Saturday, April 28, 2007

Thoughts on Evil 4

Thoughts on Evil 4 The Contribution of St Irenaeus of Lyons (c.130 – 202 A.D.)

I remember discovering the thought of this early Father of the Church in the writings of the 20th century Anglican philosopher and theologian John Hick in his marvellous book which I read in 1978 called Evil and the God of Love (first published 1966 and revised in the middle of the 70s), the book which re-established the Irenaean as distinguished from the Augustinian response to the problem of evil. This also was a new insight for me as I had never come across this early philosopher/theologian, nor had I been acquainted with his thought. Hick is a marvelously clear and lucid writer and any of his books which I read subsequently always held my interest as did any of his broadcasts.

The above book introduced me to new words to add to my personal lexicon of theological and philosophical expressions. From him I learned the term “theodicy” which means an explanation of why God would allow there to be evil and suffering in the world. And so I was introduced to what may be termed the Irenaean theodicy. St Augustine as we have seen assigns the blame for evil in the world totally to mankind’s sinning – this is illustrated essentially for traditional Christians in the story of the Fall in the Book of Genesis in the Bible. Sin entered the world through Adam’s sin and continues in the sinning of all his descendants. Add to this then the later development of Original Sin and the story gets more complicated. St Augustine’s thinking is very dark and negative as regards the essential nature of the human person. We former theological students were frightened by his words that human beings made up a “massa damnata” – “a damned mass” who needed the liberation of the Christ. These arguments again is beyond the scope of these musings as I wish to engage with the Irenaean rather than the Augustinian theodicy. However, they do help to offset what is the wonderfully positive thinking of St Irenaeus of Lugdanum or Lyons.

I found Irenaeus’s thought to be wonderfully refreshing giving the predilection for darkness and damnation in traditional Catholic and Protestant theologies. For St Irenaeus, God began the world and has been overseeing it ever since creation and absolutely everything that has happened since then is part of his plan for humanity. This loving Creator created a world or universe which would grow and mature, rather than one which was fully perfect from the outset. Hence the essence of the Irenaean theodicy is the process of maturation or the idea of on-going perfectability. In Irenaeus’s mind humankind was created immature, and God intended his creatures to take a fairly long time to grow eventually into the divine likeness. In this scenario the Fall does not take on the ultimate calamitous nature that Augustine would have us believe. Rather than a full-blown rebellion what we have is a rather adolescent rebellion, as it were, against parental control. Everything that has happened since has, therefore, been planned by God to help humanity overcome this initial mishap and achieve spiritual maturity. The world has been intentionally designed by God as a difficult place, where human beings are forced to make moral decisions, as only in this way can they mature as moral agents. Hence the high point of salvation history, or on-going creation if you will, would be the advent of the Saviour, Jesus Christ. Jesus would have been sent anyway even if human beings did not sin, but seeing as they had meant that Jesus Christ’s role was changed somewhat from pinnacle of Creation to Saviour of mankind. Christ is the New Adam who redeems or recreates all that the old Adam had destroyed.

The upshot of the Irenaean theodicy is that God is not "off the hook" for human evil, but must find a way to use it as an instrument for good, within a process that ultimately will redeem all humanity. Thus, in drawing out the ramifications of the Irenaean theodicy, Hick is led to a form of universalism - holding that in Christian faith and hope all humanity will ultimately be saved (1978, p. 345).

In other words moral evil then is somewhat akin to growing pains along the way to maturation. The evil deeds which humankind perpetrates lead to greater maturation, if not on a personal level, then, certainly on a communal or societal level. Personally, I have long believed in the fact our understanding of different truths develop as humankind comes of age, e.g., after centuries of the vilest ill-treatment of slaves we grew eventually to believe that keeping other human beings as slaves to be really, truly and essentially wrong. Likewise we would not have had the International Declaration of Human Rights (1948) were it not for the horrific crimes of the Nazis or the present understanding of the Rights of Children and the heinous nature of child abuse in all its forms were it not for the discovery of such crimes in the first place. All of this growth in our understanding of evil would have a good basis in an understanding of the Irenaean theodicy. If we follow Hick and Irenaeus to its logical conclusion, then ultimate perfectibility or ultimate maturation can only be in a Heaven or in a Paradise beyond this world. And so we get the traditional Christian notion of Heaven as a reward for good deeds and Hell as punishment for evil deeds. Hence Hick has a motto which runs "no theodicy without eschatology." In other words, a theology of the final things (eschatology) must supplement and fill out any possible thedicy (theory of the justification of evil)

