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Good is a Thing

November 11, 2013

Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the best-known Western medieval theologian, writes at some length about the problem of the origin of evil.  Was evil created?  If it was created was it created by God (problematic) or by someone else outside of God’s control (problematic for other reasons)?  Aquinas concludes that evil isn’t a thing but an absence of a thing.  Good is a thing, evil is its absence.

In John 5 Jesus makes this point in a somewhat more concrete way.  In the first part of this chapter Jesus heals a man who has spent thirty-eight years waiting to be healed.  Apparently the process is pretty simple – get in the pool that the man has been positioned near for all this time whenever the waters stir.  The issue is that the man needs help to do this but no one has ever helped him.  (Whether or not this is effective is of little consequence.  The man does not say that the waters didn’t heal him but that no one has ever helped him in.)  Jesus sees the man, heals him, and sends him on his way carrying his mat.  Some Jewish leaders stop the man and ask him why he is violating the Sabbath law by carrying his mat.  This is the point where we can stop.

One of the more critical things that is normally not done in Bible reading is to think carefully about circumstances and motives.  It’s easy to see everyone as a special class of motiveless “Bible people” who appear where they are needed and do things for no reason other than advancing a narrative1.  In this case the whole situation deserves a bit more attention.  This man has been in roughly the same place for thirty-eight years.  Any other long-timers in the area probably know him.  They know of his condition and they know what cure he is attempting.  In the case of some of these long-timers they are also zealous followers of Torah.  On the Sabbath they don’t sit in quiet contemplation but scan the streets through their open doorways looking for the unfaithful who break the Sabbath.  On some Sabbaths they get up and walk the allowed distance to the Temple apparently on the look-out for miscreants who risk bringing the wrath of God on Israel through Sabbath-breaking the whole way.  For almost forty years some of these religious zealots have walked past a man who needs help in the form of a friendly push, stuck their hands on their hips, glared around, and said, “Hmph, no Torah-breaking here,” and kept going.

These people are desperately wrong.  By the end of chapter 5 Jesus will explain that Moses himself accuses these people.  They are the Torah-breakers, the willfully-ignorant and lawless.  Against that backdrop it’s not hard to see the problem.  These men never notice the one who suffers and needs their aid until he no longer needs their aid but, now able-bodied and walking, carries a mat on the Sabbath.

Good is a thing.  Evil, for these Torah-zealots, is a thing.  It is a willful act of disobedience – a carried mat, a plucked head of grain, an unclean animal.  Good is the absence of evil much as dirt is a thing but cleanness is only the absence of dirt.  When these people walk out and survey a sea of human misery, the sick and the lame crowded around a pool, they don’t see evil.  Instead, they look for willful acts of disobedience and, not seeing any, keep going.  Jesus, faced with the same scene, sees a disruption in the pattern of God’s world.  He sees evil in the absence of good and does good.  Good is the thing, evil merely its absence.

It is always easiest to believe that evil is a thing.  Getting rid of a thing is a much easier task than populating the world with things.  It is easier to fight a thing than a non-thing, easier to raise troops to combat a clear, defined goal than to raise a great standing army that will forever patrol for the surfacing of a new threat.  Wars are terrible but in some odd way they are easier than police work.  Once WWII ends you are done – there is no enemy left.  When you arrest one criminal another is ready to take his place.  Wars are episodic.  Police work is forever.  It is easiest to believe that evil is a thing to lay siege against and not a creeping absence that appears in every undusted corner of the world.

Good is a thing.  Good isn’t done by avoiding evil but by doing good.  When good is not done evil advances.  In some sense this is terribly scary because evil can crop up wherever one forgets to do good.  In another sense this is greatly empowering – holding back the dark is impossible but lighting a light is not.

In some worlds this is called “application”.  (This paragraph, I admit, flies off in its own new direction as if it wants to be its own essay but finds its growth constrained by my willingness to type.)  It is held to be a great virtue to find applications in Scripture such as “concentrate on doing good and not on making evil go away”.  Whole schools of thought mine for application in Scripture often with a certain resemblance to the newer methods of mountain-top removal.  But here we begin with a thread of philosophy (the least practical thing that ties the universe together), delve through ancient culture, consider the motives and actions of those long dead, see the world anew, and act.  Seeing is applying.  Good is a thing.  Do it.

[1] This is an especially common belief amongst people who do not believe in narratives, something that itself comments on the act of reading in an interesting way.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 12, 2013 8:16 pm

    But doesn’t this argument only make sense with respect to moral evil? What about natural evil?

    • Eric permalink
      November 13, 2013 10:06 pm

      Natural evil (since it lacks intent) is really an altogether different sort of beast. I’m not even sure if it’s correct to call it evil when you get right down to it. It’s calamitous, it’s bad, it causes awful things, but the evil of it involves interactions with beings with wills. A tidal wave on a deserted island isn’t evil although the man on a deserted island who wishes to kill someone is even though he and the tidal wave will do equally little to anyone.

      • November 13, 2013 10:28 pm

        With natural evil there is no volitional evildoer. Natural evil is determined from the perspective of the victim. If a tidal wave sweeps away and drowns a child, then from the perspective of the child (and her parents and those who love her), then the tidal wave (or at least its consequences) are evil that cannot be attributed to some moral failure, or the “absence of good.” It seems to me that the problem of evil is easily solved for moral evil, but far is far more challenging with respect to natural evil, particularly gratuitous natural evil.

  2. Eric permalink
    November 14, 2013 4:55 pm

    There are really two problems of evil. The first (what you seem to be concerned with here and what Aquinas was concerned with) is the philosophical problem of evil’s existence. The second is the pragmatic problem of the existence of evil – evil exists and we’d like it not to. My thoughts in this article are aimed at the second problem. I could give you an ill-considered answer to the first problem but I haven’t sat down and thought about it recently and so I can’t give you an answer I’d be happy giving right this second.

    I think that is the divide between my answer and your question – they are actually dealing with different problems of evil.

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