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If God is all powerful and good, where does evil come from?

This paper was written for a seminar on Augustine at Marquette Universtity in the fall of 1993. It is as much about Spinoza and Nietzsche as it is about Augustine and will serve to give some introduction to each of these thinkers.

Beyond the Problem of Evil
[disclaimer] by
Wayne Ferguson

NOTE TO THE READER: This paper is written with a view to encouraging genuine dialogue between those who believe that the fullest and richest experience of truth and life can be attained only by pursuing God within the bounds prescribed by Christian orthodoxy and those standing outside of orthodoxy, who in all sincerity have concluded that the restrictions of orthodoxy are opposed to the fullest possible experience of truth and life.

Endnotes are indicated by numbers in brackets, e.g., {1}; text intended to be in italics has been placed in brackets <like this>.


The problem of evil is, in my opinion, the best point of departure for a fruitful dialogue between Christianity, traditionally conceived, and those strands of modern philosophy which have been perceived--indeed, have sometimes perceived themselves--as a threat to that tradition. As such, I will attempt first, to outline the problem of evil in the starkest terms possible, presenting Augustine's approach to its solution followed by a critical analysis; second, to present an alternative approach to the questions which give rise to the problem--an approach derived in large part from Spinoza and Nietzsche; and, third, to show how this more philosophically acceptable alternative can be expressed in the categories of faith, allowing us to reappropriate the tradition beyond the problem of evil.

PART ONE: Augustine's Approach to the Problem of Evil

Simply put, the problem of evil resides in the apparently unavoidable contradiction between the notion of God as omnipotent and omnibenevolent, on the one hand, and the existence of evil (natural and moral), on the other.{1} Indeed, granting that God is all powerful, it would seem impossible for us to vouch for his benevolence, considering our first-hand experience of evil in the world. Likewise, if we grant from the outset that God is the paradigm of goodness, then it would seem that we must modify our conception of his power. However, Christian "orthodoxy" remains unwilling to modify its conception of God's goodness or his power-- thus, the persistence of the problem.

St. Augustine was fully aware of this problem and spent much-- perhaps most--of his philosophical energy attempting to come to terms with it. In De ordine, he writes:

Those who ponder these matters are seemingly forced to believe either that Divine Providence does not reach to these outer limits of things or that surely all evils are committed by the will of God. Both horns of this dilemma are impious, but particularly the latter (1.1.1).

His approach to a solution to this problem is three-pronged: 1) he holds that evil is a privation and cannot be properly said to exist at all; 2) he argues that the apparent imperfection of any part of creation disappears in light of the perfection of the whole; and 3) he argues that the origin of moral evil, together with that suffering which is construed as punishment for sin, is to be found in the free choice of the will of rational creatures.

As a Manachee, Augustine believed that both God and the principle of evil were some sort of material substances, neither deriving its existence from the other. Evil, although somehow smaller than God, was, nevertheless, infinite and presented a real problem for God to overcome in the course of his cosmic existence. He describes his motives for believing such things as follows:

piety (however bizarre some of my beliefs were) forbade me to believe that the good God had created an evil nature (Confessions5.10.20).

Even after Augustine had abandoned these "bizarre beliefs" of the Manachees and had, as a Christian, arrived at the notion of God as an immutable, spiritual substance, the existence of evil still troubled him for:

Although I affirmed and firmly held divine immunity from pollution and change and the complete immutability of our God, the true God . . . yet I had no clear and explicit grasp of the cause of evil. Whatever it might be, I saw it had to be investigated, if I were to avoid being forced by this problem to believe the immutable God to be mutable. . . . I made my investigation without anxiety, certain that what the Manichees said was untrue. With all my mind I fled from them, because . . . I saw them to be full of malice, in that they thought it more acceptable to say your substance suffers evil than that their own substance actively does evil (7.3.5).

He began to arrive at a solution to this difficulty after having been introduced to "some books of the Platonists" (7.9.13). His exposure to the neo-platonic notions that existence is good and that evil is a privation, led him to see that even the corruptible world is good:

It was obvious to me that things which are liable to corruption are good. If they were the supreme goods, or if they were not good at all, they could not be corrupted. For if they were supreme goods, they would be incorruptible. If there were no good in them, there would be nothing capable of being corrupted. . . . all things that are corrupted suffer privation of some good. If they were to be deprived of all good, they would not exist at all. . . . Accordingly, whatever things exist are good, and the evil into whose origins I was inquiring is not a substance, for if it were a substance, it would be good. . . . Hence I saw and it was made clear to me that you made all things good, and there are absolutely no substances which you did not make (7.12.18).

"For [God]," he goes on to say, "evil does not exist at all" (7.13.19). It would seem, then, that evil is an illusion of sorts. This brings us to what we referred to above as his second approach to the problem of evil which endeavors to explain this illusion.

In De Ordine, speaking with respect to those aspects of creation which, if not actually evil, are, nonetheless, disconcerting to human beings, Augustine remarks that

what delights in a portion of place or time may be understood to be far less beautiful than the whole of which it is a portion. And furthermore, it is clear to a learned man that what displeases in a portion displeases for no other reason than because the whole, with which that portion harmonizes wonderfully, is not seen, but that, in the intelligible world, every part is as beautiful and perfect as the whole (328-9).

