[Paleopsych] Hedgehog: Jennifer L. Geddes: Evil Lost and Found

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Jennifer L. Geddes: Evil Lost and Found
The Hedgehog Review - Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture

          Delbanco, Andrew. The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost
    the Sense of Evil. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995.

          Adams, Marilyn McCord. Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God.
    Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999.


          The number of books on evil has been increasing rapidly,
    especially in recent years. Choosing which ones to highlight in this
    review was a challenging task, but I decided on two very different
    works, each exemplifying a distinct facet of the study of evil--in
    fact, the two books under consideration could hardly be more
    different: One suggests that we have lost the sense of evil; the other
    argues that an answer to the theological problems raised by evil can
    be found. One is a book of history, narrative, and cultural analysis,
    written from a secular, liberal perspective; the other a combination
    of analytic philosophy and Christian theology. One focuses on how a
    culture understands evil; the other on how individuals who have
    suffered evil might come to understand their experiences. At issue in
    one is the spiritual health of a culture; at issue in the other is the
    possibility of individual belief in God in the face of evil. And yet,
    despite these major differences, both books suggest that how we think
    about evil is fundamental to the ways we understand our selves, our
    communities, our societies, and our world.

Evil Lost: The Death of Satan

      The work of this book is therefore to think historically about the
      shrinking range of phenomena to which accusatory words like "evil"
      and "sin" may still be applied in contemporary life, and to think
      about what it means to do without them. I have written it out of
      the belief that despite the shriveling of the old words and
      concepts, we cannot do without some conceptual means for thinking
      about the sorts of experiences that used to go under the name of
      evil. (9)

          In The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of
    Evil, Andrew Delbanco argues that "a gulf has opened up in our culture
    between the visibility of evil and the intellectual resources
    available for coping with it" (3). In fact, he argues, "the repertoire
    of evil has never been richer. Yet never have our responses been so
    weak" (3). The newspapers are full of accounts of atrocities happening
    across the globe. Television offers us up-close images of far-away
    wars, intimate shots of the victims of anonymous crimes, friendly
    interviews with serial murderers, and talk shows that are designed to
    display the worst sorts of hostilities that those who used to love one
    another have grown to have. Horror movies bring large audiences to
    theatres, and crime novels line bookstore shelves. We have a growing
    fascination with images of evil at the same time that we find it
    harder and harder to speak about evil. Our ability to think about
    evil, to confront it in such a way that we take it seriously, resist
    it, and work towards preventing it, is, Delbanco argues, extremely
    deficient. Citing a recent book that described mass murderers, such as
    Stalin and Hitler, as suffering from "streaks of disorder," Delbanco
    exclaims, "Why can't we call them evil?" (4). The Death of Satan, he
    tells us, is about "how this crisis of incompetence before evil came
    about and how it has made itself felt in the United States" (3).

          The Death of Satan traces the decline of the meaningfulness of
    the term "evil" in the moral discourse of the American public, or, in
    more metaphorical terms, it tells the story of Satan's death. This
    "national spiritual autobiography" presents a history of the changes
    in how Americans have understood evil, a history of American moral
    life from "The Age of Belief" to "Modern Times." In "The Age of
    Belief," Satan was a live and active figure. But, with the rise of
    faith in reason, belief gave way to skepticism, at least where Satan
    was concerned, such that "the devil was being reduced to something
    that educated men could not believe in. This was the beginning of the
    end of the devil as a meaningful symbol of evil" (64). This
    skepticism, however, did not extend to Americans' understanding of
    human nature: while belief in Satan's existence decreased, faith in
    the goodness and unlimited potential of human nature increased. Rising
    individualism transformed ambition and pride, once evils to be
    resisted, into the crowning virtues of the self-sufficient individual.

