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.”


Philosopher rejects Orthodoxy, Christianity, all religion

Modern philosopher rejects Orthodoxy -> Christianity -> all religion as incompatible with philosophy:

“For these reasons I have come to regard religious commitment as incompatible with philosophy. The lover of wisdom, the philos-sophos, is one who never ceases searching and questioning, even if they become – like Socrates, the “gadfly of Athens” – irritating and infuriating, and are ostracised or condemned by their society. The life of the mind as practiced by Socrates is not well suited to church membership, or any religious affiliation for that matter other than perhaps liberal groups like Ikon. Institutional forms of religion, at least, will sooner or later put a stop to questions and demand answers, since it is the answers that define the boundary and identity of the group. For the philosopher, however, answers are always fluid and provisional; the only constants are the questions, and therefore the path to wisdom must be a solitary one.”

Lengthy, but worth a quick read. I can sympathise with some of it, but the ultimate objections seem strangely facile.  The author, Nick Trakakis, is a senior lecturer in Philosophy at Australian Catholic University where I was temporarily a PhD student.  I never met him, but had some brief interaction in an administrative context.

The comments are well worth reading. A sound reply comes in one of the early comments:

“(1) Weren’t all the “logical” problems with Christianity evident from the start? What makes them become at some point a sufficient reason for rejecting Christianity? What suddenly gives the principle of non-contradiction (so narrowly understood!) priority over the source of being and the apophatic way? What is the source and grounding of this logic and what are its scope and limitations? (2) Isn’t this rejection of Orthodoxy and Christianity and “commitment” for questioning inevitably a kind of exclusivism of its own? And doesn’t this exclusivism arise from a too logical-intellectual understanding of the very complicated ways our belonging to any religion or tradition is made up of practical commitments and systematic doubt and communitarian loyalties and more?”

More pithily:

“I understand your position, but do you? I am unsure as to how one reconciles the argument outlined in your paper, with your position as “Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the Australian Catholic University”.”

Okay, the comments are quite enjoyable:

“As for His Eminence or Blessedness or whatever-title-he-goes-by, Thich Nhat Hanh (whose picture has started appearing in Theology and Religious Studies Department almost by magic!): He is no LESS exclusivist than Timothy Ware in his outlook . . . which is why he’s a Zen Buddhist monk and not a monk of the Rule of St. Basil the Great. Please, read the work of inter-religious and ecumenical scholar Gavin D’Costa, who has already carefully demolished the myth that somehow pluralist views of religious truth are in some way not exclusivistic. They are — except, they’re couched in “pluralistic”-sounding jargon.

As for the conception of what Dialogue ought to be. Well, what a very EXCLUSIVIST definition. People come at dialogue from many different angles and with different motives . . . or, shouldn’t they? Not every person and group would accept that Dialogue is some kind of search for truths that each one’s religion doesn’t have. Why? Because some religions are based on the claim of an ultimate revelation (Christianity, Islam) or a special choice (Judaism) or of just having been around forever and from the beginning (Hinduism). Trakakis might know a lot about Orthodoxy; apparently, he doesn’t know so much about other religious belief systems . . . or, at least, he wants to collapse and crush them down into his pluralistic, open-ended view of Dialogue.”


“To sum: A philosopher on the payroll of a Catholic Institution publicly repudiates the Christian religion in particular for being intolerant towards the “true” (read – materialist) search for truth. He then, unsurprisingly, calls for a V2 ‘renewal’ within the Orthodox Church – all the while forgetting it is the traditional churches that are indeed regaining numbers (e.g. Latin mass communities). The author then styles himself as a lover of wisdom and compares himself to Russell and Socrates (an awkward cliche). All the while pushing a left-learning social philosophy. It’s just all so… typical.”

There are two very good replies on the site arguing that philosophy is not at all incompatible with religion, or rather, that Trakakis’ depiction of the interplay between religion and philosophy is by no means definitive:

I guess the moral of the story is that you can’t use “philosophy” as an excuse for ceasing to be religious. But perhaps there is something in philosophy that attracts people who are ambivalent about religion?

I can sympathise with this as someone who is and has been attracted to philosophy, or something in or about philosophy, and yet experiences great ambivalence about religion. I’d hate to end up a cliche of pluralism, and I’m yet to see depictions of possible pluralist principles that don’t make me cringe on some level. I hope it is not in vain to swear that I will never ever describe myself as “spiritual but not religious”.