Anticipating this conclusion at the beginning of that same work, he criticizes those who "think the whole universe is disarranged if something is displeasing to them," comparing them to those who would criticize an artisan when they had no concept of the whole project, having seen only a small portion of it (240-1). Likewise, in Book Seven of his Confessions, he argues that things appear evil when considered from a finite perspective, isolated from the totality of which they are a part. Superior things, indeed, "are self-evidently better than inferior," but "sounder judgment" holds that "all things taken together are better than superior things by themselves" (7.13.19). "All things" include corruptible things, the destruction of which "brings what existed to non-existence in such a way as to allow the consequent production of what is destined to come into being" (City of God 12.5).

Most people would find this explanation tenable when applied to conflicts which arise among non-human creatures; or, as an explanation of our aesthetic displeasure in the face of some seemingly absurd, but relatively trivial, natural phenomenon; or even, perhaps, with respect to human suffering, conceived of as a temporary expedient to a greater good. This perspective encourages us to trust divine omnipotence and to acknowledge the limits of human wisdom--neither of which is ultimately repugnant. It falls short in most people's eyes, however, if it is intended to convince them of the goodness of God in the face of human suffering construed as retributive justice. The notion of eternal torment causes particular difficulties. This aspect of the tradition might be overlooked as a "mystery" to be lived with if orthodoxy permitted one to think that God, although infinitely good, is of merely finite power. But it seems incomprehensible that omnipotent God could punish human beings for something that he, by virtue of his omnipotence, seems (at first glance, at least) ultimately responsible for. Does Augustine assert that this seemingly untenable aspect of reality, which is implied by the conjunction of human perdition and divine omnipotence, is nothing? Or that it merely appears evil when considered in isolation from the totality of which it is a part? As we shall see, the answer is in one respect no, but in another, yes.

The answer is no, insofar as Augustine does not merely dismiss those who raise this problem by referring them to the two approaches to the problem already considered. Rather, addressing those who attempt to lay blame on God for the sin of human beings and the punishment consequent to that sin, he takes a third approach, arguing that the origin of moral evil and the punishment it entails is a consequence of the free choice of rational creatures.

Sin, Augustine argues, is voluntary, disrupting the order of the universe, while the punishment is said (redundantly) to be "penal," restoring that order (On Free Will 3.9.26). The important point is that insofar as we must talk of evil as if it were something, God is not responsible for it, rather his creatures are. God is to be praised insofar as he is willing and able to harmonize the dishonor introduced by the evil will of individual creatures with the honor intrinsic to the whole (3.9.26). If we inquire as to the cause of the evil will, Augustine claims an ignorance of sorts, consistent with his notion of evil as a privation:

We cannot doubt that [evil] movement of the will, that turning away from the Lord God [our "aversion" to the unchangeable good], is sin; but surely we cannot say that God is the author of sin? God, then, will not be the cause of that movement; but what will be its cause? If you ask this, and I answer that I do not know, probably you will be saddened. And yet that would be a true answer. That which is nothing cannot be known. . . All good is from God. Hence there is no natural existence which is not from God. Now that movement of "aversion," which we admit is sin, is a defective movement; and all defect comes from nothing. Observe where it belongs and you will have no doubt that it does not belong to God. Because that defective movement is voluntary, it is placed within our power. If you fear it, all you have to do is simply not to will it. If you do not will it, it will not exist (2.20.54).

Pressed further, he says that "an evil will is . . . the cause of all evil wills," indicating that no cause is to be found outside the will itself and suggesting that to look further is itself evidence of an evil will (Cf. The City of God 12.7).

