Evil & Sin Revisited – November 2004

Question: Taken in the broadest way, process theodicy seems to me to be pretty satisfying intellectually, but there is a nagging detail . . . While I certainly wouldn’t wish to posit a literal existence for the devil, I have the sense that there’s something agent-like about evil that seems somewhat unaccounted for by process theology. A possibly related conundrum–it seems to me that God’s proffering of initial aim to occasions must needs in some way conceal that the aim offered is the one to be most valued in the circumstances–otherwise, wouldn’t an occasion’s exercise of freedom in rejecting the aim be mere perversity? And if the value of the initial aim is somehow hidden, then doesn’t an occasion’s failure to take it up come to be mere ignorance?

Publication Month: November 2004

Dr. Cobb’s Response

Let me say at the outset that I do not believe that anyone, certainly including process theologians, has ever provided a fully adequate account of sin and evil. Most emphatically, this short response to some thoughtful questions will not provide that. But I agree that the process response is “pretty satisfying intellectually.” I also think that some of the remaining difficulties arise from too abstract an approach. After clarifying my use of the terms “evil” and “sin,” I’ll turn to examples to respond to the questions.

The questioner uses only “evil,” but the focus on the initial aim and how we fail to follow it points to what I call “sin.” For me evil is the inclusive term. It takes many forms. Whitehead even speaks of perpetual perishing as the ultimate evil. This has nothing to do with sin, and I will exclude it from further consideration here. Neither God nor creatures are responsible for it, and without responsibility there is no sin.

We can all agree that there is a great deal of suffering in the world. I consider it evil. But it may be caused by inanimate forces. Or it may be the result of the predator-prey relationship. The predator does not sin when it kills the prey even though the prey suffers.

Let us bring matters into the human sphere. I believe that our rapid depletion of resources and pollution of the environment are evils. I participate in these evils. Is that sin? In my view, it is sin when I participate more fully in them than I need to in order to accomplish positive goals. That is, sometimes I judge that driving the car or taking a trip by air, despite the use of scarce resources involved, is the right decision given all the relevant considerations. This does not mean that it ceases to participate in evil. At other times I engage in waste knowingly, aware that I could do better. I consider that I am then sinning.

I am supposing that the initial aim in this latter case draws me toward avoiding waste. The questioner asks why, if God calls me to avoid waste, and I know it, I still act wastefully. Is this sheer perversity?

Of course, it might be. I might be angry with God and simply want to flout God’s call. But far more often there are multiple pulls. I yield to laziness, established habits, a prideful judgment that I should be exempt from such petty considerations, or I just choose what is more pleasant. I do not understand this as either ignorance or perversity. And, of course, it is not an example of a terrible sin. Nevertheless, when we repeatedly miss the mark of God’s call in small matters like this, it affects our general sensitivity to that call and contributes to larger failures in our lives.

I want to make it clear that the systemic evil of degrading the Earth in our current situation is not primarily the result of individual sins of unnecessary wastefulness by those who know they are falling short of the idea. It results from our industrial-economic system. This system came into being out of a great mixture of motives. Some of them were narrowly selfish, and some of the decisions people made in the process were no doubt sinful. But there were also those who rightly saw that the development of this system brought prosperity to nations and eventually to most of their people. Many were fully unaware of the ecological consequences, and even those who were aware for the most part considered that the gains of this system outweighed the losses.

It is my guess that in some instances individuals made decisions with some vague awareness that they were shutting out relevant considerations. Since I believe that we all miss the mark, or fail to fully actualize the initial aim, to some extent, I do not exclude sin as a causal element in the establishment of this system. My point is only that to explain the rise to dominance of this system primarily in terms of sin is extremely misleading. The evil results from a mixture of good intentions, ignorance, and sin. It is also profoundly brought about by the power of the past in each moment of human experience.

This last point requires unpacking. I believe that it is an important part of what makes evil seem “agent like.” The past has the dominant power to shape the present. The “many” that become “one” in each occasion are primarily past events. Once a system is established it comes to seem self-evident, and it gains enormous support through its institutions. For example, at the time this industrial-capitalist system arose it had little support in the university. But now it shapes much of what goes on there, and this exercises enormous influence. Anyone socialized by the dominant university culture will support the now dominant system. This is, from my perspective an evil, and, at least in some instances, there is some sin involved in allowing oneself to be socialized in this way. But that most people are chiefly formed by the dominant attitudes in the societies in which they live as these are expressed in its most powerful and prestigious institutions does not mean that they are especially sinful. Most are genuinely persuaded of the validity of theories that support much of the destruction. Mistaken beliefs honestly held play an enormous role in generating evil. On the other hand, I do believe that many people today have some awareness of a call to reject these beliefs, adopt others, change their personal habits, and try to change the system as well. People respond to this call more and less fully.

A major cause of historical evil is communal feeling. Such feeling is in itself a great good. We are members one of another and have special obligations to those to whom we are most closely related by blood, neighborhood, or other ties. It is good and important that most of us are willing to make some sacrifices for the sake of the communities of which we are a part.

But this great good is also the source of much of the evil in the world. Our communal feeling arouses intense fear and hatred when our community is threatened. We are ready to join in the common resistance, typically viewing the threatening other as subhuman. The moral sensitivities toward others within the community are muted in relation to those who threaten it. When the community is geographical, this leads to war. When the community is racial, it leads to oppression and exploitation. When the community is religious, it leads to persecution.

I believe that God calls toward the recognition of the humanity of the threatening other and toward treatment that is appropriate to that recognition. I believe that there is some recognition of the call in many people. But I also believe that the separation of “we” and “they” is a very powerful force inherited from the distant past and reinforced in many ways in contemporary society. It is so strong, that most people act in terms of that force rather than in terms of God’s call. Their decision to sin is celebrated by society as a moral act, so that for many God’s call becomes faint indeed.

Deep-seated habits of obedience to authority are also a source of great evil. Wars would not be possible apart from this habit and its accentuation through military training and discipline. But is the habit as such evil? Surely without it human beings would not have survived and evolved. Children must act as their parents and teachers direct them even when they cannot understand the reasons for the action. But this habit of obedience also enables those in authority to lead people in terrible directions. When the Germans obeyed their Nazi masters in genocidal acts against the Jews, were they sinning? Yes, I think that in some instances some knew that they were called to resist even at great personal cost. But few of us are in position to condemn those who failed to follow that call. Resisting authority when everyone else is obeying it is extreme heroism of a very rare sort. Probably God actually calls few to such actions.

What about Hitler? In his case can we regard personal sin as playing the primary role? I do, indeed, believe that God frequently called Hitler away from the course that he in fact followed. But I doubt that Hitler’s refusal to heed that call is best understood in terms of simple perversity. I suspect that he really believed many of the things that he wrote and said. I suspect that he really believed that the Reich he proposed to build was a thing of true worth and grandeur, and that the sacrifice of much to this goal was morally acceptable. Even in his case, I suspect that erroneous beliefs played a larger role than sin.

Any analyses of this sort are extremely simplistic in comparison with the complexities of history and of personal life. But I hope they explain why I do not feel the need to posit devils or demonize those individuals who seem to be particularly involved in causing evil. The ways in which even what is good in human nature and society can and does become destructive are so numerous and so effective that the mystery is how good sometimes triumphs over it. This is where I see the need to emphasize God’s directing and empowering call to novel forms of goodness.