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« Joe Biden, The Running Mate | Main | Hari Puttar - A Comedy of Terrors »

August 25, 2008


Great post, Ruchira. The simple-mindedness of McCain's unrehearsed -- ahem! -- answer to Rick Warren's question and the treatment received by Mr. Ng are indeed intimately interrelated. I am ashamed that a man who thinks and talks so stupidly, panderingly and recklessly may follow one just like himself to the presidency. Would the Saddleback audience have heard with shame the story of Mr. Ng's death? Or would they have considered him a form of collateral damage in the necessarily messy thrust to defeat evil? I mean, Evil. If only these people could be swept up, just as they imagine, into a place apart where those of another kind are forbidden to go, then perhaps the rest of us could create peace on Earth. Thanks for a marvelous essay.

What confuses me in this exchange between Pastor Rick Warren and the candidates for President on the existence of evil is that, clearly, the correct answer to the litmus test, insofar as this question contains one, for the Evangelical Christians in the audience, is the answer both candidates in fact gave: "yes, evil does exist." But, isn't Christian belief founded to a significant extent on the opposite answer: "no, evil does not exist; evil is nothing but the privation of goodness." This is perhaps the key discovery Augustine makes, as reported in his Confessions, in his path to becoming a Christian. If evil genuinely exists, then God and goodness are limited by their Other. McCain's posture here seems particularly antithetical to the Christian one: "not only does evil exist, but it exists outside of us, in our enemies, our others." For the audience, for the pastor, this is the correct Christian answer to the question, and the answer couldn't be more distant from authentic Christianity.

"But, isn't Christian belief founded to a significant extent on the opposite answer: "no, evil does not exist; evil is nothing but the privation of goodness.""

Perhaps -- although I'm not sure that the doctrine that evil *is* non-existence entails that evil doesn't exist. That's like saying that holes don't exist because they are privations of being, but clearly holes do exist in some perfectly familiar sense of the term "exist".

But that matter aside, surely in posing this question Warren didn't have the metaphysical nature of evil in mind so much as something closer to the concerns of ordinary Evangelicals, like maybe the existence of moral absolutes. Don't you think that what he meant by "does evil exist?" was something more like "do you acknowledge that some things are absolutely wrong, or are you a moral relativist? And are you therefore someone who is willing to take a moral stand, or are you going to just say "I'm okay, you're okay" and roll over?" than it was like "is evil a positive property or the lack of a property?"

The very idea that evil can be either "contained" or "defeated" is misguided, but that's Warren's fault for failing to offer Bill Bristow's more accurate definition of evil as a negative quality--that is, an insufficient engagement with goodness (which is always available to us), rather than a countervailing force in conflict with goodness. In Warren's palette of choices only Manichaeism lies. And Fatalism.

I'm also slightly troubled by Obama's suggestion that it is "God's task" to erase evil. Aside from perpetuating the idea that evil is a positive substance to be eradicated, it raises the question of when He will get around to it, or why He has waited so long.

However I do prefer Obama's choice of the word "confront" over McCain's ridiculous and juvenile insistence we will "defeat" it. I guess to be fair we should note that Obama seemed to be responding to the abstract notion of evil, where McCain seemed to be responding to the specific examples of evil the opposition to which he believes will win presidential campaigns.

But, after Mr. Obama is elected, I hope we will learn that he is able to connect his message on "being the change we seek" to confronting the evil in ourselves, primarily by recognizing that fear is a terrible motivator for anyone seeking a good life in this world.

Chris Schoen, I seriously seriously doubt Obama's answer indicated anything about the metaphysical status of evil in a neo-Platonist or medieval Aristotelian framework. In particular, I doubt he wished to address (much less call into question) the view that evils are privations and are therefore merely accidents inhering in substances as opposed to genuine substances.


Obama was obviously speaking off the cuff here, and I probably shouldn't attribute too much into a throw-away remark about erasing evil being God's task. You're right that his intention here is to focus on what is morally and politically possible for mortals, and not align himself with a particular ontological position. It's also noteworthy that he rejects Warren's choice between defeat and contain, both of which externalize evil and I should have mentioned this in my comment.

Eliminating Evil is Man's Job, not God's Task. God has amply provided for Man to created a heaven on Earth, as it is the only place it can and/or will be created, also Hell for that matter.

If you are born into one Country, you are born into a potential Heaven, if born into another Country, you are born into a potential Hell.

God provided for man to evolve, thus it was necessary to give man choice, unfortunately many choose Evil, because man has not accepted the responsibility to make it unprofitable.

Further Religion has not taught Man to recognize either God's Punishment or rewards, thus people are not impressed with God's Punishment or Reward. Neither are people taught that although God's Punishment and Rewards are emotional. This emotional reward or punishment always leads to physical rewards or punishment.

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