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Lecture IX: Evil


In these lectures we are trying to discover how we can make sense of the universe we live in and the lives we have to live in it. In this first series we are trying to see how far we can get without taking into account the special witness of the Christian revelation. Our aim is to look with open eyes on all that actually exists and happens. Inevitably one who is a Christian will see what he sees with Christian eyes: his interpretations cannot but be coloured to some extent by his beliefs. All he can do is to make open confession of his standpoint and leave it to his hearers to discount what they think fit.

Working on these lines I have suggested that we can best make sense of things if we view the universe as the creation of a Creator whose aim is the production of a community of finite persons characterized by the goodness which is the expression of perfect freedom. To take this aim as the key to understanding all things enables us to accept the irrationalities we experience as really being what they are, as material needing to be worked upon in order to make sense. In the course of my argument I have once or twice referred to evil as among the irrationalities we have to deal with. But for the most part I have hitherto ignored it and concentrated attention on the search for indications that the creative process is directed towards an intelligible end, an end which will satisfy our demand for logical consistency and self-authenticating goodness.

This postponement of attention to evil has been deliberate. In all our attempts at thinking it is, I believe, a sound principle to seek first to grasp the nature of the ideally perfect. It is only by reference to the perfect that the imperfect can be understood. It is only when we know what we mean by ‘straight’ that we can understand what is meant by ‘crooked’.

At first sight this may seem to contradict the method which allegedly I have been trying to follow throughout. I have claimed to be trying to observe and interpret what actually exists and happens. Am I now deserting to the camp of the idealists, asserting that we ought not to start from the evidence of what actually is, but from our idea of what ought to be?

I do not think so. Let me remind you of what I said in my second lecture, of how all our quest for objectivity is a matter of interaction between evidence and categories.1 Now it often happens that our categories are not only modified, they actually come to us through our experience of the evidence. Our experience of the imperfect gives us our idea of the perfect. We had an instance of this in the last lecture when we saw that our experience of imperfect freedom gives us the idea of what perfect freedom would be.2 Somehow or other we are so made that in our experience of the imperfect it makes itself known to us as being imperfect and brings with it an apprehension of the perfection it fails to reach, a perfection which we do not experience but aspire after. I am not now denying—indeed, I wish to assert—that our idea of the perfect, of the ideal, must be grounded in our experience of the actual: it must be the kind of perfection towards which the actually existing imperfection points. What I am saying is that, when we have grasped it, it becomes the criterion by which we judge of approximations towards it. Then it throws back light upon them; indeed it is only in that light that we can really begin to understand them.

Two illustrations may help to make my meaning clear. Every human act is a response to the circumstances of a situation. To be perfect it must both be the right act in the sense of being that which objectively the situation demands, and also be done from the right motive. One has heard misguided preachers maintain that whereas the religion of the Old Testament paid attention to the first, for the Christian all that matters is the second; and sometimes moral theologians are tempted to err in the opposite direction. Both mistakes come from failure first to grasp in its fullness the nature of that towards which we should aspire. Again, love in its perfection is the devotion of the whole personality, of feelings, mind and will. Only when we have seen this do we realize that to be defective in any one of the three is to be imperfect. It may be that, since our acts are more immediately under our control than our feelings, we have to give our first attention to the question of what we will. But we can never be content with acting correctly towards our neighbour while our feelings lag behind: we shall know ourselves to be unprofitable servants.

I make, therefore, no apology for having prefaced any attempt to deal with the subject of evil by an attempt to envisage the good end towards which the whole creative process moves. It may be that the universe as we know it is deeply infected with evil, that our experience is experience of a mixture of good and evil. But the evil is only known to be evil in contrast with the good: we can only discuss it profitably if we see it in the light of the good with which it is to be contrasted. We must begin our study of evil by trying to determine more closely what we mean by good.

Fundamentally, as I have already said, the word should be used to denote that which justifies its own existence.3 When once we have been bitten by the desire to know the nature of things, the desire which has given birth to the sciences and philosophy, there can be no end to the quest short of the discovery that the universe is such that we are content, and more than content, to accept it as being what it is. It must be self-authenticating in its goodness. Nothing less than this will make sense.

But who are we, that we should set up to be judges of what is self-authenticating in its goodness? I need not again go over all that I have said in my second, fourth and fifth lectures in refutation of the scepticism of existentialists and so-called biblical theologians. God's ways may not be as our ways or His thoughts as our thoughts. But if we are to think at all, we must have faith enough to affirm what He has thought fit to reveal of His ways and thoughts to men of our day and generation, leaving it to our successors to correct our errors in the light of what more He may reveal to them. Later on I hope to show that for us who are Christians and accept the biblical revelation God has revealed Himself as willing to submit His truth to our judgment, that He requires us to use our reason to sift and criticize what is offered for our acceptance as true. That belongs to next year's course. Here and now I take my stand on the ground that to think at all implies the attempt to make sense of the available evidence, criticizing it by the canons of consistency and self-authenticating goodness.

