December 17, 2012

The Nature and Origin of Evil According to the Eastern Christian Church

By Marina Luptakova
(Institute of Criminology and Social Prevention, Praha)

Sitting in a stuffy and filthy inn, Ivan Karamazov hurls into the face of his younger brother, the novice Alyosha – who according to Dostoevsky’s intentions (not fully accomplished, needful to say) should embody in himself Christian love and humility – words filled with ultimate pain and cruelness, which reject the world created by God:

“Yet would you believe it, in the final result I don’t accept this world of God’s, and, although I know it exists, I don’t accept it at all… I believe like a child that… in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice… for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive, but to justify all that has happened with men – yet though all that may come to pass, I don't accept it. I won't accept it.”

In Ivan’s confession, filled to the top with bitterness and aversion to the suffering and poor world, and in Alyosha’s subsequent silence, reinforcing and somehow authenticating the truth and tragedy of this revelation, indeed consists with great force the problem of “theodicy” (literally “justification of God”), the question of justifying God, who allows evil that – and this should be acknowledged – prevails in this world, in the face of man’s reason. Long before Leibniz devised the term “theodicy” and used it in the title of his Essais de Théodicée sur la bonte de Dieu, published in 1710, affirming that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds” (a so-called “optimistic, rationalistic theodicy”, according to which the will of God and of man coincide, so to speak, “naturally and spontaneously” – Thomas Aquinas and Hegel held the same view), Job of the Old Testament had challenged the very God, refusing to blindly and slavishly accept His – undeserved – suffering, demanding an answer to the question of its sense, only then to be able and willing to accept it voluntarily. This is an expression of a “tragic theodicy”, the ultimate strain of the God-man tragedy; after all Jesus himself prayed “let this cup pass from Me” (Matthew 26:39). From Job abandoning God (“Oh that I knew where I might find Him! That I might come even to His seat! I would order my cause before Him, and fill my mouth with arguments. I would know the words which He would answer me, and understand what He would say unto me.” “Behold, I go forward, but He is not there; and backward, but I cannot perceive Him: On the left hand, where He doth work, but I cannot behold Him: He hideth himself on the right hand, that I cannot see Him.” Job 23:3-5; 23:8-9), to Christ abandoning God in the moment of crucifixion (“Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” or “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” Matthew 27:46). Here lies a boundary, which – using the words of a Russian philosopher B. Vysheslavtsev – “makes seem pale our dramatic situations and convicts decidedly any non-tragic theodicy as false. The tragedy lies in the fact that the ‘heavens keep silence’ just when they ought to speak up the most!”.

The problem of evil is a Christian one by nature, and in a truly Christian perspective it comes down to a problem of “the malicious one” (lukavyi). (Vladimir Lossky rightly observed that only from a philosophical standpoint can the last petition of Lord’s Prayer be interpreted as “deliver us from evil”; our real fear and our genuine unease is, after all, expressed in the plea of “delivers us from the evil one” – from “the malicious one”.) The philosophers, however, were not able to sufficiently explain the problem of evil, they only made it more complicated and confused. For the Fathers of the Church, on the contrary, evil has never presented a “theoretical problem”. They didn’t speculate on it, but struggled with it. One of the saints prayed: “Save us, Lord, from vain discussions on evil, and deliver us from the malicious one”.

All the manifold (mnogorazlichnyi or raznoobraznyi – words often used by Eastern Christian thinkers; polipoikolos in Greek, it means rather “varicoloured” or “multifarious”) efforts to solve the problem of the origin of evil – outside of the Christian Weltanschauung – break down to the dualistic and monistic, and to attempts to reconcile the two of them.

The dualistic solution (the ancient Persian philosophy or Manichaeism) assumes the existence of two equivalent and absolute principles, a god of the good and a god of the evil, Ormuzd and Ahriman. They engage in an endless and undoubtedly a tie-destined battle, and the entire world constitutes some kind of a “zone of indecision” between the two eternal adversaries, the manifoldness of which appears to be but a “side effect” of the battle of the two principles.

The monistic doctrines – religious and philosophic (the ancient Greek Eleatic school, the Brahmanism) – assumed that evil persistently and unalterably accompanied all creation as something detached from God; God is one and true, and all that is separated from him, exists not (a mirage, an illusion, a maya). Evil and suffering – the entire sensual world in general – is but a deceit, a delusion, a phantasm.