          The Civil War marked a turning point away from a complete loss
    of the economy of good and evil. The glaring evil of slavery brought
    the subject of evil to the forefront of moral discussions. Delbanco
    notes that it was Lincoln "who did most to retrieve and renew the
    dormant power of the symbols of good and evil that had been slipping
    out of public life" (131). Rather than demonizing the South, Lincoln
    suggested that the evil of slavery was something that Americans had to
    confront as a national sin:

      Lincoln's idea of evil was extremely demanding--as it had been
      since Paul and Augustine first refined it into a theological
      formulation. It required every prospective believer to come to
      terms with himself, because, as Lincoln knew and said, no American
      was uncontaminated by the racist history of the Republic. (134)

          But this conception of evil as sin, as something in which "I" or
    "we" take part, gave way to the view of evil as having to do with
    others. The trauma of the Civil War left many with the belief that
    "the world was run by chance" (143), not divine providence, and "in
    what amounted to a new kind of paganism, the concept of evil devolved
    into bad luck, and 'good luck' became the American benediction" (153).
    The notion of sin was lost along with belief in providence. American
    culture became one of panic and scapegoating. Evil was the other; and
    the other was evil, whether he was foreign, black, un-American, or
    "unfit." Delbanco argues that the connection of evil with the other is
    related to the horrors of the Salem witch trials, slavery, racism, the
    eugenics movement, the Holocaust, and McCarthyism.

          Modern times, Delbanco suggests, have been characterized by a
    loss of transcendence and providence, the increase in scapegoating and
    blame, and a rising culture of irony. While scapegoating is moral
    energy turned towards an evil purpose, Delbanco sees irony as
    evacuating all moral energy. Both extremes lead to an inability to
    grapple with the reality of evil. Delbanco is worried that American
    culture simply oscillates between these two extremes. Concerning the
    culture of irony, he asks:

      Can irony yield any sense of evil? Is the ironist capable of making
      discriminations of value? Or is he condemned to live in a
      continuous world of morally indistinguishable actions and events,
      in which all ideas are designated ideologies? In the face of some
      new Stalin or Hitler, is it possible to shake off the lethargy
      induced by irony and rise to the fight? History does not encourage
      an affirmative answer to these questions...Without reverence for
      something, there can be no proscriptions--and it should be clear
      enough to any observer of contemporary culture that we are short on
      both. Irony has proven to be a more potent solvent of our erstwhile
      beliefs than any contending belief...Its energy is negative.

          In a culture of irony, saturated with images of evil, how can we
    resist evil? The preponderance of images of evil anesthetizes us to
    evil, and the culture of irony evacuates any sense of responsibility
    or moral urgency that such images might raise in us. If we no longer
    think that there is any foundation on which to judge something evil,
    how can we proscribe certain actions, much less fight against them?
    And how can we affirm the good, a vision of the future towards which
    to work, an understanding of good character towards which to strive,
    without an understanding of what sorts of things to leave out, to
    avoid, to fight against?

          While Delbanco's analysis of American public culture is
    accurate, it is important to note that most Americans do not live by
    irony, but rather maneuver their way through the world with a moral
    system informed by particular religious traditions. Delbanco tells us
    that he has "left these people out of this book--because the story [he
    has] tried to tell is the story of the advance of secular rationality
    in the United States, which has been relentless in the face of all
    resistance" (221). Delbanco's use of the word "we" is problematic.
    When he suggests that "whether we welcome or mourn this loss, it is
    the central and irreversible fact of modern history that we no longer
    inhabit a world of transcendence" (220), he forgets that many of the
    "we" (if it is really to refer to "Americans") do see themselves as
    inhabiting a world of transcendence. While secular liberals
    "acknowledge that no story about the intrinsic meaning of the world
    has universal validity" (221), they should also acknowledge that a
    large number of Americans disagree with them.

