(This is Neil.) I’ve just read a very interesting article on evil in the March 26 issue of America, written by the Notre Dame theologian John Cavadini (online for subscribers only). We should consider what we immediately think of when we think of evil – perhaps Hitler or now Osama bin Laden. These are not bad choices. After all, it can be convincingly argued that the Holocaust was uniquely evil, and the terrorist attacks of September 11 were also unprecedented, at least in the history of the United States.
But we might immediately think of Nazis and al-Qaeda for other, more questionable reasons. In our imagination, they inevitably seem to be almost completely evil, lacking any discernible redeeming qualities. This allows us to conveniently neglect one of the most disturbing (yet true) convictions of Christian theology – that evil is always found with good. As Professor Cavadini writes, “Evil is the good, deformed and corrupted.” Furthermore, we are ourselves not remotely attracted to either Nazism or Islamic radicalism, and are easily able to dismiss the seductiveness of a Nuremberg rally or the dream of a renewed caliphate birthed through violence. This allows us to conveniently forget what Cavadini calls the “deeply mixed character of one’s own goodness.”
We should not shy away from use of the word “evil.” But we should remember that evil is always “intertwined with the good,” even, sadly and inevitably, our own best intentions. Cavadini writes, “It may be that one must go to war to abolish slavery, for example, and yet at the same time one must realize, and say, that the war itself is a kind of judgment on our own ‘national perverseness and disobedience,’ as President Lincoln put it in his Oct. 3, 1863, Thanksgiving Proclamation.” If we forget this, we will separate ourselves as the representatives of “good” from the rest of the world, which we will then treat with sheer contempt.
This contempt, Professor Cavadini writes, tells us a “foundational lie”: “human solidarity is productive of nothing, is not glorious and goes nowhere.” This lie represents the very opposite of the Incarnation, through which God declared his solidarity with sinners, whom he could have held in contempt.
Let me provide a longer excerpt from Professor Cavadini’s article giving us an example of this sort of contempt. Surprisingly, it has to do with a saint and St Benedict at that:
An unforgettable reflection on this is Gregory the Great’s narration of the ‘Life and Miracles of St. Benedict.’ Like many ancient saints’ lives, this one is narrated in such a way as to make a theological point. At the beginning of the story, Benedict drops out of school and leaves the world while still a student, “seeing its emptiness,” Gregory tells us, and he leaves it “without regret.” He spends his life building an alternative community in the wilderness, a place from which to “see the world” in its true character, a place to gain perspective on all of its arrogance and false claims to power. Benedict’s work is accompanied by miracles, one after another, some of them miracles of “perspective” or “seeing.” He is able simply to look at the rope that binds a peasant’s hands in the power of a ruthless landowner and the rope falls away. God does not recognize these bonds as legitimate.
And yet, at the end of the narrative, Benedict comes up short. His sister, Scholastica, asks him to prolong their once yearly conversation late into the night. It’s a reasonable request. Scholastica loves her brother, and they are talking about the joys of heaven, much like Monica and Augustine in another famous “vision” scene, already a classic by Gregory’s day. Benedict refuses, for the rules of his new, alternative community forbid him to spend the night outside the monastery – though Gregory the narrator has made it clear that the house in which they are meeting is one the grounds of the monastery. Benedict has also apparently forgotten that in his early days in the wilderness, he was fed by the kindness of a monk who had to sneak away from his own monastery to share his bread with him.
Scholastica prays to God, who answers her immediately by providing a thunderstorm deluxe, so terrifying that Benedict could not think of leaving. In a rather unflattering scene, he scolds his sister for producing a miracle. But Gregory reminds us that her power was the greater in this case because she loved more, and “God is love.” It is only after this correction by his sister that Benedict has his famous and beautiful vision of the world summed up as a ball of light under God’s providence, a corrective to his earlier, colder “seeing” of the world that had prompted him to leave it with so little regret.
What is scary about the story is that Benedict is blinded, one might say, not by any evident evil but by his own goodness. His alternative community is, in fact, a good corrective to the power of the world, corrupt as it mostly is, and it does provide a miraculous vantage point for renewed perspective. His miracles of building this new perspective, conformed to the biblical miracles in both Testaments, are truly the work of God. Yet Benedict becomes so addicted, as it were, to these displays of power that he grows deaf to the simplest quest of charity, one that would require no miracle at all to perform. Even his alternative “view” of the world, the reader discovers almost with horror, is tainted with contempt. Though God does not love evil, God loves the world, and far from leaving it “without regret,” declared ultimate solidarity with it in the Incarnation.