Saturday, March 5, 2022

Lent 1

There is nothing like starting Lent 
with a little metaphysics.
For those of you whose philosophy may be a tad rusty,
“metaphysics” is the study of existence itself:
asking what it means for something to exist
and what different sorts of existence there might be.
I think it is good to begin Lent with a little metaphysics
not simply as an act of penance,
though it might be that for some,
but because we begin Lent with the story
of Jesus in the wilderness, 
tempted by the evil one,
and we are ourselves are invited,
as we prayed on Ash Wednesday,
to “take up battle against spiritual evils.”
So it is good to ask what sort of existence evil has.

St. Augustine famously spoke of evil as privatio boni,
an absence or lack of a goodness that should be present.
He wrote, “In the bodies of animals, disease and wounds 
mean nothing but the absence of health….
Just in the same way, what are called vices in the soul
are nothing but privations of natural good” (Enchiridion ch. 11).
Evil is like a wound in existence,
a kind of nothingness that afflicts things;
it is a thing’s existing in a diminished way.
To some, the claim that evil exists 
only as an absence, a lack of a goodness,
might make it sound as if evil were somehow unreal,
which flies in the face of our experience of evil.
But, as the theologian Herbert McCabe noted,
the fact that the hole in your sock exists
only as a lack of sock where there should be sock
in no way suggests that the hole in your sock is unreal.
And likewise, the characterization of evil
as a lack of goodness where there should be goodness
in no way suggests that evil is unreal.

But even if we find this metaphysical account of evil convincing, 
there remains the question of how any of this helps us
to “take up battle against spiritual evils” in this season of Lent.
Are their practical implications to all this metaphysics?
I would argue that there are at least two.

First, we can be tempted 
to think that some people or things are purely evil, 
possessed of no goodness at all.
But, in fact, you can’t have all hole and no sock.
If the hole in my sock were to expand
to the point where there were no sock
there would be, funny enough, 
no longer any hole either.
Likewise with evil;
if it exists as a flaw within goodness,
then it needs some goodness within which to exist.
There is, in this sense, no such thing as “pure evil,” 
but only “wounded goodness.”
The things by which we are tempted
tempt us because they are good;
temptation is not the desiring of evil,
but desiring some good in the wrong way:
desiring too much food,
desiring the wrong sexual partner,
desiring success at the cost of others.
Food and sex and success are all good things,
but we can desire them in the wrong way.
And desire itself is a good thing:
we desire because we are alive
and that is certainly a good thing.
After forty days of fasting, Jesus is hungry,
and his hunger is good,
a sign that his body is functioning properly.
But desire can become twisted, misdirected;
it can become the occasion for temptation.
If there were such a thing as pure evil,
we could resist it quite easily;
but temptation grows from the fact
that evil is always lodged in good
in ways that are difficult to untangle.

Second, we can be tempted to think
that we can overcome evil simply by eliminating
the people and things we judge to be evil.
But if you have a hole in your sock,
you can’t get rid of it 
by cutting it out with a pair of scissors;
you end up only making the hole larger.
The hole must be repaired, reknitted, restored.
Likewise, you can’t eliminate evil from the world
simply by eliminating all the evil people.
Since evil only exists
as entangled with good,
our attempts to eliminate evil often result
in our inflicting further damage on the good.
This is one reason why the Church 
has come to reject the use of the death penalty,
seeing that it does not remedy evil
but only implicates us in it.
Just as you can only eliminate a hole in your sock
by knitting the sock back together,
so too you can only eliminate evil
by restoring the good it is afflicting.
As St. Augustine says, the only way 
to truly destroy your enemies
is to make them into your friends.
It is love that brings about this repair,
and we call this repair “conversion.”

Of course, in a world at war
all this may be a hard pill to swallow.
Can we really see someone like Vladimir Putin
not as pure evil but as wounded good?
Can we really believe that the evil 
being perpetrated in Ukraine
can be healed by love?
Wouldn’t it be easier, 
as some have suggested,
simply to take Mr. Putin out?
It is hard not to think so.
But the narrow way of the Gospel
that Jesus calls us to walk
is an invitation to mercy and forgiveness;
it calls us to see evil as damage
and to pray for the conversion of our enemies
even as we pray for healing for their victims.
Above all, the Gospel calls us to see 
the wounded good in ourselves,
to see ourselves as those in need of repair,
those in need of conversion.
And in this Lenten season Christ invites us 
to seek through God’s power
that which seems impossible for us
but which faith tells us is possible for God.

Let us pray that, in the weeks ahead,
God would turn us from the nothingness of evil,
back to himself, the source of all goodness,
to let grace repair the evil in our own hearts
so that we, in turn, can bring his healing to our world.
And may God have mercy on us all.