We must once again face the fact that the position I wish to maintain is based upon an act of faith.4 I cannot demonstratively prove that to think of the universe as existing to produce a community of finite persons living together in the perfection of freedom must so satisfy the human mind as to make it rest content without further question. I can only say that it is a conception which would satisfy me, and express the faith that in this I have an apprehension of the truth. Moreover, it is a conception which involves a multitude of component elements, each of them subject to the same condition. The perfection of freedom, as I envisage it in the life of the city of God, involves on the part of its citizens such characteristics as honesty, unselfishness and self-control. My respect for each of these, as for all other qualities commonly called virtues, rests upon a similar act of faith that they are truly admirable. The word ‘admirable’ reminds us that it is not only in the sphere of ethics that we deal with matters incapable of demonstrative proof. De gustibus nil disputandum does not mean that in the arts there are no objective standards to be recognized; it means that their recognition rests on something other than argument by logical demonstration. Further, our presence here, our entry upon an inquiry in accordance with the terms of Lord Gifford's will, implies that we regard knowledge of the truth as good. Once more, it would surely be generally agreed that to enjoy good health of body and mind, and to live in conditions which make for healthy growth and the exercise of one's powers, are good things, things which, when we come across them, do not make us ask why on earth they should be so.

Here, then, we have four fields in which we recognize values that are potentially self-authenticating. We rest content in the contemplation of virtuous action, of knowledge of truth, of excellence in art, of healthy living. There is, however, a certain difference between the first three and the fourth. For each of the first three our partial and imperfect apprehensions postulate the existence of a standard of perfection which is absolute and eternal. Here on earth, at our present stage in the creative process, the standards which claim our devotion are foreshadowings of the goodness, the truth and the beauty enjoyed by its citizens in the City of God. In that city there will doubtless be what corresponds to bodily health, to good housing, and to all that the American Prayer Book calls the ‘comforts and conveniences of life’. But this correspondence will be a correspondence in the provision of means necessary to the enjoyment of the others. In this world, in order to be and to express ourselves, we need bodies appropriate to the conditions of this world, and we call ‘good’ that which makes for the welfare of these bodies in these conditions. When we cherish the faith that in ‘the life of the world to come’ we shall still be ourselves and able to express ourselves, we imply that we shall be embodied in bodies appropriate to the conditions of that world. But of what those bodies would be like, or what would contribute to their welfare, we have no idea. We do not think of those bodies as being the perfection of our present bodies in the same way that we think of the perfection of virtue, of truth or of beauty as being the perfection of our present apprehensions of them.

This difference is connected with the difference we noted in the seventh lecture between the exercise of reason at the subhuman and human stages in creation.5 We share with the animals the use of our reason to secure means to our bodily welfare, but we also apprehend ideals which demand our devotion and the surrender of ourselves in their service. There is a direct kinship between these ideals and their perfections in the city of God which does not obtain between the satisfactions of our bodily needs and whatever corresponds to them in that city.

Nevertheless, the recognition of this difference must not lead us to underestimate the importance of bodily welfare in this world of space and time. We must keep in our list of goods the enjoyment of good health in body and mind, and the conditions which make for it. There are four, not three, fields in which evil is to be recognized by its contrast with what is good. Hence four kinds of evil: ignorance and error in contrast with truth and the knowledge of it; ugliness, dullness, squalor and vulgarity in contrast with beauty; wickedness and weakness in contrast with virtue; sickness and suffering in contrast with health and happiness.

In the course of the creative process, as it discovers itself to our observation, the third of these—wickedness and moral failure in general—could only come into existence at the human stage. Not until there are creatures responsible for deciding whether to do this or that can there be any moral choice: both wickedness and moral weakness are characteristics of persons endowed with freedom (a) but deficient in freedom (b).

