Friday, January 30, 2004

The difficulty of talking about evil in a Manichaean world


Why is it that people get so upset when they or something they like is called "evil?" Why do they take it personally?

Recently in a forum for Byzantine Catholics, we have been discussing whether or not our churches should tear out the pews. See, the Byzantine liturgy is designed for a room where people can move, walk around, do prostrations, and go venerate icons as they desire. To put pews into such a church is to handicap the Liturgy. We can still do it, but not as easily.

One eager young man started the discussion by calling pews "heretical" and "evil." Others complained, saying that their parents and grandparents who built the pews weren't evil. Now, those who were offended have doubly missed the point. To say that pews are evil isn't to say that those who installed them were evil. But to say that pews are evil isn't even, really, to say that they are evil.

We live in a world that when it acknowledges evil, can only think of it in Manichaean (Star Warsian) terms. There is Good, and there is Evil. Both are existent powers that fight. There are those who fight for good, and there are those like Hitler or Martha Stewart who are warriors for evil, Pure Evil.

The problem is that there really isn't any such thing as pure evil. Do a thought experiment: what would pure evil be like? Is it intelligent? Oops, intelligence is good. Is it brave? Bravery is good too. Is it tenacious? Sorry, that's good also. Does it exist? Existence is good. Pure evil can't exist, except as a parasite on good.

When theologians and philosophers use the word "evil", what we usually mean is "a privation of good." Evil is a lack of something that ought to be there. It is like a pothole: a gap in the pavement, or a spot where pavement should be. But the evil itself doesn't exist. You can't scoop up potholes and throw them in the back of your pickup, after all.

So, if something like pews, or Marty Haugen's music, or a homosexual orientation is described as an objective evil, what we don't mean is that pews or Haugen or homosexually oriented people are signed up in Satan's army. What we mean is that they aren't as good as they should be.

An Eastern church that has pews can be a marvelous church. But what we are arguing is that it is not as good as it could be, since the Liturgy of John Chrysostom can be prayed better in an open space.

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