New book challenges “enlightened” notion of evil.
by Bruce S. Thornton
Review of Unspeakable: Facing Up to Evil in an Age of Genocide and Terrorby Os Guinness (Harper, 2005, 242 pp).
As different as they may seem, all the problems and crises afflicting us, whether social or political, domestic or international, can be traced back to one historically unique development that has defined the modern world, and that was memorably expressed with brutal simplicity by Nietzsche: the death of God, or perhaps we should say more accurately, the attempted murder of God. The consequences of this phenomenon have been enormous, and were first identified by one of the great battlers against this delusion, Dostoevsky, who with equal simplicity said, “If God is dead, everything is permitted.”
The attempts to prove Nietzsche right and Dostoevsky wrong by those committed to Enlightenment rationalism and technique have all failed. Their beliefs — a pseudo-religious, not a scientific one — that humans are mere matter, to be explained and improved by knowledge and techniques that adjust or alter the material causes of their problems, should have crashed on the mountains of corpses created by one of the most enlightened and cultured civilizations in history.
Yet even after Auschwitz, even after the gulag, after mass-murderers like Stalin and Mao and the Khmer Rouge, after Bosnia, Rwanda, the Sudan, after murderous autocrats like Kim Jong Il and Saddam Hussein, and despite the daily horrors of torture, rape, and murder filling their newspapers, the secular materialists still persist in their superstition that evil is just an outdated name for what is really the manifestation of material causes, a glitch in chemical, genetic, social, economic, or political structures that can be corrected if only the enlightened “technicians of the soul,” as Stalin called them, are allowed to work their magic, and the quaint believers in various supernatural truths are gotten out of the way.
Given the importance of this problem and the inability of our public culture to address it meaningfully, Os Guinness’ Unspeakable is for that reason alone an important book, one that we all should read and ponder, and whose ideas, even when we disagree with some of them, should be at the heart of our public conversation. Guinness, an Oxford Ph.D. in the social sciences, is a world-renowned speaker, author of more than twenty books, and a founding member of the Trinity Forum, an ecumenical organization whose goal is to shape leaders by introducing them “to the big ideas that have shaped our civilization and to the faith that has animated its highest achievements,” as its mission statement puts it. His eloquent, rich, yet in some ways disappointing book makes a serious contribution to returning our sometimes floundering and incoherent public discussions about evil to the tradition that our culture depended on for centuries to make sense out of our lives.
Guinness correctly identifies the source of our confusion: “The modern world has marginalized traditional responses to evil — by dismissing traditional categories and sidelining traditional ways of responding.” Sin and evil instead have become “sickness” and “dysfunction,” anomalies to be corrected by technical intervention by scientific experts or by political, economic, or social transformation.
Changing the name of evil, though, has not altered the reality, and in fact has made it more insidious: “When none dare call it evil, evil does not disappear — it is all the freer to surprise us and do its deadly work.” Or as Baudelaire said, the devil’s cleverest trick was to convince us that he doesn’t exist. In addition, such a view of evil as sickness lets us all off the hook, for now evil becomes something external to us like a bacterium or virus, rather than an integral part of our humanity.
Guinness is astute as well on how the “traditional barriers to evil” — especially the recognition that it resides in all our hearts and so we all must take responsibility for it — have been eroded. The first reason is the fact that “‘under God’ has been neutered in American life, becoming little more than an amiable cliché in private life and a topic for controversy and litigation in public life.” That the removal of God from the public and civic square has been in many ways disastrous is an important point, particularly because of the anti-religious bigotry that accuses religion of being the great source of human suffering and misery. But as Guinness reminds us, “The worst modern atrocities were perpetrated by secularist regimes, led by secularist intellectuals and in the name of secularist beliefs,” with the result that “more people in the twentieth century were killed by secularist regimes . . . than in all the religious persecutions in history.”
Indeed, the American republic was founded “with the most radical view evil at its core,” a recognition of the human propensity for depravity that generated the separation of powers and the institutionalized balancing of factions. And even the deists and atheists at the Founding knew that a free republic could not survive without the support of religious sentiment: as John Adams put it, “We have no government armed with powers capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.”
