The tower rose from the fertile plains of Shinar to stand above mankind and draw their eyes upward, forever upward, toward heaven.
In the early morning hours, before the sun was strong enough to consume the mists that rose from the earth, the old man made his way down the mountainside, his donkey, laden with goods, following close behind.
His two companions walked behind the donkey, staffs in hand, robes billowing in the hot breeze that came up from the valley floor, but he led the way. It would only be a few hours more and they would arrive at the center of the earth.
This great endeavor was the thinking of Nimrod, who was a mighty warrior and a builder of cities. Now he was gone and Sargon, his firstborn, was in charge. He was a man who got things done. It seemed that everyone was working and toiling on the tower and the city surrounding it. According to legend, this was the site of the original holy place in the heart of Mesopotamia. It was the perfect place to create a gateway to heaven.
1. The Secular Problem of Evil
The problem of evil hardly needs to be described since we all live within its influence and are touched by it to some extent every day of our lives. But since we aren’t quite ready to talk to God yet, let’s try to define not just the experience of evil but why it bothers us so much and even why we blame God for it.
There is a distinction between the secular problem of evil and the religious problem of evil. The first has to do with the existence of evil in and of itself (as we experience it) and the second with how religion, specifically Christianity, deals with it through belief in a personal God.
There are many steps along the way and decisions have to be made at key points in our journey. Let us begin.
Imagine for a moment that you are in a huge hall with a very large oval table in the center of it with plush chairs all around. You might think that this is a meeting of the G7 or a symposium on some weighty matter facing mankind. You would not be far wrong.
Various well-known celebrities begin to enter the room and take their places at the table. Representatives from all the major religions are there – Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Shintoism, Confucianism, from the East and Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, from the West (although nowadays pluralism has made such east-west distinctions obsolete to a degree). Each one of them has an important place at the table with their attendants and advisers in close proximity.
Finally, a wave of security breaks through the main doors and a phalanx of advisors, philosophers and scientists come in followed by the representative of Secular Humanism. He has been given the dubious honor of being the moderator of the assembly.
Outside are protestors with their placards promoting their particular take on the proceedings. “Down with religion.” “Religion is Evil. God is Good.” “All you need is Love” and, of course, “Tolerance is the Highest Religion.” In the background, as you look out the window, you can see various groups under the trees standing in circles, holding hands. Some of them are singing and some appear to be praying.
What is all this?
This is a special emergency meeting called by the United Nations to resolve the world’s religious differences and put an end to war and terrorism and intolerance. Imagine that the world has deteriorated into endless bickering and there is a serious clash of orthodoxies with each side becoming more entrenched in their view of the world. The differences are striking and conflictive. Religious differences can no longer be contained, they are overflowing into politics and racial discrimination, and the world is no longer (or never was) safe or at peace.
Well, maybe you don’t have to “imagine” it. It has the ring of reality to it as it stands.
In any event, this is a discussion that has taken place in various forms throughout the history of man. The clash of orthodoxies is a constant reality and a very real threat. Terrorism fuels religious and racial discrimination and immigration reform and the modern development of a pluralistic society are on the table for serious discussion.
Suffice it to say that a person’s view of the world, their interpretation of good and evil, their values, beliefs and needs will affect how the discussion will go. It is to these questions that this group of people must now turn.
Everyone on the side of truth listens to me,” Jesus said.
“What is truth?” Pilate asked.
John 18:37b, 38a (NIV)
The Reality Gap
This is the essential question. What is truth? What is real? The most basic human experience we have is that we live in the context of nature (or the physical world around us) and we encounter other people there just like us. We are born, we live and we die in the context of this world. We discover ourselves, our needs and our wants, and we also discover that the world and the people in it do not always give us what we want. Sometimes we can take it for ourselves. Sometimes not.
There is a “gap” between what we need or want and the reality of how we experience the world (and the people) around us. A gap between desire (or value) and reality (or fact) – “the reality gap.” To call it a “gap” is nothing more than being polite. Most would call it “suffering” or “depravation” or even “evil” (depending on the severity of the gap in question).
This is the secular problem of evil.
But that already puts us into the issue of interpretation. One thing is to observe that there is a “gap” and another is to make a value judgment as to whether it is good or bad. We call it the secular problem of “evil.” Perhaps that is because some aspects of that “gap” between what we desire, need or want, and a world which refuses to (or cannot) give it to us, may be a question of survival. What supports survival must be good and what does not support survival must be bad or “evil” (at least for me).
But even then, there is room for interpretation. What level of survival? Who is to determine what is necessary for survival and what is not and should my survival be more important than yours? Who decides the question of interpretation? Who decides what is good or bad for me? My parents? Society? God? Myself?
Furthermore, I want to do more than just survive. I want to thrive and grow and develop and become all that I can be. What if that means that the resources that I use so that I can “flourish” are needed by others just to “survive”? Do I have an obligation to them? Enter morality. Here now is born the question of “ought” and the law (both moral and common law) as a limit to what I desire, want or need.
When my “will” to act and acquire resources for my own good is in conflict with your “will” to act, who will decide between us? Enter justice.
And if you and I (and others) agree to act in certain ways and under certain conditions so as not to harm the other? Enter the Social Contract.
If you and I (and potentially many others) discover that in unity there is strength and that through common purpose and joint effort more can be done than any one individual can accomplish? Enter Government (or, at least, different forms of joint social effort).
Finally, if I discover that I can impose my will on you (and potentially many others) and through fear or force require you to bend your will to mine with fine sounding words or with weapons and threats? Enter dictatorship and war and deception and a whole spectrum of creative tyranny and manipulation and general wickedness (a value statement shared at least by those dominated against their will).
The Physical-Psychic Gap
It doesn’t take much to see that experiencing reality (a physical function) and interpreting it (a cognitive function) are intrinsically bound up together.
