the idea of “not-love”.

In practice this means that any negative emotion such as fear, sorrow, anger, and so on, must have the delusion of “not-love” at its core. You might feel hurt that someone ignores or neglects you, but this hurt only has power because of your belief in “not-love”.

You might be angry at some perceived injustice to you, but this anger, and the fear and sorrow behind it can ultimately be traced back to this belief in the idea of “not-love”.

If you ceased to entertain the idea of “not-love” then there would only be love remaining.

“God is love; whoever abides in love abides in God, and God in him.”

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Love and doubt: the central truth of existence

I’ve been working for a long time to arrive at the central truth of my existence.

In search of answers I’ve read extensively the works of mystics, saints, sages and great teachers from a variety of religious and spiritual traditions.

I’ve read New Age books and talked to psychics and healers.

I’ve studied philosophy in an academic context, and theology in a private one.

I’ve read various texts from psychology and psychotherapy, undergone counselling and hypnosis, examined my quest from the point of view of mental illness and personality disorders.

I’ve tried Yoga, Qigong, martial arts, reiki, and various forms of meditation and prayer.

And through all this I’ve spent more than eighteen years analysing, questioning, struggling and striving, tying myself in knots and trying to untie them again.

What have I learned?

Some parameters

I’ve learned that the pursuit of some truths is unhelpful.

It eventually became clear to me that my path was different from most other people I know. It took longer still for me to stop apologising for this.

Part of me – both for intellectual reasons and for personal ones – has sought to universalise my conclusions. If, for example, I had the thought that “all wealth comes from God”, I would immediately think of counter-examples: drug-dealers, pimps, exploitative corporations and businesses, where clearly people are making money from the exploitation and harm of others.

Is their wealth “from God”?

Well, even asking the question is departing from my original intent. I want to get to the central truth of my existence, not come up with a universalisable moral theology of economics. The counter-examples my mind produces are not a part of my experience. To even consider them in this context is to set up obstacles to what is clearly a more faithful and God-centred view: that all wealth comes from God.

In other words, you can always find excuses to shake your faith and trust in God and in love. You can always find reasons to doubt.

So I took from philosophy a parameter that we could call subjectivism, so long as we don’t get distracted by the broader (and decreasingly relevant) context of that term in philosophy.

Subjectivism in the context of my search for truth means that I am not going to accept at face value the things that are not a part of my experience.

Many bad things happen in the world, don’t they? But in my experience, these global events are just news reports. I’m not looking to call God to account for earthquakes and wars on the other side of the world, I’m looking to call Him to account for my own subjective sense of something wrong in my life, and my experience.

Charity begins at home, or as John Wyclif apparently put it in the 14th Century: Charite schuld bigyne at hem-self.

What I’m looking for is the truth of my existence, and searching for objections in what I have heard from others’ experiences is an unnecessary constraint on finding answers.

Because there are answers I will find that defy the worldly view, and it would be ridiculous to turn to the world to confirm or repudiate answers I’ve sought from God, when the whole point of these answers is that the world could not provide them!

Nothing is impossible for God.

Over time I’ve become aware that my experience is profoundly shaped by my own beliefs, choices, and emotional states. I might be conscious of real, insurmountable limitations and obstacles in the world, and yet those limitations and obstacles have simply evaporated as my belief in them, or my underlying emotional state, has changed.

Like the previous parameter, this often emerges as a conflict between faith and doubt. Love may point in directions that the world or our own experience say is impossible, implausible, or even undesirable. It helps to remember that the limitations and obstacles presented by the world or our past or current experience are at least shaped by, and sometimes wholly constructed from our beliefs and emotions.

This can be as simple as a depressed or anxious person projecting their own negative thoughts onto others, and anticipating social rejection. Or it can be as profound as admitting that the whole of space and time is known to me only as a series of impressions, and that all existence and all consciousness emanates from, and participates in, the being we call God.

God could repair the world, or end it at any moment. Don’t talk about what is and is not possible based on the limitations of your own experience, when our own existence is barely distinguishable from a dream.

Love makes room for itself.

