One of the things I have learned so much about in the last few years, and have been presented with its depth as of late, and yet I am still lacking in good comprehension of such a difficult subject, is the nature of evil and man’s role in it. So, with a recent event that took place shortly after my return from my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela via the Way of St. James, I have decided to take this subject matter on and leave it to God as to what I contemplate and write down here.
As it has turned out, this essay is becoming exceedingly long, as evil is not a simple matter of right and wrong, but rather a matter of intent, and intent can be a mystery to even the most learned of us. As such, I am posting this essay in segments with the hope that before my posts catch up with where I am in completing this essay, I will have come to some fair balance of understanding of evil. Should I not, well, who does understand evil in all of its complexities and forms? At the least I shall have carried my mind to the root of evil, and even the knowledge that the root of evil manifests itself in all of the forms of roots – the tuberous, the aerial, the fine mass of hair-like roots, the propagative, and the stilt-type – I can say I’ve given it all due consideration.
What Is Evil?
I have had few occurrences in my life that have affected me as much as the train derailment, and subsequent deaths of 79 people, in Spain of July 2013. On the initial level it was Spain; a country I had just returned from and sacrificed so much of my very soul within its boundaries along the Camino Frances. I spent so much of myself on The Way, finding myself totally insufficient, that I realized it was God who was carrying me through to my goal of reaching Santiago de Compostela. And on another level, I felt a true kinship to the people of Spain for their generosity, kindness, and forbearance of my awkward presence, insufficiencies, and naivete to the realities and cultural traditions of their country. I was simply a pilgrim, like so many from around the world, claiming the land that my feet walked upon; their land, not ours or mine. My mindful and spiritual contemplation of this horrible accident, through the lens of my pilgrimage, confounds me and leads me invariably to one of the questions that man has wrestled with for as long as he has been able to think rationally. “Why?”
On the primary level of human presence into those things of a spiritual nature, I cannot fathom the process of trying to rationalize this train derailment and deaths of so many. Here is a city that is an epicenter of the Christian faith – a city that defines and hosts the truest of Christian devout obedience, sacrifice and suffering through the millions of pilgrims that has walked out their faith – and now, on the eve of the celebration of the Festival of St. James, the city must instead of joy, face grief, misunderstanding, anger, and denial by so many of God’s children, because of what might prove to be the simple weakness and inclination of a train engineer and his lust for the thrill of speed. Actually, it makes no difference what the cause of the accident is, my gasps for any clean air of comprehension as to why God would let such a thing happen leaves me breathless. I cannot make sense of any of this, and so I write to let Him reveal the true nature of His creation.
Thomas Aquinas asserts that evil is the deprivation of the full measure of good within a person. It appears that a person who has experienced what we call an evil is affected by such an event in their lives in a measurable manner; that being a loss of happiness, contentment, joy, peace, comfort, etc. And it can be stated that such damage to the human soul appears to be inescapable on some level or to some degree. In this truth, one could say that it is a deprivation of the potential of a human being in their ability to express good, but not necessarily their intent to express good; intent being that critical factor by which one judges an action as good or evil. I pass on from a university professor what I believe to be an excellent example of such thinking:
A woman is hiking along a mountain ridge and comes across a man who is clinging to the side of a precipice. She has no means to alert others to assist and realizes that he may fall at any time due to his circumstances. She decides to try to save his life. In setting herself in position in order to reach down to him, she dislodges the rock that the man is clinging to; causing him to fall to his death.
Two views of this incident and her actions can be assumed. One, her actions caused the death of this man, and she should be held responsible. Two, that her actions were based upon her intent to do good, and as such, she cannot be held responsible. While one might think that intent overrides results, there would be great discourse generated on the quality of her decision-making that led her through a series of actions that ultimately led to the man’s death. If it were majorly concluded that her actions were flawed, would that make her responsible to some degree? Can intent override all actions, and what actions may be judged as not sufficient to permit intent its full strength of defining good and evil.
Looking at the same scenario of the man clinging to the precipice of a mountain, we have another woman who is hunting with a bow in the valley below the precipice. She looks up and sees the man, and judges that he will fall soon if she does nothing to assist him. Now the woman is a sociopath, and her mind conjures up the thought that since this man is about to fall, his life is forfeit; so why not just shoot him with an arrow? So she makes the attempt, but her arrow lodges in the face of the rock just above his handhold, permitting the man to grab onto the arrow and secure a footing in order to lift himself out of danger. The man alerts the authorities of what took place, and the sociopathic woman is lauded as a hero, as the man believes her shot was accurate and intended to save his life.