What of the other three? It is difficult to determine in what sense one can speak of ignorance and ugliness existing as evils at the sub-human stages. Ignorance is only an evil when it is a deficiency in a mind capable of knowledge. Possibly we should recognize approximations to this in animal life. We may see no reason for thinking that magnets and iron filings have awareness of their mutual attraction: its absence is no evil. But when in pursuit or escape an animal misjudges its distance and misses its aim, there is a deficiency of knowledge which can rightly be called error. To speak of ugliness implies a spectator to whose eyes it would appear ugly; how, then, can we speak of ugliness in a universe in which there are as yet no persons capable of forming aesthetic judgments? If, as I believe, such judgments, now that we are here and can make them, claim objective validity, we can reasonably say that the undiscovered ugliness was there, offensive to the eyes of God if not of man. That there is pain, both physical and mental, in the animal world seems to me undeniable. When we have done our utmost to minimize our impression of it by pointing to differences in sensitiveness between animals and men, enough remains to demand recognition as an evil within creation.

So there exist in the universe four kinds of evil. Ugliness may have been the first to appear: it may have been there in the eyes of God before the existence of any creature whose eyes it could offend. Ignorance and suffering appear with the coming of creatures capable of moving and feeling, wickedness and moral weakness with man. All these have somehow to be fitted in with the rest of our experience if we are to make sense of the whole.


Underlying the whole postulate of creation is a baffling mystery which we can only avoid by failing to think deeply enough to be brought face to face with it.6 Similarly, it is only at a superficial level of thought that the problem of evil can be held to discredit belief in creation by God. Whether the philosopher be atheist or Christian, he is living in a universe in which he has to try to make sense not only of the mystery of the relation of time to eternity, but also of the problem of the co-existence of good and evil.

This latter problem is twofold. We have to consider (i) the nature of the relation between good and evil as co-existing in one universe, and (ii) the so-called problem of the origin of evil: how (if it is not to be explained away as illusory and unreal) the evil has got into an otherwise good universe. In both cases our ultimate explanation must be in terms of goodness: only what is good makes sense by justifying its own existence.

The first question is that of the relation between good and evil. We are familiar with three theories, each of which has its own difficulties.

(a) There is the hypothesis that what we regard as evil is not really what we take it to be. This theory finds expression in a number of religions of which Christian Science is probably the best known to us. The underlying philosophy is an idealism of the kind that seeks to explain away irrationalities by finding a point of view from which they can be seen either to be unreal or to be something else in disguise, that ‘nothing is evil but thinking makes it so’.

This theory has obtained a footing in the thought of some would-be orthodox Christian apologists. Their starting-point is the Thomist tradition in which goodness is equated with being and evil is defined as the privation of goodness. From this it might seem to follow that since evil is essentially negative and unreal, however troublesome it may be to us in practice, we need not trouble our philosophical minds about it any further. The intellectual problem is solved when we see that what we call evil is privation of goodness and goodness alone is real.

This theory sometimes claims to be based on the principle that in God his esse (His being) and his essentia (His goodness) are one. Hence any diminution of His goodness would be a diminution of His being. The created universe, it is argued, and we ourselves within it, only exist in so far as we draw our being from God our Creator; in so far as we and our universe are deficient in goodness we are deficient in being.

This argument is open to criticism on three counts. (i) It does not take seriously enough the principle that in God esse and essentia are one. (ii) It is inconsistent with a genuine doctrine of creation. (iii) It implies univocal predication when speaking of Creator and created.

(i) In thinking of God as Creator we think of Him as personal. His goodness is the goodness of His personal character which finds expression in His will to create. This is all included in the essentia which is one with His esse. We cannot seek to solve our earthly problems by considering the relation between His being and His goodness. If our starting-point is the inextricable interfusion of God's being and His personal character, our ultimate explanation of all things will have to be in terms of His will. To seek to go beyond the attempt to discover His intention implies the notion that there is something in His esse which fails to find full expression in His essentia.

(ii) I have more than once distinguished the postulate of creation from theories which try to show how God and the universe are related to one another in some metaphysical system inclusive of both. The argument in question seems to belong to the latter school of thought in so far as it takes what is held to be a necessity of God's own being and treats it as prescribing conditions to which both He and His creation must conform.

(iii) It is commonly agreed that in trying to gain from our experience of creation an understanding of its Creator we cannot argue univocally from the one to the other. Whatever we predicate must be predicated analogically. Surely the same principle must hold in the opposite direction. It does not necessarily follow that because in God diminution of goodness would imply diminution of being, the same would be true of His creatures.

I have argued that all human thinking implies an act of faith that in the long run whatever exists and happens makes for good. I have also maintained that we only know evil by contrast with a logically prior conception of good. But the evil which we thus know is not adequately described in negative terms as the absence of good or deficiency in goodness. We do, of course, experience evils of this kind in all four fields: would-be works of art which are just dull; essays by pupils deficient in knowledge of their subject; physical, mental and moral inertia manifesting lack of vigour. But these are not all. No account of evil can be complete which fails to recognize instances that are definitely positive in character, not merely deficient in, but antagonistic to their relative goods: discords which clash and jar, errors which wreak havoc, cancers which destroy and crimes which corrupt. To attempt to explain these away as illusory, as unreal or as goodness disguised, is to trifle with them. We cannot in this way make sense of these awkward elements in the universe of our experience.