The inner contradiction of dualism, its logical inconsistency, dwells in the fact that the two principles that perpetually struggle with each other, are subordinate to a third principle substantiating the former two, in the force of which neither of them can defeat the other. The latent, importunate presence of a third principle above the eternally opposed, as well as the invincible striving of each of them to seize the “other’s vital space” and become an absolute, sole principle in the world, only affirms the presence of the very Absolute, which is primordially rejected by dualistic systems.

Monistic doctrines, acknowledging the One and discarding the plurality and manifoldness of the world with all its sorrow and suffering, prove as perfectly impotent when faced with the facticity of evil, which is present and effective in the world and experienced by all of us to such an extent.

The prevailing view of religious thinkers of the Eastern Church on the nature of evil, is that evil is regarded as a deficiency, flaw, imperfection; as something that by its very nature cannot achieve the state of perfection, as a negation or loss of good. As far as existence is concerned, the Fathers are convinced that evil does not exist, that it is but a privation of being. A tenacious accentuation of the fact that evil lacks substance, or that it’s non-existent is reflected in tales, where the devil or demon possesses no face and is therefore capable of taking on a thousand appearances (as in Slavic tales), or has no back and name (as in German tales). It is then further related to the time when Christian doctrine, the monastic life in particular, began to pick up elements of Manichaeism, and it became essential to prove the fallacy of the notion that a nature did exist which was alien to God.

The theory of evil that lacked an independent substance has found its most developed and deepened form in the work of Dionysius the Areopagite, an enigmatic author of the 5th century, the father of negative theology and mysticism. Yet, as early as in the 2nd century, Clement of Alexandria and Origen, and later in the 4th century, Fathers like Athanasius the Great, Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa, they all perceived evil as non-existent.

“Evil qua evil makes no single essence or birth, but only, as far as it can, pollutes and destroys the subsistence of things existing… For neither will the same by itself be both good and evil, nor the self-same power be of itself destruction and birth… All things which are, in so far as they are, both are good, and from the Good; but, in so far as they are deprived of the Good, are neither good, nor do they exist… So the fact that birth is born from destruction, is not a power of evil, but a presence of a lesser good, even as disease is a defect of order…” (Dionysius the Areopagite, De Divinis Nominibus, IV, 20 – Migne, Vol. 4, Col. 273).

St. Maximus the Confessor said that evil is a perfect nothing, which as such exists at no time and in no way (S. Maximi in Librum de Divinis Nominibus Scholia – Migne, IV, c. 73)

St. Athanasius the Great: “By what is, then, I mean what is good, inasmuch as it has its pattern in God Who is. But by what is not I mean what is evil…” (Athanasius, Against the Heathen, Part I, §4).

St. Basil the Great: “Evil is not a living animated essence; it is the condition of the soul opposed to virtue, developed in the careless on account of their falling away from good. Do not then go beyond yourself to seek for evil, and imagine that there is an original nature of wickedness.” (St. Basil, Hexaemeron, Homily II., §4-5).

That evil is not a being, but a negation of being, was also confirmed by St. Gregory of Nyssa.

And finally, according to the definition of St. Maximus the Confessor, “evil never was and never will be on its own, for it has exactly neither substance nor nature nor hypostasis nor power nor energy in beings; it is neither quality nor quantity; neither relation nor replace; neither time nor position; neither creation nor movement nor habit nor passion, so that it contemplated anything existent… it is neither the beginning (arche), nor the middle (mesotes), nor the end (telos)… Evil is the absence of the energy inherent in all natural power toward the end and nothing else. In other words, evil is the irrational movement of natural powers based on a fallacious judgement, toward other things than the end. I call the end the cause of beings, toward which everything is naturally born.” (Migne, Vol. 90, Col. 253B).

Thus evil is not, the verb “to be” does not apply to it; evil is not a nature, not a state of nature; as if a disease, a parasite of being. Evil has no place amongst the existent: it only is at the very moment of its commitment (Diadochus of Photice). The paradoxicality of such a condition is then reflected in the well-known saying of Gregory of Nyssa: whoever submits to evil, exists in nonexistence.

