BASKING IN THE STRENGTH OF THE MYSTERY
What our faith assures us is the final liberation of humankind through God’s intervention and our personal and corporate collaboration, our personal and social covenant. Yes, evil is a mystery! How evil becomes personal sin is a mystery; how evil becomes a social sin is a mystery. Our own task is not to solve intellectually the mystery but it is to bask in the strength of the mystery because the mystery unleashes tremendous positive energies. We don’t need the solution for the mystery, what we need for a better life is an exposure to the mystery: such an exposure liberates us from the danger of all types of idolatries and opens us to infinite possibilities.
BY FR FRANCESCO PIERLI | COMBONI MISSIONARY, THEOLOGIAN
Complex interplay: evil–sin. The reflection on the mystery of evil and sin is one of the most difficult both in science and in religion. The boundaries between the two are very indistinct. It is almost impossible to draw a clear line of demarcation between what we experience as evil and its relationship with sin, be it personal or social, an action or a situation. The attempts to explain evil are linked and depend on the times, places, cultures, theologies and religions. The current theology of sin depends a great deal on an explanation of the mystery of evil elaborated by St Augustine 1 700 years ago, when the knowledge of the world and its history were immensely far from the scientific vision we have today, billions of light years distant from the theory of the Big Bang commonly accepted nowadays.
A theological reflection on human history. The common Christian understanding of the relationship between evil and sin is linked to the first 11 chapters of Genesis, interpreted as if they were an historical coverage of the beginning of the cosmos and humanity. Adam and Eve are believed to be a real couple who committed a personal sin by disobeying an explicit order of God—hence the theory of the original sin whose elaboration was started by St Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon (130–202). The interpretation of the first 11 chapters of Genesis as a kind of chronicle of events is not acceptable any more. They are a theological reflection accompanied by the Holy Spirit elaborated around 500 years before Christ, about the mystery of God’s relationship with human beings and the cosmos—particularly about the mystery of evil such as death, suffering, arrogant and ferocious despotic empires, natural disasters such as the deluge and so on. These chapters are a theological reflection after a long journey of different eras of human and cosmic history, no less than around 2 million years for humans and 14 billion years of the cosmos since the Big Bang. They are a reflection by a Jewish community whose faith in the God of Abraham had more than a 1 000 years of elaboration and experimentation, a faith refined through extremely different situations such as the liberation from the slavery in Egypt; the transformation from a nomadic and pastoralist people in the desert to a settled and agrarian lifestyle in Palestine; the confused passage from a confederation of 12 tribes to a monarchic form of governance; then slavery again under the powerful empires of the Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians—a faith highly marked by the extraordinary contribution of unique religious and social figures such as the prophets and the psalmists.
Which are the experiences of evil mentioned in one way or another in these 11 chapters? Firstly, idolatry was embodied in religions of the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East where the stars and animals were considered divinities. Human beings were considered less than animals and deified things and were sacrificed to them. Evil made visible as well in the cultural practices of the relationship between man and woman, in a sexuality which caused exploitation and undignified submission of females to males; evil present in the violent tension between the different styles of living of the pastoralists such as Abel and agriculturalists such as Cain; then violence linked to urban and technological explosion, without omitting evil experienced through natural disasters that were very common in a region near to the great rivers such as the Tigre, Euphrates and Nile which showed the irresistible destructive power of the ‘mighty waters’. Last but not least, social evil incarnated in oppressive empires contrary to religious, cultural and social pluralism: the tower of Babel. Yes, the first 11 chapters of Genesis, inspired by the Holy Spirit, are not chronological events reported by eyewitnesses; they are rather faith reflections on a long human and cosmic evolution, a history whose age is by now calculated by science at around 14 billion years.
In traditional societies and cultures in all continents, Africa, Europe and Asia, when something bad occurs, such as sickness, drought, epidemics causing the death of animals, children born with physical disabilities, what was the religious interpretation?—a punishment by mysterious beings: gods, spirits, ancestors offended in one way or another by the humans. This logic dominated the greater part of the Old Testament, particularly the Deuteronomic literature which was challenged by Jesus in chapter nine of the Gospel of John vis-à-vis the person who was born blind—a logic nowadays rejected as well by our scientific analysis of events.