The above is a picture of Autumn leaves on the footpath outside my house here in Dublin. This photo was taken in November 2006.

To be continued

Thoughts on Evil 3

Thoughts on Evil 3
The following is a continuation of the previous post.

I have referred to Fr Patrick Carmody, B.D., M.A., and M.Phil. before in these pages. I was privileged to have Paddy as a philosophy lecturer in Mater Dei way back in the late seventies – he was and is a brilliant philosopher. He always set me thinking, and it was he who sent me out to Belcamp College to interview Fr Colm Connellan O.M.I. who had done his Ph. D in this area and who then was a lecturer in philosophy at U.C.D. Colm had written a book on the problem of evil and he lent me this book and some others along with a sheet of important references.

I cannot locate any copy of my thesis as it is probably buried somewhere under a mound of papers in my attic. However, I remember some key points which somehow remain in my mind after 30 years.

The first major Christian thinker on the problem of evil (more correctly mystery of evil as I’ve explained in the previous two posts) needless to say was the redoubtable Augustine of Hippo, or St Augustine, (354-430 AD). This Augustine may be said to have left his prints all over contemporary and subsequent Christian thought. However, what is undeniable is that this great saint and scholar was a brilliant intellectual and spiritual genius. The intellectual problem that then faced Augustine was the perennial seeming contradiction in the apparently unavoidable contradiction between the notion of God as omnipotent (all powerful) and omni-benevolent (all good), on the one hand, and the existence of evil (natural and moral) , on the other. Given that God is all powerful why then does He not act to eliminate it? He obviously is not as benevolent as we are led to believe. If we grant God’s total benevolence or goodness, then in this conception of things, he is consequently not all powerful. So we have a glaring contradiction in terms. Christian "orthodoxy" remains unwilling to modify its conception of God's goodness or his power and hence we have the persistence of the problem.

St. Augustine was fully aware of this problem and spent much - perhaps most - of his philosophical energy attempting to come to terms with it. In putting forward a solution St Augustine showed great insight and creativity it could be argued. He had three main points as I remember: (1) He argued that evil in itself could not properly be said to exist at all. A rather novel, almost stupid position insofar as it seems to deny our experience in the world. However, what Augustine was getting at was his contention that evil while it did not exist in itself, existed as a privation of the good, that is, a privation or lack of a good that should be there in the first place. Augustine’s Latin is beautiful – “privatio boni malum est” - “evil is the privation of the good.” (2) He argues that the apparent imperfection of any part of creation disappears in light of the perfection of the whole. This is allied with what may be called the Principle of Plenitude which states that if the world is to be as perfect as possible it must contain as much as possible. I think St Anselm went on to develop some thoughts on this latter theory. (3) St Augustine argues that the origin of moral evil, together with that suffering which is construed as punishment for sin, is to be found in the free choice of the will of rational creatures. (This is called the Argument from Free Will.)

St. Augustine believed that God made a perfect world, but that God's creatures turned away from God of their own free will, through different types of falls (the main fall being that of Adam and Eve) and that is how evil originated in the world. It shows how God has allowed evil to exist in the world because it does not conflict with His goodness. He did not create evil but is also not a victim of it. He simply allows it to exist. Indeed, Augustine argues God does not want evil to exist, but He allows it because He cherishes man’s freedom and because He does not wish to force man to love Him as love in itself can only be freely given.

