...are the ones that make the biggest difference


Evil and the Justice of God

A couple of posts ago, I indicated that I was reading Evil and the Justice of God by NT Wright and described it as a disappointingly slim tome. Can I change my answer to just disappointing?

The book is short; only 174 pages including the index with just 5 chapters. Some online reviewers have indicated that Wright intended to pursue a larger volume but eventually decided to offer up this condensed version for publication. Oh, would that he had stuck to his original plan. The book suffers not because Wright has too little to say, but because he has too much and fails to do justice to his arguments. He only skims the surface of a subject that should be dived.

The first chapter is entitled Evil is Still a Four-Letter Word. The brief introduction to the chapter is an interesting exploration of why Revelations describes a new creation minus the sea and gives a concise overview of Wrights views on modernity's understanding of the problem of evil. Which is, specifically, progress shall overcome. The modern western world believes in progress and the evolution of society. As Wright puts it:
"In this climate, the fact that we live in 'this day and age' means that certain things are now to be expected; we envision a steady march toward freedom and justice, conceived often in terms of the slow but sure triumph of Western-style liberal democracies and soft versions of socialism. Not to put too fine a point on it, when people say that certain things are unacceptable 'now that we're living in the twenty-first century,' they are appealing to an assumed doctrine of progress...and progress in a particular direction." (pg 22)
If we just wait long enough, the inevitable progression of our society will eventually eliminate evil. There may be bumps along the way but things will get sorted out in the end. Wright identifies three of these bumps that he thinks should have derailed this blind faith in human growth, but didn't. World Wars I and II are the primary event-bumps, while writers like Barth and Dostoyevsky, both of whom criticized belief in "the steady advance of the kingdom of God from within the historical process," provided the intellectual bump. This has left Western society ill-equipped to deal with the "new problem of evil" (the sub-title of this section). When evil does occur, then, we first try to ignore it until it rises up and makes its presence keenly felt. This willful ignorance makes us surprised when evil does present itself, which, third, leads us to respond in "immature and dangerous ways." One of the immature responses to evil Wright singles out is the dichotomy of blame; I am totally not to blame or totally to blame. Wright thinks, and I agree, that we need a more nuanced view of evil, one that takes seriously our individual and national complicities in evil but that also does not fail to take into account other people's (individual and corporate) evil actions. We have to be able to own up to our own failures while being willing to point out those of others. Adding fuel to our evil-blind fire is postmodernity.

Still in the first chapter, Wright's section on the nihilism of postmodernism is cutting but arguably betrays his stance as a modern thinker. I think he is correct in his argument that, while we "can't escape evil within postmodernity...you can't find anyone to blame either." By deconstructing all metanarratives, even the metanarrative of the individual self, postmodernity leads to a fluid, un-fixed understanding of "I". How can "I" be held responsible for my actions when the "I" of today is not the "I" of yesterday which committed those acts? Postmodernism further muddies the waters by deconstructing the myth of human progress. However, instead of replacing it with a more realistic view of humanity, growth and our future potential (in Christ), postmodernity spins a web of nihilism. There will be no progress, no change, no redemption. Instead of a nuanced view of evil, we have the mire of the status quo.

Wright thinks there are 3 elements key to the West getting a realistic understanding of evil. The first is coming to see that Western-style democracy is not perfect and certainly not a world panacea. We're having enough trouble doing it right ourselves to be foisting democracy off on everyone around the globe in disparate cultures. Democracy is likely the best form of government out there for today's world, but it may create as many problems as it solves, or at least proffer them up in a deceptively different guise. The second element is psychological; we must come to see the inherent ambivalence at the heart of man and that any individual can perform acts of great goodness and great wickedness. And some give themselves over entirely to the lure of wickedness. "What I think we must come to terms with is that when we talk about evil we must recognize, as neither modernity nor postmodernity seems to me to do, that there is such a thing as human evil and that it takes various forms." Which brings up the third element; the recognition that the line between good and evil, us and them, runs through each and every one of us as individuals. We must not make the mistake of moral equivalency, viewing each criminal act as inherently equal, but nor must we make the opposite mistake of supposing that the criminal acts of "our side" (or "me") aren't evil when done at the expense of the other.

Wright finishes the chapter by asking the church to start to try to make sense out of all of this. How can the church teach a nuanced view of evil in today's world, specifically today's America? I think most conservative churches would be very hard pressed to do this in our political environment, given their role in helping to create it. To turn to a nuanced view of evil, to recognize America's complicity in evil around the globe, would just be eating too much crow for some leaders and would not be tolerated by the more nationalistic Christians among their flock. Which brings up one of the shallow points of this work. I expected Wright to tackle these, and other pressing issues, in the subsequent chapters since he did not raise them here. He has started off on a great foot, but quickly starts to get tripped up as we shall see.


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