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One complaint often made about free-lance spirituality is its perceived tendency to ignore or minimize the issue of human evil. While religion sees itself as the great corrective to evil, spirituality is often accused of being blissfully blind to it, preferring to see it not as a problem to be corrected but a part of a shared illusion or, even worse, a "misperception." It is as if evil can simply be explained out of existence, the objection goes, resulting in a "head-in-the-sand" approach to the what seems to be a very real problem for humanity.
So how does spirituality see this thing we call evil? Does it turn a blind eye to human suffering and tyranny, preferring instead to concentrate on more pleasant things, or does it have something to say about it after all? The answer might surprise you.
Spirituality does not minimize or ignore evil. It's just that while religion tends to spend its energies defining, bemoaning, absolving and punishing evil, spirituality prefers to recognize evil as a natural element of our nature and a reflection of both humanity's and an individual's spiritual state. In other words, evil serves as a type of spiritual barometer that helps us gauge our spiritual progress, both individually and collectively as a society.
Of course, this does nothing to solve the problem of evil, the religionist may say, which is true enough. However, this statement betrays two misconceptions: one, that which we call "evil" is an unnatural imperfection or flaw in our nature and, second, that it is something that must be "fixed" before we are acceptable to God. In other words, religion says that we are a fallen race that started out bad, and that it is religion that is attempting to bring us back to a sinless stateif not in reality, at least from God's perspective. In fact, this is the driving motivation and rationale behind religion: it is an attempt to purge ourselves of the lusts, selfishness, and immortality that assumedly make us less than what God designed us to be.
Yet it is these very "shortcomings" that make us human in the first place and, effectively, give religion any role in our life. After all, if we were not fallen angels-so to speak-we should have no real use for religion at all. In fact, we would have no use for God in general, as we would be perfect reflections of "His" Divine nature. In effect, God would become redundant if humanity was sinless.
Before examining this issue further, however, it might first be helpful to better define exactly what evil is. After all, evil is a word whichlike the word "love"everyone imagines they understand, yet when pressed for a firm definition it quickly becomes obvious that the word means different things to different people.
Evil is generally thought to be an act-or, sometimes, an attitude-that is at variance with a society's generally agreed upon set of moral imperatives. In effect, it is the position that there are certain behaviors, actions, or even thoughts that the larger population in general considers to be so unacceptable and inappropriate as to be considered "evil." Obviously, this makes defining the term highly subjective and subject to change as cultural or social moresas well as individual proclivitieschange over time. For example, sexual promiscuity used to be perceived as a great evil, but today it is generally not considered so by most people. It may be considered unwise or even disgusting by some people, but it is rarely referred to as "evil" in the classical sense by the great majority of people. Additionally, at one time in our nation's history the institution of slavery was not considered "evil" by society at large and was even looked upon by some people as being endorsed by the Bible, but today slavery is universally denounced as "evil." On the other hand, some societies still consider infidelity and promiscuityespecially among womanan evil that in some corners of the planet can be punishable by death, while these same societies turn a blind eye to a growing slave trade. Obviously, then, what constitutes "evil" is not only determined by one's culture, but by the era in which one lives.
Additionally, the definition of evil varies from individual to individual as well. Someone raised in a rigid, legalistic home might consider nudity in any context to be evil while those raised in a more liberal environment might not be particularly offended by even the most graphic pornography. By way of an example, I recall when I was a boy growing up the 1960s that cohabitation and pre-marital sex were considered great sins while ethnic jokes, racism, and sexism were not. Today, in contrast, unmarried couplingsboth straight and gayare becoming increasingly accepted while sexist or racially stereotyped humor and both overt and subtle racism are considered the great sins of our day. Obviously, the timesand with it, moresare a' changin'to paraphrase the old Bob Dylan song.
Of course, some actions such as rape, murder, and child molestation remain as unacceptable today as they were then, but for the most part society changes to fit the new moral dynamics of its age, both responding to new mores and serving to reshape them at the same time. Definitions of what is moraland hence "evil"then, are constantly shifting and have been throughout history, with one generation considering another generation either irredeemably wicked and degenerate or hopelessly naive, quaint, and old-fashioned. In other words, relativism has always been an element of how we perceive evil, despite what fundamentalist religion says.
Even if we accept, however, that tastes and morals shift from era to era and culture to culture, what of actions we normally consider universally evil such as murder, lying, stealing, and rape? Doesn't this suggest that some sort an objective standard exists, precisely as religion insists?
Again, it's all a matter of context. While most people would probably agree that murder is always wrong, when performed in the context of abortion, capital punishment, self-defense, and in wartime, the taking of a life might not only be considered appropriate or necessary, but in some cases, even "good." (This attitude is especially common whenever a criminal is executed for an especially heinous crime.) Deception is also generally considered an "evil" act, but when it is used to save livesas was the case in World War Two when the allies used deception to convince the Germans they were landing at Calais instead of Normandy as a means of reducing casualties and improving the chances for a successful landingit is even considered noble. As such, almost every act we define as "evil" might be considered acceptableeven "good"in the proper context, demonstrating that the carefully considered standards of "right" and "wrong" we have spent so many centuries crafting for ourselves are largely illusory and subjective, making any definition of the term "evil" suspect at best and most probably impossible.
But what of the Nazi's and the Holocaust, or Stalin's brutal gulags, or the genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda? Clearly these are great evils that can't be dismissed as mere cultural anomalies.
