The great question that faces all explicit and implicit discussions about God is the reality of evil. Philosopher of religion William R. Jones, writing a critique of black theologies of liberation back in the 1970's, insisted that implicit in all protest theologies are answers to the question of the presence of evil. His own critique, title Is God a White Racist?, gave the answer that they are deficient because they make the traditional mistake of classical theology since Augustine, viz., giving short shrift to the presence of evil in human individual and social life, essentially claiming that evil is a non-existent, indeed is non-existence as a negating force.
Intellectual historian Jeffrey Burton Russell has written a four-volume history of the idea of the personification of evil, the second and fourth volumes of which I have read. He begins each volume with a preface in which he makes his own position clear with a newspaper account of of the potential for radical evil in the world - the account of a serial killer, or a pathological person who destroys the life of a child or children. I like that because it keeps one aware of the reality we all face. Evil is not just one among many intellectual problems facing human beings, to be solved through clever reasoning. It is, rather, the existential problem that refuses reduction and idealization. We are confronted by evil, not just in other individuals and in institutions, but in our own lives. We are most honest with ourselves when we view incidents of evil-doing as a very real, very dangerous possibility for ourselves. This is the first movement towards a healthy, honest humility in all things human.
It is important to make something clear at this point. I have been struggling to make clear in the past weeks my own intuition of what for lack of a better word can be called the Divine. I employ the language of the Christian Church and tradition because it is the tradition in which I was raised, and it is the vocabulary I find most adequate for understanding. At the same time, I must confess that behind the words stands an intuition, a very personal experience of the depth of life and experience that transcends my own ability to communicate. Explicit within that intuition is not just an intuition of the greatness and loving-kindness of God, but of the very real presence of evil. I refuse to personalize this presence by giving it the name Satan, or less personal but still allegedly metaphysically real Devil. Employing these traditional Christian ideas brings along too much baggage from popular thought - all that Exorcist nonsense of horned creatures, puking children looking like lepers, and the rest - to be constructive or helpful. I prefer to de-personalize the reality of evil, but that does not make it any less real. Evil is an active force in the world, at both the interpersonal and social level. One denies this only at the expense of being naive or blind, or both.
When I say that evil is a force, I am suggesting that it exists independently of any and all instances of evil we encounter. I am further suggesting that it has power, although it is always a power of negation. To this extent, I think the traditional formulation was correct; only when they raised this existential, intuitive understanding to a metaphysical principle did they make the error that ended up making evil non-existent and non-existence.
In my own life, I have experienced the power of radical evil in any number of ways and occasions. There have been times in my life when I felt overwhelmed by it. The worst part of these times in my life was the simple fact that much of what happened was the result of my own actions; I succumbed to the temptation to make choices based not upon what was right or even prudent, but what I knew to be wrong. I have known the reality of the demonic in my own life, and have had to live with the consequences. I am not confessing to murdering, or even stealing; I am simply confessing that actions I have taken in the past have been destructive of my own and the lives of others, and there seemed at times no way out from under the weight of guilt and responsibility. That is a further aspect of evil - it leads to inaction due to the acceptance of responsibility.
This is where the mystery of grace comes in. Standing before one's life, viewing the wreckage one has caused, when one realizes there is no way one can get from where one is to where one wants to be on one's own, there can be an opportunity to open oneself to the possibility of living without guilt, but with a sense of responsibility. Grace is not some metaphysical factum that enters our lives, but the mysterious presence of the Divine that presents the opportunity to accept oneself as one is - precisely because one is accepted as one is.
These general comments are only the beginning of some thinking about evil.