I am an armchair (well, couch) Theologian. I write from a personal understanding that has not been sufficiently moulded to suit the needs of a pastoral position, much less that of a teacher. I am on a personal quest for truth and meaning, and I honestly feel like I am only just reaching the point in that quest where I can truly subject it to the tests of academic rigor without allowing that environment to nudge me from my personal trail (as there is, I assure you, no visible path here). While it must be said that no one person speaks, theologically, for the Unitarian Universalist Association, I write as a layman with one college class in ethics, several in psychology and one in biology (though the science has been checked by a real biologist).
Last week, I addressed one of the crucial questions of any religious movement: “what is your core belief?” Today, after an emotionally taxing weekend, I will try to address another; one that is, possibly, more important to the adoption of a faith system. Today I want to write about the things that happen which humanity must see as tragic; must label as bad, or even evil. Today, I want to talk a little about disease, death, loss, and cruelty.
Unitarian Universalists do not have a unified view on this, and so much of my exposition will be entirely personal. However, UUs tend to favor scientific explanations where such are adequate, and science actually does answer several of these questions as well as do most religions, in my opinion. My goal today is to try to offer hope that we can combat these forces, though we cannot expect to ever conquer them.
I will began with disease, because it is the simplest to explain. Physical illness is most often caused by microbes or parasites. The idea that this is an evil is simply a dysfunction of human thinking: the assumption that humanity is better, greater, or more important than other life. We are not, and these kinds of disease are simply proof that even the simplest organisms have their place in creation and some power over their environment. They adapt to use their surroundings and put resources to use in making offspring, just like us. Reproduction, ultimately, is the function of all life. Every creature is essentially a combination of layers their DNA uses to protect itself and enable continued copying. Viruses and bacterium have developed to take advantage of our bodies, and when they put the replications of our DNA at risk, we get sick. No matter how dire the illness or tragic the outcome, there is no evil in it. All disease is a function of life, as DNA tries to replicate. Even cancer is simply damaged DNA trying to reproduce.
Death, though, is much harder to explain. Some creatures reproduce asexually, most (but not all) via cell division, meaning that there is little to no genetic difference between parent and offspring. In bacteria, you can’t actually tell them apart at all. This makes such creatures immortal, from a human perspective. Still, this type of immortality is only that of the DNA, and not of any form of thinking being. It would be like creating a child clone, allowing your genetic information to live on in a creature with completely different experiences and thoughts from yourself. Death as we think of it, seems to be a problem for complex organisms. This is where we must get theoretical, because there is no way to ask our genes, or their author, why we grow old and die. The best scientific explanation, in my opinion, is that it encourages change, innovation, and adaption. New generations will display a wider variety of traits, and if they are prohibited from mating with the elderly, then it is more likely that those new traits will be preserved and, should they prove useful, be encouraged in later generations. In short, we die because your DNA has figured out that you will hold it back, eventually. You age so that your genes can outgrow you.
The hardest question to address is why there is cruelty and man-made evil, perhaps the only real kind of evil we have yet to encounter as a species. The short answer is because we are all trying very hard to adjust to being rather intelligent monkeys, and that’s hard. Our minds are constantly trying to cope with an understanding that we don’t seem to be wired for. Right now, while you are aware of reading this, your brain is filtering out so much extra information, such as all of the text to either side of this post and most of the noises around you. If you were constantly aware of all the noises that come with modern life, you would probably go mad. You brain does take it all in, but it has ways of filtering it so that you stay sane. At least, most of us have those mechanisms. Some people have defective brains. Some brains get injured, either through physical damage or through trying to process things that just don’t compute. Some people are sick because their brains do not work correctly. Few of them are intentionally cruel, as most despots and monsters are people who believe they are doing the world some kind of difficult and distasteful favor. Those that are cruel are recognized as being ill. In short, people do “bad” things because their brains can’t process the big picture that they’ve been exposed to, and their programming has been corrupted. They need help. They need sympathy and treatment. They need to be identified and segregated and helped to deal with their issues. Men are not evil, but they are capable of doing evil things to try and make sense of the world around them or to feel safe in a world that doesn’t make sense.
So, my answer to the question of why bad things hinges on the realization that “bad things” is a matter of perspective. Certainly, we can agree that the healthy perspective is that some things are wrong and only do harm to people and even communities, but they are also symptoms of a problem in our culture, where some people fall ill and are left to cope with it on their own. They come up with irrational solutions to their problem, much as a person with a hangnail might just rip it off and deal with the bleeding, knowing that the bleeding will stop. They seek to hurt themselves, or to spread their pain to others, in order to see other people deal with it and feel less alone. It is easy to see someone in pain lash out and call them a monster. What is hard is to see them for the person they are, and to recognize that they are not so different from you or I. What is often nearly impossible is to embrace them as a person who has made terrible choices, who needs help to recover, and who might still have something positive to offer the world.
Why do bad things happen? Because good and evil are ultimately simplistic, and despite our desire to see ourselves as crucial to some cosmic plan, above the rest of creation and unique in our abilities, we are simply cogs in the machine of creation. The universe is bigger than we can honestly contemplate and more complex than we might ever be capable of understanding. Being given the wrong glimpse of that cosmic whole, or simply being the unlucky winner of some mutation or chemical imbalance can mean that your perspective never alines with that of your fellow humans. Evil, then, is a label and coping mechanism, and we can weed it out only with love and education. All else is beyond us except to learn, to adapt, and move on.