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Eugene Weekly : Q & A : 10.16.08



Q&A

Good and Evil

Do these words make sense in today’s world?

by Daniel Falk & Loren Crow

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following interview was conducted by Dr. Daniel Falk, associate professor of Religious Studies at UO; and Dr. Loren Crow, associate professor of Biblical Studies at NCU.

As a leading scholar of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible at Emory University, Dr. Carol Newsom is fascinated with how people use the categories of good and evil to make sense of the world. She is writing a book on the topic and will be in Eugene Oct. 24-26 to give several free talks in the annual Chi Rho Lecture Series. The following is an excerpted interview.

Dr. Carol Newsom Scholar

There are things so horrific that all of us have a hard time making sense of them: genocide, terrorism, child abuse, rape. How is it helpful and/or harmful to use the categories of good and evil to make sense of our world?

One of the reasons I am interested in doing a book on Good and Evil is that I am so ambivalent about the value of these terms. In fact, I am very suspicious about them. One reason for my ambivalence is that if you look back historically at what people identify as “good” and as “evil” you find things that are very culturally specific — worshiping at more than one location is “evil.” Women who behave in certain ways are “evil.” Adopting certain customs from one’s neighbors is “evil.” It can make you pretty cynical about the very terminology. Unfortunately, even genocide is sometimes culturally defined not as evil but as good—even in the Bible. So we need to approach the very use of this language with a very wary disposition.

So if “good and evil” are that easy to abuse as terms, should we just abandon them?

Even though we have to be skeptical about any particular culture’s definition of what is “good” and what is “evil,” there seems to be a universal human need to make some sort of distinction — and that suggests that there is some underlying enigma. I like the way the philosopher Susan Neiman puts it. She says that you can put the question of good and evil in either secular or religious terms, but it is always a question about the intelligibility of the world. That is to say, our frustration is that the world almost makes sense but not quite. And it is that “not quite” that is “the problem of evil.” And so, we keep having to ask about what “does not fit” in our sense of a properly working world­and why that is. But we also need to keep asking whether our particular answers to that question are improperly influenced by specific desires that other people conduct themselves according to our particular standards. 

How is our language and imagery of good and evil influenced by the Bible? 

Oh! Even people who think of themselves as totally secular are often strongly influenced by the categories of the Bible (for good or ill!). One of the points I am trying to make [in the Chi Rho talks] is that there are actually several different ways of understanding good and evil in the biblical tradition — but in terms of western culture only one of them has made a strong cultural impact — and in my opinion it has been the most dangerous — the apocalyptic vision of a dualistic struggle between good and evil. Now, to give this perspective its due, it has produced some compelling literature, both high culture and popular. It’s the moral imagination of Milton’s Paradise Lost. And it is also the background for Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. And — hey — where would professional wrestling be without a dualistic struggle between good and evil? For some reason this way of thinking about good and evil has had a very, very strong cultural resonance with people. So something about it taps into a deep psychic need — and even those of us who don’t like it need to think about why it is so attractive.

For many people the most difficult question is Why is there evil in the world? How do you answer that?

I’m always tempted to ask, “Why not?” That’s not a cynical question. It’s actually a hopeful one. The fact that people are troubled by the presence of evil suggests that human society has a strong, fundamental vision of what good is — and a deep belief that good is “the base line” of society — that evil is a deviation from the fundamental condition of existence. It suggests that we have an assumption that good is what happens most of the time—and that evil is an aberration. Can you imagine how awful a society would be in which the pressing question was “why is there good?” I don’t mean to be flip — I just think that the very existence of this question should give us reason to believe in the fundamental commitment of our human species to a vision of goodness as the basis of our existence. And in my opinion that commitment is in our genes. I think we are hard wired more toward good than toward evil — but unfortunately, not entirely.

Is it equally difficult to answer, Why is there good in the world? Considering the drive for survival, shouldn’t we expect self-centered stepping on others as the norm, as we take for granted among animals? Shouldn’t the really surprising thing be that people sometimes act in ways that are not in their immediate best interests? Where does good come from?

This is one of the hot topics in evolutionary biology. Some earlier evolutionary theory couldn’t make a place for altruism. Now, however, evolutionary biology is fascinated by the ways in which altruism seems to be an adaptive mechanism — but why? Well, you’ll need to interview someone else about that if you want the specifics. But what fascinates me about the intersection between evolutionary biology and religion is the way religion uses certain metaphors that extend some of the findings of evolutionary biology to broader communities. Here’s what I mean. We know that, biologically, individuals will do altruistic things more often for those who are more closely genetically related to them — and that makes sense — it ensures the survival of their related genes. But human culture (including religion) builds on our basic biological dispositions and extends this genetic disposition to do good for our relatives. Just look at religious metaphors — they expand the notion of “family” to others. Religions talk about non-related persons as “brothers and sisters,” etc., or talk about all people as “children of God” and ask people to extend their altruism to these non-biological family members. And it’s not just religions, of course — the military is a prime example of this kind of metaphorical extension of biological kinship — remember the PSB series Band of Brothers? That’s symbolic kinship at work. And this is a very important way in which the human species can extend its sense of the network of “others” toward whom good should be extended. 



 Is there a difference between calling an action evil and calling a person or a nation evil?