          This diversity of beliefs in the United States is particularly
    important to note, especially given Delbanco's identification of an
    American cultural dialectic in which we seem to move between, on the
    one hand, pouring out our moral energies against an evil other--a
    fundamentalist demonizing that seems to characterize both sides of
    contentious debates, such as those on abortion, in which each side
    sees the other as evil and uses extreme rhetoric to prove it--and, on
    the other hand, withdrawing into an ironic stance of non-involvement
    and smug self-absorption. As Delbanco himself notes, the division
    between those who believe in some sort of transcendence and those who
    are committed to secular rationalism is a potential source of great
    unrest in this country:

      Now, at the end of the twentieth century, we are, I believe,
      dividing between two sensibilities that correspond to belief and
      irony. The conflict between these two sensibilities has, I believe,
      more potential for rancor and ferocity than any of the preceding
      oppositions. (223)

          But Delbanco is hopeful that these two sides may work together
    in renewing a language of evil that might serve us in our efforts to
    prevent and resist it. He suggests that there "may be reason to hope
    for a cooperative intellectual venture between religion and science
    that may lead to a revival of serious moral thinking, in which the
    category of evil might once again have meaning" (228). Just what form
    this cooperative intellectual effort might take is unclear. And it is
    at this point that the book's limitations are made clear.

          Delbanco's book is a wonderfully written and perceptive
    diagnosis of a current cultural crisis in the face of evil, but its
    constructive offerings are slim. Delbanco has little to offer in the
    way of solutions. Strangely enough for a self-professed secular
    liberal, he suggests that we revisit the Judeo-Christian notion of sin
    and the Augustinian view of evil as privation--that is, evil as an
    absence, lack, distortion of the good. Delbanco admits that the idea
    that "sin is finally best understood as a failure of knowledge--a
    lack, an obtuseness, a poverty of imagination" (232) may seem a meager
    offering, may seem "pathetically inadequate, even offensive" (232), in
    the face of twentieth-century atrocities, but he thinks that such a
    conception of evil resists both the temptation to demonize the other
    and the temptation to withdraw from grappling with evil. When we
    recognize our own potential for evil, Delbanco argues, we are less
    likely to look for it in the face of others; and, conversely, when we
    fail to acknowledge our own potential for evil, we leave ourselves
    open to be overtaken by evil. He tells us that his

      driving motive in writing [this book] has been the conviction that
      if evil, with all the insidious complexity which Augustine
      attributed to it, escapes the reach of our imagination, it will
      have established dominion over us all. If the privative conception
      of evil continues to be lost between liberal irony on the one hand,
      and fundamentalist demonizing on the other, we shall have no way of
      confronting the most challenging experiences of our private and
      public lives. (234)

          It is unclear, however, just how the view of evil as privation,
    divorced from the religious traditions in which it makes sense, can
    give us the ability or reason to confront a new Stalin or Hitler. And
    what exactly Delbanco means here by the "reach of our imagination" is
    one of the challenges of the book. What would it mean for our
    imaginations to have "grasped" evil?

          And yet, Delbanco himself is proof that we--even "we secular
    liberals"--have not altogether lost the sense of evil. His book has a
    compelling tone of moral urgency to it. He is worried about the world
    his children will inherit and believes that how we think about evil is
    constitutive of that world. And precisely because of its tone, the
    book suggests that that the situation is, perhaps, not as dire as he
    makes out.

Found: Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God

      My central thesis in this book is that horrendous evils require
      defeat by nothing less than the goodness of God. My strategy for
      showing how this can be done is to identify the ways that created
      participation in horrors can be integrated into the participants'
      relation to God, where God is understood to be the incommensurate
      Good, and the relation to God is one that is overall
      incommensurately good for the participant. (155)

          While Delbanco focuses on a general cultural trend--our waning
    resources for responding to evil--Marilyn McCord Adams, in Horrendous
    Evils and the Goodness of God, explores what a particular religious
    tradition has to offer in response to the question: How can God be
    good given that there is so much evil in the world? And while Delbanco
    suggests that we need a cultural language of evil, one that can be
    used by Americans in confronting the worst sorts of things that people
    suffer and do to one another, Adams attempts to provide a language of
    evil through recourse to the resources of the Christian faith. At
    stake in Adams' book is not the ability to chart a moral landscape or
    to judge the health of a society, but rather the possibility of belief
    in the goodness of God in the face of evil.

