Saturday, February 12, 2011

Sermon - "The Problem of Evil"

The Problem of Evil
People have been wondering about the problem of evil since they have been wondering about anything. As Alexander’s mother explained to him, we all have terrible no-good very bad days. Even people in Australia do. But why, why do bad things happen to good people? This is a core challenge of religious of philosophical life. Why do bad things happen, and how can we transform the bad into good. For the month of February we will be talking about evil here at UUFLB. It’s a heavy topic. In fact the Intergenerational reading set up evil to be a more lighthearted concept than it really should be. The challenges that Alexander faced were frustrating and real for a young boy. But as we talk about evil, I hope we have the courage to hold more significant issues up to the light, at least for this month. We are talking about bigotry, starvation, needless degradation of the environment, genocide and the like.

Often when we approach the problem of evil, whether on a grand scale or a personal one, we want to move toward quick answers, but that is a mistake. We have all heard someone offer a quick off the cuff answer to a personal tragedy. Saying God needed that person in heaven, or this suffering will make him or her a stronger person. I always cringe at those moments. Although they are well intennded, those quick answers can be terribly insensitive. When we rush to a quick and easy answer, it’s usually not a good one.
All of March we will talk about redemption, that is how we return to the good. But for this month, I want to challenge us to sit with the very difficult topic of evil. It’s something that humanity has wondered about forever, so I figure we can give it a month here in our worship services.
The classical question of Evil that we hear about in our culture even has a specific name. It is called “Theodicy”. That is the question of evil in a monotheistic context. If God is good and all-powerful, then how can evil exist in the world. It’s a sort of theological algebra problem. With an all-powerful all-good God on one side, and the existence of evil on the other side. It doesn’t match up, so something has to give.

For the most part, the challenge of the problem of evil revolves around the goodness or power of God, which for many of us here is a very solid belief. But not all of us are so solid on a belief in God, especially the omniscient and omnipotent God involved in the problem of evil.
But that doesn’t let us off the hook. While UUs have a diverse theology, we do hold a few key concepts in common. One is that creation is inherently good. The world that we live in is a wonderful place. And the other is life in inherently good and worth living deeply. With or without some idea of an omnipotent God, we still have to face up to the fact that sometimes life is painful and hard. Sometimes things happen that seem categorically wrong. Call it evil or something else, but some very bad things happen in this good world, in our good lives. So what gives? How do we answer this problem of evil? Why do bad things happen to good people?

I want to take you on a quick tour of the problem of evil with some of the answers that different people have come up with. Each one of these answers could be a book with it’s own strengths and weaknesses. It’s likely the one of these will appeal to you and your sense of what is right and fair. Try to hang on to that because I’d love to hear what rings true for you. And remember, this is just a surface level sampling of some of the different answers.

One of the most common classical answers, and one that we hear often today is the idea that difficult experiences are a sort of training ground. Through our suffering difficulties, we can become better people, or our soul can be purified in a way. Those who have a strong sense of God being the creator of all things, understand these challenges to be put in place by God for our benefit and growth. But even without a sense of God, we can see our challenges as opportunities for learning. We all know the saying “That which doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.” Whether it is said as a quick pithy comment, or as a part of theological treatise, it is probably the most standard answer to the problem of evil in our culture. What appears to be evil actually is an opportunity for growth and deepening; our task is to figure out how to learn from it.

Another major concept of evil rooted in Christian theology is evil as original sin. The Biblical moment of this, of course is the moment in the garden of Eden when Eve ate from the tree of knowledge. Subsequently all of humanity was born into a sinful nature. Evil is just a part of who we are. It’s pretty harsh theology.
But there are modern variations as well. How about the idea that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Or simply the idea that humans have a certain amount of greed within them, and sometimes that greed wins out over the goodness. With nearly seven billion people in the world, the greed that rests in their hearts accounts for a pretty fat chunk of evil. Maybe evil is something that we act on as humans. That’s the second answer to the problem of evil. It comes from us.

There’s another answer for the problem of evil that’s a little more complicated. But I find it pretty compelling, so I want to talk about it for a minute. It’s a view that comes out of process theology. Although it’s mostly a Christian concept, it can fit in with many different views. The basic idea is that as the world continues in its process of creation, more and more goodness is made possible. Process theologians talk about harmony and diversity being the good or the goal of creation. So as we get more and more harmony and diversity created in the universe, we get more and more potential for evil created along with it.
It’s pretty easy to think of in terms of human development. As we grow in knowledge, technology empowers us to impart tremendous good on our world. But at the same time, that technology contains within it tremendous potential for evil. Much of it we see in environmental degradation and weapons production. So, as there is more good, there is more potential for bad. It’s like a physics equation. For you physics geeks out there, it’s like potential energy. As something is raised in the air, it’s potential energy increases. As the amount of good increases in the universe, so does the potential for evil. It’s all a balancing act this good and evil business.

