Great Mind Warp

Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky are often called philosophical or theological novels, but their subject is neither philosophy nor theology, but human beings, whom Dostoevsky correctly portrays as motivated by philosophical and theological ideas, however superficially they may understand them. This is as true of the homeless as of holders of endowed chairs at Harvard University. Clerks at supermarkets express philosophical and theological ideas as often as Oxford deans or cardinals in the Vatican.

Often the imperfectly understood ideas of the savants of the supermarket are so superficial in themselves that the elites who fashion them are hardly less silly than the ordinary people deceived by them. For instance, scores of millions of people reason, if one can call it reason, as follows: "You have your ideas, and I have mine. Who's to say who is right?" The main difference between the mass expression of relativism and its academic formulation is that ordinary people express it better, certainly less incoherently.

Philosophy and theology are thus far from being merely academic disciplines and drive history as much as such obvious drivers as military and economic power and the mass media. Unfortunately, they have nearly driven us off the road.

How can God be both all powerful and all good, many ask, given the manifest presence of evil in the world? The West has spent more than two thousand years trying to answer this question, enemies of the West and its traditions, little time, if any.

If we cannot reconcile divine omnipotence and divine goodness, we must choose between them. Islam has chosen divine omnipotence. It may praise God's goodness and mercy, but because it holds that everything that happens is the direct result of God's will, it must make God responsible for rape, murder, theft, adultery, deceit, and so on, even blasphemy, and if God is responsible for these evil deeds, then they must not be evil after all.

The opposite choice is made by "process theologians" and "panentheists," who curtail the powers of God, most prominently by claiming that God does not know the future because the future does not yet exist, assuming without realizing it that God's mode of knowing is the same as man's: since we cannot know the future, they think, God cannot know it either.

One could of course reject both divine omnipotence and divine goodness, and the apparent contradiction between them offers perhaps the most successful argument against the existence of God: if God is so powerful and so good, how can the world be so full of evil?

Attempts to answer this question are at least as old as the Book of Job and ancient Greek philosophy. The traditional Christian answer, which is based on the sacred Hebrew texts Christianity shares with Judaism, is that sin and death are the result of Original Sin. Man freely chose disobedience to the Lord who made him and who placed him in idyllic surroundings.

Therefore, God is not the source of evil, and one cannot justify evil by blaming God for it. One cannot argue that we have no choice but to act as we do, as both Islam and atheistic determinists assert, so God is unfair to punish us.

A related explanation is that God allowed Satan to freely choose evil and later to tempt Adam and Eve and bring sin and death into the world because God makes use of evil to bring about a higher good. John Milton has Satan say:

...If then his Providence

Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,

Our labor must be to pervert that end,

And out of good still to find means of evil;

Perhaps the traditional answer is incomplete or partially in error. The question is not easy. It does, however, protect our understanding of God from the disastrous implication that God is responsible for evil.

Such protection is vital in every age, but particularly vital in our own, which is the arena of a vast struggle between freedom and tyranny. The traditional Christian answer says that God so values freedom that he allowed angels in heaven to rebel against him and allowed the chief rebel to deceive the first humans and bring sin and death to us and the world in which we live. The possibility of sin is the inevitable concomitant of freedom, but freedom is more valuable than the high cost in sin and death we have to pay for it.

The entire cosmic drama, in which we ourselves play, is a struggle for the existence of creatures who freely choose good. The struggle for true freedom in the United States and the rest of the world takes place in the context of this grand cosmic drama and is part of it. Only in the United States have hundreds of millions of people been free. No other nation has ever received such great benefits--or so great a responsibility.

If there were no God to define good and evil, how could we define them? There are three main responses to this question: 1) We could define good by conformity to the natural world, 2) We could define good by social or political criteria, or 3) We could reject the premise of the question that there are such things as good and evil. These are the responses of secularism, progressive politics, and nihilism, respectively. New Age religion, because of its confused understanding of nature, generally responds in the first, the secular, manner, despite its spiritual pretensions.

We see right away that in practice many Americans and Europeans who either deny the existence of God or but tepidly affirm that existence respond in varying degrees in all three ways. The problem is that none of these responses is adequate, and all of them in one way or another rationalize evil behavior.

If we define good by conformity to the natural world, we can end up emulating sharks and mosquitoes instead of bunnies and birds, and if we really thought about it, we'd realize that other living creatures, despite their many fine qualities, are no models for human behavior. The natural world is so multifarious that we can find in it apparent exemplars for any behavior we want to justify, no matter how evil.

The world has had enough experience of defining good by social or political criteria that we should not have to argue against it. Politics as an end in itself quickly leads to ends justifying means and rationalization of evil. If we define good as socialism, for instance, we cannot condemn rape, murder, theft, adultery, deceit, blasphemy, and so on unless they impede the advent of socialism. A murder or a lie must be evaluated for its political effect; murdering people or lying to them is not wrong per se. However, our definition of good and evil must transcend politics, or, to put it another way, our understanding of politics must conform to our definition of good and evil. Good and evil are not the servants of politics; politics serves good and evil.

