Some Thoughts on Contingency and Evil

Evil is the “necessary” shadow concomitant of finite being.  

This is an assertion of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ that raised quite a ruckus.  In his own words:

“Original sin expresses, translates, personifies, in an instantaneous act, the perennial and universal law of imperfection which operates in mankind in virtue of its being ‘in fieri’ (in the process of becoming).”  

Again, original sin

“simply symbolizes the inevitable chance of evil which accompanies the existence of all participated being.  Wherever being in fieri is produced, suffering and wrong immediately appear as its shadow: not only as a result of the tendency toward inaction and selfishness in creatures, but also as an inevitable concomitant of their effort to progress.  Original sin is the essential reaction of the finite to the creative act.”

Well that is disturbing.  Yet it is what I have been arguing with my seniors.  God can no more create a world that doesn’t include the presence of privation (evil) in some form than he can create a square circle.  They are both logical contradictions.  

I have defended Teilhard with St. Augustine, the artist of the doctrine of Original Sin.  In “City of God” he makes an interesting claim.  His problem is this:  If Adam and Eve were perfect and good, then how could they sin?  What was the “efficient cause” of their sinful wills?  His answer:

“Evil arises not from the fact that man is a nature, but from the fact that the nature was made out of nothing.”  

I wish someone had pointed that line from Book XII, Chapter 6 out to me in graduate school.  It puts a lot to rest.  Evil arises from natures being “made out of nothing,” i.e. being finite, contingent, non-necessary, created.  That is the “cause” of evil.  The cause of evil is not an “efficient” cause, but a “deficient” one as Augustine claims in the next chapter. Teilhard just affirms Augustine’s claim. 

Thinking of evil as a logical requirement for God’s creative act gets me around wondering why God didn’t make a “better” world where evil wouldn’t exist.  God didn’t just give free will to people so they can love him better, but lack itself is the necessary counterpart of all finite being.  When this “lack” intrinsic to participated being achieves self-consciousness in the evolutionary process, it achieves the status of freedom.  This is a logical necessity. 

Of course, with the privation theory comes the question as to whether it is satisfactory.  Can the Holocaust really be explained through a simple privation?  No one has posed the question as poignantly for me as Ivan in “The Brothers Karamazov:”

“Tell me yourself, I challenge you — answer.  Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and reast at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature…and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?  Tell me, and tell the truth.” 

“No, I wouldn’t consent,” said Alyosha softly. 

Nor would I.  But the only solution is that God not create.  Yet he did.  For some reason he did.  “For our sakes,” is what we are told.  

Balthasar offers me real comfort when he dares to ask if hell may be empty.  I sure hope so.  That would make the victory of the creative act complete.  

11 Responses to Some Thoughts on Contingency and Evil

  1. Fred says:

    Such abstract and bloodless speculation. Pity.

  2. Fred,
    Not sure what you mean.

  3. Fred says:

    The Augustine quote is great, but the conclusion of this post seemed a bit too pat, too complacent – especially after raising the Holocaust in a kind of generic way. I’m probably more critical of the glib conclusion because of my tendency to rounding out my own articles. Do I know people on the road to hell? No. I’m like the old lady in Karamazov being pulled out of the lake of fire by an onion (symbol of the miserable charity of my life) and who too often try to shake off those who would attach themselves to me to gain salvation.

  4. Fred,
    I agree. I didn’t want to take the post in another direction, namely, the metaphysics of evil vs. the phenomenology of evil. I stuck to one, the metaphysics, and made a simple point about it. I agree, it seems a little pat. Many have had trouble with the theory of privation for precisely that reason.

    Do I know anyone on the road to hell? The problem with road analogies is that you are only going in one direction at a time. But those who are closest to hell are also often the closest to heaven — and of course vice-versa. I would say that I know many who are on the road of evil, but as to whether they have chosen it and to what degree it has been their choice, hard to say. They are choosing evil, privation, but are they choosing hell, absence of God? I don’t know. I find that harder.

