Saturday, September 27, 2008

The seventh proof......

Written in secret during the darkest days of Stalinism, Bulgakov's novel The Master and Margarita is one hell of a read. I read it in Madagascar- Peace Corps service is a great time to do some pleasure reading, when you're stuck in a small village with nothing much to do at night except read by candlelight (and, I suppose, check out the occasional video night at my neighbor's). The novel bases itself on a very simple premise. What happens when the Devil appears in the midst of a society which has convinced itself God does not exist? Sometime during the brilliant first chapter, Woland (i.e. the Devil) asks the young Soviet intellectual Bezdomny, who thinks he has airily dismissed all of the six classic proofs of the existence of God, "What about the seventh proof?"

It isn't immediately clear what the seventh proof is, but it becomes clearer later on. It could either mean the proof of God through direct experience- through mysticism or through witnessing miracles. Or it could mean the inference that in a world full of evil, the devil must necessarily exist, and the existence of the devil necessitates the existence of God.

I think this last argument is quite interesting- both subtle and, to me, compelling. Moreover, it may speak better to an age which has witnessed such a wide variety of natural and moral evil- from the Holocaust to September 11, and from the Indonesian tsunami to the emergence of deadly plagues that threaten human existence. Does the existence of evil in the world, in a subtle way, suggest the existence of God?

I think that this argument is, in some measure, valid. I don't necessarily believe in the orthodox picture of the devil, Satan/Lucifer and all that- much of that picture is not even specified in Christian scripture. But I do believe, as firmly as I believe there is a God, that there is some extreme and terrible force in the universe opposed to God- as chaos opposes order, darkness opposes light, and negative opposes positive. What the nature of that power of evil is, whether it was coeternal with God (I can see I'm flirting with heresy here), and whether it was evil in the beginning, I have no way of knowing. I do hold the (unorthodox) view that God cannot, even if he wanted to, completely extinguish the evil power, and that therefore evil is as much an eternal component of reality as good.

In essence, I am convinced that at the back of everything, behind every drama that we see played out in history, in nature, in the world at large and in our own souls, this is a universe at war, between a good Power and an evil one: between the perfection of good, and the perfection of evil. Not a show battle either, not a trial of strength: a deadly serious war in which every victory, over every soul, means something. This makes the most sense to me of any cosmological concept I've seen. This universe has two basic number senses, two electrical polarities, two plane dimensions, and ultimately, two spiritual forces.

While it may sometimes be difficult to perceive the hand of God in the world, it isn't as difficult (at least for me) to perceive the influence of that nameless evil power. We can see its influence every time we consult the newspaper or the pages of history- or reflect on our own souls. How do you explain Hitler, for example, on a purely naturalistic, materialistic level? Why did he do what he did?

It wasn't the desire for power. The desire for power might have driven Hitler to kill off a few of his political rivals- maybe a few tens of thousands of Communists and Social Democrats, and some of the top Jewish intellectuals, to make a point. Nor was it simple dislike of people who are different. Dislike of others can go a little farther, but there were plenty of anti-Semites throughout European history who didn't translate their views into genocide, and certainly not into such ghoulishly demonic forms of genocide as the Nazis did. Hitler didn't murder six million Jewish men, women and children as a means to some understandable end (power, money, sex, self-regard.....) He did it as an end in itself, as did the Nazi party members who obeyed his orders with pleasure. No doubt they realized that the genocide, and the invasion of Russia, were sealing their own grave: but it didn't matter. For the Nazis, barbaric murder and the dehumanization of other people had become an end, and a source of pleasure in itself. They are our classic and most memorable examples of people who pursue evil for its own sake. Not because they don't know it's evil, but precisely because they do. Another example, of course, would be that Liberian general a few years back who, before leading his troops into battle, would kill and eat the heart of an infant.

That sort of insensate pursuit of evil for its own sake, has very little explanation- either in terms of evolution or in terms of economics or psychology. Lack of empathy with others, and a certain cruel streak, can be useful as means to amass money or power- but in this case, the murderous intent was completely out of proportion to any reasonable end. Why would that Liberian general deliberately try to do the most wicked thing he could think of? It's impossible for us to conceive of that action in a rationalistic framework of ends and means. Just as evolutionary psychology has trouble explaining someone like St. Francis of Assisi, it has an even harder time explaining those people who value the pursuit of an evil end more than anything else- more than food, money, sex, power, self-regard, or even life itself. The only explanation I can give- for the Liberian cannibal general, and for the Nazis- is to postulate some malign and evil power, that enters into human hearts and transforms us for the worse in the same way that God transforms us for the better.

Once you grant that, of course, you have granted the existence of a supernatural power of evil: something beyond what we can call 'natural' or 'usual' or 'comprehensible' evil. We have granted the existence of a power that seeks and loves evil for its own sake- a power that is, in a word, the perfection of evil. And once you grant the existence of an evil power, you must also postulate the existence of a rival Power, the perfection of good- for evil is meaningless without good to prey on, to corrupt, and to define itself against. Put simply, world in which all beings were evil would be a world in which there would be no good souls to be corrupted or unjustly tormented; and inasmuch as injustice and corruption are a basic component of evil, the existence of evil requires the existence of good, and the existence of perfect evil requires the existence of perfect good. That is as orthodox a proposition as any; the converse, that the existence of good requires the existence of evil, is of course heretical. That doesn't make it true or false, of course; personally I suspect that it may be true. At least, it seems to me that to be perfectly good, there must be at least the potentiality of evil for good to define itself against. I'm glad I belong to a church that doesn't kick people out for heresy anymore. :)

And thus we arrive at the conclusion of the seventh proof, the proof with which the devil taunted Bezdomny: that the existence of extreme and radical evil proves that there is a power that is the perfection of all things good, the best and most benevolent being that can be conceived; "and this all men call God."

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