          Adams provides the reader with helpful summaries of the major
    arguments that have been presented over the last several decades on
    the problem of evil, pointing out the connections and disagreements
    among them and between them and her own. For this reason alone, the
    book will be very useful to anyone interested in philosophical
    discussions of the problem of evil. Her own argument is rich in detail
    and multi-stranded; it draws deeply on the resources offered by
    numerous areas of study, including philosophy, theology, anthropology,
    and psychology. This is due in part to her belief that it is not
    possible to find one morally sufficient reason as to why God permits
    evil; only partial reasons can be found, but together these partial
    reasons give sufficient evidence to show that belief in the goodness
    of God is not irrational.

          Adams describes herself as writing in the two traditions of the
    philosophy of religion and Christian philosophy, and her book displays
    the virtues and limitations of each. The book's attention to detail
    and conceptual clarity, characteristic of analytic philosophy, make it
    challenging and provocative, though its prose style can be, at times,
    tedious. It provides Christians with both rich resources for
    responding to the problem of evil and a provocative theology of the
    afterlife; however, the argument is based on assumptions that those
    who are not Christians do not believe, limiting the usefulness such an
    argument has for those outside the Christian faith.

          Adams suggests that there are three major problems with current
    philosophical discussions of evil, all having to do with their high
    level of abstraction. First, these discussions consider evil in
    general--the mere fact of evil--rather than particular sorts of evil,
    especially the worst sorts of evil. Adams suggests that "our
    philosophical propensity for generic solutions--our search for a
    single explanation that would cover all evils at once--has permitted
    us to ignore the worst sorts of evil in particular" (3). The second
    problem, a corollary to the first, is that these discussions fail to
    confront the problem of evil in individuals' lives and instead deal
    with evil as a global concern. Furthermore, they seek either to
    disprove or prove the existence of a generic god, rather than a
    particular god believed in by followers of a particular religious
    tradition. Referring to J. L. Mackie, who worked out some of the
    strongest arguments against belief in God, Adams notes that

      it would be a hollow victory for the believer to stop with showing
      that the God that Mackie doesn't believe in (essentially
      omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good in Mackie's sense) could
      coexist with evils, if that God is not the one the believer
      confesses. (13)

          A fourth problem Adams finds in most philosophical discussions
    of evil is their failure adequately to take into account just how vast
    the difference is between Divine and human agency, and thereby, to
    understand properly the relationship between humans and God and
    between evils and the goodness of God.

          In contrast to these abstractions in relation to the kind and
    scope of evil and the nature of God, and in contrast to the
    misconstrual of Divine agency, Adams proposes to show how one might
    believe in the goodness of the Christian God given the "horrendous
    evils" that happen to individuals. By "horrendous evils" Adams means

      evils the participation in which (that is, the doing and the
      suffering) constitutes prima facie reason to doubt whether the
      participant's life could (given their inclusion in it) be a great
      good to him/her on the whole. The class of paradigm horrors
      includes both individual and massive collective
      suffering...examples include the rape of a woman and axing off of
      her arms, psycho-physical torture whose ultimate goal is the
      disintegration of personality, betrayal of one's deepest loyalties,
      child abuse of the sort described by Ivan Karamazov, child
      pornography, parental incest, slow death by starvation, the
      explosion of nuclear bombs over populated areas. (26)

          Adams argues that the goodness of God must be something that the
    very individuals who suffer these horrendous evils can affirm,
    something that they themselves experience. She does not argue that in
    the end the good of eternity will outweigh all the evils that have
    occurred in the world--a sort of happy mathematics in which the
    positive outweighs the negative. Global-good-over-global-evil
    arguments are open to the charge that they justify the suffering of
    some people for the benefit of others and justify the sacrifice of
    some people for the sake of others. Instead, Adams argues that after
    death, or "post-mortem," to use Adams' phrase, each individual,
    including the very individuals on whom the worst evils have been
    inflicted, will come to see his or her suffering "defeated" by the
    goodness of God.