(b) If we cannot thus explain away our evils, can we solve our problem by undermining the distinction between good and evil? Is this, perhaps, one of those ideas commonly taken for granted which philosophers exist to question? We remember that just as Christian Science is the religious expression of certain idealist metaphysics, there are philosophies which find expression in pantheistic religions, philosophies in which whatever exists and happens is the manifestation of an ultimate reality which is neutral, ‘beyond good and evil’.

If this be so, we are back in the universe of the materialist, the universe in which the acknowledgment of brute fact is not only an obligatory task in our thinking, but also its final end, the universe in which we discover that in the long run nothing has any meaning at all, in which the last word lies with Amaryllis, Neaera and the dictators.

(c) Besides Christian Science which makes too little of brute fact and pantheism which makes too much of it, there are religions which have their philosophic basis in dualism. For them the ultimate reality is an eternal strife between the opposing principles of good and evil. To my mind there is more to be said for this view than for pantheism. In religion it can nourish a healthy combativeness on the side of the good principle, and its philosophy is an honest recognition of the antinomy which gives rise to our problem. It does not acquiesce in a solution which is no solution. It leaves the question open. It is thus a challenge to further inquiry rather than a position with which we can be content.

Our problem is the co-existence of good and evil in one universe. We have been considering three conceivable ways of thinking of the relation between them. Logically, I suppose, there might be a fourth, the opposite of the first, the theory that evil alone is real, that what we call good is either an illusion or is evil in disguise. As the other three find expression in different religions, so Ophites and Satanists might be held to show that this theory also has to be reckoned with. But it need not detain us long. While dualism leaves the question open, a fundamental pessimism joins with pantheism in rendering all attempts at thinking ultimately futile.

These four conceivable ways of relating good and evil seem to me to exhaust the logical possibilities so long as we insist that everything that exists and happens in this world of time and space must as it stands be capable of rational explanation. Of them, only the first makes any show of achieving this, and it does so by denying that evil is what we experience it to be. It is the inability to account for it in any of these ways which drives us to make a fresh start, to consider it as one of the irrationalities which can and do exist in the mode of reality which God gives to the created universe, irrationalities which must be changed in fact in order to become transparent to thought.

If it is indeed one of these irrationalities, then we need not be surprised that we can give no rational description of it as it stands. There can no more be a rational description of an irrational existent than there can be a definition, a logos, of a square circle. If there is to be any rational explanation of it, it must be on the basis of its acceptance as a passing phase in an ongoing process in which it is incidental to the achievement of a rational end.

That rational end, I have suggested, is the creation of a community of persons whose perfection is the perfection of finite individual freedom. It is for the development of individuality that the creative process is spatio-temporal. It is for the development of finite freedom that it contains the irrational element of contingency. Can we account for the existence of evil by thinking of it as contributory to the genesis, development, and perfection of that freedom?

Once again our thinking must start from our idea of the perfection towards which our experience of imperfection points. Only by the light reflected back from the goal towards which we press can we understand where we are or whence we have come. That goal is a state of being in which, as finite individual persons, we are united by devotion to the service of ideals we hold in common, ideals which are no idols of our own creation but objective realities which demand our allegiance. We must so share in knowledge of truth and intelligent appreciation of beauty that where our apprehensions of them differ through the individuality of our different approaches, each will welcome the enrichment of his mind by what he learns from others. This can only be if in each and all there is that perfection of virtuous character wherein all the virtues are fused in the perfecting of the love or charity of I Corinthians xiii.

This perfection must be in each and all, and in each and all it must be the perfection of finite individual freedom, of that can't-because-won't which differs toto coelo from the behaviour of creatures moved by forces acting on or through them. It seems to me that the only possibility of giving a rational account of the existence of evil in the world of our experience lies in the hypothesis that the determination to create genuinely free persons is at the heart of God's creative purpose. I do not see that we can ‘justify the ways of God to man’ unless we hold that such creation of freedom is a creative end that needs no further justification, and can then go on to find grounds for believing that the evils which actually exist can be accounted for as incidental to its achievement.