Going "beyond" good and evil or "deconstructing" the difference between them is quite popular, though nobody actually believes that there is no difference, as can be easily seen from the fact that nihilists and deconstructionists are moralistic, intolerant, judgmental, and full of hate. What always happens is that the deconstructionist deconstructs ideas he does not like and neglects to deconstruct those he does.

In any case, someone who has deconstructed good and evil cannot then ask how God could exist when there is so much evil in the world. Similarly, someone who justifies his behavior by reference to nature can hardly complain about God's alleged indifference to suffering. Nothing is more indifferent than nature. Even more absurd is politics holding the existence of evil against God. In their different ways, all three responses are blatantly self-contradictory and hypocritical.

The two great adversaries of the West and its traditions, Islam and what is inexactly called secularism are, despite their superficial differences, shameful and ignominious retreats from the high and difficult quest to explain the evil we see in the world without implicating Nature or Nature's God. They thus shift responsibility from man, where it belongs, to the natural world or to the creator of the natural world, and by doing so, they vastly increase the reach of evil.

New Age religion and scientism are at one in their surrender to evil. The scientismist may attribute his evil ways to his inability to influence the material objects of which he and his surroundings are composed, and the confused and superstitious devotee of the New Age may justify his evil ways as the product of powerful spiritual forces he is unable to resist and refuses to judge, but they are united in their denial of the own responsibility.

Despite its great antiquity, the New Age is a sort of technology of spirit raising, otherwise known as idol worship, and has received an impetus from the technological bent of modern society. In Judaism and Christianity, man asks favors of God and obeys divine commands; in the New Age, man manipulates God. The scientismist takes advantage of the products of science and engineering to manipulate the material world; the New Ager attempts to manipulate the material world through the intervention of his idols, which are material. The New Ager is as materialist as the scientismist in his goals and methods: whether his spirits be material or his matter spiritual, they occupy a single realm.

For their part, scientismists increasingly deny the materiality of the material world, saying such things as that the stuff of the universe is information or that wave functions "collapse," thereby unwittingly reifying their mathematical formulations in a Pythagorean manner. We are all Pythagoreans now--and have been for two and a half millennia, no matter how many soybeans we might eat.

Great harm has resulted and continues to result from confusion over the term secular, which is used in various senses without awareness of the variety. The word has many meanings, but the two most common ones are generally confused. Secular can mean either not overtly religious or actively hostile to religion. The confusion of these two meanings corresponds to the two meanings of separation of church and state: the state having no established religion and the active hostility of the state to religion.

Before these corruptions of our language, secular did not mean hostile to religion. There are even secular priests, those who do not belong to religious orders. A more familiar and striking example is the secular music of Johann Sebastian Bach. The Brandenburg Concertos are not overtly religious in the manner of The Saint Matthew Passion, but to call them hostile to religion would be absurd. They are not even indifferent to it. Bach did not cease to be a Lutheran when he sat down to write them.

So secular should not even mean neutrality toward religion, much less hostility to it. This mistake corresponds to the claim that separation of church and state means, if not hostility of the state to religion, at least neutrality between religion and irreligion, which was never the intention of the Founding Fathers, who advocated instead neutrality of the state in the conflicts among various Christian sects.

I can only begin to catalog the immense harm this confusion has caused. In Europe and the United States, it has resulted in the contamination of modernity by the New Age and the triumph of idolatry. Under the guise of separation of church and state, tolerance, multiculturalism, science, and progress, we have the virtual establishment of a new religion of scientism and the New Age, which are the latest incarnations of superstition and murder.

Our response to Islamofascism is similarly confused. Muslims correctly see that what is presented to them as secular is in fact a religion of sorts. Their mistake is to identify it with Christianity because it stems from the corruption and weakness of Christianity in Europe, that is, Christendom.

Bernard Lewis has said that the answer to the problems of the Middle East is the formation of secular governments in the region. This cannot mean governments hostile to Islam or even neutral with respect to it, since however desirable such governments might in some respects be, they could not be instituted or maintained except in disregard of popular sovereignty. It certainly cannot mean governments on the harebrained Eurosocialist model, which are a bad enough joke in Europe. Lewis must mean that governments in Islamic countries should not be based on sharia law.

Freedom in the United States and the rest of the world thus requires the defeat of the twin evils of the corruption of freedom we see in Europe and the United States and the outright hostility to it we see in the Islamic world. These evils seem to be quite different from one another, even opposed, but they are united in theory and practice. Fortunately, neither is as powerful as it seems, and their alliance is the alliance of despair.

Jonathan David Carson, Ph.D.

This essay appeared in the April 29, 2006, edition of The American Thinker.