Philosophy has given me a way of entering into religion, but it is not the common way. Indeed the “common way” is a stumbling block, and many of us attracted to philosophy are already quite uncommon by definition.  In some religions the peculiarities of a philosopher would find a welcome home. Variegation of spiritual practice and depth of understanding would be assumed from the outset. But in other religions, including Christianity, the merit of the philosopher’s approach is held in check by the assurance that God’s grace will flow not even to the humble and the poor, but primarily to them.

Christianity depreciates elitism. It specifically eschews great depth of understanding in favour of simplicity, because the work of salvation is not accomplished through human merits. In other words, the philosopher’s temptation to look down on the common folk with their obviously flawed ways of worship and prayer and theology is already marked out and condemned in the Christian tradition.

Which is not to say that there is no room for philosophy and theology and intellectual work in Christianity, just that it is as much an “extra-curricular” activity as sport, engineering, music, and mathematics.  “Philosophers are deeply holy people” said no one, ever.

There’s a famous letter written by a Zen master to a Samurai, in which the Zen master describes the deeper significance of the Bodhisattva Kannon – a kind of Buddhist “Goddess of Mercy” – who is sometimes represented as having a thousand arms and a thousand eyes:

The ordinary man simply believes that it is blessed because of its thousand arms and its thousand eyes. The man of half baked wisdom, wondering how anybody could have a thousand eyes, calls it a lie and gives in to slander. But if now one understands a little better, he will have a respectful belief based on principle and will not need the simple faith of the ordinary man or the slander of the other, and he will understand that Buddhism, with this one thing, manifests its principle well.

All religions are like this. I have seen that Shinto especially is like this.

The ordinary man thinks only on the surface. The man who attacks Buddhism is even worse.

Philosophers are not “ordinary men”, but I think it is a mistake to take “extraordinary” to mean superior, and, à la Trakakis’ non-exclusivist yearnings, it is a mistake to think that the philosophically-minded among us are implicitly further along some unnamed path than the hoi polloi who just live their lives all unexamined.

We cannot generalise about the inner lives of religious believers. While not philosophically, at least psychologically: what is “true” for me is not “true” for others. If liturgy or doctrine or devotion means nothing to you, isn’t it more befitting a philosopher to wonder why this is the case, how it could be different, to reconcile or at least comprehend the conflict between one’s own beliefs, desires, and sensibilities and those of others, rather than assert one’s own ambivalence, conflict, and doubt under the guise of some noble search for truth?

At risk of disappearing down a relativist rabbit-hole, I’ll extend this principle to Trakakis’ confession: I don’t know what’s going on with him, but personally I would feel it a cop-out to tell myself that I’m giving up on religion because the noble, questioning spirit of philosophy cannot bear the limitations of “creeds” and “faith” and the “exclusivism” implicit in believing something rather than doubting everything.

Maybe there is a place for people who for whatever reason cannot reconcile themselves with “organised religion”? But finding a place does not presuppose or require asserting one’s personal difficulties as objective reality. Being interested in philosophy does not demonstrate that one is closer to objective reality; it could mean one is simply more rigorously, more self-assuredly deluded.

Being a philosopher is not a sign of psychological health or good judgement. Feeling that one’s personal and professional interest is intellectually laudable can be a cover for an imbalanced and dysfunctional inner life, something that our religious traditions warn against.

My failures as a philosopher have at least the good fortune of keeping open the idea that my interest in philosophy, my thinking style, and my inexhaustible search for certain truths, are rooted more in negative personality traits than in “love of wisdom”.

But even this tentative position may be temperamentally determined. How typical for a melancholic philosopher to worry that their whole identity might be a feel-good facade to distract from profound personal failings. A choleric philosopher might have an easier time believing that their own peculiarities indict the rest of the world.


Yesterday a friend more or less demanded that I offer some kind of Daoist reflection on the contents of the Beatitudes, based on Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth.

The scandal of the Cross is harder for many to bear than the thunder of Sinai had been for the Israelites. In fact, the Israelites were quite right when they said they would die if God should speak with them (Ex 20:19). Without a “dying,” without the demise of what is simply our own, there is no communion with God and no redemption. Our meditation on the Baptism has already demonstrated this for us—Baptism cannot be reduced to a mere ritual.

