Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

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Sunday, April 11, 2010

Dharma and Gospel on evil

This post has its origin in an email I got from a friend, a convert from Mormonism to Tibetan Buddhism. The issue at stake was the problem of evil, and whether either tradition could justly claim to have a completely satisfying response to it. With his permission, I cite a relevant passage of his email before getting to my response. My friend observed,
This is the point where every Tibetan Lama I have met and been able to converse with privately...feels they have the Christian perspective in checkmate.

But I just don't get the logic because it would apply to emptiness too. If emptiness really is compassion, then why are there horrible things within form. The Gulag, the inquisition, Chinese eating babies and almost a million things each day in the news. The Buddhist answer is: it's ignorance; we are not seeing these things correctly; it's all a big misperception. What's the Christian answer?
I dare not call myself a scholar of Buddhism, and must be open to correction on this point (as on so many), but my understanding is that the Buddha more or less declined to discuss the question of the "origin of evil." He spoke a great deal about the genesis of sufferings, but as to "why the cycle of karma exists," he maintained silence. The passages I know include the one in which he likens asking after the origin of evil to one shot by a poisoned arrow demanding to know the name, address, & ancestry of the one who had shot the arrow before accepting any treatment for the wound. The message seems to be, "Not Relevant." Whether you accept "God" or "Emptiness," the riddle of why there is suffering at all remains an irreducible mystery.

Buddhism overflows with practical wisdom about how to alleviate and end suffering. Some of this advice is common-sense, some of it is deep psychology, some of it is mantric or otherwise occult. Christianity also has a wealth of such practical wisdom. On this level I do not see a great deal of divergence between the traditions.

(Note, in what follows I will say "Buddhism" or "Christianity" quite a lot. I have in mind here not the lowest common denominator of any of these, but the best and the deepest. I am not talking about Bible-belt anti-intellectuals or Mormon fundamentalists or culturally-Buddhist folk who don't take practice seriously. I know that this leaves a huge amount out, and could be critiqued as rendering a false image of the traditions, cut off from 'real-world' context, but I think what I will say holds more or less as a rough sketch).

Unlike their practical wisdom, the cosmological assumptions upon which the religions base their practices do diverge. The Buddhists are right to maintain that they differ from Christianity on the issue of whether there is a God. I find all the attempts to draw a big "equals" sign between God and Emptiness misguided. While the adjectives used for the one are often those used for the other (and this is not irrelevant), so far as the testimony of the two traditions goes, it is pretty clear that the two are not conceptually identical. I am utterly incompetent to have any opinion as to whether they are "really" the same, i.e., in experience. I have no experience to judge by. So I am reduced to the position of a commentator on texts when it comes to this subject.... not a very interesting position to be in, frankly, given the universal insistence on the part of both traditions that you can't get to the heart of either of them by reading books.

However, from this very limited perspective I can offer a few tentative speculations. Indian philosophy has tended to distinguish between bhakti and jnana, "devotion" and "wisdom," more or less (I can't translate from Sanskrit, so I'm relying on the usage of others). Now for all the insistence that jnana and bhakti are equal, there is no question in my mind that there is a subtle privileging of jnana; this is because whether one is a Buddhist and denies that there is a Self, or a Hindu and holds that Brahman is Atman, all devotion, all bhakti, is ultimately directed at some provisional target-- a god, a guru, a teacher, a Bodhisattva, an avatar, who is not the ultimate object of wisdom.

But in the west, the Biblical intuition is that the encounter with a Thou is irreducible either to encountering myself, or to emptiness. In Christianity, and I would also say in Judaism (and perhaps in Islam, but I am not competent here either), it really is more important to love than to understand. (I think that even the Talmudic saying, "Would that [my people] would abandon me, and keep my Torah," [Yerushalmi Talmud, Hagiga 1:7], on which the Ba'al Shem Tov is said to have often meditated, should be understood in this light, since the Torah here is devotion and practice, not "theology.") Kierkegaard puts this strongly, for instance in Philosophical Fragments, when he contrasts Socrates and Christ. In the case of Socrates as a teacher, there is a sense in which Socrates' teaching is far more significant that Socrates himself. But this is unthinkable in Christianity w/ regard to Christ; in His case, who the teacher is is (in one sense) more important than what he teaches. (You will note that this is just what many will say is the problem with Christianity, that it "became a religion about Jesus instead of "the religion of Jesus".")

