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October 12, 2011

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew: On the Origin of Evil

We need a theology that will answer the atheist position about evil, about the process imputed to God since Jean Paul Richter, Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky (think, for example, of the arguments presented by Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov). We must abolish once and for all that image of a "diabolical God" who, from all eternity, controls everything and thus appears as the only source of evil. Our God is the Theos pathon, the crucified God about whom the Fathers spoke long before Moltmann! The creation of other freedoms - that of man, and also of angels - implies an incredible omnipotence and, simultaneously, an extreme weakness. God, in a certain manner, must remove himself to allow space for these other freedoms. He enters into a tragic love story. Deep inside man is the memory of "paradise", but also of a break, of a departure along the paths of freedom, like that of the prodigal son in the parable. And this freedom is strengthened through opposition - through forgetfulness. The prodigal son moves away from his Father, and this separation brings death. Though the Father does not desire this separation, because he has no conception of evil, he accepts the son like so many blows to the face. Just think of the images of Christ attacked, bound, and struck on the face, both in eastern art: the icon of the totally humiliated Christ over the prothesis table in Greek churches of the 16th-18th centuries - and in western: that Christ painted by Fra Angelico in the convent of St. Mark in Florence standing blindfolded as hands emerge out of the abyss, out of nothingness, to strike him.

For man, fascinated by the death which he conceals within himself, bears as well the agony of crime: against the "other" or against the self. How many murders we commit in spirit! This is why the Fathers of the Desert used to say that slander, contempt of the "other", is the greatest of sins! Thus humanity - which is composed of infinitely intertwined relations - allows the world to slide toward the nothingness out of which it was drawn, in the aptly worded remark of St. Athanasius of Alexandria. Chaos returns, a chaos which the powers of darkness - which are at once within and outside us - pervert: the suffering of children, absurd wars, monstrous cosmic catastrophes. God - having become a king with no kingdom, in the words of Nicholas Cabasilas - supports the world from beyond, until the "yes" of a woman allows him to return to the heart of his creation to restore it sacramentally, to tear humanity away from nothingness and to restore to each of us our vocation of "created creator".

But the incarnate, crucified, and resurrected God can act, can bring light and peace, only through hearts that freely open to him. He is not the God of "holy wars", or even of supposedly "just wars". He is not the God of the Crusades, but of the life-giving Cross.

The experience of evil ultimately proves to humanity its meaningless. Through suffering - and the worst is to discover how much we make others suffer - man reaches repentance. And Christ - who is freedom itself - resurrects his freedom from within, without the least amount of restraint. Then man accedes not only to the good - for the good judges and condemns those who are "evil" - but to a kind of supra-good which allows the transforming power of God to shine, bringing pardon and opening up the future. "Woman, where are they?" Jesus asks the woman caught in adultery. "Has no one condemned you?" "No one, Lord", she answers. "Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again" (Jn. 8:10-11).

From Conversations With Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I by Olivier Clement, pp. 164-166.