Furthermore, our interpretation of reality will automatically generate a psychological-emotional response which may bring (limited) peace and rest or psychic suffering and pain (worry, doubt, discouragement, despair and various forms of trauma and anxiety).
Therefore we can say that there is a gap between “physical” suffering and pain and the “psychic” suffering and pain it may produce since psychic suffering is filtered through our interpretation of reality as it affects us. This is an example of the “physical-psychic” gap or the power (and danger) of interpretation and perspective.
It is also true that there is more than one interpretation, or system of interpretations, available to the inquiring mind. One thing is for certain, animals do not bother themselves with the interpretation (or the knowledge) of good and evil. They may experience it and complain about it, just as we do, but lacking self-awareness, they are unconcerned with the question of “Why should my existence be this way?”
But even so, not everyone has an inquiring mind, and many are too busy “surviving” to be bothered with the larger questions of morality and metaphysics, social contracts and law and justice. That can be left to the academics, the politicians, the religious leaders.
The fundamental issue for most people is survival and, in the marketplace of daily living, a rough sort of common law based on the basic tenets of a social contract expounded on utilitarian grounds, has emerged in many societies. It allows them to work together and get on with the daily business of life.
This view of the world is practical and immediate though it usually exists within a religious worldview and some sort of social or political authority structure. In this way, a rough sort of “homeostasis” is created, a balance that keeps things moving forward (or not, as the case may be).
For some that is enough. Survival is their only consideration. For many others, it is not. For two reasons. First, they recognize the power of unity (and the destructive force of disunity) in the affairs of men, either for good or for evil. Enter Government or Society.
There are often many barriers to survival that come because of the oppression of evil men and systems of government. But there is also an awareness that together more can be done than any individual can accomplish on their own. Creating an ethical society that works for a common purpose and for the good of everyone is exceedingly difficult but, at least in limited ways in smaller venues, we have had enough experience of the power of unity and synergy to know that it holds promise. So, how we govern ourselves as a group is important to our individual survival.
But even if survival is accomplished to a degree (though there will always be suffering, pain and death), for many people it is still not enough.
This is the second reason. People need to make sense of this strange existence. They need answers beyond suffering, pain and death. They want to do more than survive (though death makes even that only a temporary accomplishment). They want to flourish and develop and accomplish great things. Enter religion (and philosophy).
A religious (or philosophical) interpretation of the world (or worldview) will attempt to provide a system of beliefs and values that will make sense out of a world which appears at first glance to make no sense. Morality may be necessary and may even be (to a limited extent) in our own best interest (although morality by definition goes beyond our best interest). But good is not always rewarded and evil is not always punished in this world. Often it is the reverse. What goes on here?
The Secular Worldview
Today, the Secular Humanists (backed by their scientific metaphysics) would claim that “science fully reflects what is real”. The world can be understood in naturalistic terms and the supernatural is not necessary. They would claim that “traditional religion” is no longer essential to the modern world.
Perhaps. Perhaps not.
What is clear is that they also provide an interpretation of reality and, in that sense, their naturalistic explanations can, at the very least, be called a “worldview” if not a “religion.” Fine. What matters is truth, not religion (or even worldviews).
Truth is simply the way things are – the structures and content of reality. An accurate understanding (or interpretation) of that reality will provide meaning, purpose and significance as well as the proper orientation and foundation for morality. That is the end goal of the entire discussion. Jesus might have been the one to say that the truth will set you free, but most people, in any religion or culture, would agree – at least in theory.
The Absurdity of an Abnormal Existence
The secular problem of evil, then, is simply the reality gap – the gap between what I desire (or value) and reality (or fact). In other words, the world as I experience it is not to my liking. And that is not merely capricious on my part. It affects my survival (as well as my ability to flourish). Why the world should be so is the fundamental question of life and my interpretation of that reality will affect two things:
- how (in terms of morality) I go about the business of survival (and flourishing) as well as
- the quality of my life (in terms of meaning, purpose and significance) in the meantime.
Both are important to me.
The secular problem of evil, then, forces me to come to terms with the absurdity of life (in terms of the lack of meaning) and the abnormal nature of existence (in terms of the difficulty of morality). But that, too, is already interpretation.
Let´s back up and take it one step at a time.
The old man and his two companions walked through the throngs of people in the city as they busied themselves with their comings and goings. The marketplace seemed to be thriving, hawkers selling their wares, little children darting through the crowds, color and excitement in the air.
The city seemed to be celebrating something. The tower was almost finished. Soon the ceremony to open the gateway to heaven would take place and the people were convinced of divine blessing. It was cause to celebrate, to sing and dance and enjoy life.
The tower stood beside a temple. It was a low, squat building, appearing even smaller by the size of the tower next to it. Temple worship was a source of power for these people, a way to manage the mysterious forces of evil and good in a world that was not always friendly.
The old man understood well enough what was going on. He was of the old school, a belief in El Shaddai,the Creator God. He believed that mankind should worship in humility before him as he directs and obey his loving authority. There was little of humility in the tower or the temple, much less the city. This was a monument to the unity of man, the power of mankind to bring people together by force or by greed, to work together to become the masters of their own lives.
It was to be expected. They spoke one common language and they had one common dream – to recreate paradise by their own power on the very spot where paradise once existed, or so legend would have it. They wanted no outside interference. They have discovered the power of unity in a common purpose, whether forced or willingly, and have begun to build an empire.
This desire to re-create paradise was normal, and perhaps even good under the right conditions, but the old man knew that without God it would not be paradise but rather hell on earth.
History had proved it often enough.
Tears of the Desert Warrior by Bert A. Amsing
Copyright © 2012 by vanKregten Publishers. All rights reserved.
Footnotes and references included in original manuscript.