What is the origin of evil? Is it innate in human nature or even in the nature of the universe? Judith Plaskow and I discuss this question in our forthcoming book Goddess and God in the World and this is a chance to listen in our conversation.
I am responding to Judith’s allegation that in imagining Goddess as loving and good I am fantasizing an ideal deity who exists apart from the evil-and-good world that we know. Judith speaks of an “evil impulse” in human beings which she considers to be innate in human beings and in the nature of reality. Judith says that my “defense” of the goodness of God comes down to “the traditional free will defense.” She also questions my view that human beings can
I argue that it does not because the traditional free will defense imagines an omnipotent God who existed before the creation of the world. Then I continue:
I think what you meant to say is that like those who invoke the traditional free will defense of the omnipotent God, I attribute humanly chosen evil entirely to human beings—and not to Goddess or God. In this sense your point is well-taken. You say: “I still think that you fudge the question of where the impulse toward evil—what Jewish tradition calls yetzer hara (the evil inclination)—comes from. In terms of origins, as opposed to responsibility, I would not sharply separate out the forces of disorder that you say are just “part of life” from the impulse toward evil in human beings. They are both part of the ambiguity of all things that is created and sustained in existence by a God who partakes of that ambiguity.”
In your statement you fail to mention the fact that for the rabbis a prime instance of the evil impulse was sexual urge or desire. By and large the rabbis were not talking as you are about the impulse to dominate: in fact most of them did not have a problem with male domination of women and they accepted “the [hierarchaical] authority” of other rabbis and of tradition in ways you would not. However, you are right that I make a distinction between “evil” that is a “part of life” and the impulse to dominate and violate that has been part of life under the conditions of patriarchy shaped at the junction of the control of female sexuality, private property, and war.
As I have argued in a longer paper that was published in part as a series of 3 blogs, I believe that patriarchy, private property, and war, and with them rape and slavery, are the source of a great deal of evil in our world. I do not think these forms of evil are metaphysically inevitable or necessary. I think they arose in human history and are caused by human beings. I dream that we can create a world where these specific forms of evil do not exist. “You may say that I’m a dreamer…”
Is there an “evil impulse” in human nature? According to primatologist Franz de Waal, one of our closest primate relatives, the chimpanzees, created a primate culture based on male domination, enforced through violence. Some have concluded from this that the will to dominate is innate in human nature or in human male nature. De Waal counters with another group of primate relatives, the bonobos, who created a primate culture that “makes love not war.” To de Waal’s evidence I would add the recent studies of matriarchy which suggest that it is possible for human beings to live in societies organized around the principles of love and generosity and in which love is free, wealth is shared, and systems of checks and balances are in place to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard.
If another way is possible, then how did humanity end up in the sorry state in which we find ourselves today? What is the source of humanly created evil? This is not a question that can be answered in a paragraph or two. What I can do here is to sketch out the way I might answer this question at more length. I think doing some harm to other life forms in order to live is metaphysically inevitable in human and other forms of life. Many traditional societies minimize the harm done to the lives of others through the principle of “taking only what you need.” This principle is based in the notion that life is interdependent. This principle is not consistent with domination or with the notion of hoarding “private” property. The interdependence of life is a fundamental metaphysical principle that I affirm—and that is affirmed by process philosophy.
What went wrong? Are people inherently incapable of recognizing the interdependence of life and thus of curbing their desires to acquire more than they need? I don’t think so. Many tribal groups and early agricultural societies were able to live without dominance, war, and unbridled acquisition—and without rape and slavery. What seems to be the case is that once societies begin to be organized around male dominance, private property, and war, they perpetuate themselves and conquer others. Through violence and humiliation, they create “the evil impulse” in their own societies.
Alice Miller has written about the role child abuse played in creating the violent leaders of the twentieth century and the people willing to follow them. This pattern has occurred throughout patriarchal history. Non-violent societies are not equipped to resist dominator groups. They submit to conquest and exploitation or learn the ways of violent domination as they fight back. I cannot argue this interpretation of human history fully here, but this is the direction my argument would take. Death and dying, the necessity of taking of other lives in order to live, and conflicting interests are inevitable in human life. These metaphysical realities must be taken into account in any explanation of the world. Beyond that, I believe we have to blame human choice, not human nature, the nature of the world, and certainly not God or Goddess, for the great evils human beings have created and inflicted on each other and the other than human world.
We also are the ones who can create a different world.
Carol P. Christ is looking forward to the spring Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete which she leads through Ariadne Institute. Take an extra $100 off tour price if you join today March 31. Carol can be heard in a recent interview on Voices of Women. Carol is a founding mother in feminism and religion and women’s spirituality. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.