This means that in the west, or at least in Christianity, bhakti is given a kind of priority over jnana (though of course these terms aren't used), and this is essentially a part of the practical wisdom of Christianity I referred to above. Practical, because it is irreducibly a matter of what I do, and not of anything that can be said.

I think that there is a manner in which the Western, Biblical religious worldview, common to the prophets, the Gospel writers, Dante, and Kierkegaard alike, must maintain that this priority of devotion over wisdom holds with regards to any encounter with anyone at all, not just with regard to Christ. After all, if I love someone, it is far more important to concern myself with them than with with some account of my love, or indeed even with the fact of my love. They become more significant than any words for them or me or the relationship.

But this priority of bhakti is very paradoxical. Why? partly because to say any of this about the priority of bhakti turns it into more jnana, more wisdom. Partly, too, because to say my loved one is more important than my love seems to cut off the branch I sit on, since this importance does after all seem both to follow from my love for the other, and to have a kind of imperative logical consequence: therefore, love!

I can put this in terms of evil or sin, too. It is a commonplace that sin is often thought of as the transgression of some kind of rule: I told you a lie, and it says here Thou shalt not lie; I have infringed on the law, and so am guilty--guilty in the abstract. But there is a different and to my mind more relevant way of thinking about what went wrong: I told you a lie. This has bent, misformed, wronged our relationship, and the guilt I feel comes not from having broken a rule but from having wronged you.

This of course is not an explanation of evil, but a way of engaging with it existentially. Note though that this insight, if such it is, can always be abstracted from and put into some general form, i.e., some rule: "Don't wrong your relationships!" What I want to say is that no matter how compelling this move is, it always gets something amiss. This is not to say that "all morality is contextual" or whatever, because that too is just more abstraction. I don't have any problem with abstractions, but I think that they are never the end of the matter. What matters most is always the relationship with this person, this sentient being (note I do not insist on the object being a human or indeed perhaps even an animal or plant-- it could even be a abstract object or idea (consider for instance the mathematician's love of a theorem)--what is nonnegotiable however is that it be this relationship, my-encounter-with-this-now, and that this human being, or houseplant, or angel, or painting, or ecosystem, or scientific principle, or whatever, takes a kind of irreducible priority over the fact that it is my encounter with it. (This is crucial, otherwise it turns into more egoism).

You'll note that at every turn I court contradiction; I can hardly employ a semicolon without plopping it down in the middle of some abstraction or generalization, and yet I seem to be saying that abstraction and generalization are wrong somehow, divorced from the real context of encounter. I think the paradox is not just me, but lies at the center of the Biblical account. There are plenty--not just Buddhist lamas-- who would regard this paradox as a checkmate indeed. Kierkegaard (or maybe Hegel or Jacobi) are the first modern thinkers I know if who show how to turn this apparent liability into a virtue, but obviously it has been a possibility in the Christian tradition since the beginning, which you can see from Pascal ("You would not seek Me unless you had found Me") or Luther, w/ his emphasis on faith & grace, or Augustine ("I believe in order to understand") or Tertullian ("It is certain because it is absurd") or even St Paul.

This is a long and roundabout way of approaching the question about evil, but I hope the relevance is apparent: Both Christianity and Buddhism (in my understanding) actually lack a satisfactory theoretical "answer" to the problem of evil. And both of them decline the question as far as theory goes; the Dharma by the Buddha's silence, the Gospel by offering a response that is not theoretical at all. The problem of evil's origin is "resolved," if that is the word, in just the same way as is the problem of evil's resolution. On the theoretical level it can only look like a rhetorical fiat, a flat-out assertion: the mystery of iniquity on the one hand, the mystery of God's righteousness on the other. This looks illegitimate, and indeed is so, from the point of view of "wisdom," for the Gospel is "foolishness to the Greeks;" but from the point of view of devotion, it is capable of intelligible unfolding.