Despite this rather radical appeal to human freedom and his pious admonition that one ought not to look further for the cause of an evil will, Augustine realizes that he is not yet off the hook. He goes on to show that the necessity intrinsic to foreknowledge, per se, is not inconsistent with the notion of free will (3.4.10). But considering the fact that divine foreknowledge is coupled with omnipotence, how, in the final analysis, "is the creator to escape having imputed to him anything that happens necessarily in his creature" (3.5.12)? Augustine spends the next 20, or so, paragraphs attempting to defend God against those who would cry foul. He begins by insisting that piety requires that we give thanks to God--period (3.5.12). Then, he reaffirms his position that sin originates in the free will of human beings and that we have no right to criticize God for not creating us without the ability to turn away from him (3.5.14). He goes on to assert that even the worst souls are, by virtue of their reason and their free will, superior to corporeal things and that, as such, God should be praised for their existence, whatever defects they exhibit (3.5.16). Then, after once again affirming that there is no conflict between the necessity of sin and its voluntary origin, he describes unhappiness as the just reward of ingratitude (3.6.18). Finally, to those who say they would prefer not to have existed, he indicates that they are fooling themselves --that their desire to exist, even in their misery, confirms that existence is the greatest boon (3.7.20). Indeed, he argues that the suicidal person's desire for death actually reflects a desire for rest, not the desire for non-existence (3.8.23). All this is highly interesting and very relevant to those who are determined to come to terms with themselves and with God. Nevertheless, it would be an understatement to say that it does not conclusively demonstrate that the origin of every aspect of creation--including those wills which are called evil and those creatures which are eternally damned--should not ultimately be attributed to the will of God. Augustine senses this, but can only assert that while the human ability to sin--together with the possibility of experiencing the misery that accompanies sin)--is necessary to the perfection of the universe, actual sin and actual misery are not (3.9.26). These assertions are correlative with second and third approaches presented above--the former with his position that the imperfection of any part of creation disappears in light of the perfection of the whole; and the latter with his insistence that the origin of moral evil, together with that suffering which is construed as punishment for sin, is to be found in the free choice of the will of rational creatures. But consistent with the first approach--evil as a privation--Augustine seems to be saying that inasmuch as condemned souls are constituted by their evil wills, for which no cause is to be found outside of their own freedom, they are in fact nothing. Nevertheless, insofar as they actually are--existing eternally as immortal souls, however defective-- they must be considered good and we may attribute their origin to the divine will. If, however, we ask why God, in his omnipotence, chose to create beings with the ability to choose eternal self- destruction, Augustine can only a assert that creation is more perfect by virtue of these seeming imperfections--i.e. the ability to sin, together with the possibility of experiencing the misery that accompanies it (3.9.26). Thus, it seems that Augustine, in the final analysis, depends more heavily on the first and second approach, the appeal to the free choice of the will failing ultimately to eliminate the problem.

Having considered Augustine's approach to our problem, we are now in position to articulate clearly what is at stake. The real problem in the problem of evil--the core of it, as it were--is that granting God's omnipotence, there seems to be no way to avoid the conclusion that God finds the perdition of an indefinite number of human souls acceptable in light of the greater good which their perdition makes possible. Thus, even if we grant that, it makes sense to talk of a rational creature freely choosing its own perdition, and even if we hypothesize that God has in some sense limited his power with a view to creating more glorious creatures by virtue of their free will,{2} it is nevertheless the case, according to the tradition, 1) that, in the light of his eternal existence, God knows the end from the beginning; and 2) that he had no need to create; and even if he chose to create, he might have created differently. As such, we cannot avoid placing full responsibility for existence--including every aspect of human experience, whether in this life or the next--squarely on God's shoulders. Let us admit that when we bow before God, it is not because his "justice" has been demonstrated to us. It would seem more reasonable to say that we bow before his power. It is pointless to try and defend God against those who cry foul. A more fruitful approach, as we shall see, is to understand why we ought, indeed, to bow before his power.{3} Rather than attempting to justify the ways of God to man, let us show those who would the foolishness of their objections, admonishing them, in the Spirit of Augustine, to give thanks.{4} But this can only be done if we let the dialectic of the problem take us beyond the confines of orthodoxy and, finally, beyond good and evil.{5}

PART TWO: Spinoza & Nietzsche on Evil

For Spinoza, evil presents no problem in the sense that it does for Augustine. Not directly constrained by Christian dogma, he is free to modify the traditional notions of God's goodness and power--both of which he does. What is interesting is that many of his conclusions are strikingly similar to Augustine's. Considered from a strictly philosophical perspective, Spinoza's position seems to preserve and explain more fully that which is most philosophically defensible in Augustine, while at the same time excluding that which is most philosophically offensive. Preserved, in a sense, and more fully explained, is the neo- platonic concept that evil is a privation which cannot be properly said to exist at all, as well as the notion that the apparent imperfection of any part of creation disappears in light of the perfection of the whole. Excluded is Augustine's assertion that the origin of moral evil--together with the origin of that suffering which is construed as punishment for sin--is to be found in the free choice of the will of rational creatures. A brief review of Spinoza's metaphysics will allow us to explain this more clearly.

For Spinoza, there is one substance, God or Nature, which constitutes the whole of reality and which has infinite attributes, only two of which we can know--extension and thought. He avoids the mind/body problem by adopting a parallelism characterized by the notion that thoughts relate causally only to thoughts and bodies relate causally only to bodies. An infinite number of individual entities--modifications of the divine substance--proceed by necessity from the divine nature. Our essence is the conatus with which we endeavor to persist in our own being (Ethics 3, Pr. 7). Considered under the attribute of extension, this conatus would be equivalent to (or at least analogous to) the genetic code which governs the growth and development of our bodies. Considered under the attribute of thought, this conatus is called will (E3,Pr9,Scol.). Since virtue, for Spinoza, is power, an individual, acting according to its essence, endeavors to bring about those conditions in which its power of activity is increased (See E3 Pref. and Def. 8). As rational animals, the highest good for human beings is achieved through the intellectual love of God. The intellectual aspect of this love is important for two reasons. First, insofar as our understanding of God (or Nature) according to the attribute of extension increases, we are better able to produce those physical and environmental conditions in which we can flourish; and, insofar as our understanding of God according to the attribute of thought increases, we are better able to control our emotions. Second, insofar as we find ourselves subject to adverse conditions that are beyond our control, we find consolation in our understanding of the necessity of events (see APPENDIX "B" which is attached to this paper).