Obviously the crucifixion and the person of Christ give a focal point and an historical finality that is lacking in Daoism. But the psychological premise is by no means foreign: to emulate the Dao, we must empty ourselves of all our selfish interests and desires. As Laozi 49 states: “The Sage has no heart of his own; He uses the heart of the people as his heart.”

“Dying” underlies the principle of inversion at the heart of the Beatitudes.

The Beatitudes, spoken with the community of Jesus’ disciples in view, are paradoxes—the standards of the world are turned upside down as soon as things are seen in the right perspective, which is to say, in terms of God’s values, so different from those of the world. It is precisely those who are poor in worldly terms, those thought of as lost souls, who are the truly fortunate ones, the blessed, who have every reason to rejoice and exult in the midst of their sufferings. The Beatitudes are promises resplendent with the new image of the world and of man inaugurated by Jesus, his “transformation of values.”


The paradoxes that Jesus presents in the Beatitudes express the believer’s true situation in the world in similar terms to those repeatedly used by Paul to describe his experience of living and suffering as an Apostle: “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Cor 6:8–10). “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor 4:8–9). What the Beatitudes in Luke’s Gospel present as a consolation and a promise, Paul presents as the lived experience of the apostle. He considers that he has been made “last of all,” a man under a death sentence, a spectacle to the world, homeless, calumniated, despised (cf. 1 Cor 4:9–13). And yet he experiences a boundless joy.

These paradoxes are likewise present in the Laozi, professing the inversion of worldly values in accordance with the Dao. Consider verse 8:

The highest good is like water. The goodness of water lies in benefiting the myriad things without contention, while locating itself in places that common people scorn. Therefore it is almost exactly like the Dao.

The image of water is a common symbol or metaphor of the Dao, but the paradox of “reversion” goes deeper:

The crooked will be whole;
The bent will be straight;
The empty will be full;
The exhausted will be renewed;
The few will win out;
The many will be thrown into confusion.
Therefore the sage holds to oneness
And in this way serves as the shepherd of the world.
He has no regard for himself, and so is illustrious;
He does not show himself, and so is bright;
He does not brag, and so is given merit;
He does not boast, and so his name endures.
It is only because he does not contend that no one in the world is able to contend with him.
When the ancients said, “The crooked will be whole,” these were not idle words. Truly they return us to wholeness.

The idea of reversion is personified in verse 20 of the Laozi:

The multitude are loud and boisterous
As if feasting at the tailao offering
Or climbing terraces in the Spring.
I am instead tranquil and make no display,
Like an infant that has not yet learned to smile,
Drifting as though with no home to return to.
The multitude all have more than they need.
I alone am in want.
I have the mind of a fool—how blank!
The common people are bright,
I alone am dull.
The common people are clever,
I alone am muddled.
Vast! Like the ocean.
Endless! As if never stopping.
The multitude all have a purpose.
I alone am ignorant and uncouth.
My desires alone are different from those of others
Because I value being fed by the Mother.

The connection between the “way of heaven” and the attitude of the sage is reinforced time and time again:

Heaven is eternal, the Earth everlasting.
How come they to be so? It is because they do not foster their own lives;
That is why they live so long.
Therefore the Sage
Puts himself in the background; but is always to the fore.
Remains outside; but is always there.
Is it not just because he does not strive for any personal end
That all his personal ends are fulfilled?

What can we make of this? I think it it plausible on finding a pre-Christian depiction of a mysterious ontological entity that creates, sustains, and guides all of creation (the ten-thousand things), and does so in a distinctively humble way, that the authors of this depiction were “inspired” in Christian terms, or to put it more plainly, were in fact aware albeit dimly of the source of all existence (that which men call God), and in a context that quite uniquely among pre-Christian religions focuses not on sovereignty, deity, and grandeur, but on the subtlety and obscurity of this seemingly ephemeral “Way”.  Wang Bi writes that such is its emptiness, if we say it exists then where is its form? If we say it doesn’t exist, then how do we explain its creation, the forms it gives rise to? Yet despite the obvious obscurity and paradox, as Laozi writes:

My words are very easy to understand and very easy to put into practice. Yet no one under heaven understands them; no one puts them into practice. But my words have an ancestry, my deeds have a lord; and it is precisely because men do not understand this that they are unable to understand me.
Few then understand me, but it is upon this very fact my value depends. It is indeed in this sense that “the Sage wears hair-cloth on top, but carries jade underneath his dress.”