  5. Fred says:

    Christ is the road to the Father and he is the way that enables God’s presence to be perceived with certainty. Apart from Christ is confusion and wandering. The Psalms claim that those who worship idols constructed of human hands become like them, unable to hear or see. Do people chose to reject God’s presence? The people of Israel sent Moses up Sinai to face God alone. David was afraid of the Ark after the death of Uzzah. I reject God’s presence, don’t you?

  6. Yes, but not never in a way that intends eternity. Can a finite being intend infinity? It seems our minds are set up that way. But to intend infinite separation, I’ve never met someone who did that. But I’ve met few people relatively speaking.

  7. Fred says:

    But people are lost and suffering now even before their death. Who will restore them all those minutes, hours, years of meaninglessness? I guess that’s what I mean by abstract and bloodless. If folks have to wait for death to be saved from the flames of hell and nothingness, then by all means, let us hasten toward it. Instead, Christ can save us now.

  8. crystal says:

    I’ve just been reading a book by Keith Ward, The Big Questions in Science and Religion, that covers the same ground …

    “Human beings are essentially parts of an evolving physical universe with general laws that have to be exactly what they are in order to produce human persons …. they have to exist in a universe in which suffering and death is necessary …. you may say, as Ivan does in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, that you are still repelled by the amount of suffering in the universe and you would rather reject the whole idea of God than pay the price of the ticket for human existence …. most religious believers agree …. A perfect God who chooses to create this universe, accepting that suffering is necessary in it, must offer to all conscious beings who suffer, if it is possible to do so, an overwhelming personal good. That personal good is a life after death … for everyone without exception.”

    But I don’t understand why God would make creation imperfect and in need of evolution. If God could not or would not create a perfect environment where creatures with free will could exist, how can heaven be explained? And about evil being only a privation of good, does this assumption affect the practice of the discernment of spirits?

  9. Bronwen Catherine McShea says:

    Hello everyone — I’m new reading this blog, and it’s great. Possibly helpful in this discussion: to recall what Tradition tells us about the role of lies, deception, in the Fall. There is a reason Satan is called the Father of Lies, because he tries to convince Man that this finite world, this world with its privations (our not yet seeing God, being one with God) is enough, is all there is and will make us happy, will iitself make us like gods, and that obedience to God’s will — i.e. to ask God’s help to endure, to persevere, to remain content with His gifts and to tend them as we mature into His full life, as we mature out of our finitude — is unnecessary and even stupid.

    Man’s will comes autonomously into play right here in the choice put before him as a creature with a rational soul: believe God in patient endurance of the privation — metaphysical reality in which some sort of evil, what we call evil, or lack, is necessary — or believe the lie and disobey the will of God, discontent ourselves with mataphysical reality and the hope of resting eternally its fulfillment. God creates a world which, as created, knows privation before it can be fully united to Him, but by His nature cannot necessitate Man’s choosing of the lie, Man’s disobedience. He gave us real freedom — the first freedom, as St. Augustine called it — not to sin. But the final freedom, freedom in the fulness of God’s Being which we come to by grace, is freedom from any temptation to sin, to believe the lie, to disobey.

    I don’t know of Fr. Teilhard would agree with the way I’ve put this, though I have a hunch he’d be okay with it.

  10. The question of “sin” I believe will remain a
    conundrum until the last times!

    Secondly, I tired of the intellectual model which
    presupposes that “past scholars” had the last
    word on any subject: by definition, that contradicts
    reason, the little that we can bring to bear
    on the human delema on this rented planet.

    That said, for me, two recent authors define
    sin way better than Augustine, who in his day,
    did not even have the academic field of psychology
    exist! And more accurate understanding of “nature”
    was more rather than less highly lacking!

    The two authors that beat Augustine hands down
    are Simone Weil, and Soren Kierkegaard. My past
    10 years of personal study of both, evidences the
    deepest reflection brought to bear on the role
    of redemption vs. the role of finite reason
    in tackling core questions of existence. And in sum
    I posit that Chardin is more in sync with these
    two scholars than with Augustine or Aquinas (both
    of whom are too tied to Pagan approaches to morality
    wherein the pagans took their cues from observing
    “animal” behaviour, not human behaviour!).