Towards the fullness of a multi-layered covenant. Koinonia (communion) is at the top of the longings of human hearts, but is not within the reach of our daily experience marked often by breaches, tensions, suspicions, animosity, rejections, hatred, revenge, greed, aggressiveness. Hence, the importance of the possibility of renewing the covenant as we clearly asserted in the first 11 chapters of Genesis; covenant then becomes the central theme of the Bible well framed within the boundaries of human history from chapter 12 of Genesis, the history of Abraham right up to the last book, the Revelation. The biblical message reveals that the personal decision of human beings is crucial for the positive evolution of the cosmos, that human beings carry a greater responsibility vis-à-vis the triumph of life in their own personal existence, in the existence of their own families, in the life of the animals and the life of the cosmos. Yet, full communion, which we with the language of Jesus would call the Kingdom of God, was never enjoyed over the long span of the past 14 billion years. Full communion is a characteristic of new heavens and a new earth projected in the future by the prophets and by other biblical books right to the very last one, the Revelation. Full communion in our historical life—with God, among humans, and between them and the cosmos—is beyond human possibility. Full communion is only in the mystery of the Triune God and for us and the cosmos in the final stage of our personal and cosmic history after the resurrection.
Evil and sin contain elements of objective limitations due to the fact that we are creatures with limitations at the level of understanding/comprehension, science, wisdom. We are therefore lurching in the dark with confused values and ethical direction. We have limitations at the level of loving concern, commitment and solidarity, in other words, fragility is at the heart of our human experience not separated from an element of personal responsibility. The mystery of evil implies that humans cannot be whole in spite of all their own efforts. How the objective limitations due to the fact that we are creatures become subjective limitations in making wrong decisions and actions is a mystery not easily decipherable. Who or what is then the serpent of Genesis 3? What our faith assures us is the final liberation of humankind through God’s intervention and our personal and corporate collaboration, our personal and social covenant. Yes, evil is a mystery! How evil becomes personal sin is a mystery; how evil becomes a social sin is a mystery. Our own task is not to solve intellectually the mystery but it is to bask in the strength of the mystery because the mystery unleashes tremendous positive energies. We don’t need the solution for the mystery, what we need for a better life is an exposure to the mystery—such an exposure liberates us from the danger of all types of idolatries and opens us to the infinite possibilities of Koinonia/Agape (love).
New heavens and a new earth is our future. The Triune God’s dream and operational plan is Koinonia/Agape between the divine Persons, humans and creation; a fully accomplished and multi-layered covenant; a communion impossible in the past because the humans and the cosmos were and are still in the making to reach that maturity without which full communion would be impossible. Probably this is what Pierre Teilhard de Chardin meant with the expression OMEGA POINT elaborated in the book, The Future of Man in 1950. Let me conclude this meditation on the mystery of our present historical limitations and God’s future call and destiny for us with the following observation from the history of religions.
The comparative studies of religions inform us that one of the basic differences between the Hebrew religion and other religions of the Middle East was about the so-called Golden Era or the Garden of Eden. For the traditional Middle East religions, the Garden was behind, a lost chapter of the past history. For the Jewish religion (the one of the Bible), the Golden Era is in the future, which in the Bible means novelty, creation in progress, innovation. For the so-called pagan religions, future meant restoration, recuperation of that past golden moment in history. The golden era is not something to be given to us from above only but is to be built by synergising God, human beings and the cosmos. The Big Bang is the beginning, as it were, of the journey towards the golden era but beyond the horizons of the cosmic processes and human life. The book of Revelation insists a lot on the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven, and Gaudium et Spes (39) emphasises the importance of human efforts and collaboration with God for the fullness of the Kingdom. The two elements are never to be separated. May the Holy Spirit help us in a mediation, in a theological reflection where faith and science, both in the making, may motivate and inspire us in the struggle against all types of evil and sin, and for the triumph of Life in its fullness which Jesus himself was and is committed to (Jn 10: 10).