Another point that remains with me from all those years ago is the phrase “logically prior.” In the thought of Augustine the good is always logically prior to evil. In other words there has to be some good there first to be corrupted. For example, you break your leg. The evil is the break or fracture and the consequent pain which can only exist if the leg (good and whole) is there in the first place to be broken. The same can be said of say an apple which rots, the rottenness can only inhere in the goodness of the apple which is there in the first place.

All of the above is classical thinking and it does seem a little irrelevant to lived reality and to everyday experiences. I grant all of this, but classical thinking in itself is beautiful and its categories did form the foundation stones for modern thought which we may feel deals more concretely with day to day living.

In short, let us be humble and admit that from the vantage point of the early 21st century we do after all stand on the shoulders of giants.

The cross, needless to say, is ultimate Christian symbol of victory through death over evil. The above picture is one I took Summer 2003 in the Phoenix Park, Dublin.

To be continued.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Thoughts on Evil 2

Thoughts on Evil 2

These thoughts in today’s post are a direct continuation of those of yesterday. As a 21 year old student, doing a thesis on The Mystery 0f Evil as opposed to the title The Problem of Evil, an important distinction which I explained in the previous instalment, I was faced, along with my fellow students, with the tragedy of the suicide of one of our classmates called Pauline. We as students went through a searing existential trauma. Why wouldn’t we? After all we were only human weren’t we? And added to that we were studying questions of ultimate meaning according to our philosophy, theology and scripture professors. Then to get this stark denial of life and its so-called meaningfulness right in the midst of our “intellectual studies” brought even the most cerebral among us to question what we were at studying theology and religious education which sought to give answers, to attempt to paint life as meaningful and good in the round. Instead we were scalded to the very core of our being. An intellectual girl, as Pauline was, a good theology and philosophy student taking her own life seemed on the surface to be a contradiction in terms.

Then, irony of ironies, we found out that Pauline was working on a thesis entitled The Place of Suffering in Our Lives or a similar title. Poor Pauline had indeed suffered much in her life according to her best friends. No need to go further into the circumstances of Pauline’s death as I really am not too clear about the basic facts almost 30 years later, and also I was not privileged to be a close friend, rather a relatively good acquaintance who shared tutorials and lectures with her.

However, it was a great lesson to me and convinced me of the overall daunting mystery that life is in itself and that all our argumentations, theorizing, philosophizing, theologizing and speculations count as nothing – they are mere chaff in the wind. It’s life in the round, with its entire vicissitudes, all its ups and downs, life in its totality or indeed life in its mystery that counts. It was at this juncture in my life that the great Christian existentialist philosopher Gabriel Marcel came to my aid, and I have been a fan and a follower long since.

Alex Scott puts it wonderfully on his site: “According to Marcel, we are part of, and thus cannot be objective about, our own existence. Existence transcends objective enquiry, and is thus a mystery. Scientific questions may be objectively answerable, and may be considered as problems for which there may be solutions. However, philosophic questions may not be objectively answerable, and may involve mysteries which are part of our own existence. Science may be concerned with problems which we can stand apart from and be objective about, but philosophy may be concerned with mysteries which we cannot stand apart from or be objective about.” (cf. this link Marcel )

In short, I became hooked on Marcel’s important distinction. Then I remember finding a definition of mystery given by a theologian called Eugene Joly, which supported Marcel’s marvellous and important distinction, a definition which went: “A mystery is not a wall off which you bang your head. Rather, it is an ocean into which you dive.” I began to re-work my thesis in earnest. I began by stating in my introduction that evil was not a problem to be solved, but rather a mystery to be lived, experienced and then reflected upon. Pauline’s tragic death and the discovery of the deep thought of Gabriel Marcel taught me to be humble, to love the big questions, never to be so conceited as to think one had any of the answers never mind all of them, to be humble before the very mystery of being in this world, to be indeed humbled by the fact that I am conscious of my being in this world in the first place. In short, I fell in love with life and with its very fragility and transience - I had become a philosopher, a true philosopher, thanks to Pauline and to Gabriel Marcel.

