“A religion that believes there is only one god has a difficult time explaining evil. Did the one good God create it? Why does he permit it? Faced with the actual existence of both good and evil, some religious traditions have posited the existence of two opposing gods. This is the most distinctive theological belief in Zoroastrianism, which began in Persia in the sixth or fifth century BCE and which influenced Mediterranean thought in several ways. Judaism probably owes to Zoroastrianism the idea that an evil power opposes God. (Christianity, in turn, inherited the idea from Judaism.) Judaism remained true to monotheism and did not grant that there was an opposing god, but it accepted some aspects of Persian dualism, such as the conflict between God and the forces of evil.” (From “The Historical Figure of Jesus”, E. P. Sanders, Ch. 9)
The problem of evil, including suffering, is something I’ve thought about a lot lately. My tentative conclusion was that a certain amount of suffering is good for us. People in the slums of Mumbai may be psychologically healthier than people in the first world. So: firstly, there is no clear division between good and bad.
Even if death and suffering were unambiguously bad, I don’t think that natural disasters – one of the things that cause death and suffering – can be deemed evil. Were it not for plate tectonics and volcanoes, we wouldn’t have an atmosphere conducive to life. Natural processes give rise to both life and death. Right there, in nature, you have a common cause of life and death, of good and bad. So: secondly, it seems you can’t have good without bad.
All this seems to be pushing me towards the idea that “good” and “bad” are just subjective labels we put on things, and while that labelling may be an important part of how we function, maybe God (ultimate reality) is big enough and mysterious enough to encompass all phenomena.
As it turns out, I wouldn’t be the first to think this. Reza Aslan in “No God But God” touched on monism in the chapter on Sufism.
“The Sufi knows no dualities, only unity. There is no good and evil, no light and dark; there is only God.” (Ch. 8 )
He goes on to describe how these particular Sufis felt that religious rituals and lifestyle restrictions were dry and soulless, so they engaged in forbidden practices such as drinking in order to fully experience the ecstasy of God. I can certainly relate to the idea that when you try to isolate yourself from everything that’s bad, and you exclude a whole lot of stuff from your life, you end up feeling kind of indifferent and dissatisfied. When I came out of religion, I suddenly felt like I could see the world in colour again.
Plus the fact that you cannot create goodness by banning bad things. And even in places and situations that we might easily write off as bad, there is beauty and goodness.
Plus… everything is interdependent. Everyone has a reason for behaving the way they do. If you go far enough back, there are reasons for everything. I won’t get into the free will/determinism thing here, but I think it could well be that all our actions and decisions are predictable – in theory – if you had enough detail. The point is that we maybe point fingers too much, and imagine God pointing fingers, and that maybe with a fuller understanding, judgment becomes impossible.
One of the things that most impressed me about Jesus based on Sanders’ book was that he defined goodness so cleverly and convincingly, and yet he didn’t seem to impose it on people. He didn’t emphasise repentance and wasn’t especially judgmental. Perfection, for him, was mercy.
And the thing about mercy is that it lets us off the hook – which allows us just to be what we are. It allows us to lose our egos, and be real… and goodness only starts from a position of realness. Unfortunately some Christians I met did not get that, but a need for good works is sneaked into Christianity through the back door in the expectation of “bearing good fruit”. The more radical and perhaps effective idea would be that there is no need for change. We are not either good or bad, but an inseparable mixture, and good and bad are just labels defining what we like and don’t like – not things we should get caught up worrying about. We will always act in a way that reflects what we most want, and unless we are real and honest with ourselves to begin with, we will not be able to be clear with ourselves about what we really want.
This is a total 180 for me. Throughout last year I assumed there was an absolute good, and that it was our responsibility to strive towards that. Now I think it’s more about fully realising what goodness is to us, and striving towards it simply because it’s what we want, not because it’s what God supposedly wants, and certainly not for a reward or to avert punishment.
And if we don’t all have the same ideas about what is good, that is just part of the colourful nature of life.