May Nothing Evil Cross This Door: Part 1
Sometime in high school, I decided to take a philosophy class. It had random little dips into various philosophies, and then a turn toward religion. It was a great space to ask big questions during a time in life when often bigger questions are answered by who your friends are, what clothes you wear, or what you’ve decided to rebel against that particular week.
It was my favorite class in high school, and the teacher was wonderful. Upon diving into religion and having a broad sweep of it, we were assigned a project many of you are familiar with – you’ve either done it yourself, known people that have, or witnessed it being done here when random groups visit us on Sunday morning.
We were tasked with exploring a religious tradition in depth and sharing it with the class. The teacher gave us a week to select one and to let him know – we just couldn’t choose our own. The next week we gave him our selections and proceeded with the class. I think I chose the Hutterites. Let’s ignore the fact that there were no Hutterite communities in Illinois.
After class, the teacher pulled me aside and said, “Brian, no one chose Unitarian Universalism. I know you are one, and I know you aren’t supposed to do your own, but your religion is so weird I wonder if you would do a presentation for our class on it.” I can’t imagine a teacher getting away with saying that today.
Outside of being put off that he called my religion weird, I accepted. The day of the presentation came, I presented, sat in the hot seat afterwards and answered any questions that the other students might have since this was a different sort of presentation – I was actually a Unitarian! In the flesh! Ask away.
We all knew by now that the teacher was a bible church Christian, but he was rather open and honest – he didn’t let it get in the way of teaching. After everything was said and done, the teacher decided to add his two cents. He said, “I think it’s interesting that I didn’t hear once anything about evil and how Unitarians handle it. It also seems to me that Unitarians are constantly looking for loopholes in the universe so that everything appears good and everyone will be all right.”
I didn’t have a clue what to say to that, and I was surprised the teacher even said it. I shrugged it off, the teacher and I maintained a good relationship, and his peculiar commentary on Unitarian Universalism didn’t extend much beyond those two instances. Fast forward to college.
I had a rather crusty traditionalist theology professor teaching a class on the Problem of Evil. I forget exactly what the question was, but I replied, and he asked, “What denomination are you?” He assumed I was Christian. “Unitarian Universalist.” I responded. “Ohhhh,” he said, “You guys pretend evil doesn’t exist while the world is burning all around you.” He left it at that and moved on.
He’s spend the rest of the semester making little comments here and there about Unitarians and their inability to acknowledge evil. Fast forward to today. How many of you have had similar experiences as a Unitarian Universalist? Have you found yourself in a debate about religion? Politics? Was an evangelist cornering you on your doorstep or on a city street? Was it a dear friend asking? Or perhaps you wondered it as you drove to church for yourself?
“What is evil to a Unitarian Universalist?” The question takes many shapes. Sometimes it’s a passing thought the moment the word leaves your lips. More often these days, it’s the heartbreak or the bewilderment at how numb you’ve become while witnessing pure evil happening in our world. But truly, what is evil to a Unitarian Universalist?
My high school philosophy teacher didn’t know, my curmudgeonly professor didn’t, and I could name several other people – many of whom are Unitarian Universalists – that do not know. And yet, it is a question many of us are asking. This past August, I held our second annual Question Box Sunday – a Sunday I’ve come to enjoy thoroughly.
For those of you unfamiliar with this tradition a good number of UU churches participate in, the minister asks members to write down a question, any question at all about the church, the minister, Unitarian Universalism, philosophy, or any question a minister could or should be expected to have an opinion about – the questions are then collected, and at random, the minister draws one question at a time and answers it.
This serves as the sermon for the day with, sometimes, the promise to answer the questions at a later date. This year, the question that many of you asked in some way dealt with this very thing. How do we confront/define/wrestle/reconcile/defeat evil in the world?
Upon receiving so many questions asking this, I had to wonder, what on earth was happening in the world that would cause a religious tradition comprised of mostly progressive, often ex-hippie, sometimes new-hippie, and all at least a little crunchy – what would cause such a group to worry about evil in the world?
I wonder if it the rise in mass shootings across our nation – lives being snuffed out by reckless violence with nothing being done about it. I wonder if it is the sabers of war being rattled again and again or the countless civilian and military lives lost in other countries.
I wonder if it is the plundering of natural resources in the name of profit while California burns, Miami sinks, and several species edge closer to extinction. I wonder if it’s the sudden rise, across the world, of a brand of populism that diminishes human dignity – I need not supply you with examples, for they are plentiful. I wonder.
Evil appears to be the theological soup du jour for Unitarian Universalism in this moment. We are asking these questions, we are struggling with them, our Association is working on many of them – mostly tackling institutional evils like racism, and still, we are left wondering what exactly is evil? You are not alone in asking this question.
I ask it often. I struggle with it often. I think I have an answer and then it escapes me because it isn’t a simple matter of either/or. Are earthquakes evil? Is a bee stinging you evil? Is a psychopath, whose mental state can be nothing other than what they are, evil? Lawmakers? Addiction? Consumerism? Institutional racism? Violence? The list goes on.
