I wonder if people who hold a position polar opposite of my own on any matter of faith, behavior, or life in general, are as convinced of the righteousness of their position as I can be of my own. In the face of a contrary position, I am compelled to deeply reflect on what I believe and do, and modify it if appropriate. Often, our disagreements with others have to do with our respective cultural heritages, experiences, and other factors too subtle to name. But sometimes there is another factor: evil.
I’ve experienced evil. You most likely have, too. Perhaps like me, you’ve even participated in evil, and then after reflection, immediately or years later, felt shame and embarrassment, realizing that you were, after all, wrong. I can remember too many times when reflection has caused me shame! I can get over it, though. Over time, I can understand myself not from the perspective of then, but of now. Through the grace of God, now is quite different from then, just as will be the case in the future, when now becomes then.
I’ve been thinking like this because of a section in a reading from Genesis a week or so ago. It’s from the story of Noah, God, and the flood: “When the Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how no desire that his heart conceived was ever anything but evil, he regretted that he had made man on the earth…” Thus, the flood: “‘they are evil. Wipe them out.’” After the flood, Genesis shows God reflecting that perhaps sending the flood wasn’t such a good idea after all. God says: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the desires of man’s heart are evil from the start…”
We are evil from the start? Thomas Aquinas, upon whose thinking much of Catholic moral theology is based, disagrees. He contends that ‘evil,’ unlike ‘good,’ does not exist as an objective reality, but only in relationship to good. Evil is the absence of objective good. If our conscious mind has not been severely damaged, we make our choices with a will that is free. We choose for or against what is good but, Thomas would say, we instinctively know what is good and, eventually, we know when we have made wrong choices.
M. Scott Peck defines evil as “the inability to be reflective.” People participating in evil do not reflect on and re-evaluate their positions, and evil works at destroying what is good. Good and evil cannot co-exist. When I have done things that will cause me embarrassment only after reflection, I would not have said that at the time I did them I knew I was choosing to go against some good, but I can later see where that might be true. I come to realize that I was not acting at my full potential.
When I made the choice against the good, I was not at the same point of spiritual growth as I am when I realize I was wrong. “If only I could go back and have a do-over!” That dynamic is: wrong choice, followed by reflection, leading to shame and embarrassment and followed by repentance. I am pretty sure this dynamic will be active in me for the rest of my time on earth. Rather than depressing me, though, that thought gives me hope. It tells me that I can always choose what is good and continue to grow along spiritual lines. I do not have to live a non-reflective, self-righteous, stagnate and dead life. Through reflection, I can live forever!