According to Spinoza, nothing is good or evil in itself but only insofar as the mind is affected by it. Because our happiness and unhappiness depends on the quality of that which we love, true blessedness is attained by loving that which is infinite and eternal--viz. all that follows from the eternal order and nature's fixed laws (Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect 233-235, hereafter TEI). Our achievement of blessedness through the intellectual love of God entails that we come to know and love ourselves as we are essentially. We "sin," in a manner of speaking, insofar as we desire or seem to desire that which is contrary to our essence. I say "seem to desire," because, for Spinoza, the self, considered as such, cannot desire that which is contrary to its own advantage. And insofar as the self acts according to reason--which for Spinoza is the only time human beings really act at all--it will pursue its true advantage and be resigned in those circumstance that are beyond its control. However, because human reason and power is limited, individual human beings are sometimes controlled by passive emotions. Such emotions constitute our bondage to external powers. Propositions 4 and 5 of Part Four of the Ethics state that:

4) It is impossible for a man not to be part of Nature and not to undergo changes other than those which can be understood solely through his own nature and of which he is the adequate cause. 5) The force and increase of any passive emotion and its persistence in existing is defined not by the power whereby we ourselves endeavor to persist in existing, but by the power of external causes compared with our own power.

We see, then, that for Spinoza, unlike Augustine, evil is something which we suffer, not something we actively choose. However, this seems quite consistent with Augustine's notion of evil as a privation--a diminution of my ability to express my essence which is due, however, not to the free choice of my will, but to the force of external powers which happen to conflict with my essence.{6} I am "free" only insofar as I will my own essence, which, a priori, expresses the will of God. The degree of my self knowledge and the extent to which my essence finds expression in the world is dependent upon my environment. Insofar as I seem to will that which is contrary to my essence, I am in bondage and am not, strictly speaking, willing at all. Furthermore, because the power and will of God is manifest only in activity, Spinoza would agree with Augustine that insofar as anything is--insofar as it exists (endeavors to persist in its own being)--it derives its being from God. In his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Spinoza formulates these ideas as follows:

Whatever man . . . acquires for himself to help preserve his being, or whatever Nature provides for him without any effort on his part, all this is provided for him solely by the divine power, acting either through human nature or externally to human nature. Therefore whatever human nature can effect solely by its own power to preserve its own being can rightly be called God's internal help, and whatever falls to man's advantage from the power of external causes can rightly be called God's external help. And from this, too, can readily be deduced what must be meant by God's choosing, for since no one acts except by the predetermined order of Nature-- that is from God's direction and decree--it follows that no one chooses a way of life for himself or accomplishes anything except by the special vocation of God, who has chosen one man before others for a particular way of life (89-90). The happiness and peace of the man who cultivates his natural understanding depends not on the sway of fortune (God's external help) but on his own internal virtue (God's internal help) [111].

This is hard medicine, but in my opinion it constitutes the only philosophically consistent position that still allows us to make sense out of the tradition. It remains for us to show how it does so, but first we must relate Spinoza to Nietzsche.

Despite significant dissimilarities between Nietzsche and Spinoza--in both philosophy and temperament--Nietzsche often takes positions that are strikingly similar to his predecessor's.{7}

In Human, All Too Human--written during his so called "positivistic period"--we find Nietzsche taking the following positions:

We don't accuse nature of immorality when it sends us a thunderstorm, and makes us wet: why do we call the injurious man immoral? Because in the first case, we assume necessity, and in the second a voluntarily governing free will. But this distinction is in error (102).

The man who has fully understood the theory of complete irresponsibility can no longer include the so-called justice that punishes and rewards within the concept of justice . . . (105).

If one were omniscient, one would be able to calculate each individual action in advance, each step in the progress of knowledge, each error, each act of malice. To be sure, the acting man is caught in his illusion of volition . . . [This illusion], his assumption that free will exists, is also part of the calculable mechanism (106).

When a misfortune strikes, we can overcome it either by removing its cause or else by changing the effect it has on our feelings . . .(108).

There are elements in each of these texts--e.g., the denial of free will, the rejection of the idea retributive justice, and the recognition of possibility of overcoming our emotional reactions rather than our external environment--which resonate with the sympathetic reader of Spinoza. And while, in later years, Nietzsche loses some of his positivistic fervor, we shall see that significant similarities are retained. They can be reduced to the proposition that an unconditional affirmation of existence is prerequisite to the fullest expression of our essence.

Recall that Spinoza argues that the degree of blessedness which we attain is dependent on the quality of that which we love, pointing out that

Strife will never arise on account of that which is not loved; there will be no sorrow if it is lost, no envy if it is possessed by another, no fear, no hatred--in a word, no emotional agitation, all of which, however, occur in the case of the love of perishable things . . . But love towards a thing eternal and infinite feeds the mind with joy alone, unmixed with any sadness. This is greatly to be desired, and to be sought with all our might (TEI 235).

