Saturday, September 24, 2022

The Problem of Evil

     The existence of evil is one of the greatest enduring theological dilemmas. If God is both all-good and all-powerful, why is there sin and suffering in the world? Why did God put that fruit tree in Eden, and how was the serpent corrupted? It seems like Adam and Eve were set up to sin, and then they and all their descendents were punished for it ever since. Theologians have come up with various answers to this dilemma through the ages, none of them satisfying.

    And then there's Julian of Norwich, my favorite medieval mystic recluse, with her wonderful series of deathbed revelations. That is, it was expected to be her deathbed, but she recovered to write this all down and spend the rest of her life meditating on it.

    Dame Julian wrote that God told her these mind-blowing words: "synne is behoovabil." OK, maybe that's only mind-blowing after it's translated into modern English. Unfortunately, there is no simple translation for the word "behoovabil." It means something like, sin exists for a purpose, it needs to exist, there's a good reason for it. And this shocking sentence is the immediate context for the most famous words from her whole book of revelations: "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well." 

    Then she goes on to say, "in this naked word sin, our Lord brought to my mind, generally, all that is not good ... with all pains that ever were or ever shall be.... All this was shewed in a touch and quickly passed over into comfort: for our good Lord would not that the soul were affeared of this terrible sight." God doesn't want us to be afraid of the pain, or of sin, she says.

    She says, "but I saw not sin: for I believe it hath no manner of substance nor no part of being, nor could it be known but by the pain it is cause of." She says, "Pain, it is something, as to my sight, for a time; for it purgeth, and maketh us to know ourselves and to ask mercy." 

    She says, "and for the tender love that our good Lord hath to all that shall be saved, He comforteth readily and sweetly, signifying thus: It is sooth that sin is cause of all this pain; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

    "These words were said full tenderly, showing no manner of blame to me nor to any that shall be saved. Then were it a great unkindness to blame or wonder on God for my sin, since He blameth not me for sin.

    "And in these words I saw a marvellous high mystery hid in God, which mystery He shall openly make known to us in Heaven: in which knowing we shall verily see the cause why He suffered sin to come. In which sight we shall endlessly joy in our Lord God." 

    She doesn't allow us to get hung up on the words, "all that shall be saved," either. The point, developed in the following chapters, is that all of us shall be saved. The point is that God does not condemn us for our sins. We condemn ourselves and one another -- we even condemn God for not preventing sin, for this dilemma of the existence of evil. But God does not condemn us

    I love Julian not only because I want her words to be true. I love her words because they do ring true to me. I have never known God as a punisher of sin. I know God as consolation for the pain that sin causes; and I know God as the source of the grace that can save me from my tendency to sin, that empowers me to rise above my petty self and grow into my better self. I know that pain is both caused by sin and causes it. Unless we manage to actively break the cycle, traumatized people traumatize people. Survivors of war wage war. Victims of abuse abuse. And on a less dramatic scale, we all are blind and weak and fallible, daily. The God I know and love understands and has compassion on us for our sins and for their effects, caring as much for the sinner as for the sinned-against. 

    We don't like the word "sin," because it is so distorted and misused. The way we use the word "sin" is a sin. Condemnation, of others or even of ourselves, is not healthy and it is not holy. Can we replace condemnation with compassion, as God does in Julian's book of revelations? Can we choose discernment over judgment, the cultivation of a genuine interior sense of conscience instead of a sterile checklist of thou shalts and thou shalt nots?

    I have one more post to write on this topic of how morality is twisted into spiritual abuse. Next week, I will write about how the seven deadly sins are a corrupted version of a healthier, older, monastic tradition, one that can support us in building ourselves up, instead of cutting us down. At least, each of us has our own way; but for me, this monastic way seems very good.


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