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Evil: cosmic, systemic, personal

Evil: cosmic, systemic, personal

The Rev. Gary Hall, rector of Christ Church, Cranbrook recently taught a course on the problem of evil at Cranbrook School, Mitt Romney’s old stomping grounds. Here is what he concluded:

When we present ourselves for Baptism, we’re asked to renounce evil in three forms: first cosmic (Satan and the spiritual forces of wickedness), next social (the evil powers of this world), and finally personal (sinful desires). In America, we tend to think of Evil and Sin as personal attributes or shortcomings. But long before Hannah Arendt looked at Eichmann and saw “not a monster but a clown” our tradition has understood that before evil is personal it is cosmic and social.

I draw two implications from all this. First: because we are enmeshed in systems, we often do not perceive the many hidden ways in which our actions–innocent in and of themselves–can contribute to the pain or suffering of others. So we’re guiltier than we think we are. Second: as guilty as we may be, we are often caught up in systems that control and govern us. In other words, we’re more innocent than we think we are.

Teaching this course has helped me see that the problem of evil is finally not an invitation to affix blame. The problem of evil is instead an opportunity to explore my enmeshment in systems bigger than myself, to investigate the ways I am complicit in others’ pain and suffering even when I think I’m innocent, and to lament with God the pain that causes God, them, and me. Evil is cosmic, social, and personal in that order. Let us dedicate ourselves to working with God to heal it in all its forms.

His full reflection is here. What do you think about the order of evils he has created. How would thinking of evil in these terms change the way you think and act? Would you shuffle the order? If so, how would that affect the way you think and act?


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If human (sentient) beings are given stewardship of Creation, that means we’re given stewardship of cancer, viruses, earthquakes, tornadoes, stray asteroids, etc.

Which is why these so-called “natural evils” beg the question: why aren’t we doing ALL we can to solve/remediate their lethal effects?

To me, tragedies of the natural order still—as we see human priorities today—indict the *stewards*, not the Creator.

JC Fisher

Jeffrey L. Shy, M.D.

I am not very comfortable with the idea of “cosmic” evil, as it seems to blur a line that is important for ethics. Traditionally, we have thought of evil as “natural” evil versus “human” evil. “Natural evils” are typically events of “Nature” such as earthquakes, tidal waves, etc, over which there is no human control or contribution and which result in human (and animal) suffering. Such are, for humans, morally neutral in a direct sense, but they implicate one of the primary problems with the existence of God as a supernatural, all-powerful and all-known being–essentially the God of theism, and a primary reason why I am no longer a theist.

The problem of human evil is a different matter in which we may, individually or corporately, have some level of culpability. As social individuals who create structure that has a “life” of its own outside of our invidivual actions, we have greater and lesser individual degrees of culpability. This is the problem that we address by ethical behavior. No amount of ethical behavior can address “cosmic” or “natural” evil. I find that blurring the distinction between large scale/systemic/corporate evil and “natural” evil would have the tendency to “let us off.” As always, “The Satan” can take the wrap for “natural evil” I suppose, but that’s just a “cop out” to “rescue” the “Good” God of supernatural theism.

In short, this “trilevel” schema just does not work for me.

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