From Spinoza's perspective, then, if we are to achieve blessedness, we must learn to love every aspect of that which is--which is, in the words of Kierkegaard, the power that grounds us. This includes loving corruptible things, as such, together with the process of becoming in general. Nietzsche expresses a very similar insight, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

Have you ever said Yes to a single joy? O my friends, then you said Yes too to all woe. All things are entangled, ensnared, enamored; if ever you wanted one thing twice, if ever you said, "You please me, happiness! Abide, moment!" then you wanted all back. All anew, all eternally, all entangled, ensnared, enamored--oh, then you loved the world. Eternal ones, love it eternally and evermore; and to woe too, you say: go, but return! For all joy wants--eternity (Portable Nietzsche 435).

Leaving aside Nietzsche's notion of eternal recurrence, his position is quite close to that of Spinoza. Reminiscent of Spinoza's intellectual love of God, Nietzsche posits love of fate as his "formula for greatness":

My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it--all idealism is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary--but love it (Ecce Homo 258).

This is not to say that Nietzsche's greatness and Spinoza's blessedness are identical, but only that they are closely related. Greatness, which we may provisionally define as extraordinary success in a finite context, depends on conditions external to our essence (God's external help/fortune), whereas blessedness depends on our "internal virtue" (God's internal help). Having granted this distinction, I would argue that true greatness can only be attributed to those individuals who, in addition to external success, are characterized by the especially appropriate manner in which they relate to the power which grounds them and, consequently, to their own essence. By virtue of their right relation to themselves and to God, such people have, experienced true blessedness. To the extent that we say noto any aspect of reality--that which is necessary--to that extent we cut ourselves off from the only source of abundant life and have, in fact, negated that which constitutes the conditions for the realization of our highest hopes and most noble possibilities. Because our essence and our authentic possibilities are inextricably intertwined with all that is and all that has been, Nietzsche's Zarathustra, in the spirit of Spinoza, teaches that redemption is achieved when our will becomes harmonized with the eternal necessity that governs the play of appearances:

To redeem those who lived in the past and to re-create all 'it was' into a 'thus I willed it'--that alone should I call redemption (Portable Nietzsche 251).

Redemption, in this sense, requires that we take our stand beyond good and evil and seems to require that we embrace a kind of determinism. We can, it seems, do what we will, but we can't will what we will.{8} Our real project is to discover our essential will, from whence alone our lives derive their meaning and purpose. Both Spinoza and Nietzsche seem to be saying that this discovery is facilitated by our affirmation of those aspects of reality that are beyond our control, which requires that we attempt, on the level of reflective consciousness, not to be controlled by such passive emotions as guilt, fear, and regret.{9} This is possible only insofar as we come to know, love, and (consciously) will ourselves as we are essentially, all of which presupposes--or, constitutes!--a right relationship to the power that grounds us. This right relationship to the power that grounds us is realized to the degree that our reflective consciousness is characterized by Spinoza's intellectual love of God and Nietzsche's love of fate, which are, practically speaking, closely related, if not identical concepts.{10} We must not imagine, however, that the breach between our empirical or conscious self and our essential self is to be completely overcome--at least not in the course of this embodiment. Relative to consciousness, our essential self will always retain a transcendent aspect--in fact, we may refer to it as our transcendent self. However, despite the unavoidable dissonance that exists between the two, we can hope to experience a narrowing of the chasm that exists between them as we endeavor to stay attuned to our essential will, which is, in fact, the will of God. To discover and exercise our essential will is to experience authentic existence.

If Spinoza is right, and the attribute of extension expresses my essence as fully, in its own way, as the attribute of thought, it may one day be the case that our knowledge of the human body will be complete enough to arrive at an experience of authentic existence through the manipulation of our physical organism. At this point however, such a possibility remains remote and the only realistic possibility of our achieving the abundant life which both Nietzsche and Spinoza envision is to change the way we think. In the past, this was achieved through the practice of religion. We studied the Bible and entrusted ourselves to Christian ministers and mystics who functioned as guides, helping us along on our pilgrimage. For many moderns, however, the implausibility of the biblical narrative--particularly the gospel narratives (construed as a historical, empirical reality)--together with the bad impression made by those who have promoted a legalistic, provincial moralism as the way of salvation, have left them unable to relate to the Christian tradition. This inability constitutes a great handicap to individuals whose consciousness, in its most fundamental structures, has been informed by that tradition. Even if it is possible for them to come to know and love their essential selves apart from the categories of Christian faith, it is nevertheless rendered more difficult by the resentment that they bear toward the tradition. At times, they come into contact with elements of the tradition which really resonate with their essential selves--i.e. with their higher or transcendent selves, in which they ceased to believe when they rejected the tradition. Such moments are very disconcerting to those whose conscience has-- perhaps for very good reasons--been turned against Christianity. They imagine that to understand and identify with a part, implies the truth and, thus the necessary acceptance of, the whole as a literal, historical reality. Their heart, for a moment, leaps within them at the prospect of embracing again that which they forsook with such agony, but a moments reflection suffices to recall their reasons for rejecting it in the first place.{11} What they fail to realize is the possibility that a myth, however false when taken at face value, is not merely a lie. Rather it is a story that is (or may be) false on the outside, but true on the inside.{12} It is my opinion that the Bible in general, and the New Testament in particular, conveys such a myth, and that insofar as our consciousness, on a very fundamental level, has been informed by that myth, we would do well to let go of our resentment, opening our minds to the possibility of learning from it once again. In other words, let us not throw the baby out with the bath water. To be sure, the water is dirty--at certain times and places extremely dirty. Nevertheless, those who have a real affinity for this tradition--often reflected in their resentment toward it--are doing violence to themselves by refusing to take another look. It is in this spirit, then, that I offer in what follows an alternative approach to the Christian myth--one which is intended, practically speaking, to captivate the imagination, bringing it into the service of our essential self, without, however, violating our reason. Its chief theoretical advantages are that it avoids the problem of evil; is not threatened by modern philosophy, however "positivistic"; and it escapes Nietzsche's chief criticisms Christianity.{13} {14}