Simone Weil writes somewhere that "Insofar as God is a consolation, the atheists are right and the believers are wrong." I think I more or less agree with this--or rather, it resonates with me, for it isn't a question of "agreeing." I have certainly experienced what felt to me like the absence of God-- not just a withdrawal, but the lived assumption that there was none. In fact the existence of God does not make things better or nicer or even alleviate suffering. I know that many believers want say that it does, but I can't really get behind it. Eli Wiesel recounts (& dramatizes in his play The Trial of God) that one night in Auschwitz God was put on trial for breaking His covenant with the Jews and abandoning them to meaningless suffering. The trial went on all night, with many arguments, but the evidence was all around them. Just before dawn, the rabbi who had presided over the trial pronounced verdict: God was found guilty; guilty of betraying his chosen people, guilty of leaving them to their enemies, guilty of absconding at the very moment when most His power should have stood against what His righteousness ought most to have abhorred. The verdict hung in the air amid silence. In the bleak sky over Auschwitz, the sun was coming up. Then the rabbi said quietly that it was time for morning prayers.

I don't wish to cloak myself in the mantle of anyone else's suffering, much less suffering like the Shoah, groaning under its unsought iconic status. My own suffering has been "a poor thing, but my own." All I can say is that the God I worship and love is not a God who will kiss it better, not the deus ex machina of a fairy tale, but a God who suffers with and in the sentient world.

I know that there are problems with this. My assertion, that "God suffers," is of course already in some sense on (or from) the further side of what can be meaningfully said; and moreover, as I know very well, there is a sense in which the Christian tradition can be held to "make it better." To such a presentation of Christianity, I can only say that I don't understand it; it is either below or far above the level at which things make sense to me. I do believe that "All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well;" but this is as it were a function of bhakti; the love I feel for God, my paltry shadow of imperfect love, is dwarfed by God's love for the world; and this being so, it is bound to be that "all shall be well."

So at least thus far I agree with the Buddhist lamas my friend cited, who say that we are in ignorance, that we are not seeing correctly--that we are prey to misperceptions. Not, however, because evils are not evil, but because they cannot (no matter how they seem to) ultimately undo the meaning of the world.


  1. Another beautiful posting.

    On a very practical level, the problem of evil (understood in sketch form as God's omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence crashing into the manifest world of Ivan Karamazov's house of horrors) creates in me a great deal of anger because every instance of suffering occurs with an implicit "and God could have intervened--and didn't."

    So for me, non-theism results in far less anger. (And perhaps less happiness, as well---being conditioned as I am to expect the "presence" of God packaged in theistic forms which I now cannot accept, which feels like a substantial loss or wounding.)

    God's "suffering with the world" is appealing but I've heard it so much from ministers that it has taken on glibness for me. To be sure, the Christ of the beautiful hymn in (I think) Ephesians is the closest Christianity gets to fulfilling that. But it's very mysterious how Christ's suffering somehow makes God suffer with the world (the Church's fervid stance against patripassianism works hard to secure God the Father's security from the world's suffering, which feels like bad faith to me; and I'm with Wittgenstein on one's inability to genuinely feel another's pain--their pain is THEIR pain)--which to me suggests that the only way to make sense of such a notion must be in some measure pantheistic (or in the very least, panentheistic). God suffers with us because God IS us. But that is, of course, not the God of theism anymore.

  2. Alf, thank you for this response.

    The subtle and brilliant knife-juggling which is the history of Trinitarian and Christological controversy is motivated by concerns that I don't really relate to. This is not to say they are unimportant-- I tend to assume that they are quite the opposite-- but I am not an ascetic master or a hesychast, so my opining on them would be like venturing to opine on string theory or on mindfulness in Zen: I know a lot of the terms and can give a decent impression of being "informed," but I lack the experience to give me competence. This doesn't mean I always keep my mouth shut! and sometimes I do feel like serves me to venture into strange waters, if only to articulate to myself what I think. In any case, anti-patripassianism has to be balanced against the insistence that the Trinity is one God. It is not hard to discern beneath many critiques of Trinitarianism the accusation of wholesale bad faith, which I am not sure is always unwarranted, especially if, as for Sartre, pretty much all faith is bad.

    However, the notion that there could be such a thing as good faith is obviously a non-negotiable for the Bible. Indeed, I rather think this is one place where we are quite close to the heart of the mystery. I would even venture to say that the bhakti/jnana dialectic is grounded in this possibility.