Yet if evil does not exist – lacking existence, as the Fathers had claimed – then how is its activity to be explained? This apparent contradiction arises because the very question of “What is evil?” is not composed correctly: evil is not “something”, but “someone”. (For the sake of correctness we should note that neither Pilate’s question – “What is the truth?” – can be answered: Christ kept silent, for truth is not a “what”, but a “Who” – the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ.)

And “someone” – that’s “the malicious one”, a personality. In other words, “the malicious one” is not a substance, not a lack of being or its insufficiency. He possesses a nature, but his nature is created by God and thus a good one.

It is most appropriate to briefly expound here the theory maintained in the Eastern Christian religion, on the distinction between the concepts of “person” or “personality” (lichnost) and “nature” or “character” (priroda) (for details cf. V. Lossky, Essai sur la théologie mystique de l’Eglise d’Orient). To perceive the difference between personality and nature in man, is no less difficult than the distinction of the single nature and the threesome of persons in God. We usually intermix the concepts of “person” and “individual” and use them as synonyms – this confusion is revealed in the area of psychology in particular. Yet in a certain sense, “individual” and “person” bear contradictory meanings; an individual denotes an ancient blend of personality and the elements, which pertain to the nature common to all people (meaning mental and bodily qualities, peculiar to all mankind). A person to the contrary, refers to that which is alien to nature: individual properties, “features of character”, temperament, etc., all belong to common nature and never appear entirely personal. A man, acting on the grounds of his natural properties, his “character”, his inheritance, and entirely determined by his sociopsychological and/or cosmic environment, i.e. by his “nature”, becomes a person the least, for a personality constitutes that which is irreproducible and unique in man. Hence a personality is a being free with regard to nature – to all inherited and acquired in man. In other words: a person’s thoughts, moves and deeds are not necessarily determined by the presence or absence of the respective properties of its nature, they do not seem to be an imposed experiment, peculiar to it. We dare to say that conduct, reactions – all the “arrangements” of personality – always turn out as “inadequate” (not in its clinical, psychological meaning, of course) with respect to circumstances of any sort, which we study, so that we may justify ourselves or the other, or to further intensify our or his guilt. A person is always free, with no need to blame or justify itself – and once free, it is responsible for all its deeds.

As St. Gregory of Nyssa used to say, personality delivers from the laws of necessity and from submission to the rules of nature, and brings the capacity to decide for oneself freely. The veracity of man dwells outside of any conditionality, and his dignity consists in the ability to free himself from his nature: “not to destroy it or to leave it to its own, like an Eastern sage, but to transfigure it in God.” (V. Lossky).

Thus there is no evil in nature – evil relates not to the substantial aspect, but to a personal, individual one. More precisely, evil is a certain state of the nature’s will – a will which is false with respect to God; evil is a revolt against God, i.e. a personal attitude. It means that evil originates in the freedom of creation. Therefore it cannot be justified, i.e. it’s not possible to plead adverse conditions, external constraint – wheresoever it may have its origin – or bad examples – indubitably contagious (yet unlike plain infection, which an organism may be overcome with, a person has no right to “fall ill”) etc. Evil only arises from the freedom of being, which creates it and approves to give the evil, this parasite, “a table and a roof”, i.e. to nourish evil with nature’s juices, give evil its energy to unlimited use and provide evil with “ favorable conditions” for survival. Evil is an “ontological dependant”.

In Greek, the words “devil” and “symbol” stem from the same root of ballo – “to throw”. Yet while the word symballo means “to pile up, to unite”, diabollos stands for “slanderous, schismatic”. The devil – the malicious one – divides, severs, destroys any togetherness, brings down and reduces every being to the outermost solitude. And to divide means to lie, to slander God’s creation, which originated in a unity and is called to unite with God and with each other.