The obstacles and limitations that present themselves in the face of love are not substantial. They subsist foremost in our own doubts and fears, and the corresponding beliefs. They are only as consequential as we allow them to be.

Hence we can choose love over doubt, trusting that the conditions that seem to validate doubt will disappear or be resolved or somehow overcome through love itself.

Otherwise we are caught in an absurd situation, with love or hope that can’t be reconciled with “the world” or our own experience, precisely when what we yearn for, and what brings us true fulfillment, must necessarily repudiate the limitations and obstacles coming from the world.

So with all these parameters in mind, I’ve found that my experience of suffering arises because of complex sets of beliefs and emotions in my own mind, which both shape my experience and are reinforced by it.

If I want to know why my experience feels always insufficient for happiness, then I only need to look at the fears, doubts, and sense of insufficiency in myself.

How do I feel about life, about myself, and about the world?

It turns out that my whole psyche is packed full of conflicted and negative beliefs and emotions.

But by tracing those chains of cause-and-effect backwards, I’ve come at last to the fundamental choice from which all the subsequent flawed efforts stem.

The fundamental choice is a choice between love and doubt. I describe it as doubt rather than fear, because doubt is much more insidious and plausible. Yet doubt originally meant fear or dread anyway. It comes originally from the same root as “two”, and implies duality, double-ness, and the uncertainty evoked by suddenly having two alternatives to consider.

Recapitulating the fall.

Again without seeking a comprehensive theological framework: our original, fundamental choice between love and doubt reflects and recapitulates the fall of man in the garden of Eden.

In essence, human beings were at one with God and in paradise. Yet the serpent tempted them to doubt. 

In Genesis 3, the serpent essentially casts doubt on God’s command not to eat from the tree of knowledge, and defies God’s justification of the command. He presents to Eve, and by proxy to Adam, an alternative option, an option in which God – who is Love itself – has ulterior motives.

And from that moment erupts human suffering with temptation, blame-shifting, and fear dominating the human experience.

This doubt arises in our own lives continually. We have continual opportunities to choose between doubt and love. Yet for most of us the original doubt has grown and developed into a convoluted web of subordinate doubts, fears, temptations, and other psychological maneuvers, all designed to help us avoid, overcome, or shift the suffering that arose from that original doubt.

The original doubt would have been reflected back to us as it shaped our experience. In a vicious circle, our experience would have seemed to vindicate the doubt, in much the same way that a self-conscious, anxious person may act in ways that elicit negative attention from others.

The experience of doubt is painful, since it would have seemed to nullify or render-hollow the prior experience of love, just as the serpent cast doubt on the goodness of God’s motives in commanding the first humans not to touch the tree of knowledge.

To escape this pain, what can we do? Well, we can blame other people for our suffering. Or we can blame ourselves for our suffering. Either option gives us a sense that maybe we can regain the love we lost when we entertained doubt.

But both are false. And both elicit a chain of psychological “moves” that attempt to shift the pain around in the vain hope of eventually removing it.

If you blame yourself for your suffering, then yes you have the hope of changing and redeeming yourself, but you also experience an additional pain of self-blame and recrimination.

And now you must pursue self-improvement and redemption.

It is no coincidence that such a central theme of Christianity is the insufficiency of our efforts to redeem ourselves, and the depiction of Christ’s death on the cross as the one true and eternal sacrifice for our redemption.

I’ve never appreciated the idea that God required a sacrifice, rather it is we who needed to know that our attempts at redemption would never succeed.

We can’t go forward from doubt into love. We need to go back to the original choice, to our own choice and repudiate doubt at the most basic level. That’s why the centrality of God’s love is the most prominent theme in Christianity.

If you choose doubt, no amount of love can overcome it. If you choose love, no trace of doubt can shake you.

Pride and the delusion of self

Seeing parallels between religions as diverse as Christianity and Buddhism depends on a familiarity with the themes expressed in their mystical and esoteric writings.

For example, it is thought by many that Buddhism denies the existence of a soul and that it aims at a nihilistic destruction of the psychological self.