In a Christian context various religions are seen as reflecting to varying degrees the truths of natural theology, and potentially even pre-figuring deeper aspects of revealed theology, such as the notion of a God who is sacrificed or killed and returns to life.  What makes Daoism unique is that its elements are both more subtle than natural theology, clearly apophatic, yet avoiding a deistic view of supreme being that otherwise tends to plunge religions into the worship of more spurious particulars of their conception of God.

Or perhaps to be more fair, it is very easy to distinguish between the philosophical Daoism of Laozi, and the folk-religion Daoism that venerates him amongst a colorful pantheon that bears no resemblance to Christianity whatsoever. In other religions, these elements tend to be more closely intertwined such that the personal or the deistic (Buddha, Vishnu, Krishna, etc) are bound up in the theology and the mysticism.

For better or worse, I find that the impersonal apophatic language of certain Daoist texts and their themes provides a different perspective on the highly personal and often cataphatic language and themes of Christianity, where even the word “God” can be so heavily loaded with meanings, allusions and human projections that the ontological magnitude and significance, not to mention the “foreignness” of the supreme being is forgotten.

Islam, terrorism, and the Westboro Baptists

I’ve been trying to steer clear of references to the Westboro Baptist Church because it does get dragged out as the half-baked Christian equivalent of “Islamic extremism”. But in replying to comments on my latest article at MercatorNet, I think the comparison is apt:

Why have Muslims not spoken out in criticism of terrorists who give Islam a bad name? That’s a very good question, and a very complicated question, because – as I’ve been suggesting – Islam is diverse and complicated.

I’m sure we can agree that some Muslims have criticised the terrorists. You don’t have to search far on the web to find examples. Why do these criticisms not seem sufficient? Perhaps because we do not understand the situation well enough? Perhaps we imagine that if all the Muslims stood up and protested against terrorism, it would end?

And I can appreciate your point, given that we have never seen worldwide protests by Muslims against the Jihadists. Hence the suspicion that they are secretly sympathetic to the Jihadists’ aims.

However, my suspicion is that for the majority of Muslims, Western perceptions of Islam are not as salient as they are for us. Let me offer an analogy: when the Westboro Baptist Church appears on the tv news in Australia, I find that people without much understanding of Christianity interpret it as merely the worst instance of fundamentalist Christian insanity in the US, and the onus is on other Christians to disavow them and their declarations of animosity toward homosexuality.

Actual Christians tend to respond differently – not with expressions of contempt and criticism for the WBC, but with criticism and contempt for the media, for presenting the WBC as though they are anything more than a bizarre little fringe group. In other words, they don’t blame the WBC for giving Christians a bad name, they blame the media for being so ignorant as to portray the WBC as Christians. They actually think the media reports of the WBC are indicative of deeper anti-Christian sentiment.

So when someone asks a Catholic, for example, “do you think ‘God hates fags'”? The answer is of course “no.” But then the follow-up question is something like “so you’re in favour of same-sex marriage then?” and the answer is “no” again; leaving some people with the impression that Catholics really do think that God hates homosexuals, they just don’t have the guts or the brazenness to admit it openly like the WBC and other such groups.

Very few people are willing or able to get involved in the more complex philosophical or theological discussion that goes to the heart of distinctions between different Christian denominations and their attitudes to homosexuality.

What I’m interested in is the detailed and complex discussions that take place within Islam; because I’m not content to persist with superficial dichotomies that don’t reward us with real understanding of the situation.

I suspect, but am yet to verify, that for many Muslims the equation of terrorism with Islam is primarily the preoccupation of Westerners who have from the outset only a dim understanding of Islam, and who view Jihadism as only the most extreme reflection of ubiquitous Islamic sentiments. We’re effectively saying “I think you’re all terrorists at heart; can you prove you’re not?”

The fact is that like the Catholic/WBC example, we may find the truth is not to our liking anyway. We probably don’t want to hear from various branches of Islam that: no, they do not support terrorism, but at the same time they do view our society as godless, decadent, and ultimately destined to convert or collapse. How well do you think that would go over?

Most Islamic nations have far bigger problems on their hands than bad press in the West. In that sense I’m not surprised that ordinary Muslims around the globe do not try harder to reassure us they do not support Salafi Jihadists.