    This dance between wisdom and devotion is what really interests me, because it is practical. In this sense I'd say that your demurral from theism is a perfect example of this dialectic-- a skillful means of evading a particular spiritual trap (in your case, anger). Amod would probably raise questions about noble lies (and other sorts) and I would of course reiterate my line about conno- and deno-tation; but this sort of thing has to be worked out in practice.

    Finally, I'd emphasize that some of my ruminations about the meaning of Christianity are addressed primarily not to those outside it but to those inside. Philosophy has a legitimate interest in the self-definitions of traditions, and can file friend-of-the-court-briefs in these dialogues; but at the end of the day, whether Christianity is liturgical or is not at all, or whether personalism is or is not coherent with what the Buddha taught, are matters for Christians and for Buddhists qua Christians or qua Buddhists.

  3. The idea of evil as privatio boni hasn't been mentioned. It arises in the Christian tradition in the writing of Augustine and Aquinas. There is a lengthy citation in Wikipedia's article on 'privatio bono'. I throw down these formulae like tiles which can be reassembled to make various pictures. I begin with the Platonic source which was an influence for Augustine:

    The one the good and the true
    Being and the true are convertible
    Being and the Good are conevertible in that the fullness of Being is the fulness of the Good.
    Evil as deficiency in being
    Evil and the lie
    A lie is a lack
    Satan the father of lies
    Satan the father of non-being
    Satan the refusal of the fullness of angelic splendour
    Being and the Good
    The ultimate Good is equivalent to the ultimate fullness of Being
    The Deist God is impressed by the Argument from Evil
    Christ has had everything taken away from Him
    Christ's apparent privatio boni
    All tears will be wiped away

  4. shankara_mainly: Indeed, I wasn't primarily thinking of privatio boni, but now that you mention it, I'll agree that it always has struck me as one of the best metaphysical attempts to deal with Evil in the west. I am however uncomfortable with it because however unsubstantial absence "is" as a (non)substance, as a state of affairs it is perfectly real and needs to be treated as such. This isn't to say that I don't think a robust renewed metaphysics couldn't rehabilitate the language of privatio boni, especially in combination with language about the necessity of real choice for free will, and the buddhist- or vedanta- inspired talk of ignorance (maya). However, I'll go out on a limb here and say that these solutions are all jnana. As a card-carrying Levinasian (no matter how heretical), I am bound to assert the rights of bhakti, and on this level, the "answer" that "God suffers" is more satisfying than any explanation.

    Having said this, though, I hasten to note that the very first explication in the west of the via positiva and via negativa (Parmenides' poem) takes the form of a divine encounter, so the notion of privatio boni has genuine bhakti credentials. Moreover, your list of "tiles" which reads much like a poem, or sketch for one, implies (to me) that devotion and (aspiration to) wisdom are themselves related dialectically, which I suppose I am bound to hold myself, given my insistence on some sort of denotation, no matter how much I credit to connotation. (You'll note a certain isomorphism here between the oppositions connotation/denotation and bhakti/jnana, which obviously needs further unpacking).

  5. Thanks for your considered and stimulating response to my 'logoi' which I will admit require more time in the oven.

    The intuition of being as the foundation of metaphysics is a theme that I am reading about at the moment. Can it be intellectually attained? In the Thomist tradition the answer must be no as according to the tag ' nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses'. Yet is it the case that we must first grasp that a thing is before we can know what it is? That bare encounter may be the source of Zen 'self so'. Until it reveals itself metaphysics is a cold study. Sartre is full of such bare encounters which in their fullness have an emptying effect on the everyday.

    The 'banality of evil' is a footnote to 'privatio boni'. One thinks of Eichmann emptying reality of its force by book-keeping, meeting targets and general remotion. People had become units stripped of authentic being.

    There's a solidity to good people. That may also be true of places. One recalls Gertrude Stein's obliteration of a town - "there's no there there".

    Can we then know absence? Though you have doubts about it, there is a valid means of knowledge in the Advaitic tradition called 'anupalabadhi' or 'non-apprehension of existence'. We are told that there is a book on the table in the dining room. We go there and do not see it and thus we have gained an item of knowledge about the world. This of course differs from 'apprehension of non-existence' which is an impossibility.

    The bhakti/jnana paths are face and obverse of the one coin of wisdom. Shankara wrote hymns as did Thomas Aquinas.

    Michael Reidy (formerly shankara_mainly)