Thus we moderns, who have acquiesced in the banishment of religion from the public square in a mistaken reading of the First Amendment, have removed the civic bridles on a human depravity now given greater scope by freedom and prosperity. We have breached the second “traditional barrier,” what Guinness calls the “triangle of freedom”: “Freedom requires virtue, virtue requires faith of some sort, and faith requires freedom.” And having done so, we have degraded political freedom into selfish licentiousness, putting at risk not just our souls but freedom itself.
Third, modernity has idealized the “unbridled passion to transgress, the drive to destroy traditions, flout standards, and defy conventions.” Abetted by high-culture mandarins and the grubby purveyors of pop-cultural commodities alike, and given increased scope by technology and consumerism, this celebration of transgression facilitates an insidious process of escalating corruption that quickly sates and just as quickly encourages “an all-out race for the bottom in the name of the ‘daring’ and the ‘edgy’ — which always turns out to be the violent, the vulgar, the explicit, and the tasteless.” We are all cheapened and dehumanized, reduced to the lowest common denominator of appetite and unwilling to submit our desires to traditional restraints. “The result is an entire society following the addict’s piecemeal slide into bondage and a civilization’s descent into decay.”
Two other consequences of the secularist “sin as sickness” belief inhibit our understanding of evil. The first is what has been called the “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not judge.” Materialist determinism of course absolves us of personal responsibility, and without that responsibility, there can be no judgment but only therapeutic intervention. We are all victims, whether of our genes or our parents or society, and so we are all innocent.
Additionally, the “exploding pluralism” of the global village, along with its abundance of values and lifestyle choices, seemingly ratifies the “relativity of our own choices”: “The result is that certainties have evaporated, authorities have eroded, and seemingly permanent traditions and apparently rocklike convictions have softened into preferences and lifestyle options.” This cultural and moral relativism is abetted by a fashionable disbelief in objective truth or any absolute standards from which to judge behavior. That this position is false is demonstrated most obviously by those who profess to believe it, for the apostles of moral pluralism and tolerance do not hesitate to judge and condemn cultures like the antebellum South, apartheid South Africa, or Nazi Germany, or to judge and condemn racism, sexism, or homophobia.
Next, our culture’s belief in utopian progress makes us impatient with the idea that evil is a defining possibility in every one of us, for that stubborn reality will always subvert all attempts to create a perfect world: “Belief in human perfectibility and progress inevitably denies evil in human nature and views history as the path to ever-upward improvement.” This denial of evil’s reality, however, has contributed to ever greater evils committed by those who believed “new men” could be created through political technique: “As the last century demonstrates, the most murderous tyrannies in history were the fruit of ungrounded utopian confidence in politics, science, education, and psychology and in what they could do to improve human nature and society.”
This constellation of delusions — evil as merely a glitch in material reality, the banishment of religion from the public square, the proscription of judgment based on cultural and moral relativism, the glamorizing of “transgression,” and the naïve faith in progress and utopia — is particularly destructive to the American political order, which was founded on quite different and more pessimistic assumptions. Thus Guinness asks, “Are we on the verge of seeing secular liberalism provide a fertile breeding ground for evil because of its own ungrounded optimism? This could happen partly because of its nonchalance about the seriousness of evil — and therefore about the need for any ethical and cultural restraints — and partly because its own values, such as human rights, depend on traditional beliefs and have no sufficient foundation of their own.” If we are, as Unamuno suggests, “spiritual parasites,” then eventually we will suffer the fate all parasites suffer when their exhausted host organism dies.
Guinness’ analysis of our predicament is timely and profound, and his suggestions for reversing these trends are valuable as well: accept the tragic limits of human life and action, recognize the latent evil in all our hearts, make a commitment to work against evil in whatever way one’s circumstances allow, and most important, work to restore religion to the public discussion and discard the worn-out Enlightenment bigotry against faith, a faith buttressed by critical examination: “Our challenge today is not to resort to faith as a crutch because reason has stumbled, but rather to acknowledge that reason, in its long arduous search, has come up short and that where it has stopped it has pointed beyond itself to answers that only faith can fulfill.”
