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Evil and Political Theology: William Desmond Introduces PT 16.2 (Pt. I)

William Desmond (Institute of Philosophy, KU-Leuven, and Department of Philosophy, Villanova University) introduces the latest issue of Political Theology (guest-edited by Péter Losonczi), which is devoted to the theme, “Evil and Political Theology.” His lengthy introductory essay appears here in two parts, first introducing the theme in general, and tomorrow introducing some of the particular contributions.

William Desmond (Institute of Philosophy, KU-Leuven, and Department of Philosophy, Villanova University) introduces the latest issue of Political Theology (guest-edited by Péter Losonczi), which is devoted to the theme, “Evil and Political Theology.”  His lengthy introductory essay appears here in two parts, first introducing the theme in general, and tomorrow introducing some of the particular contributions.

Professional philosophers tend to think of the problem of evil as a question to be tackled within the philosophy of religion as a distinct domain of reflection, and not primarily in moral or political philosophy. It is not absent from the latter domains, but standardly philosophers in the Western tradition have defined the problem of evil in connection with the belief in God’s absolute goodness and power, and their compatibility with the given fact of evil. Standardly also, a variety of so-called theodicies have tried to articulate and defend that compatibility. The difficulty is raised to a height of importance in the measure that the highest God is said to be absolutely good. Moreover what that God has brought to be, the finite creation, is essentially good, by virtue of its being created by such an absolute origin.

In response to the difficulty a variety of theodicies have been proposed and the following four most notably. First, there is the famous definition of evil as privatio boni. It is a view easy to caricature.  We then think of privation as a powerless possibility merely, and do not see the reversed energy of nihilation involved in privation. Augustine ascribes to evil a deficient cause, but we might see this as a de-effecting cause, a defecting cause – the willed betrayal of the good intends the un-doing of the given good, its de-creation. Important in this view is the asymmetrical priority of the good. In the face of this, the parasitical power of evil, battening on good as its presupposed host, calls for our deep thought. Second, there is what is sometimes called the free-will theodicy. In this case, our power to affirm good or negate it, indeed revolt against given good, is central. The enigma of the mysterious letting of freedom, by the endowing God, is central. Our free allowance to refuse good is not itself refused by the goodness of the endowing God. There are philosophies of history, Hegel’s for instance, that see the true beginning of world-history not in divine allowance, but in human transgression. Third, there is what has been called the virtue theodicy: the world is not just a vale of tears but a “vale of soul-making,” as the poet Keats put it. Evil does not destroy the promise of the good, and the promise is given again, though we must ourselves contribute to the redemption of the promise. If we refuse the given good, we become good in transcending the broken condition of the first good refused. Fourth, there is what has been termed the aesthetic theodicy.  Vision of the whole exceeds us, and the whole, like a work of art, contains the blending of light and dark, in whose complex composition we stand, but we do not now fully see the beauty of the whole, for we lack the “God’s eye” view.  The art of the endowing God raises the question not entirely unlike that posed by Blake’s poem Tyger: “Tiger, tiger burning bright in the forests of the night, what immortal hand or eye dare frame thy fearful symmetry?” The poetics of the created world communicates of the daring of the divine art. All these four “theodicies” can be presented in caricatured form, but they each are pictures that carry promises not entirely beyond redemption. That is a story for another occasion.

Perplexity about evil predates modernity, and indeed earlier periods, and the archaic torment of Job comes over us from of old. And yet it comes on all of us, in all times, as much now as then. The matter notably perplexed, perhaps tortured, Augustine, but in modern times the affirmation of theodicy in Leibniz and the criticism of all possible theodicies by Kant are notable. Kant in particular marks a trend in calling into question the project of theodicy, a calling into question generally in tune with a skepticism about any philosophical claims about God. Such an anti-Leibnizian trend, as one might call it, has only been pushed further since Kant. Hegel is the challenging exception, of course, since he explicitly presents his speculative philosophy of history as a theodicy. The fortunes of theodicy, of metaphysics, of speculative philosophy of history, all seemed to have waned together.  With this waning has also been weakened the explicit recognition that ethical and political matters are secretly tied to hidden metaphysical and indeed theological presuppositions. An autonomous moral philosophy or political science will be tempted to claim exemption from such concerns.

This exemption is not possible when we come to political theology, as is well witnessed in the different contributions that we find here in the current volume. Political theology means different things to different thinkers, but if we take seriously the inclusion of theology in the enterprise of political theology, then we inevitably face the problem of evil. We face it diversely also, depending on what God, secret or proclaimed, finds itself devotees in the particular political theology that is espoused. One does sometimes get the impression that discussions of political theology are much less interested in the finesses of theology than in the real politics of worldly powers. And yet even when one’s God is the “mortal god,” the perplexity about evil is never far away, never can be kept at a far distance. It insinuates itself in serpentine ways in all endeavors. This is evidently the case with the mortal god of Hobbes and with the distinction of friend and foe on which turns much of Carl Schmitt’s famous, or infamous, excursions into political theology. The political vision that tends to result is too often a kind of theodicy of the mortal god. Or perhaps a kakodicy of the mortal god, given that it is often the hard ways of a violent “justice” that is exonerated, sometimes regretfully, sometimes with relish.

