Struggling with the concepts of good and evil, and particularly the so-called ‘problem of evil’, has led some to question the notion of God as the All-fair, the All-true and the All-good. The material thinking part of our nature seems bound by the logic that either God is not absolute, or is in some way the cause of evil in the world. However, the mystical traditions have ever sought a truer and deeper insight into the nature of good and evil than is available to our intellectual reasoning faculty.
Going within, blending with the stillness at the centre of his being, the mystic encounters a sense of oneness, a unity that lies at the back of all outward appearances. In the silence of the peace within he intuitively knows that God cannot be contained by Nature. By uncovering his own spiritual and material constitution, he discovers that in His fullness God is above Nature – yet also, in one form or another, everywhere within it. He knows that God is beyond any and all comprehension by our material reasoning, that this divine oneness is beyond the reach of our little philosophies.
Looked at from this angle it’s absurd to pretend that we can know the purpose of God. It’s just not possible. Neither can we know the ultimate significance of that which we denote by the terms good and evil. However we try, however many ‘learned’ doctors we consult, we invariably, like Omar, exit the same door we went in.
But because we cannot hope to comprehend the divine unity it would be wrong to assume that its differentiated aspects have no importance for us. It doesn’t mean that the myriad of contrasting aspects – the qualities, conditions and affinities in Nature that we can understand – are no longer significant.
Make no mistake, our ability to distinguish between what we perceive as good and evil is fundamental to our success on the path to light. Looked at from one point of view, the choices we make, between good and evil, truth and error, righteousness and sin, are not only important to us upon the path, they are the path.
It’s fashionable in some quarters to mock those who use terms like good and evil, righteousness, sin and so on. Those who do so often consider them to be outmoded remnants of a bygone age of superstition and religious hypocrisy. They’ve thrown them out of their vocabulary as without meaning for the modern world. On the other hand, it has become fashionable in other quarters to use them too much, denouncing all those who don’t share their opinions as wicked sinners whose souls are lost and whose destruction is nigh. While neither of these or similar attitudes will lead us to the light, it would be reckless for anyone who considers himself a seeker of truth and goodness to think that he is in any way above such ideas, or has nothing to learn from them.
Some might argue that it’s not so much the outdated religious concepts of the past, but the current values of selfishness, greed and hatred which cast their shadow over ours and our children’s lives. They signify a corruption of all that is good and an inversion of the simple virtues which should light the way. They’re like life-threatening pathogens relentlessly attacking an organism, and which eventually will stimulate a response from its immune system.
The great religions, the institutions that should safeguard our moral wellbeing appear to be slowly dying; science, the great intellectual search for truth, appeals to all that is bad in men, while claiming its ‘truths’ and inventions to be the greatest achievements of this or any other age; and art, the one-time inspirer of hearts and minds, has crowned absurdity in the palace of ugliness. Increasingly we sense the onslaught on the body, mind and soul of our communities. Let us pray that the times are not so far into the future when our culture will throw off the hate-inspired superstitions, the ugliness and the materialism that to many appear to be the most distinctive qualities of the times. Nor, from this perspective, does it seem extreme or meaningless to label these negative influences as evil.
As human concepts good and evil are opposite ends of a scale, the range of which is limited only by our imagination. As a scale, they are not two, but one thing; and it is impossible for all to agree where on the scale we should mark the point where goodness ‘ceases’ to be good and ‘becomes’ evil. They are relative ideas only. However, as we consider the parts of the scale furthest from the centre the differences are clear and we can all recognise evil or good in their more extreme forms. Evil is the absence or ‘shadow’ of good, as darkness is the absence of light, and cold the absence of heat. And just as we cannot perceive light without the relative concept of darkness, if evil disappeared from Earth then any sense of good would disappear along with it.
