Harry Potter, St. Augustine and the Confrontation with Evil

I was intrigued when I came across this talk by Jean Bethke Elshtain. Right at the beginning of the talk she argues that the language of evil, sin, horror and the like have been banished from the vocabulary of many elites in the west and particularly amongst the clergy. She goes on to suggest that its easier to talk about syndromes than about sin, or easier to talk about maladjustments than about evil, because evil seems archaic and elemental and too judgemental. Whilst some might find these assertions provocative they certainly piqued my interest.

During her talk Jean refers often to the works of Andrew Delbanco, and in particular to his book “The Death of Satan:How Americans have lost the sense of evil“. I haven’t read the book yet but from her talk it’s certainly one that I want to read. Jean states that Delbanco makes the assertion that:

Without evil we will abandon any notion of the sacred of that which should not be violated. Without evil it is difficult to articulate what is good … the repertoire of evil has never been richer but never have our responses been so weak. We have no language for connecting our inner lives with the horrors that pass before our eyes in the outer world.

We have no language for connecting our inner lives with the horrors that pass before our eyes … that’s quite profound and it’s a statement I’ve been pondering since first listening to this talk. Jean’s premise, if I’m interpreting it correctly, is that as a society or even culturally we are no longer able to talk about evil. It’s something that she maintains even children’s literature has shied away from, that it is perhaps too frightening for the young, or too judgemental. Evil, though, plays a central role in the Harry Potter books; it’s given a name, personified and confronted – I wonder if she considers this to be a more traditional view? She certainly uses the Harry Potter books as a vehicle to illustrate her points, and she does it very well. Now, whilst I have read the books and seen the movies, that isn’t the reason I found this talk so captivating. I found it interesting because of the theological questions and cultural issues she touches on. Of them all this is the most interesting …

If a good God created the earth, then how did evil enter into it.

It’s a question that theologians and philosophers have been fretting over since the likes of Irenaeus and St Augustine presented their theodicies on the subject. Theodicy is a specific branch of theology and philosophy that attempts to reconcile the existence of evil or suffering in the world with the assumption of a benevolent God. To try and understand the nature of the problem Augustine in his Confessions expressed the dilemma as such:

Either God cannot abolish evil, or he will not. If he cannot then he is not all-powerful. If he will not then he is not all-good

One way to view this is that a good God would eliminate evil as far as it is possible. If he is omnipotent then all evil should be eliminated. However, evil exists. So, why does God allow evil to continue?

I debated the issue with Amanda I think they’re was a difference of opinion I wont put words in her mouth but I struggled with the notion of Original Sin and I’m going to leave it to her to offer her views on this topic. From my point of view if Evil entered this world it’s because of our free will. I think that for man to respond freely to God, he must be able to make his own decisions. This means that ultimately, a man may choose to do good or commit moral evil. The reality is that no one is entirely good or entirely evil. To take this logically further this means that God cannot intervene to stop suffering because this would jeopardise human freedom and take away the need for responsibility and development.

From my limited reading on Theodicies I get the impression that my standpoint is more in line with Irenaeus view – he argued that Evil was the result of our free will – which I believe is also the Islamic view ( taken from here ):

the angels protested to God against man’s creation, but lost in a competition of knowledge against Adam, who was taught the names of all things. The Qur`an declares man to be the finest of all creatures and he willingly bore the trust which the heavens and the earth refused to bear. All of creation was subjected to man, who by virtue of the rational faculty with which he was endowed, was enjoined to, and entrusted with, the development of civilization. In such endeavor he may be, either righteous or corrupt, a monotheist or an unbeliever. As the Qur`an affirms, there is no compulsion in faith and religion; in other words, faith belongs to the domain of individual freedom and choice. Moreover, life and existence were not created in vain, but were brought into being so that God is obeyed and worshipped. Thus, Islam is profoundly teleological while affirming theodicy in creation.

It must be noted that Islam views human nature as fallible and faltering- that man is oppressive and prone to ignorance- despite his lofty station in the universe. By contrast to angels who are instinctively obedient to God, man is inclined to error. Pride is the cardinal sin of man- a sin which detracts man from submission to a unique God, and which makes him ascribe partners to Him. In Islam, the most heinous of transgressions is shirk or polytheism

As such it is at odds with St Augustine’s view which was that God created the world and at that time it was Good, and that Evil is a “privation of good”, in other words it isn’t an entity in itself – like blindness could be viewed as a privation of sight … that seems to resonate with something Amanda was saying that Evil “was a lack of something”.

Anyway this whole discussion has given me something to think about … and I do enjoy these philosophical debates with Amanda.

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