Likewise, many believe that Christianity focuses on heavenly rewards for earthly virtue, through a peculiar filial relationship with a supernatural being, mediated by arcane, seemingly arbitrary laws or commandments.

The reality is that Buddhism and Christianity are neither the same, nor are they entirely different.

But after many years of reading the commonalities have come to the fore, and the differences seem much less significant. I don’t spend time worrying about how reincarnation can be reconciled with the Christian afterlife, because in terms of my own practice these questions are not significant.

What are significant are things like the Christian perspective on pride in relation to the Buddhist perspective on the illusory nature of the self.

Here’s one of my favourite passages on pride, from the 4th Century ascetic monk, John Cassian:

For as he (viz., Lucifer) was endowed with divine splendour, and shone forth among the other higher powers by the bounty of his Maker, he believed that he had acquired the splendour of that wisdom and the beauty of those powers, with which he was graced by the gift of the Creator, by the might of his own nature, and not by the beneficence of His generosity. And on this account he was puffed up as if he stood in no need of divine assistance in order to continue in this state of purity, and esteemed himself to be like God, as if, like God, he had no need of any one, and trusting in the power of his own will, fancied that through it he could richly supply himself with everything which was necessary for the consummation of virtue or for the perpetuation of perfect bliss. This thought alone was the cause of his first fall.

What he’s describing is the fall of Lucifer, who was the greatest of the angels but succumbed to pride and so fell from heaven.

Cassian describes the sin of pride in terms of Lucifer’s false belief that attributed his own greatness to himself rather than to God. Cassian goes on in the context of the subsequent fall of man:

For while he believed that by the freedom of his will and by his own efforts he could obtain the glory of Deity, he actually lost that glory which he already possessed through the free gift of the Creator.

The logic of pride and the fall is the same. It is a mistaken belief in one’s own powers and self-sufficiency. Cassian draws on scripture to demonstrate the contrast between pride and the corresponding remedy of humility:

For the one says, “I will ascend into heaven;” the other, “My soul was brought low even to the ground.” The one says, “And I will be like the most High;” the other, “Though He was in the form of God, yet He emptied Himself and took the form of a servant, and humbled Himself and became obedient unto death.”

Finally, Cassian describes how we can overcome pride:

And so we can escape the snare of this most evil spirit, if in the case of every virtue in which we feel that we make progress, we say these words of the Apostle: “Not I, but the grace of God with me,” and “by the grace of God I am what I am;” and “it is God that worketh in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure.”

That last line is especially significant, as it undermines the freedom of the will and sense of agency that are themselves the greatest symptom of our pride.

This is where I see a direct parallel with Buddhist teaching on the nature of the self. An important part of this teaching is that our sense of self and our cherished identity are a delusion that we take for real. Enlightenment amounts in part to seeing that these selfish thoughts and impressions are not substantial, that there is no self who sits in control of our will and actions.

This is what “puffed up” means in Cassian’s words. Pride is an inflation of our sense of self, til it obscures the reality of our total dependence on God.

The problem with the Christian teaching on pride is that we often interpret it in very limited, human terms. We think pride is just about arrogance, and selfishness is about being inconsiderate of others.

But taken to their extreme we see both in the nature of the fall and in the remedy that pride is much more profound than this. On a spiritual level, pride is a mistaken belief in the primacy and power of our own will. Or to put it more strongly, it is a sense of ownership and control over our will, when in truth “it is God that worketh in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure.”

Christianity is predominantly a devotional religion, focusing on the individual relationship with God. Yet in the depths of this relationship the mystics report a sense of their own negation in God’s love. That is, they experience a union with God that totally changes their own sense of self and agency.

Buddhism is not typically a devotional religion. Instead it focuses on this experience of the negation of the self, without attempting to express in devotional terms the reality into which the self is subsumed.

But in both cases, the obstacle to this insight is the delusion of control, of will, of self-sufficiency. Buddhists will not talk of it in terms of pride and humility, and Christians will not talk of it in terms of self and no-self. Nonetheless it is my belief that they are speaking of the same thing.