Monday, March 19, 2012

good vs evil

Hello.  My name is Matte Downey and I am a thinker. (Hello, Matte!)  If you are reading this, you probably have some tendencies toward thinking yourself.  That's a good thing.  Thinking, to me, means that we look beyond what we see, hear, touch, experience, taste, or feel in order to ponder on a deeper or broader meaning.  It means that we stretch our necks and look past what we don't know, past what we think we know in order to catch a glimpse of the unknown.  Thinking and studying are two ways in which we can gain a better understanding of our world, our selves, and the grand mystery of God's love for all of the above.  In my experience, thinking is very closely related to inspired action; it can undergird transformation and change; at times it helps clarify revelation; and on occasion, it has stopped me from jumping to hasty and inadequate conclusions (thank goodness). 

I am privileged to be a participant in this national thoughtworks blog, a place where we can share thoughts, ideas, works in progress, resources, questions, lessons, and insights that might aid us in this journey of following Jesus together.  What I have written below is a snapshot of what studying does in my life.  Perhaps you will find some value in it.

A few weeks ago, I was reading some lectures given by theologian Bernard Lonergan in 1959 and quite enjoying them. It was like taking a nice, leisurely walk. One of the reasons it reminded me of a pleasant saunter in the forest on a spring day was because it gave me a break from reading the work of Paul Ricoeur. Monsieur Ricoeur's brilliant philosophical mind likes to dive into craterous valleys and leap atop spiky mountains while balancing plates on his head. At least that's what it feels like to me.

Anyway, I was enjoying my walk in the park with Lonergan as he discussed the subject of human good when I came upon the following paragraphs. Abruptly, the walk in the park ended as a huge crevice opened up before me regarding the concept of "good." Here is the quote:

"...the good is not apart from evil in this life. In his Enchiridion (Handbook), St Augustine made perhaps one of the most profound remarks in all his writings, and for that matter in the whole of theology, when he said that God could have created a world without any evil whatever, but thought it better to permit evil and draw good out of the evil.

We must not forget that what God wants, the world God foreknew from all eternity in all its details and freely chose according to his infinite wisdom and infinite goodness, is precisely the world in which we live, with all its details and all its aspects. This is what gives meaning to a phrase that might at times be considered trite: resignation to the will of God. God does not will any sin, either directly or indirectly. He wills only indirectly any privation or punishment. What he wills directly is the good, and only the good. Yet the good that God wills and freely chooses with infinite wisdom and infinite goodness is this world. It is a good, then, that is not apart from evil. It is a good that comes out of evil, that triumphs over evil." [1]

Dagnabit, Lonergan. Why'd you have to go and say that? Those are unsettling words! Don't you know that "good" is squeaky clean? Bright and shiny and oh so pure? Never been touched or soiled by dirty, filthy evil? It has never even looked at anything remotely un-good or for that matter thought about it? It has never acknowledged the existence of anything less than good, so glorious is its glory? Ah yes, the romantic idealist in me was popping up again. My concept of "good" was something so totally divorced from evil that it would never get its hands dirty. And fortunately, that is the same separatist image that Jesus shattered when he embraced full humanity.

"Good" deserves more credit than I have been giving it. It is much grander, much more gracious, and much more powerful than my sterile version of it. I had been thinking of a one-dimensional, fenced-in "good." Something that keeps itself apart from yuckiness and bad people, unsullied by evil and suffering. In fact, the "good" that Jesus showed us is a "good" that embraces all the yuckiness and suffering and evil and still remains good. How does it do that? I don't know. But I need it!

However, embracing this concept of "good" is troublesome. Lonergan introduces that bothersome phrase, "resignation to the will of God." I really, really want to stay in my spring forest, walking along with birds chirping and a soft breeze blowing, everything in a state of heavenly goodness. But once I acknowledge that this good God, in choosing to make a good world, chose this broken, imperfect mess around me, I become disillusioned. Where is my utopia? I want more than this! I want sweet candy goodness!

This meaty, sinewy, raw idea of goodness is difficult to take in. This earthy goodness bleeds and cries and dies, but somehow, this goodness remains undefeated. This goodness embraces suffering, opens its arms to death and injustice, pain and sorrow, and swallows it all. Digests it. Turns it from poison into food - food that strengthens it. In that case, evil can no longer be seen as the equal opposite of good. Instead, evil becomes part of the tapestry of a bigger good: a red thread of spilled blood, a scarred edge of healing, one string tied to another in a reconciliation knot. This tapestry of "good" is so much bigger than I had imagined. So much more colourful than my eyes are able to see. So much less fearful (shouldn't good run away from evil?) than I make it out to be; in fact, good knows no fear. It is deep and wide and broad, searching out the low and yucky, muddy places, just like the love of God.

Open your mouth and taste, open your eyes and see - how good God is. Psalm 34:8 (The Message)

1. Bernard Lonergan. Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan: Topics in Education: the Cincinnati Lectures of 1959 on the Philosophy of Education. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988, p. 29-30.

the photo: the back of a woven rug - a gift from my sister and bro-in-law who serve as teachers in Afghanistan


  1. Matte,

    Thank you for thinking your thoughts outloud!

  2. as Gandalf once said, "...and that is an encouraging thought, indeed."

    it is also timely after my musings along these very lines this morning, reading from Ecclesiastes 3: Indeed, I have observed under the sun: Alongside justice, there is wickedness...Alongside Righteousness, there is wickedness.