So far we have heard from the major Christian answers to the problem, or at least my interpretation of them. But eastern religions also offer some helpful insight.

Buddhism deals heavily with the idea of suffering. Suffering is what everyone experiences throughout our lives, and the primary task of our religious life is to acknowledge and transcend that suffering. The cause of human suffering isn’t a universal force called evil, or some imbedded sinful human nature. The source of suffering is our misunderstanding of who we are as individuals. When we think of ourselves as isolated individual beings, we suffer. But when let our sense of self dissolve into a wider compassion, then we can transcend suffering. For Buddhists, there is no specific core source of evil. The confusion that we humans seem to be under is a source of suffering.

Similarly Hinduism doesn’t typically uphold a particular source of evil. But there they do have something we might learn from. As you probably know Hinduism celebrates an array of gods and goddesses. One of the most important of them is Shiva, the destroyer. Shiva is a major deity, definitely in the top five. And Shiva is especially helpful in our discussion of evil because he helps us to know that destruction and decay are also necessary parts of existence. What we often see as evil: death, decay, hatred, destruction, these are all a part of the universe and part of our human experience. Rather than rejecting these hard realities and calling them evil, many Hindus celebrate them in one of their most significant gods. Perhaps we should do what we can to learn from them.

Finally I want to mention an atheist perspective on the problem of evil. They would probably say evil does not exist as a force within the universe or a force within human hearts. Rather good things and bad things happen in the world. We humans are capable of doing tremendously good things and tremendously bad things. Our only response to the “evil” in the world is to improve ourselves and to make life better for each other as we can. Further, the use of the world evil can be distracting. Saying “the devil made me do it” chips away at our responsibility for our own actions.

So there you have it, a long list of how some people have answered the question of evil. It’s a learning opportunity, it rests in human failings, it’s the flip side of creation, it’s a necessary part of creation… Hopefully some of what you have heard up to this point makes some sense. But this still doesn’t tell us how we as Unitarian Universalists answer the age-old question. I can’t say that today I have a perfectly concise UU explanation. I can’t give you a concise Unitarian Universalist answer, but there are some important pieces of it that I am fairly certain of.

It may be easier to start with what evil is not. First, Evil is not a punishment. It is not a cosmic punishment like lightning bolts shot down from on high. To suggest that bad things happen to bad people ignores the incomprehensible suffering endured by innocent people every day. To suggest that people have somehow earned the hardships that they endure, especially in the case of children makes no sense. Blaming the victim will not do as an explanation.

Evil is not a punishment from on high, and it is not a cosmic obstacle course. It is true that we can learn from our challenges, and that we make what we can out of the lives we are given. However, assuming that God put those tremendous stumbling blocks in place to teach a lesson just doesn’t seem right. Sure, maybe in the case of minor challenges that we face. Even major illnesses could be seen as a teachable moment. But what about genocide and famine. Believing that those unspeakable things were created by a God to teach us a lesson is maniacal. Besides, who would want to worship a God who did create such pain and suffering. Evil is not a punishment from on high and it is not an obstacle course laid before us.

I also want to be clear that evil is not what some people are. Yes, there are evil actions, there are things that each of us occasionally do that are destructive or vengeful. In a variety of ways we make actions that are bad. We do evil acts, but we as people are not evil. No person is inherently evil. They may be sociopathic, they may do bad destructive things, but no person is inherently evil.

The last and most important thing I want to say about the way we deal with evil is that we have the power to resist it, and we should. This was the biggest point of Unitarianism’s beginning as a separate religious tradition. This is why at Harvard Divinity School in the early 1800s liberal religious thinkers began to call themselves Unitarians. While mainstream Christians preached that humans were inherently sinful and could be saved only through the grace of God, Unitarians knew that we were better than that.

Unitarians believed, and we believe today in the capacity for reason and moral development within each person. We are not depraved, we are not saints either. But, we have a choice. It’s a choice that we make every day over and over again. Each person, each one of us has the ability and the responsibility to confront evil in our lives. We have the power to stand up against systems of oppression. Even if our voice is small, we are called to stand with others who share our passion. We have a power and responsibility to stand up against evil in our world. And we struggle in a day-to-day basis to do the right thing. As I just said we are not depraved, but neither are we saints. You and I and everyone we know occasionally does things that we know are not the best. Whether it is motivated by fear, greed or lust, each one of us has to make choices in our own lives about how we will respond to temptations toward the bad. The bottom line is, we each have a choice in what we do.

One of the questions from the question box a couple of weeks ago was about the book of Job and what the Unitarian Universalist response was to that story. I hope the writer of that question is here. The remarkable thing about Job is that after the tremendous heaping piles of pain and suffering that he endured, he remained with the question, why me? He didn’t give up in the face of evil. He didn’t offer a quick and easy answer. And that’s what I’m asking of us for the month. That we sit with some discomfort and continue together to ask the question why? Maybe we will find an answer, maybe we won’t. But I do know that in the process we can encourage one another to resist evil where we see it.


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