Q: I try to understand evil itself – what is it? Brokenness from the biology of the human being, brokenness from the things that have happened sometimes before and sometimes after birth? I’m not finding the right words as I struggle to understand the essence of evil which may inform one’s response but not in terms of consequences.
Robert: Whether we are completely conscious of it or not, all our theologizing is done within a worldview: a philosophical system of thought that governs the careful formulation of our most cherished religious beliefs. Our beliefs concerning the theology of redemption, which necessarily includes the difficult discussion of evil, are no exception. Concerned with meeting the spiritual needs of contemporary society, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin found the classical explanation of evil as “the privation of being”—one that may have seemed logical in a static, perfectly ordered cosmos—seriously deficient in an evolutionary universe. As a result, he sought to offer a more palatable explanation of the nature of evil in light of this reigning worldview.
While the nuances of his position are complex, his basic premise is that evil is a necessary and inevitable consequence of a world in ever-increasing organization and wholeness. He writes: “[In the process of evolution,] for implacable statistical reasons, and at every level—preliving, living, reflectively conscious—it is impossible that there not be some disorder or lack of organization in a multiplicity that is progressively moving toward a higher degree of organization.” For Teilhard, evil is the result of the incompleteness of life, a failure to unite and a refusal to bring God’s creation to completion. Let us briefly examine this proposition.
In an evolutionary paradigm, the activity of creation is conceived as a gradual process of unification, namely, to create is to unite. It is a slow movement from erratic multiplication to deeper unity, one that reaches its final synthesis in Christ (St. Paul’s pleroma: the moment when all is consciously united in Christ). Thus, if creation is understood as an unremitting process of advancing wholeness and the totalization of Christ is the culminating point of this long trajectory, then Teilhard concluded that the problem of evil is no longer a problem. In other words, the great minds who inhabited ancient cosmologies necessarily had difficulty reconciling the existence of evil with the belief in a ready-made world fashioned by a good and omnipotent God. In a world in a constant state of becoming—what might be more aptly described as continual creation—however, evil is an unavoidable and natural byproduct. Teilhard explains:
By arranging and unifying little by little, through [Christ’s] attracting influence and utilization of the random combinations that occur in quantities of large number, an immense multitude of elements, at first almost infinitely numerous, extremely simple, and possessing negligible consciousness, then gradually more rare and more complex, and finally gifted with reflection. now what is the inevitable counterpart of any success obtained by following a process of this kind if not the necessity of paying success by a certain amount of waste? Disharmony or decomposition in preliving matter, suffering among living things, sin in the domain of liberty: there is no order in the process of formation that does not at every stage of the process imply disorder. There is nothing. . . in this condition of participated being which would lessen the dignity or limit the omnipotence of the Creator. Nor is there anything whatever savoring of Manicheism. Pure unorganized multiplicity is not bad in itself. But because it is multiple—that is, essentially subject in its arrangements to the play of chance—it is absolutely impossible that it progress toward unity without giving ride to evil here and there by statistical necessity.
Evil is, therefore, not an accident but “the very expression of a state of plurality that is not yet completely organized. . . It is an enemy, the shadow that God raises by [God’s] decision to create.” A universe in evolution is a universe racked with growing pains; it is one that is locked in battle against the natural forces of unification that are indispensable to the future consummation of the God-world relationship.