Again, regardless of what you or I think of men like Hitler, Stalin, or Pol Pot or what our opinions of the Holocaust or the killing fields of Cambodia are, it must be remembered we are looking at all of it from our own unique perspective. To us, the Holocaust was an act of insane evil, but to a Nazi it was considered a means of improving the quality of life for the "Aryan" race by exterminating the Jews and other "sub humans." (Some even told themselves they were doing the Jews a favor by exterminating them, thereby "saving" them from having to live out the rest of their lives as a "subhuman.") Stalin's purges and gulags were a means of-from his perspective-bringing stability and the fruits of blessed Communism to the masses with the exterminations of "traitors" and other undesirables the necessary price to be paid for a Socialist utopia to be eventually realized. Perhaps much the same mindset was in play in Cambodia and Rwanda as thousands were slaughtered for the "purification" of the state or the "safety" of the tribe. The point is that the very mindset that produces an Auschwitz also produces a Hiroshima; the difference being that who's perspective is right is always determined by the victors. Had the Germans won the Second World War and gone on to create a powerful and prosperous Third Reich as Hitler and his henchmen dreamed, the Holocaust would have been portrayed as a necessaryalbeit unpleasantstep in achieving that goal. Is this any different from America using the desire to end a war to justify exterminating thousands of civilians with an atomic bomb? Both sides had noble goals in mind-at least from their perspectives. Both destroyed innocent civilians in an effort to achieve those goals. The difference is not one of tactics but of motives, and yet it is only within the context of history that the final determination of who's motive was more pure or justified is rendered. Actions are almost always seen as good and even noble when looked at from the proper perspective, and almost always considered evil when viewed through another lens.
So what does this do for our definition of evil, then? More tot he point, is there such a thing as "evil" and can it even be defined at all?
Absolutely. "Evil" does exist, regardless of how we choose to define it. It is very real and very evident in our world. But what exactly is it and, even more important, were did it come from? The short answer is that "evil" is the desire to control or destroy others in an effort to enhance one's own ego, and it comes from the sense of separateness we acquire as a natural by-product of coming into the flesh. "Evil," then, simply is and, presumably, always will be a part of the "process" as long as sentient life takes on physical form somewhere in this universe. It is the price of existence and the cost of experiencing that existence.
How one chooses to define it, however, is less important than is understanding its role in our spiritual development. Evil, despite how we define it, is a valuable tool in helping us define ourselves as a culture and as an individual. It makes a statement about where we are collectively and personally on our spiritual path, and therefore it is a necessary part of the collective and individual growth process. We may despise the Hitlers and the Stalins of the world, but they do serve a function in that they hold mirrors up to ourselves and make us look hard at the reflections they cast. Hitler did not create anti-Semitism; it had been ingrained in European culture for thousands of years. He simply used it to show us what such an attitude, when given free-reign and codified into a nation's laws, would look like in practice. The evil we do as a community and as an individual, then, far from condemning us, merely reflects what we are on the inside. The ugliness is not in the mirror but in the face of the person who's reflection it is.
In so doing, however, we give humanity the opportunity to pause and carefully reflect upon its own attitudes. To our credit, usually we do not like what evil acts show us about ourselves and we change, yet would we have the incentive to do so without the mass graves and cremated remains of millions of innocents? Hitler and the Nazis demonstrated like nothing else could what cruelty could be perpetrated upon humanity in the name of "progress" if we did not change our attitudes. It was a hard lesson that nothing short of a Holocaust could have taught us. He and those "dark" souls like him showed usalbeit unintentionallywhat a cancer racism can be if left untreated. For that, they've earned our gratitude alongside of our scorn.
As such, it could be argued that without evil, spiritual growth would not be possible or even definable. If we have no racism to combat or despot to overthrow or Auschwitz to get angry about, we have no context within which to understand goodness. There is no context by which good can be defined without evil; in effect, it is evil which defines good (and vice versa.) I suppose in the realm of pure spirit goodness is all there is, yet I suspect it is our experiences on this plane of existence which makes it possible to appreciate it at all. In effect, it is the hell we experience on Earth that makes Heaven so heavenly.
Unfortunately, this makes it seem that evil is, in a strange sort of way, a "good" thing. In fact, we might even be tempted to argue that the more evil the better, for it will only enhance its opposite all the more. Evil behavior, then, one could argue, might even be encouraged in an effort to make Heaven all the more pleasurable. But such an attitude is looking at only half of the equation. Yes, evil does enhance the benefits and joys of goodness, but the same holds true for evil as well. It is goodness that makes evil so despicable. It is selflessness that makes selfishness so unbecoming; it is the death of a "good" man that makes his murderer so reprehensible (notice how people rarely hold great animosity for the murderer of an "evil" man, even if done in cold blood.) In effect, evil and goodness are two sides of the same coin, with the one incapable of existing-or, at a minimum, of being perceived-without the other.
In the end, it
is only necessary to know that evil exists. To wish it away or invent magic
formulas designed to "wipe out" evil is pointless and futile, which
is where religion ultimately will and must fail. Evil cannot be destroyed any
more than cold can be destroyed, leaving nothing but hot in its place, for the
one cannot exist without the other. The point is not whether there is evil and
whether we can or should do anything about it; the question is how does that
which we define as evil define us and how do we choose to respond to it? How
you answer that will say more about yourself than anything else could.
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