But there’s more to our unease with evil than believing that we all have a divine spark. I think we associate evil with theism and with the traditional Christian understanding of divine judgment and the war between good and evil that’s implicit in that worldview. And this links in with our cultural distaste for conflict in general.
Because “evil” calls for a much more radical response than mere human brokenness and mental disease, which are our usual alternatives. One feels called to a kind of spiritual warfare if you face a kind of spiritual darkness—a la the Lamb’s War. I suspect that modern liberal Quaker sensibilities and sensitivities are loathe to wade past the shallows of moderation into the deep waters of spiritual warfare. I myself can’t help but be repelled by the image of Bible-thumping evangelicals quoting Ephesians on the whole armor of God—while I am also weirdly attracted to it.
So taking evil seriously does cause problems. But so does denying its existence.
The following is based on vocal ministry that I gave at Frederick Friends Meeting on 4/8/2018.
The apostle Thomas hears a report that Jesus, who was killed, has somehow returned. Refusing to believe this, he says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” A week passes. Thomas and the other disciples are gathered, and Jesus appears among them; and he invites Thomas to touch the wounds on his hands and the wound on his side. But he doesn’t have to: what he sees is enough for him to say, “My Lord and my God!”
We each have ideas about what the search for truth, for meaning, will be like — we know, even if tacitly, what to expect. Maybe we’ll be better versions of ourselves. Maybe we’ll be free of all the things that weigh us down. However we think of it, it’s common to fall into the assumption that this search is all one-way: it is we who will be seeking, we who will be finding. But the reality is that our intentions do not count for nearly as much as we might like to imagine. We know this to be true in other parts of our lives. Our upbringing, our socioeconomic status, the moment in history we occupy — all these things do more to determine our circumstances than anything we do by our own will. Even within our bodies, conscious, intentional thought counts for very little; most of the time, we act on instinct and unconscious patterns we are scarcely aware of, if at all.
It is all the more so with God. “You did not choose me but I chose you,” says Jesus elsewhere. So it was for Abraham and Sarah, and later for the people of Israel: their choices were more about responding to God’s call or God’s action in the world, rather than them deciding what they wanted and going out to get it. Framed this way, a little humility is in order: for all our talents, truth and meaning will not be present to us unless we are called to see it. Even if we know what we’re looking for — the marks of the nails in his hands, and the wound in his side — we are likely to be unprepared when we actually find it. This is one reason why we should cherish the Quaker practice of expectant waiting, for it recognizes that we must stand aside from our usual habits and listen to the One who invites us to new life.