Absolute Good and Evil

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The one hard fact, the fact that we all know by experience, is that there really are such things as absolute good and absolute evil in this world. But do we really understand these things?

When we think of the good, we usually think of things like kindness and hospitality, friendship and love. But these things are abstracts. They remain nothing but pleasant ideas, unless they are actually put into practice in reality. And when we begin to practice these things in reality, we open ourselves up to real consequences, both good and bad. Sometimes our genuine kindness, or our generous hospitality is met with the surprise of cynical, even angry criticism, or even brutality. More often than we wish to think about it, those whom we have thought about and have treated as friends, turn on us with cruelties that are beyond our comprehension. When things like this happen to us we find ourselves deeply shaken. And we find out how deeply we have taken on the true qualities of goodness, or not. We begin to understand that goodness requires the hard work of developing very difficult, but very powerful habits. These habits are earned through the courageous acts of hard thought, constant prayer, real life experimentation, and the ability to learn from and to rise up above our failings. None of this can be achieved, of course, but through the grace that comes from a deep relationship with our loving and infinitely supportive God.

We know that there is evil in the world, precisely because none of us has escaped the effects of it. Every one of us has known suffering; mental, emotional, physical and spiritual wounds of all kinds. Some of that suffering was a direct consequence of our own participation in evils, small of large. The great American, Southern writer, Flannery O’Connor wrote once, ʺEvil is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be endured.ʺ And so it is. Evil exists. And it is beyond our understanding of it more often than not. Its consequences can be subtle, as well as violent and immediate. How can we understand events like 9/11, or the Holocaust, or people like the Roman Emperor, Caligula, or Pol Pot in Cambodia? How can we contemplate things like child abuse, murder, terrorism, without being horrified to the very depths of our souls? But, and here is the subtlety of evil, how can we lie so easily about another person, impugning his or her character behind his or her back? How can we rationalize things like embezzlement, or even little things like stealing towels from a hotel we stayed at on vacation? Why do these things exist?

There are two reasons I can think of at the moment: Free will, and the fact that God has a real Enemy, and we call him many things, but the Evil One is appropriate here. First, we have an inner mystery to tackle, our own willingness to defy God to satisfy our own egos. We call this sin. Second, we have to recognize that there really is a being who will do anything to tempt us away from the good, from the Creator of all that is good, who sees himself as God’s infinite and proud Enemy. We can conquer neither by ourselves. We need to come to know the good, to desire it, and to begin to practice it on a daily basis. We need to become more and more familiar with the Word of God in the scriptures; we need to develop a deepening, active, personal relationship with Jesus, and we need to recognize that we can do nothing without God. We NEED God’s grace. And it is God’s love alone that can encourage, inspire, educate and protect us from the inner temptations that harass us every day. It is God’s love alone that can not be defeated by The Fool whose entire existence is rooted in a limitless hatred of God, who is possessed of such an infinite hubris that he believes he can, against all reason, defeat his own Creator. It is The Fool who wants to divide us from God. We need to recognize him in our personal lives for what he really is, a Fool. But The world remains all too blind to this. That is why the mystery of evil must be endured. We can only change our selves, and only in cooperation with God’s grace. We can not change the world.

When, in faith, and in the knowledge that comes from faith, we see the difference between what is good and what is evil, we will learn to hate evil for what it is, and we will begin to practice of choosing to do the good more and more often. That will be the greatest expression of our love for God. Only then will we become confident with the fact the good really is greater than evil. Only then will we know, in the depths of our beings, and in the experiences of our lives, that, ʺAmor vincet omnia,ʺ ʺLove conquers all.ʺ It is this knowledge that will help us to endure, even in the face of evil.

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Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site blog.