PART THREE: Reappropriating the Tradition

In light of the discussion in part two, we can now understand why Jesus said, "The first of all the commandments is, Hear O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength" (Mk. 12:29). If we love God, we love his sovereign will and the eternal order that he has decreed. To the degree that we love him we become one with him and will be no more confounded by the turn of events than our heavenly Father is. We are partakers of his divine nature, and, as such, experience eternal life. Becoming conscious of ourselves as incarnations of God, we begin to participate in the life of God, and his image begins to shine through in our lives. This is not a reason for pride, however, but for joy and thanksgiving! "We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus, . . . who is the image of the invisible God, the first born of every creature: for by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him and for him . . . in whom all the building fitly framed together growth unto an holy temple in the Lord" (Eph. 2:10; Col. 1:15-17; Eph. 2:21). We, as members of his body, share in this eternal purpose. We are, in him, "builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit" (Eph. 2:22). This is why "all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called, according to his purpose" (Rom. 8:28). This is why we can have no life apart from Christ.

But the name of Christ does not refer merely to Jesus of Nazareth. Indeed, the truth or falsity of the legends surrounding the life of Jesus is irrelevant to the reality of Christ which we can experience first-hand inasmuch as he represents the concept and actualization (in the Hegelian sense) of our true self. He is our formal cause or essence (in the Aristotelian sense), as well as our final cause or ultimate goal. He is our freedom and our destiny. Because our essence is the essence of a "for itself," and not merely an "in itself," we may approach that essence as a Thou, rather than an it--the term of our transcendence; the Self toward which we are transcending; an incarnation of God.

Our essential self stands in an absolute relation to the absolute--that is, our relationship to the power that grounds us (God) is mediated absolutely and exclusively by our essential self (Christ in us). As such, a right relationship to our essential self implies a right relationship to the power that grounds it and vise versa; and, insofar as human beings share a common essence, a right relation to our Self and God implies a right relation to our neighbor, as well.{15} Suffering and death are intrinsic to life and must be affirmed (insofar as they are necessary)--Christ is the lamb slain from the foundation of the world. Despairing in the face of that which this seemingly harsh truth demands (the garden of Gethsemane, Golgotha, the tomb), we flee our essential self and, as such, are automatically in a disrelation to the power that grounds us--cut off from the possibility of an abundant life. To the extent, however, that we come to know and love ourself as we are essentially, the disrelation we experience is rectified and we are able to realize our highest potential (Christ in us, our hope of glory). We begin at once to realize this potential when in the depths of our despair, we make the movement of infinite resignation, and choose to bear our cross, like Christ, freely and innocently and without the spirit of revenge (Father forgive them, for they know not what they do).{16} When this movement is made-- completely and without reservation, holding nothing back--our resignation is transformed into faith and the world of which we despaired a short time before is vivified and we experience the very life and power of the Son of God--this is resurrection power.

Thus, the passion of Christ is, or at least can be, a symbol of the essence of life--death and resurrection--rather than a symbol of our despair, reflecting our dissatisfaction with ourselves and with existence. The true Christian is one who does not flee life, imagining that existence is refuted by suffering and death, but rather bears with patience the problematic aspects of our existential experience, understanding that these aspects, too, constitute, in part, the conditions necessary to the highest expression of life. When we embrace this faith, we put off the old man, Adam, who risks eternal torment by virtue of his unfortunate preoccupation with the polar opposition of good and evil (and who experiences suffering as punishment for sin), and put on the mind of Christ, who experiences abundant life, beyond good and evil (whose suffering is redemptive). Like Paul, who admonishes us to "present our bodies a living sacrifice" (Rom. 12:1), we are "crucified with Christ" (Gal. 2:20) and we "fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ" (Col. 1:24). From this standpoint, we begin to see that

[Each human being] represents a unique and valuable experiment on the part of nature . . . the very special and always significant and remarkable point at which the world's phenomena intersect, only once in this way and never again. That is why every [person's] story is important, eternal, sacred; that is why every [person] as long as [he or she] lives and fulfills the will of nature is wondrous and worthy of every consideration. In each individual the spirit has become flesh, in each [person] the creation suffers, within each one a redeemer is nailed to the cross. Each [person's] life represents a road toward [himself or herself], an attempt at such a road, the intimation of a path. No [person] has ever been entirely and completely [himself or herself]. Yet each one strives to become that--one in an awkward, the other in a more intelligent way, each as best [he or she] can (From the prologue to Demian, by Hermann Hesse).