Marcel was born in Paris in 1889 and died there in 1973. He is probably the greatest Christian existential philosopher of the twentieth century, though he distinctly disliked that description of his method in philosophy. He liked to call himself a “neo-Socratic.” It is interesting, though not surprising, to find that Gabriel was the son of an atheist and was indeed himself among their number until his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1929 at the age of 40. Some people say that it was Marcel himself who coined the very term “existentialism.”

And so, friends, Marcel went on to enthrall me – not I hasten to add that I fully or even half understood him, rather I sensed in him a fellow spirit, a kindred soul and a seeker or searcher. For him a mystery is not an 'object' of perception in my mind, but rather it is felt as a 'presence' which is capable of being recognized. We know when we are in the presence of mystery, because it pulls us up and stops us in our tracks to use a cliché. It is rather akin to Rudolf Otto’s experience of the “Divine” as “Mysterium tremendum et fascinans. “ Marcel’s thoughts on mystery are outlined in his wonderful book, through which I only scanned to find the references I needed as a young man of 21, called The Mystery of Being, which as many scholars have pointed out, is more concerned with exploring what is meant by Mystery rather than what is indeed the nature of our “being” in this mysterious, wonderful, and at times very painful world.

The picture I have uploaded above is that of the sunset at Malahide Estuary late Summer 2006.

To be continued,

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Thoughts on Evil 1

Thoughts on Evil 1

Philosophy is not so much a subject as a way of thinking. In short, it is a way or a method of engaging with life. It would appear, to the present writer at least, that such an engagement with life embraces not just the intellect, but also the capacity humankind has to wonder in a profound and spiritual way at the mystery life sets before him/her.

These thoughts, after a long enough absence from this virtual world of the WWW, are occasioned by my buying a wonderful book entitled Evil in Modern Thought: an Alternative History of Philosophy by Susan Neiman (Princeton University Press, 2002).

Another factor that added to my desire to make words behave about the subject of philosophy is the horrific slaughter of innocent students and professors at Virginia Tech - April 16, 2007, which will be remembered as one of the darkest days in the history of the Virginia Tech community when 32 persons (28 students and 4 professors) were gunned down by (see this link for a list of names Massacre ) the lone gunman Seung-Hui Cho – an alienated, bitter and deluded young man. The bloodbath ended with the gunman's suicide, bringing the death toll from two separate shootings—first at a dorm, then in a classroom building—to 33 and stamping the campus in the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains with unspeakable tragedy. It has lately emerged that Seung-Hui Cho was a sullen loner who alarmed professors and classmates with his twisted, violence-drenched creative writing and left a rambling note raging against women and rich kids.

Given the instant communication available through the internet there are many sites and blogs that enquire into Cho’s motivation. These are all worth a perusal. There is even a rather good WIKI entry on this deluded mass murderer, see CHO

Then, the untimely death of one of our young students at school, Stephen Dowdall, R.I.P. more than helped to concentrate my mind if I may borrow a phrase from Dr. Samuel Johnston, he of Dictionary fame. I have written a poem by way of a personal response to his death in the post immediately prior to this one. My sixth years to whom I read the poem thought it was a little too cold a response. However, in my defense I told them that I had not taught the boy and did not really know him – hence the objectivity, and that the poem was a way I had of dealing with the death of a young pupil in our school. Were I to write a poem about someone I knew, or a poem for his mother it would indeed be a different, more personal and less objective one.

Then, the newspapers and broadcast media are replete with the latest massacres from Iraq – bloody murders almost on a daily basis killing innocents in huge numbers. Add to that the suicide of a young Irish family from Monageer County Wexford this last weekend when a couple in their late twenties took their own lives as well as those of their two young daughters. The young couple, named locally as Adrian and Ciara Dunne, were discovered dead with their children, Leanne, five, and Shania, three, after a priest who met the family on Friday raised serious concern.

Anyway, this random assortment of facts or at least the juxtaposition of them would tempt one to a philosophical exploration of the phenomenon of evil. Or if one were of depressive frame of mind make one despair.