Not as much as I would wish. … I think most societies start with defining behaviors as good or bad. And that is in order to try to create a society that will be as just and harmonious as possible. But too often that language about behaviors slips into language about persons. If we are going to get an answer as to why this happens we are probably going to have to look (again) at evolutionary biology and the way primates (including humans) tend to form small groups and to police the boundaries. You may think it odd that a scholar of religion goes immediately to evolutionary biological explanations, but really, I think that a lot of religious “distinction making” about insiders/outsiders cannot be understood unless we also bring in biological/sociological categories. In my opinion it is a gross misuse of language about good and evil behavior when we use it to define “us” against “them.” And I think most people­in their heart of hearts know that. So, we need to work hard to de-couple our (biologically based) need to have small group affiliations from our tendency to think that groups that are not “ours” are somehow bad because they are “not us.” It really is possible to think of an “other” who is not bad. 

As a scholar of the Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls, what do you think when you hear a politician describe certain countries as an “axis of evil.”

Oh, the political use of this rhetoric is a good example of how easy it is to manipulate. And that’s one of the things that makes it disreputable. WE are good. THEY are evil. This is a perversion of the human attempt to distinguish between what is good and what is not. Liberals (among whom I count myself) are sometimes accused of being lacking in “moral clarity” because we are skeptical of the facile use of this type of categorization. But I don’t think that most people of any political persuasion are unwilling to declare certain actions or even certain institutions as evil. But the problem with a too facile use of these terms is that it wipes out all ambiguity. And if there is anything profound about evil, it is how insidiously it intermixes with good. That is what is fascinating. And in the best literary reflections on evil, it is the characters who represent both good and evil who are the most compelling.

We don’t apply the language of good and evil to animals. When animals carry out forced sex, kill the weakling, or eat their offspring, we don’t call them evil. Are categories of good and evil universal to humans? Are these religious categories, or are they human categories? Is there an inherent good to humans?

One of the things that religion does is to ponder issues just like this — we are “animals” but “not quite” animals — so in what ways are we like them and in what ways not? That’s exactly what Genesis 2-3 is thinking through. Genesis 2-3 is about the birth of the “moral agent,” that is to say, beings who can be held morally responsible for their actions. Animals are more or less “hard wired” to do what they need to do. [Actually, evolutionary biologists are discovering that some higher primates do have some moral culture, but humans have developed moral culture to a much more complex level — so, we really are different.] But if people have eaten from the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” that is a mythological way of saying that people have become different from the other animals — we have become strangely different. The biblical text uses the language that we have become “like gods.” And that is not necessarily a good thing. As I like to put it — the problem that Genesis 2-3 poses is that “we are trying to run divine software with an animal operating system.” And THAT is exactly what Genesis 2-3 is trying to say about the origin of good and evil—sometimes we make wonderful choices…and sometimes we make horrible ones. 

How do we recognize universal good and evil? 

Here’s my current thought. “Every living being seeks to live and to flourish.” Now I can’t live without causing the death of other living beings. Even a vegan cannot. But if I orient myself to the value that — just like myself­every living being seeks to live and to flourish — then perhaps I can use that thought in connection with the Golden Rule (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) — as a pretty good guideline for what would be a good world, both environmentally and politically.

Evil is not always sensational, but instead is often rather mundane, working in bureaucracies and various activities of “ordinary life” (as shown in Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem: a Report on the Banality of Evil). How does this work?

Yes, yes — so much evil is indeed not sensational or intentional but just a matter of “how we do things here.” I grew up in the Jim Crow South. Most racism was not perpetrated by Ku Klux Klan members but rather by people who just lived by “tradition.” But the tradition itself was evil. These were not bad white people, for the most part. But the institutions of their lives caused them just to do unthinkingly what was evil. When, during the late 1960s and early 1970s the institutions of their lives changed, most (not all, but most) of these white people shifted to another way of relating to their African-American neighbors. And as the years went on and they became accustomed to new institutions, they were often perplexed by how they could have seen those previous racist traditions as right. In retrospect they could see that they were wrong. So much evil — and yes, so much good — can be encoded into “how we do things here.” If there is anything we should put our energies to it is into forming the “habits” of good. 

What can be done to resist evil? Is there ever warrant for violence to oppose evil?

The wisdom tradition thinks that evil can be resisted by depriving it of its “fuel.” Don’t act in a mirror image way to evil­and then it will be stopped before it can spread. Don’t return evil for evil. That’s what the nonviolence movements by Ghandi and Martin Luther King understood. There are ways in which you can resist violence by performing its opposite. Of course there are some contexts in which that is not effective. There may well be some times in which the only viable opposition to evil is violence. But anyone who engages in such action should not do so in a spirit of self-righteousness. The appropriate emotion is grief. Even in acting against those who do evil, one should love them and feel compassion­for how awful that anyone could have fallen from what humans were created to be and do. This is very difficult to do without hypocrisy. But I think this is what it means that Jesus calls his followers to love their enemies. If one realizes how easy it is to fall into evil oneself, then it may be easier to have compassion even while resisting evil.



Public Talks by Dr. Carol Newsom: “Good and Evil: Making Sense of a Senseless World,” 7:30 pm Friday and Saturday,  Oct. 24-25, and 4 pm Sunday, Oct. 26, at  Central Lutheran Church. A discussion session at the church will be 9:30 am Saturday, Oct. 25.  The lectures are free and open to all.