At the end of Part One, we came to the conclusion that as orthodox Christians, we bow(ed)--albeit, more or less, unconsciously--not to the justice of God, but to his power. Unable to think this thought, however, we insisted (as orthodox believers) on affirming the contradiction intrinsic to judgement that one can conjoin omnipotence and human perdition without attributing evil to God. But of all the "evils" that we can imagine, this conjunction is, perhaps, the only one which it is absolutely impossible to dispel by an appeal to our finite perspective. We attempted to make this contradiction explicit so as to permit the dialectic of the problem to carry us beyond it.

In Part Two, we found that we were able to avoid the contradiction by jettisoning the notions of free will and moral responsibility (to any heteronomous law), and by modifying our conception of God's goodness and power, in favor of a more comprehensive view. We realized instead that our only duty is to will our own essence. Furthermore, we saw that God is, indeed, infinitely good, but can be percieved as such only by those who love him with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength. His power, too, is infinite, but he is, in fact, that which he is, and cannot be otherwise. We are justified in bowing before his power because it is the power which grounds us. Our unconditional love of God constitutes perfect self-love. This is not the kind of self-love which leads to self-destruction, but that which, for the tradition, is characteristic of the life of Christ. By bringing this thought to consciousness, we bring before ourselves the possibility of consciously and deliberately choosing to enter into that life, or consciously and deliberately refusing that life. Saying yes to life is giving conscious assent to that which, as Augustine pointed out (On Free Will 3.7.20), we already choose, viscerally, as it were, on a pre-reflective level. However, the ability to say yes to life remains a "grace." We admonish people to choose it because "it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them which believe." Insofar as we recognize the choice and reject the life which is proffered, we suffer the penalty--unhappiness, Augustine said, is the just reward of ingratitude (On Free Will 3.6.18). In my opionion, the tradition has permitted its adherents to make this choice only on an unconscious level. It is only by letting the dialectic of the problem carry us beyond good and evil that we have become fully conscious of that upon which our life depends. In Part Three, we presented an alternative approach to the Christian myth--one which was intended, practically speaking, to captivate the imagination, bringing it into the service of our essential self, without, however, violating our reason. Its chief theoretical advantages were said to be that it avoids the problem of evil; is not threatened by modern philosophy (however "positivistic"); and it escapes Nietzsche's chief criticisms of Christianity.

It remains for the reader to decide whether or not this dialogue between the tradition and those opposed to the tradition has been fruitful. For me, its fruitfulness is confirmed by the renewed relationship I have experienced with my Self and my God.


1. This contradiction is presented poetically in --see Appendix "A," below.

2. This is C.S. Lewis's approach to the problem in Mere Christianity. See Book Four, Chapter 3, "Time and Beyond." Cf. The Screwtape Letters, Letter XXVII.

3. Apropos of "justice" and "power," the following text from On Free Will is quite interesting: "If you are not in your own power, then someone must have you in his power who is either more powerful or less powerful than yourself. If he is less powerful the fault is your own and the misery just. But if someone, more powerful than you are, hold you in his power you will not rightly think so rightful an order to be unjust" (3.6.19).

4. The Apostle Paul dealt with such objections, not by defending the justice of God--and especially not by appealing to "free will" --but by pointing out the absurdity of the creature passing judgment on the creator:

Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardenth. Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? for who hath resisted his will? Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? (Romans 9:18-21).

There are elements of this in Augustine's approach, but his extreme discomfort with the "core" of the problem is evident--a discomfort which is not evident in the writings of St. Paul.

5. At this point, I beg those staunch defenders of orthodoxy who truly know and love the Lord their God to bear with me. Despite the seeming harshness of my criticism, I assure you that I am not your enemy. And, despite their reputations, neither are Spinoza and Nietzsche, to whom I now turn.

6. Such external powers are not essentially opposed to me. In another context, the same power might work to my advantage.

7. Nietzsche himself calls Spinoza his "precursor" (Portable Nietzsche 92). His discovery of Spinoza seems to have come after the publication of the Human, All To Human.

8. By "will," here, I indicate our desire to do that which is within our power, not a mere whim or wish.

9. It would not be desirable to eliminate such emotions insofar as each has a positive function.

10. I have emphasized the practical similarity of these concepts. For a more detailed theoretical analysis that emphasizes their differences, see "Spinoza and Nietzsche: Amor dei and Amor fati" in Volume Two of Yeimiyahu Yovel's Spinoza and Other Heretics, Princton Univ. Press, 1989.

11. What many find unacceptable in Christian thought (or at least in some, not insignificant, strands of it) is that 1) In the name of piety, attempts are made to limit freedom of speech and thought; 2) the body, and the temporal order in general, is disparaged as intrinsically flawed or evil; 3) it is demanded that one accept mythic and religious imagery as scientific/historical explanations of phenomena; 4) various prevailing cultural norms are accepted as absolute moral imperatives, not subject to rational criticism; and 5) particular texts are idolatrously accepted as the essential foundation rather than the creative expression of religious faith.

