Couldn’t evil be explained by choice?
by Bruce S. Thornton
The commentary on the recent murder of 9 people by a teen-aged gunman at a Minnesota Indian reservation school tells us as much about our cultural dysfunctions as do the killings themselves. As the pundits pore over the killer’s life, every possible cause is analyzed except the one that really counts-the spiritual problem of human evil.
Instead, all the usual determinist suspects are rounded up by our secular culture, the usual symptoms confused with causes. Violence in the media and video games, internet hate groups, divorce, social isolation, “Goth” fashion, flabby gun control, inadequate self-esteem-boosting curricula and counseling services in the schools—all are fingered as culprits, even though millions of kids who watch violent television, surf disreputable chat rooms, live in divorced homes, and have easy access to guns don’t kill their classmates.
No one seems to think that perhaps the problem is not one the practitioners of the so-called “human sciences”—psychologists and sociologists—can adequately make sense of, let alone solve. That is why the theologians, philosophers, novelists, and poets, who for twenty-five centuries in the West have meditated on the stubborn mystery of human good and evil, are conspicuous by their absence from the op-ed-page and TV-talking-head oracles.
To Christian thinkers, for example, such acts, while horrific, are not literally “senseless.” They make perfect sense given humanity’s fallen condition, our subjection to the forces of appetite and passion. Yet despite those restraints we are still created free, and aided by the grace of Christ, we are free and able to choose God or to choose ourselves. When we choose ourselves, we make of ourselves a god and worship our own lusts and pleasures, including the lust for power. And what greater power is there for a human than the power to kill?
Nor need there always be material or rational causes for killing. As Dostoevsky understood, we need no reason to choose evil other than the mere fact that it exists as a choice, and making that choice affirms our freedom and displays our power. As Dmitri Karamazov says, there is war between God and Satan and the battleground is the human heart, where every day we must choose either to worship God or to worship ourselves and thus aspire to be god. Such choices are part of the mystery of human good and evil, as inexplicable by a material science as are unconditional love and self-sacrifice and redemption.
Yet religion and theology are dismissed by our official wisdom as mere superstition and irrational obfuscation. Good, evil, free will—didn’t Marx and Darwin and Freud, that modernist trinity, teach us that those are all illusions, that our precious selves are mere material bubbles floating on vast oceans of economics, genes, evolutionary selection, environment, or unconscious forces? The determinists have carried the day and have, as Hamlet put it, torn the heart out of our mystery, leaving us all diminished.
The greater problem, however, is that our whole civilization is predicated on ideals created by those who assumed that spiritual reality indeed exists, that there is a God who created the world and made us to be a certain way. That is, we humans aren’t just material things in the world, but transcendent souls that have value because they are created by God in His image and imprinted with a moral order not dependent on a material environment or physical force. Even the Deists among the American founders believed in a natural law created and given to us by God, a law our political structures must reflect and harmonize with. Freedom is the gift of “Nature and Nature’s God,” not the consequence of evolution or genes, the accidental result of random material forces. So too with human rights—they are universal goods for all humans because they are expressions of our souls, not our bodies; gifts of God, not boons bestowed by other flawed men.
This disconnect between our political institutions and morality created by a spiritual tradition, and our belief that science can provide an alternative guide to action based on the assumptions that all causes are material, explains the muddle most of us find ourselves in when addressing difficult questions such as abortion or the Schiavo case. For if we are just material things in a material world, without freedom or responsibility, without transcendent value and rights just because we are humans created by God, then on what basis do we build morality other than a utilitarian calculation that subordinates the individual to some material good? Why not strangle a baby, then, to create utopia? Why not slaughter six million to create paradise for many millions more?
We modern Westerners are what the Spanish poet Miguel de Unamuno called “spiritual parasites,” living off that rich spiritual tradition and the values and institutions it created, even as we discount those same spiritual values and look rather to the high priests of materialist determinism to make sense of our world.
But is anyone truly satisfied with the chatter of the determinists? Does anyone think that their reductive explanations get at the horror of such acts? That science can ultimately say anything meaningful about what we are, and why we do what we do, that doesn’t in the end depend on radically simplifying the complex, intricate, unpredictable, quirky reality of our individual humanity? In short, that doesn’t ultimately dehumanize us by turning us into mere material things in the world, a gob of meat to be aborted or left to starve to death when it becomes inconvenient?
The frenzy of commentary about school shootings and other acts of horrific evil suggests that we aren’t satisfied, that the answers can gratify only on the level of ritualistic formulas, rain-dances that by day’s end find us still in our spiritual drought. Meanwhile, twenty-five centuries of powerful, imaginative meditations on the human condition that respect its mysterious complexity and its transcendent reality are ignored. And that, ultimately, says more about our world as does murder in a high school or a Florida hospice.