“The first 11 chapters of Genesis are not chronological events reported by eyewitnesses; they are rather faith reflections on a long human and cosmic evolution, a history whose age is by now calculated by science at around 14 billion years.”
“For the traditional Middle East religions, the Garden was behind, a lost chapter of the past history. For the Jewish religion (the one of the Bible), the Golden Era is in the future, which in the Bible means novelty, creation in progress, innovation.”
“The golden era is not something to be given to us from above only but is to be built by synergising God, human beings and the cosmos.”
Ignorance and lack of discernment can produce worse delusions, more nightmarish representations and pernicious phantasies than hallucinogenic drugs. One of the best examples I know is the altar triptych representing the temptations of Saint Anthony in the desert that is one of the jewels of the Lisbon Ancient Art Museums’ collection. Painted by Hieronimus Bosch circa 1500—and one of the very few complete works by the artist that has survived, which makes it quite invaluable—it is a masterpiece that I studied meticulously. Of course, at the artistic level, it has no fault and has no equal. At the symbolic and religious level it remains, in my humble opinion, the work of a disturbed mind. According to art historians, his moralistic and pessimistic view was due to the belief that the earth was damned by the simple presence of men and rationality was a mere impossibility. Others believe that he belonged to occult sects and he was even considered a heretic.
The fantastic and haunting figures that he depicts were likely to make sense to the people of his time but, now, the symbolism is lost and what remains is only the haunting horror and distortion of the natural world and the omnipresence of the devil. The triptych, on the painter’s favourite theme, is a sort of very impressive show of fireworks that, again in my humble opinion, concentrates the worst medieval theological thought and imagery. And, in its flamboyant excess, it is also a last salvo of the sickly “spirituality” that kept hordes of flagellants on the roads, wandering like zombies from town to town to appease, with blood, the bouts of the black plague, attributed to the “wrath of God”. Soon after, the poisoned fruits would be even more obvious in the mass hysteria of witch hunts—for whom a black cat could mean death—or the scandalous and really hellish religious wars and persecutions that divided Europe and the Church. In these paintings, the most refined details are a clear warning: lose all your illusions, hell is right here, and is all around you.
There is not even a sign of the redemptive Love and Mercy of God. Jesus is represented, in a sketchy way, hidden at the back of the panels, almost as if He was irrelevant—over the altar, you can’t see Him. For me, it looks like Manichaeism, a heresy that St Augustine embraced for some time and, I think, together with the Saint’s unbridled lust, informs a lot of his abomination for the flesh. Great art doesn’t exist without enlightened truth, knowledge or reason. One cannot help but find some affinities with the cartography of the Middle Ages, where all sorts of dragons and fanciful creatures were painted in places which were then unknown to the artists who signed their ignorance with the legend: “There will be dragons”. However, at the time that Bosch painted his big altar piece, the dragons had already begun to disappear. In that same year, Portuguese vessels had reached the then baptised Land of Holy Mary (now Brazil), and Pêro Vaz de Caminha, the chronicler who, with a sense of pure awe, registered his first impressions as a sort of heaven on earth, not a hell. Almost 20 years before, Bartolomeu Dias had sailed around the Cape of Good Hope, the same that, according to old legends, was impassable, because beyond it the ocean was supposed to boil. About half a century later Galileo was born. The shadows had just begun to fade away but, unfortunately, are sometimes kept in the background, in dark corners of the human spirit.
The sum of all these discoveries produced the Renaissance. The new spirit was coined, in Portuguese, in a simple sentence: Saber de experiência feito (knowledge based on experience). From then on, Bosch’s hallucinations were as needed as a monstrous Medusa’s head or an always revolting “black magic” fetish. It is undeniable that there are a lot of spots of hell on earth but they are not the result of the will of God, who calls us to be builders of His kingdom. What is required is an enlightened faith and work inspired by the holy fire of love that is the very own “soul” of the Trinity.
I only pray that, based on our common humanity and in dialogue with other traditions and religions, we will be able to paint all around the world—there will be NO MORE dragons.