A contemporary Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov writes in his beautiful work called Les âges de la vie spirituelle, that in defiance of all diversity of manifestations of evil, it is nevertheless possible to distinguish three aspects which apply to it the most: parasitism, deceit and imitation. The devil that parasitizes on God’s creation, produces – as Evdokimov puts it – “an abominable swell, a kind of demonic turgescence”. A liar and a deceiver, longing for the divine attributes, in place of the creative and arduous task of becoming similar to God (man was created in God’s image and is bidden to strive for God’s likeness), he palms on man the vulgar equality: “You shall be as gods.” Ultimately, this envious imitator (the devil was called “the ape of God”) establishes his own godless realm, a caricature with an inverse omen – hell. Hell indeed represents an ultimate severance, a self-immurement, a total solitude, “an extreme misery of devilish solipsism”. Such loneliness is depicted in the Coptic Apophthegmata of Macarius the Elder. The prisoners are bound together back to back, and following an ardent prayer for the living, their bonds loosen for a moment: “Let us but for an instant glimpse the face of the other…” The renowned words of Sartre – “Hell is other people” – in fact testify to the same experience.

Evdokimov writes that hell can be conceived as a cage surrounded by mirrors; nobody and nothing is reflected in these mirrors but the image of one’s self multiplied ad infinitum – and no other appearance is to be encountered. (These conditions of infernal solitude are well known to us all: the forced and prolonged presence of others without a chance to establish personal relations and contacts with them – a condition inverse to the one of seclusion – or the no less excruciating state of stunning the world and others by ourselves, projecting ourselves on them and displacing and obscuring them with ourselves. Torments aroused by not being able to turn others into a function of our “self” do indeed constitute the substance of hell. After a moving remark of S. Averintsev, hell is an irrevocable loss of capacity for love, and with such loss, just that turns into a torment, which solely can breed blissfulness: “existence of a fellow creature, existence of God, any ‘Thou art’”. Fortunately, the “fulfillment of times and terms”, when our “nay” to others, world and God could be sealed for good – these syncopes alternate with the joy of encounters, unities: with God, people and world.)

Thus according to the opinion of the Fathers, the root and matter of evil consists in deceits and mistakes. Evil “has no substance” (St. Gregory of Nyssa); according to John of Damascus, evil is non-substantial (anousion). The Devil is “an inciter of evil” – he knows that as a spirit he exists not by himself, that on his own he is not capable of anything. As Pope Gregory the Great said, “One must know that Satan’s will is always evil, but his power lies outside of law. For he has his will from himself, but his power comes from God.” Evil in the world only happens inasmuch as man gives his free consent and accepts it inwardly – and this consent is always of his own will. Evil ravages, distorts and mutilates the being, to which it sticks as a loathsome tumor – but an annihilation of being, its total suppression, evil cannot secure (hence it “gnashes its teeth”): “it is impossible to ascribe to evil such anti-creative power which would overcome the creative power of God.” (G. Florovsky, The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, Vol. 3, "Creation and Creaturehood", p. 50). As St. Augustine said, being and life do not coincide in creation. This idea is further elaborated by G. Florovsky: “Creatures can and may lose themselves, are capable, as it were, of ‘metaphysical suicide’. In her primordial and ultimate vocation, creation is destined for union with God… But even without realizing her true vocation, and even opposing it, thus undoing and losing herself, creation does not cease to exist. The possibility of metaphysical suicide is open to her. But the power of self-annihilation is not given. Creation is indestructible, and not only that creation which is rooted in God as in the source of true being and eternal life, but also that creation which has set herself against God… And immutable above all is the microcosm man, and immutable are men’s hypostases, sealed as they are and brought out of nothing by the creative will of God. Indeed, the way of rebellion and apostasy is the way of destruction and perdition. But it leads not towards non-being, but to death; and death is not the end of existence, but the separation of soul and body, the separation of creation from God.” (ibid., p. 50-51).

The Fathers taught about the “Divine risk”, the risk that was encountered by God when creating beings in his image and likeness, for henceforth the perfection of the world created by God was to depend continually upon the free will of those who themselves were summoned to become the height of perfection. We know that the God of the Bible and of Christians is a personal God, the One who loves, risking to be spurned by His own creation. And He expects of His creation to turn to Him freely and utterly, He seeks Himself a friend.

And indeed does God justify Job, who disputes with Him, accuses Him and refuses to accept His reign that excludes any dialogue. Job’s friends, however, who hypocritically advocate this very same “tyranny”, an abstract notion of God’s dominion, get to taste the wrath of God: “Y e have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job hath.” (Job 42:7). God responds to Job’s “words without wisdom” – and his response is above every theodicy of ancient and contemporary philosophers.

Source: ERCES, Vol. 1, No. 2, June-July 2004.