    Anyway, it’s impossible to briefly even begin
    to summarize both Weil and Keirkegaard, since even
    the latter’s thought has only recently been digested by the second wave of scholarship for understanding
    his significant contributions to psychology!
    The first wave of scholars only understood his
    approaches to philosophy, and theology….

    But at least a few reflections I hope contribute
    to this meaningful dialogue:
    1- Kierkegaard states that despair (a core DNA
    human phenomenon, if I can so summarize it) is sin
    in the strict sense only when a man is conscious
    that he is before God, and when he know what
    that means. Real sin presupposes Revelation
    of what sin is, and then “before God in despair
    not to will to be one’s self, or before God in
    despair to will to be one’s self.”

    Revelation is necessary to make despair sin, because
    no man can know what sin is BY HIMSELF, for he is
    a sinner (!)

    Therein surfaces something both Augustine and
    Aquinas lack: existential philosophy….
    rationality is the plague of human error conditions
    when honestly seeking truth in Truth!

    Furthermore, Soren writes that despair which is sin
    is disobedience; it is man’s wilful failure
    to ground himself transparently in God. Grounding
    one’s self transparently in God is an equivalent
    expression for “faith.”

    Sin’s opposite therefore is faith, NOT VIRTUE!
    And faith is the final answer to despair! (Soren
    defines 4 types of Despair within his psychology

    In faith, the self wills to be itself; it grounds
    itself transparently in the Power which constituted
    it by this kind of relationship to itself….

    To skip ahead, it is such insights that lead
    Soren’s thought to develop the rationale behind
    what it is that humanity is called on to become:
    the Authentic Self! (And to him, the “self” is
    equated to the “soul!”) The Authentic Self is
    what Adam had before his sin! (Soren’s despair
    could be equated with Augustine’s restlessness
    within the human psyche. And to Ignatius focus
    on seeking balance!)

    Way much more needs to be tabled here but suffice
    such few novel ways of thinking for “our” times
    to show that progress does transpire between
    the centuries: the past is a signpost, not a
    hitching post! (For further amplification of Soren’s
    insights to “suffering” -evil- cf. “The Prayers
    of Kierkegaard” by LeFevre, pg. 179)

    2- Simone Weil is unique with her insights to God
    that for me remain unsurpassed! No wonder she is
    labelled a “Secular Saint!”

    She writes that creation of the universe by God
    is not a mere act of power, but also an act of
    renunciation! When God creates, He renounces His
    status as the only reality or power. He creates
    other realities and, in order for them to exist
    and to be themselves, He must pull Himself back
    so to speak, in order to give them room. All
    things ixist only by God’s power, and their
    power to operate as they do comes from Him, but
    for them to be and to function He must allow
    them some degree of independence. For them
    to be, He must cease to be the only power there is.
    And thus we arrive at humans’ main cause of
    suffering: personal freedom, to do either good
    or bad!

    Couple to that, that the universe God created
    is beautiful, but in its operations causes
    suffering, and we witness the a priori status
    of the situation confronting reason, and that
    only existence can help reason answer:
    the menu is not the meal, ever! She goes on
    from there with excellenct articulation to
    support that insight, with unique reasoning
    skills that few in history have evidenced,
    to date. God cannot be reduced to the level
    of the mind! He can only be experienced,
    existentially. Which is what precisely Mystics
    witness to!

    So this world is a closed door, because God is
    hidden! It is a barrier, and at the same
    time, it is a passage. She states that God’s
    hiddeness can be found and encountered in 4 ways:
    – through our neighbour, our friends (a friend
    is not a neighbour!), nature, and religious rites.

    It is the absence of God, she writes, that gives
    us the desire for His presence! (Anthropology
    finds that all unearthed civilizations have some
    form of “religion” and that recent scholarship
    even finds core patterns predisposed to what was
    later to come in time within Christianity!)

    Hope that helps on some points and adds more
    insight in our quest for meaning and ultimate
    truth. – virgil

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