It is true that not a few have turned away from traditional theodicy, giving one the impression that theodicy is a kind of ideological construct offering God a dubious alibi. In addition, it seems to be suggested that human beings interested in theodicy are also interested in securing an alibi for themselves, by exculpating God. “God’s in his heaven, all’s well with the world” (Browning). We can euphemize the mess the world is, the mess to which we ourselves have contributed, and meanwhile we can continue with our own bad, smug ways. But surely this picture is a flattening of what was at issue in the tradition theodicies. Our thought of God heightens rather than deflates our perplexity about evil, to the point of agony. Without the secret thought of God, there is no “problem” of evil, in this hyperbolic sense. If then there are problems of evil(s), problems are determinate difficulties that look to their appropriate determinate solutions. The hyperbolic perplexity about evil is more in the nature of mystery than problem, to use Gabriel Marcel’s distinction.

We are dealing with what of old was more rightly called: mysterium iniquitatisUnde malum? Boethius asked. Si malum est, Deus est, Aquinas rejoined. In the end there is no mystery of evil if there is not also the mystery of God, and as traditionally has been held, the mystery of given freedom, that is, endowed freedom. Endowed freedom is free to deny its being endowed, and nihilate thus the endowment of its being gifted at all. The original and ultimate Endower is denied. And yet still evil is evil because it is not good;  and even if perhaps the evil would nihilate the good, it still secretly pays its complement to the priority of the good that it would consign to secondary determination. “Evil be thou my good,” Milton’s Satan proclaims. The secret complement consists also in that evil would that it itself were the good. The evil is ineluctably willed as good by the evil-doer.  We fear death because we love life. We hate evil because we are the love of the good. The love of life and the love of the good are mysteries hyperbolic to all determination merely as problems, whether soluble problems or insoluble.

Nevertheless, one does hear outrage at the effort to even raise the suggestion of a divine justice, still mysteriously at work, after Auschwitz, at work in the darkest intimacies of infernal deeds and events, at work redemptively even in hell.  We are quick to give expression to our fascination with evil, while the good comes across as bland. The banality of good makes many yawn. Our taste for radical good has been dulled. The thought of radical evil makes us sit up, as if here at last there will be some thrilling adventure in transgressive transcendence. The astonishing idea of radical good finds itself homeless. Radical: an original good at the roots of things – but can we be honest about radical evil without honestly addressing this promise of original good?

It is true that our being is stunned when confronted with evil and we cannot quite take it in mindfully. If God seems to be elusive, traditional theodicies seems to function as ways to take out the sting out of evil, to make it rationally and religiously comfortable for us, even to explain it away entirely. Theodicy thus seen comes across as the rationalization of evil in a bad sense. It seems to give an answer, but in so doing it covers up the agony of the perplexity that is in question. But can we honestly address the issue in Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment terms, given the poverty of religious resources to raise the question in the terms required. A secularized rationality will not do; a moralization of human existence will not do; approaches informed by scientistic reductionism least of all will do. And when it comes to politics, there might be managements of evil or its effects, but there is no saving, there will never be any saving, from evil, for the political means of management themselves will also carry the seed of the problem they claim to have overcome. There is something here that we cannot determine through ourselves alone, cannot make subject to our self-determination, understood either ethically or politically.

There is no answer, we seek an answer, and we are not the answer. If there is nothing more, if there is no genuine opening to the sacred, no porosity to a transcendence that exceeds us, a transcendence that answers to the seeking for radical good, it is understandable why the sense of transcendence of human beings should shift from the good to the dark side. Evil touches on something recalcitrant, a negative otherness, so to say, a negating otherness, exceeding determination and self-determination. With this shift there will be the temptation also to offer a counterfeit double of the good, and politically it will make sense to proclaim the priority of the fear of death, and to define the love of life in terms of the priority of this fear. The mortal god is made the counterfeit double of the God of radical good. We are always making mortal gods, but with the occlusion of the God of radical good in modernity, our epoch is more consummately a time of the secretion of counterfeit doubles. “Political theology” is sometimes in the business also of manufacturing such counterfeit doubles, sometimes in the business of endorsing and rhetorically propagating them. Sometimes in a kind of metanoia that entails a dying to its old self, a “political theology” can enter purgatory and begin to discern the difference of the counterfeit and the good original. I take Augustine’s City of God as political purgatory in that sense. The mortal gods of empire are counterfeit doubles, some better than others, of the God of true good, though often we find it hard to tell the difference. In the field of history the wheat and the darnel grow together, and must be let grow, lest in desiring to cut the evil, we destroy the promise of the harvest.

One thought on “Evil and Political Theology: William Desmond Introduces PT 16.2 (Pt. I)

  1. Where would you put Josaih Royces’ solution to the problem of evil in his theory of the “Beloved Community?” I am not quite sure he fits in the fourfold typology.

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