August 2014 Meeting Summary

PCN North Lincs. group: summary of discussion of August, 2014

Our response to the chapter in Tony Windross’s book, The Thoughtful Guide to Faith entitled: Thinking about Evil.

We started by ruminating about what might be called the evil that lies in the human character.  One member perceived that an absence of love led to most “evil” behaviour and another commented on the “banality of evil”, quoting the example of Eichmann who, when facing trial, seemed to be just an ordinary person doing (as he perceived it) an ordinary job.

But another member of the group found the noun, “evil”,  fundamentally unhelpful. It led to an unhealthy conceptualisation of a spirit invading and infecting the soul, leading at its extreme, to exorcisms. The Baptism service with its required promise to reject the devil was also a manifestation of this erroneous thinking. In answer to the person who queried whether it was the use of the word as a noun rather than as an adjective that led to this catastrophe of understanding, he still said that he would have the word excised from all services completely, whatever its grammatical function.

On member commented that the Bible was a product of different times and cultural understandings. What may have been termed “evil” or the “product of the devil” then would be given medical names like “schizophrenia” or “epilepsy” now and understood in a much more enlightened way. How far the “psychopathic” or “dysfunctional” personality can be called “evil” is still a matter of some disagreement. 

Not for the first time, we reflected that we are also limited by our own cultural background and may be blinded to the nature of the contemporary myths we have unconsciously espoused. So as the Romans thought they were creating world peace (the Pax Romana) through justified war,  the British were confident that they were bringing civilisation to the world through the Empire. Apartheid was seen by South African rulers as “good”. It is, we reflected, depressingly hard to go against the prevailing ethos of the day which later can be revealed as “evil”, as the Eichmann example demonstrated.
The closeness of good and evil and the forces of creative and destructive energy were discussed, a recurrent theme in Shakespearian tragedy. Much of mythology, both early and late is based on the opposition of idols and demons, the simplistic conceptualisation of which can be quite dangerous.  Perhaps, as one put it, the greatest temptation is “to try to do good” - that is, with one’s own construction of what “good” is.

A close examination of a complex and perhaps ultimately unsatisfying sentence in Windross’s chapter led us to a discussion of another aspect of “evil”.  The sentence reads: “But just as objectifying evil causes problems, the same happens when God is reified/objectified, especially when people put together the idea of a world which clearly contains evil, and a God who is traditionally thought of as all-loving and all-powerful.”  The person who drew it to the group’s attention found it troubling because he could not conceive of God as arising from an abstraction. His experience of “Him” was as a real energy, an objective reality.  Similarly, if a person experience “evil” as he experienced “God” , it would not be the objectification of an abstraction. Although he himself had not experienced evil in this way, he cautioned against assuming there were no such thing. Another in the group’s understanding of God did arise from abstractions, but through experience became a reality “as substantial as his own body”. 

Finally, the group were united in feeling that an antidote to over-concentration on evil, was awareness of the power of good. Psychologically it was better to see the good in one’s self. “You are Christ’s treasure,” as one member reminded herself constantly. One member recalled the attitude of Victorian fathers that evil had to be “knocked out of children” reflecting the savagely erroneous doctrine of original sin. And two members talked of the need to concentrate on the positive in social action rather than obsessively indulging in introverted speculation on the nature of one’s own sins.   

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