          Exactly what Adams means when she suggests that evil will be
    "defeated" is hard to figure out. She means at least that God will
    restore and heal the broken person and that the individual will come
    to see a positive aspect to his or her suffering. God renarrates an
    individual's life story such that he or she can see the evil suffered
    as part of a good whole. Adams suggests that it is

      straightforward to credit God with [the] superlative imagination
      needed to make sense of horrors that stump us, and to think of the
      meaning-making God as also the Teacher Who coaches us to recognize
      and appropriate objective meanings already (Divinely) given, Who
      heals and helps us to make new meanings ourselves. (82)

          Adams proposes that we think of the relationship of God to
    humans as that like a mother to her infant: the difference in agency
    is just as vast, and the abilities of the individual to comprehend his
    own actions or his environment, when considered in relation to God's,
    are just as limited as a baby's are in relation to its mother. The
    goodness of God is so good, so beyond our possibility to quantify
    goodness, that it can outweigh and "defeat" evil.

          Adams' argument is extremely complex and nuanced--this short
    review cannot begin even to chart an outline of it, but can only
    highlight its main thrust--but there is one element of it that is
    glaringly troublesome: Adams erases the difference between
    perpetrators and victims of evil. According to Adams, both the child
    who was raped and the adult who raped her come to see a positive
    aspect to their participation in evil, both experience the goodness of
    God in such a way as to "defeat" their participation in evil, and both
    see their participation in evil as part of the good unity of their
    lives. Here the word "participation" serves a sinister purpose, in
    that it erases and ignores the difference between inflicting evil and
    suffering evil. Adams tells us that "the morally innocent participate
    in horrors both as victims and as perpetrators" (125). The problem
    with this statement is that unless the term "morally innocent" is a
    meaningless phrase (in which case it should not be used at all), it
    cannot be ascribed to perpetrators of horrors. Adams' mother-infant
    analogy reflects her sense that the evils that seem so horrifying to
    us here will post-mortem come to be seen, in the light of God's great
    goodness, as a child's mistake. A god who rewrites the history of an
    individual's life such that his active torture of a child is
    understood to be the foolish mistake of a vulnerable, immature human,
    is a god who, at least according to this reader, does not care about

          Though I think it falters on its absorption of the demands of
    justice into a therapeutic logic of post-mortem healing, Adams'
    argument is an important contribution to recent philosophical and
    theological discussions on the problem of evil. Her suggestions that
    specific evils (and the worst kinds of evils) be considered, that the
    value of each individual life not be overlooked, that the god under
    consideration be one that is not the construction of philosophy but
    one in which individuals actually believe, that anthropomorphizing
    tendencies be resisted when discussing at least the Christian God--all
    of these are welcome corrections to discussions of generic evils and a
    generic god.


          Though they have written extremely different books, Adams and
    Delbanco both grapple with the grip that evil has over our
    lives--whether it causes us to question our belief in God or leads us
    to oscillate between finding scapegoats, on the one hand, and ignoring
    the suffering and injustices around us, on the other. Both suggest
    that resisting evil involves careful and sustained thought, and both
    are themselves role models in such an endeavor. Evil is not something
    that we will "figure out," but it is certainly something that we must
    be continually in the process of preventing, confronting, and
    resisting. Whether one agrees with Delbanco's cultural diagnosis or
    embraces Adams' answer to the problem of evil, it is hard not to think
    that we are better off for the ways that their attempts to think about
    evil encourage and challenge us to take evil seriously.

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