Few would suggest that the woman’s action was anything other than evil, but without the knowledge of intent, society can only be utilitarian about the outcome and define the action as good. As you can see in these two examples, good and evil is more complex than we might believe, and appear to more subjective than objective in nature.
Evil and the Innocent
Death of the innocent is always a struggle to understand. It appears that only time can mitigate that struggle and move such events, and the damage they do to man’s hope for meaning, into the haze of a history where peace is nothing more than voices gone silent through death. An event like this train derailment will take more than a generation of humanity to shelve it into such annals. What is fresh at this moment, in so many minds, are questions of “why” more so than any other interrogative word. And from these “why” questions come the questions of accusation that are heaped at the feet of God.
Mankind is repulsed by tragedies such as this one and he struggles intensely in constituting some greater purpose that tragedies and evil might bring and thus be of some good in nature. Man wishes to not align with such a concept and so man tends to reject the concept that God would permit such a tragedy for that greater plan. It seems to run contrary to man’s sense of compassion and love.
“How could He have let something like this happen?” “Why would God permit this?” “How could a god who professes to be love allow such evil to happen to the innocent?”
Confusion overwhelms any attempt at a rational answer, and thus one’s mind tends to adjudicate and execute the nearest suspect; blinded by the senseless nature of tragedy. In this case, it’s the engineer. It is done. These people are dead. Time will not reverse itself for man, and God will not do it for us. We simply go on, but in what form? Are we to know that hope and faith are those confident and eternal expectations of God’s presence, love, and protection in our lives? Or will the impact of such events break our porcelain souls in a manner that no rational glue could ever mend?
On my part, I am most affected by the story of the American woman, wife and mother, who died in this accident. Every life is equal in value and so I apologize for my focus on one. I cannot bear to read about too many lost lives as it only solidifies my disheartenment, and so I focus to preserve my sanity. I am American, she is American.
Ana-Maria Cordoba was traveling with her husband and daughter to Santiago de Compostela. The purpose was to greet their son and brother who had recently completed the pilgrimage of The Way of St. James. As my post is centered so much these days upon this pilgrimage, and the fact that I had just completed this walk, my readers understand my connection to this tragic story. In all likelihood, this young man was on the Camino when I was; perhaps two weeks back, and facing the same struggles and obstacles that I had faced. Since the news reports state that the Cordoba family is Catholic, I can well imagine why this young man was on the Camino, and I can understand the thoughts that may reside in this young man’s mind and that of the family’s mind; those thoughts that focus so squarely upon faith and God’s purpose for our lives. Those questions of “If I had just not walked the Camino, my mother would be alive.” or “If we had just not decided to meet our son in Santiago de Compostela, my wife would be alive.” are swords that separate flesh and leave scars that disfigures families forever; potentially.
For those like me who deeply wonder the meaning of such events, we innately demand the judicial trial of what we call “Faith in God”. I posed those questions earlier because, as a Christian, I believe that God crosses the path of all people for all things at all times. His hand is within us, and never separate from us; ever. But one who is agnostic, atheist or simply a secular person unencumbered with the need for spiritual reasoning, views such a tragedy in a different manner. They want empirical answers and judicial actions. And so evil becomes even more complex as we have competing beliefs on the nature of evil and how to deal with it.
While we all seek to learn truths that may enlarge mankind’s understanding of humanity, and we all work to implement our beliefs of those truths into the dough of human knowledge so that mankind may rise to a better disposition of one another, Christians differ from secular humanity in the foundational aspect of that search and implementation; their foundation being an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good God who calls us, through His grace, to love; that state of perfect form without limiting structure. For the secular man, that foundation is himself and his law, and it is here that I realize that my discourse is assuming a direction I had not anticipated; from the hope for a means to find good in what we call evil, and thus restrain the psychological and moral damage caused to those close to a tragic event, to a discussion on societal thinking that leads a society to or away from such damage to the human soul. Hopefully, I will find the former through the discourse of the latter in this series of posts.
PART 2 – To come.
God Bless and Buen Camino – Reese