Firstly, I think society in general and the news media in particular seem to be preoccupied with not alone what evil might be in itself, but more particularly with the motivation of doers of evil, especially if they happen to be mass murderers like Cho. We will probably never get to the bottom of this whole dreadfully unfortunate crime, but at least the question is worth asking and some form of answer worth pursuing.

Years ago, 1979 to be precise, I was a young third year student of 21 in a College of Education called Mater Dei here in Dublin city. While there I studied Theology, Philosophy, Education and English Literature. In 1979 I had to write a thesis on any subject within the areas of Theology and Philosophy. I chose to write my thesis on The Mystery of Evil. I had always been fascinated by the problem of evil and how one could square its reality with a god of Love. What put that subject in my mind then? Well, I suppose the motivating factor at the time was that while I was at school in 1972/3/4 I viewed a series of marvelous programmes called The World at War which was either a BBC or Channel Four Production, I have forgotten which. This series was accompanied by a book which I also bought. More than one programme alluded to The Final Solution (that dreadfully bland euphemism for the horrific genocide of the Jewish nation) and one in particular dealt with the Concentration Camps.

As a 21 year old man what glimpses of an answer to the Question of Evil did I come up with? Not much really, but I think I learnt a little from the books I read, but more from my lived experiences in dealing practically with the subject. Firstly, I grew to dislike the word “problem” because it had too close an association in my mind with mathematics which I would go on to study later in my student life. I began to prefer the word “mystery”, not in the sense of something that one should not talk about, or be scared or shy to talk about or as an excuse to avoid difficult answers. Mystery refers, to my mind at least, to a whole range of issues, associations and connotations; to a whole intricate web of complexities which confront the human being on a broad front on a very existential level while a problem denotes something that confronts us on an intellectual or cerebral level alone.

The picture I have uploaded above is that of the Irish Famine Monument, Boston. I took this picture while visiting my cousin Paul Brophy in March 2002.

To be continued.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

In Memoriam Stephen Dowdall (1992-2007)

Unfortunately, I must break almost 3 months of silence on a sad note. One of our pupils at school died at the untimely age of a mere 15 years. As of writing, all we know is that it was natural causes - some form of seizure, stroke or brain haemorrhage. Tomorrow I will attend his removal with his classmates and other teachers and then, his funeral and burial on Tuesday morning. Dealing with grief is always difficult because we have to deal with many layers of grief both in ourselves and within the short lives of our pupils. Many of them are dealing with other untimely deaths whether of one or other parents or close relatives or friends. However, we are supporting one another well at this time. In the meantime I would like to share this poem with whoever may wish to read it. I dedicate it to the memory of Stephen Dowdall. Rest in Peace, Stephen!!

Unfinished Work (For Stephen Dowdall 1992-2007)

A picture of his face,
Radiant and smiling,
Full of youthful hope,
Centres now the notice-board,
Calls wandering eyes
To a fixed point
Where life stops
So final -

Even in the midst of
All this toil and sweat,
Of chalk and talk
And words upon words
And lessons half-learnt
And even never learnt.

We are an unfinished work,
Rough for the most part
Like Michelangelo’s prisoners of stone
Struggling to be born.

We have not been worked upon enough,
Have not yet suffered enough,
Our rough edges need so much
To be more finely chiselled
And the dust needs to be swept
From the stone floor of our busy lives.

We will say goodbye on Monday next,
View his corpse
Cold as stone
Like a statue carved by Michelangelo
To be buried in the clay.

We will cry our tears
Silently singing our grief
As old as the first words of love
Uttered by a lonely Adam
In the quiet of a garden.

We will stand guard
As they carry his body
To its resting place –
And try to accept
What we can never understand –
The death of one so young –
And the mystery of it all.


Unfortunately I don't have a picture of Stephen to append to this post. However, I have placed a quiet meditative picture I took of the Garravogue River in Sligo from Summer. 2006