Making Sense of ‘Evil’

 The Exorcist (1973)

The Exorcist (1973)

When we hear that word, ‘Evil’, what comes to mind? The first thing which comes to mind for me is Hollywood - more specifically the 1973 film The Exorcist. The film is about a girl who is possessed by the devil, and two catholic priests are called upon to exorcise the devil out. It culminates in that classically famous scene of the possessed girl hovering above her bed, as the two priests shout ‘the power of Christ compels you’, crucifixes in hand. This is Hollywood’s presentation of ultimate evil, made all the more shocking in the fact that it manifests within a little girl, innocent and pure.

This idea of evil being personified in entities beyond our comprehension, ghosts, monsters, demons, and the devil himself, is an idea which has arisen throughout the world in all cultures and religions. Faced with both the arbitrary nature of suffering (the good suffer just as the bad do), and humanity’s capacity to commit acts of great cruelty, mythologies have arisen to try and account for all this. It makes good Darwinian sense. To fear the unknown, or the strange, may be irrational, but it is an irrationality which on occasion will keep you safe. There may be no monsters in the deep dark wood, but there is always the possibility of getting lost, or hurting yourself, or being hurt by another person. And if you think there are monsters, you just won’t risk it.

 Example of a racist portrayal of the Japanese.

Example of a racist portrayal of the Japanese.

Likewise, individuals or groups of people may be demonised. This puts us on guard against the possible threat they may pose, and also dehumanises them, making them easier to destroy. For example during World War II, American comic books portrayed the Japanese as monstrous, or even demonic. In this way the American soldier could buy into the illusion that they were fighting on the side of the ‘good’, or on the side of God, against what they truly believed was Evil.

Also, having a shared sense of what we oppose, what we are fighting against, what we collectively perceive to be ‘Evil’, creates strong sense of comradeship among the ‘in’ group. Within fundamentalist sects, or cults, or other extremist type groups, there is always a very strong sense of who the enemy is. For some reason human beings find it far easier to stand shoulder to shoulder united in their hatred of something, than they do united in their love of something.

What is it about the human condition? Are we incapable of selfless acts, always seeking to further our own agendas? Are we at our core miserable sinners? Of course the traditional, ‘orthodox’ Christian answer is that from birth we have been set on a course of open rebellion against God. Our entire self is set up in opposition to God, and the only way we can be ‘saved’ is to accept the ‘get out of jail free card’ on offer from Jesus. We quite naturally hear that story from Genesis as playing into that Christian narrative, quite subconsciously. The devil tempts Eve, who leads Adam to commit that ultimate sin, which kicks of the whole ‘Original Sin’ idea, that human beings from birth are sinners, before doing anything.

 'Adam and Eve' By Lucas Cranach the Elder (1526)

'Adam and Eve' By Lucas Cranach the Elder (1526)

Of course almost everything about this is not even in Genesis. The devil is not mentioned, rather it is the ‘crafty serpent’; it was a later interpretation that understood the serpent to be the devil. And as for the ‘Original Sin’ punishment (that all human beings would be born tarnished), this is not in there at all. But the punishments are listed. We had them read out: the serpent is cursed to crawl on the ground, whatever that means, women are punished by having childbirth be painful, and men are punished by the constant threat of failing crops.

The Judaic understanding of the serpent is that he represents a part human nature: the curiosity part, the impulsive parts, that want to just dive in. And as for the idea of ‘Original Sin’, that does not figure into Judaic thought at all. In fact the very opposite argument is made in one of Moses’ last big sermons; he condemns the idea that humanity is hopeless, and says that it is people alone who can merit their own salvation. What we have in the Genesis account is the written record of a Bronze Age people trying to make sense of the world, and their place in it. Trying to make sense of life, and just how damn hard it is.

Another ancient mythology we had read was from Greek mythology - the story of Pandora’s Box, and it is interesting to note how similar these two stories are. First, Pandora is made by Zeus, then she is ordered not to do something; she is ordered not to open the box – just as Adam and Eve are ordered not to eat of a particular tree. But Pandora can’t help herself. She was made by Zeus to be a curious and inquisitive woman. That same curiosity which is represented by the serpent in Genesis. Ultimately we end up in the same place: there are bad things in the world, but we, through human toil, through embracing hope, through loving one another, can overcome that adversity. Through embracing our humanity, we can strive towards salvation, can strive towards the kind of world we want to live in. In other words the battle for ‘good’ and ‘evil’ runs right through us all.

But this word ‘Evil’ – what do we mean by ‘Evil’? If we define ‘Evil’ as the absence of good, we may well want to ask if such a thing is even possible. Can it even exist? It is very easy and convenient to understand the world in terms of what is ‘Evil’ and what is ‘good’, but that really only works at the surface level, in the same way as we just unpicked our way through Genesis - on the surface, the Serpent is Evil, and humanity is ‘Good’ - but if the Serpent just represents another part of human nature, then where in us does the Evil end, and the good begin?

So back to the Exorcist, that 1973 film. It was based loosely on true events. Which is to say, there was a boy who had serious mental health issues in the late 1940s in the Unites States, possibly due to sexual abuse (there is some debate around that). But he was surrounded by very religious people, people who thought in these narrow terms of ‘Evil’ and ‘Good’. His illness, his strangeness, invoked fear in those around him, and therefore he was subjected to many exorcisms. There are obviously countless stories like this, today, and throughout history, of people being misunderstood, and therefore feared, dehumanised, and therefore put in the ‘Evil’ box. By opposing what they perceive as ‘Evil’, people in turn become what is most ‘Evil’.

 James W. Flower (1940 - 2015)

James W. Flower (1940 - 2015)

Cliff Reed put me onto this Shakespeare quote which illustrates this perfectly – ‘It is a heretic that makes the fire, not she which burns in't.’ It is he that demonises who is at fault, not the one being demonised. People can obviously inhabit their own hells, in which Evil forces feel very real. And this is where it might not be quite right to throw out this word ‘Evil’ entirely. People have subjective experiences of hopelessness, or fear, or pain, which makes the ‘Evil’ in this world feel very real to them, and that cannot be just dismissed. But in terms of our own spiritual development, in terms of our own spiritual growth, understanding and compassion breaks down this simplistic duel way of understanding the world, moving towards grasping the nuance, and the complexity of the human condition.

James Fowler wrote a book in the 1980s called The Stages of Faith, in which he attempted to map the stages of faith development in people, the way they hold their worldviews together. In the early stages we naturally take the mythological narratives we hear in very literal terms. The world is understood in terms of Good and Evil. And as we spiritually mature, we allow in more and more paradoxes; we recognise the realities behind the symbolic language we use, and no longer can ‘explain it all’ narratives satisfy.

In conclusion then, to talk of ‘Evil’ is often to talk of some malicious force out there, beyond our conception, in mystical realms. But really this symbolic language is pointing towards a struggle of good over bad that is within us, an on-going, nuanced and complex process, of recognising and striving after the right thing. There is no natural propensity within us towards the bad – we are human beings, which means we are by our nature conflicted and confused. But together we toil. Together we strive after the way of love, the way of greater understanding. A greater understanding especially of those which perplex us, and which we misunderstand. And we must ever guard against dismissing or labelling groups, and turning them into our scapegoats.

From the old I travel to the new, keep me travelling along with you.

Amen.