12. I came across this definition of "myth" in a Jungian analysis of medieval romance, the title and author of which escapes me at the moment.

13. I am merely asserting the last of these three "theoretical advantages" and do not attempt to defend it explicitly in this paper.

14. At this point, I feel somewhat like Paul, whose gospel was, to the Jew, "a stumbling block," and to the Greek, "foolishness." "Orthodox" Christians imagine (understandably) that the legitimacy of their faith depends on the historical truth of the gospel narratives. They stumble at the notion that countless millions, past and present, have had a similar experience of faith and salvation--people who never heard the name of Christ, or have rejected the name because of that which they associate with it; people who, despite their ignorance of Jesus of Nazareth, or their repugnance to traditional Christianity, may, nonetheless, know Christ--in the Spirit, as it were--just as intimately as any orthodox believer. Atheists, on the other hand, tend to consider all "god-talk" to be foolishness. Preoccupation with such things, they might say, is a vestige of a more primitive (or perhaps infantile) stage of human development--something that one should cast aside in maturity.

15. The right relation to our neighbor is more accurately construed as the effect, not the cause of our right relationship to God, although it may be the case that the two are inseparable.

16. Zarathustra teaches, "that man be delivered from revenge, that is for me the bridge to the highest hope, and a rainbow after long storms" (Portable Nietzsche 211).


Augustine, Saint. The City of God. Trans. Henry Bettenson. New York: Penguin Books, 1984.

__________. Confessions. Trans. Henry Chadwick. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

__________. De ordine. The Fathers of the Church, Vol. 5, Ed. Ludwig Schopp (New York: CIMA Publishing Co., 1948) 226-232.

__________. On Free Will. Augustine: Earlier Writings, ed. J. H. S. Burleigh (Philadelphia: Westminister Press, 1953) 102 - 217. Nietzsche, Friedrich. Ecce Homo. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1967.

__________. Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits. Trans. Marion Faber. Lincoln, NE: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1984.

__________. The Portable Nietzsche. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Penguin Books, 1982.

Spinoza, Baruch. Ethics, Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, and Selected Letters. Trans. Samuel Shirley. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1992.

__________. Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. Trans. Samuel Shirley. New York: E. J. Brill, 1989.


Burns, J. Patout. "Augustine on the Origin and Progress of Evil." The Journal of Religious Ethics. Vol. 16, No. 1, Spring 1988, 9 - 27.

Burt, Donald X. "Courageous Optimism: Augustine on the Good of Creation." Augustinian Studies. Vol. 21, 1990, 55-66.

Evans, G.R. Augustine on Evil. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Stewart, Melville. "O Felix Culpa, Redemption, and the Greater Good Defense." Sophia, Vol. 25, No. 3, Oct., 1986, 18-31.


Selections from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam [all selections from the 5th edition, unless bracketed, in which case they are from the 2nd edition]:

[108] Ah, Love! could you and I with Fate conspire To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire, Would not we shatter it to bits--and then Re-mould it nearer to the Heart's Desire!

29 Into this Universe, and Why not knowing Nor Whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing; And out of it, as Wind along the Waste, I know not Whither, willy-nilly blowing.

30 What, without asking, hither hurried Whence? And, without asking, Whither hurried hence! Oh, many a Cup of this forbidden Wine Must drown the memory of that insolence!

78 What! out of senseless Nothing to provoke A conscious Something to resent the yoke Of unpermitted Pleasure, under pain Of Everlasting Penalties, if broke!

79 What! from his helpless Creature be repaid Pure Gold for what he lent him dross-allay'd-- Sue for a Debt he never did contract, And cannot answer--Oh the sorry trade!

[86] Nay, but for terror of his wrathful Face, I swear I will not call Injustice Grace; Not one Good Fellow of the Tavern but Would kick so poor a Coward from the place.

80 Oh Thou, who didst with pitfall and with gin Beset the Road I was to wander in, Thou wilt not with Predestined Evil round Enmesh, and then impute my Fall to Sin!

81 Oh Thou, who Man of baser Earth didst make, And ev'n with Paradise devise the Snake: For all the Sin wherewith the Face of Man Is blacken'd--Man's forgiveness give--and take!


[Spinoza] But human power is very limited and is infinitely surpassed by the power of external causes, and so we do not have absolute power to adapt to our purposes things external to us. However, we shall patiently bear whatever happens to us that is contrary to what is required by consideration of our own advantage, if we are conscious that we have done our duty and that our power was not extensive enough for us to have avoided the said things, and that we are a part of the whole of Nature whose order we follow. If we clearly and distinctly understand this, that part of us, will be fully resigned and will endeavor to persevere in that resignation. For in so far as we understand, we can desire nothing but that which must be, nor in an absolute sense, can we find contentment in anything but truth. And so in so far as we rightly understand these matters, the endeavor of the better part of us is in harmony with the order of the whole of Nature (E4, Appendix, item 32). 

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