Yet despite the value of these insights, there are certain aspects of Guinness’s book that give one pause. Perhaps for tactical reasons and a desire to reach as many people as possible, including unbelievers, Guinness indulges at times an ecumenical pluralism and individualism that keeps him from more positively asserting the traditional Judeo-Christian understanding of evil that has informed Western culture. For example, his discussion of Buddhism clearly explains its inadequacies in dealing with the question of evil, that it “falls short in answers to such questions [regarding evil and our response to it],” but then Guinness says, “each of must make up our own mind about questions like these.” So what happens when one of us makes up his own mind that Buddhism doesn’t“fall short”? Do we just let the sleepwalker stroll over the cliff?
Guinness’ anxiety not to be “exclusive” or perhaps to sound too preachy leads to other difficulties with what he calls “examined pluralism” as a way out of the Scylla of “monistic universalism” and the Charybdis of “multicultural relativism.” But either there is one spiritual truth or there are many, and if there is one, then the others are wrong or at best partial. Nor is Guinness’ call for moral and spiritual goods to “be justified with arguments that are publicly accessible and persuasive to others” likely to convince those holding erroneous or destructive spiritual beliefs that they are in error.
Indeed, this faith in the power of rational persuasion smacks of the one of the premier Enlightenment delusions, that people do evil out of ignorance and only need to be educated in order to do good. But there are no rational arguments that are going to convince an Islamist fanatic that the truth revealed to him by Allah justifying the slaughter of innocents is actually an ignorant delusion, especially when historically Islam has been such an aggressively expansionist and chauvinistic faith convinced of its world-historical role.
Guinness is certainly no relativist: he asserts plainly that “the differences [between understandings of evil] make a difference,” and a careful reader will see his preference for the Judeo-Christian tradition as offering the most coherent answer. Yet to my mind he neglects some of the fundamental ideas of that tradition that have for twenty centuries taken account of evil and that could have clarified Guiness’ argument. For contrary to Guinness’ frequently repeated assertions in his book that evil is an inexplicable mystery, Christian classics like Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy and Dante’s Divine Comedy offer perfectly coherent explanations for evil. I find it interesting that in Guinness’ book, Nietzsche is quoted more frequently than Dante, and Boethius not at all.
For example, at the heart of the modern world’s delusions about evil is a determinist materialism that dismisses evil as dysfunction or sickness. Thus any approach to the problem of evil must start first in an accurate understanding of the nature of human beings. We are not just a material body or its material goods, but an immaterial immortal soul. Contrary to modern secularists, we are spiritual creatures, and so the issue of good and evil is a spiritual problem. Recognizing this fundamental truth would’ve kept Guinness from the mistake of talking about sickness, disease, famine, and all the other accidents that afflict the body as evils. They are not, for they concern only a body that is going to die in any case.
In contrast, evil is a spiritual problem, a consequence of human choice. God created us with an instinct to love Him and find our fulfillment and joy in that love, but he also made us free. When we don’t choose God, then whatever we do choose is evil, which is simply then the absence of God, as darkness is the absence of light or ignorance the absence of knowledge. Evil then is bound up with the issue of free will, something else the secular materialists tell us is just an outworn superstition, a figment of our imaginations, since all causes are material and hence determined at some physical level. Yet I don’t recall Guinness discussing this central issue of free will — which lies at the heart of the Christian tradition’s understanding of evil — in the detail it deserves.
Again, I imagine Guinness’ approach reflects a tactical decision to be as inclusive as possible and to avoid sectarian preachiness. But I for one will have to be convinced by evidence and argument before I accept that the Christian tradition as embodied in great Christian classics like those of Boethius, Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, Dostoevsky, and numerous others is no longer adequate for helping us to understand the problem of evil, particularly as that tradition offers powerful alternatives to the modern world’s secularist materialist assumptions.
This reservation, however, does not diminish in the least the value and importance of Guinness’ book. He has initiated the conversation that we must be having and recognized the fundamental crisis that we all are facing — the decline of faith, a decline that if it continues will be catastrophic. For as Guinness concludes, “In the face of the horror of the unspeakable, only such faith can provide the best truths to come to terms with evil, the highest courage to resist evil, the deepest love to care for those caught in its toils, and the profoundest hope of the prospect of a world beyond evil, beyond hatred, beyond oppression, and even beyond tears.”