Discriminating between good and evil is akin to discerning truth from error; or uncovering beauty amid the ugliness of the world. The process isn’t a mechanistic one. We can’t compute or calculate the correct answer. It’s a personal judgment which reveals who we are, and the nature of our ever-expanding vision of perfection. He who actively seeks out the way to his ideals of goodness, beauty and wisdom measures all against those ideals. The path to Goodness may stretch far into the distance but each of us begins that journey as soon as we aspire to be a better person by taming and controlling the evil aspects of our nature. Until we sincerely and persistently try to do so we have not yet found the path.
“For the holy spirit of discipline will flee deceit, and remove from thoughts that are without understanding, and will not abide when unrighteousness cometh in.” (Book of Wisdom)
But those who have done so, however often they might fail, will win the victory in the end. The true aspirant is he who chooses the balanced and moderate path to goodness and shuns all evil to the best of his ability.
“Goodness in man is not a mere passive quality, but the deliberate preference of right to wrong, the firm and persistent resistance of all moral evil, and the choosing and following of all moral good.” (Easton)
His God is one of truth and beauty and goodness. His is neither an angry, revengeful, nor a jealous God, but is just and loving and compassionate. His religion is a simple one, pure and kindly. The highest possible ideals guide and inspire him; they lift him up; they embrace him and keep him safe within the holy atmosphere of his Father-Mother.
However, we are free to choose good or evil, right or wrong, and we will be rewarded according to our choice. Any study of human behaviour surely must conclude that our nature seems to have affinities in both directions. Our thoughts, words and actions connect us with good or evil. It is for us to ‘tune’ in to one or the other. The good man is drawn more and more to good things; the evil man is on the road to yet greater evil, though generally he knows it not. We can if we wish turn to the right and strike out towards the certain freedom of the light; on the other hand we can choose the path to the left and descend even to the point of destruction; or we can fail to act, rejecting both to dream on, lost in the ever-shifting twilight of the world. The process is a simple one. If we strive to become good we will eventually become good; if we don’t, then we won’t.
The great sage and prophet Zarathustra saw in the existence of good and evil the necessary conditions for free will. He saw that without these opposites, man would be a slave, unable to make a free choice between the God of Light and the god of darkness; between Goodness and sin. So as we are free to pursue good or evil ends, then to work on behalf of the light also becomes a personal choice. No one is press-ganged into service.
But we cannot assume, as some do, that all that is required of us is that we count ourselves among the believers, and God’s Grace will see to it that we are ‘saved’. No, we must work; we must be deserving of the light; we must walk each and every step of the way ourselves, however steep the path. Good thoughts, good words, good actions are the steps upon the way; just as bad thoughts, words and deeds will hold us back.
The ancients taught that we come into earthly existence from on high, forgetting our origin – more or less – as we fall or descend into matter. They considered the physical body to be a kind of prison or dark container where we suffer and are
“… bound to the flesh by the chains of sensuality and of multiplicity…” (Plotinus)
thereby experiencing the dualities of Nature, both good and evil. And just as we fall and are forgetful of our divine origin, so can we remember; and if we are worthy, return home full-laden with the fruits of our experience. But first we must learn to distinguish between good and evil, and however long it may take, choose good in the end. For those who choose evil in the end, there is a very different prospect.
For this reason the path to light is the way of return. It’s an awakening to what always was the case. It’s a becoming conscious of who we are, of where we have come from, and what we have come to do.
“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home…” (Wordsworth)
If we are sincere there arrives the time when we enter a new phase in our search for meaning. Our true self stirs within and begins to guide our steps; and half-consciously at first we find ourselves upon the ancient way. And before long we realise with Kenealy that
“The man who is determined to become something better than merely animated earth, must study the writings of the wise ancients, meditate on what he has learned, and practise goodness in every way possible, for its own sake, for his own sake, for the sake of all others”.
Where this ancient way ends, none can tell; but at some point on the great adventure a ray of undifferentiated light, at once peace and truth and goodness, thrills and scatters its way throughout the substance of self and not-self. All becomes one. Pain and pleasure: one; good and evil: one; the star-encrusted night and the softly-dawning day: one.