Some of them may appear easy to us to answer, others, not, and others still rest comfortably in that grey area. Even if we separate out the natural world – because a bee is born to sting to defend itself and the earth will quake no matter what we prefer, it’s called plate tectonics – even by doing this, we are left with the immensity and complexity of moral actions we deem evil.
It begs the question, how would you define evil for a Unitarian Universalist? In our faith tradition we struggle with this question quite a bit. There is no in-your-face definition made available to us. Not once in our seven principles or six sources is evil mentioned. Not once. No mention that it actually exists. No assurance that we can overcome it. Nothing.
And yet turn to the Hebrew Bible and Psalm 23, we hear, “I will fear no evil.” The Bhagavad Gita teaches us to “resist no evil with evil.” The four noble truths do not mention evil, but they at least make it clear that suffering is a part of life. Christians and Muslims see evil as the temptations of the devil. Name a religion and there is, within its core texts or traditions, an explanation for why evil, suffering, or simply bad things happen. But not with Unitarian Universalists. Hence the struggle.
As Unitarian Universalists we do not emphasize the supernatural, though we will never forbid our members from doing so in their personal lives, so long as it is fruitful and life-giving. I hope that distinction is evident. But in not emphasizing these aspects of religion, as a gathered body, the devil, God or gods, demons, even past lives, dharmic understandings, or cosmic scales hanging in the balance do not factor in to a definition of evil for us to hold. Our approach is ethical. Rooted in the here and now.
I happen to like the approach my colleague, the Rev. Victoria Safford, took when she was asked to define evil. She writes:
Sometimes I use a very subjective, almost subconscious barometer when reading the news of the day and deciding whether some action bears the weight of the word evil. It’s not the magnitude of an event, nor the cold-heartedness of those involved, nor even the historical impact.
It’s the degree of heartbreak that I feel: beyond sorrow or horror, a sense that something has been blasted apart, a shattering of hope, the collapse of what I thought or wished were true about the world and human nature. There are some truths, some news, that break the heart—not permanently, but utterly, for a while, as the realization forms perhaps for the thousandth time: this, too, is part of our humanity.
Evil is the capacity, within us and among us, to break sacred bonds with our own souls, with one another, and with the holy. Further, it is the willingness to excuse or justify this damage, to deny it, or to call it virtue. The soil in which it flourishes is a rich compost of ignorance, arrogance, fear, and delusion—mostly self-delusion—all mingled with the sparkling dust of our original, human being.
By her own admission it becomes clear that evil is subjective. Perhaps the Buddhists are correct, the world as it is – is. There is neither good nor evil, just sensations that we label as such. But before I turn in my Puritan robes for the orange robes of a Buddhist monk, I think it is worth embracing that subjectivity. It will lead to disagreements about what is or is not evil with those that disagree with us, but we at least have a place to start.
While I wish our seven principles confronted evil directly, it is safe to say that what we deem as evil is the antithesis of these principles. A world without dignity, peace, justice, respect, the freedom to search for truth and meaning, democratic principles, encouragement, and compassion – a world without those could be deemed evil to a Unitarian Universalist.
And I think it is completely important to emphasize the words of Rev. Safford here when she reminds us that we all have the capacity to “break sacred bonds, within us and among us.” One might imagine, where is the Universalism in this? We all break bonds with ourselves and others. Sometimes violently, tragically, horrifically, and sometimes in a more benign manner. Where is the forgiveness?
I believe Rev. Safford clarifies this for us. She shows us the way to what distinguishes an action from bad or tragic to evil: “Further, it is the willingness to excuse or justify this damage, to deny it, or to call it virtue.” To justify. To deny. To call it virtue. Justify. Deny. Call it virtue. Is this sounding familiar?
Are there things popping into your mind now from recent memory, perhaps this very weekend, actions that you witnessed, heard about, perhaps even committed – that broke the bonds of humanity within, among, and beyond – and were they justified? Were they denied? Were they called virtue?
This ethical religious approach to evil is indeed subjective. But we cannot be lured into the trap of being paralyzed from making decisions in the hopes of some objective purpose raining down upon us. It is a mark of great privilege to do so. Instead, I would argue that we’ve made the choice.
We have selected the ethics by which we want to live and aspire to. We print them in our hymnals and on our order of service. We carry them on little wallet cards, put them on posters, and teach them in religious exploration. And it is by those ethics – those seven principles – that we both know what evil is to Unitarian Universalists and the means by which we will counter it. We counter it by living, as best as possible, those lofty statements we aspire to.
The follow-up, of course, is to ask how we will stay resilient, how we will endure, how we will pass on some shred of indwelling hope to those who come after our time? Those questions are for another time, another moment when we are together – very soon. But I will add briefly on this Sunday before solstice that the tools for that inspiration are available to us all. The light always returns. For these heavier questions, the ways in which the world weights down upon us, we take a deep breath. May it be so. Blessed Be. Amen.