Let us begin with wickedness or sin. This, as we have seen, is a form of evil which could only appear at the human stage in the creative process. Only when there are created beings who can distinguish between moral good and evil, between right and wrong, and are capable of doing what they know to be wrong, can there be moral evil; and only when they think of such action as disobedience to God will they use religious language and speak of it as sin. For our practical purpose of living, this form of evil, the latest to appear in the temporal process, is the hard core of the whole problem, but it provides the least difficulty for our present intellectual inquiry.

Whereas the other evils, ignorance, ugliness, and suffering, are things which happen to us; our own wickedness is a corruption of our inmost selves, and is the great obstacle to our getting rid of the others. For these reasons it is the hard core of our practical problem. Moreover, that it is the most serious form of evil is implied by the thought of those for whom the contemplation of the other evils makes it difficult, if not impossible, to believe in God.7 But if we can believe that the aim of creation is the production of persons whose goodness is the perfection of freedom, it makes sense to regard their permission to be wicked in the course of their making as incidental to the achievement of that purpose. And if at times we are appalled by the depths to which, in the history of this world, wickedness has been allowed to descend, and the extent to which it has been allowed to prevail, I can see no light in the darkness except by taking these depths and this extent as the measure of the value set by God upon the created freedom being genuinely free.

I have pictured creation as a process analogous to teaching, a process of giving and receiving, the created universe developing as it receives increasing fullness and richness of being from its Creator.8 At the human stage the analogy becomes closer: when man's growth is growth in spiritual personality, and God stands to man in a combination of one-sidedly and mutually personal relationships,9 the bringing of the creatures to their perfection becomes a process of education. An earthly father has a certain amount of control over the circumstances which condition his children's lives. As we have seen, he has constantly to be asking himself: ‘Is this particular person, at this particular moment, in need of being constrained to conform…? Or does he need to be left free to make up his own mind, to learn to take responsibility, even at the cost of making a mess of things?’ We may without irreverence think of God's creative treatment of man as answering this same question, and from the extent to which he takes the latter alternative gauge the intensity of his care for freedom.

To pursue the analogy further. Since the earthly father has some power of control over the circumstances which condition his children's fives, here too there is a mixed relationship, in part mutually personal, and in part one-sidedly. In his exercise of one-sidedly personal control, during the years when they have to do as they are told, and the details of their fives are for the most part arranged for them, the good father will have in view the development of his children's personalities, his aim will be to promote their growth in true freedom. On the postulate of creation the Creator's power of control over the circumstances which condition the fives of His creatures is absolute. The earthly father has to do his best within the limits prescribed by such factors as his income, the requirements of his daily work, the neighbourhood in which he dwells, and the laws of his country respecting education and national service. For much of all this he has no personal responsibility; he has to take it as it comes. But the Creator is personally responsible for the whole setting of His creatures' fives. They, if human beings, only draw their breath, think their thoughts, and move their limbs by making use of the power with which He endows them; the universe which is the matrix and the conditioning environment of their existence as persons, equally owes its existence and its nature to what it has received and continues to receive from Him. Often an earthly father, when planning for the upbringing of his sons and daughters, may have wished in their interest that he could alter the conditions within which he must make his plans. How can there be anything analogous in the mind of the Creator, seeing that every detail in the circumstances conditioning every one of His creatures owes its existence to and draws its being from Himself?

We have seen that to think of God creating is to think of Him as suspending the absoluteness of His impassibility: in relation to His creatures we both speak and think of Him in sentences in which He is the subject of verbs in the passive voice.10 This reaches its climax in His relation to us human beings. He allows Himself to be blasphemed and sinned against. We may be able to account for this by saying that it is the measure of His determination to endow us with genuine freedom. Can we on these lines also account for other evils besides the wickedness of ourselves and our fellow men and women? Can we find rest for our minds by regarding the ignorance and error, the ugliness, the suffering which torture and disfigure creation at both the human and pre-human stages as incidental to the creating of ourselves into free persons?

To a certain extent I think we can. Our inquiry began as an attempt to make sense of the actual universe, examining what exists and happens with a view to discovering what, if anything, it is achieving. We have found it to be a process which has led to our coming into existence as individualized centres of consciousness in a world in which the combination of contingency with dependable causation gives us the environment we need for growth in freedom. This growth requires occasions through which we may learn to make up our own minds, to take responsibility for our actions, even at the cost of making a mess of things, occasions when God knows that the treatment we need is to be (as St. Paul puts it) ‘in a strait betwixt two’. This could not be except in a world in which we can suffer from ignorance and make mistakes.

I was once in retreat at Mirfield when the late Father Fitzgerald, C. R., was the conductor. In one of his addresses he spoke of a general under whom he had served as a chaplain in the war of 1914–18. There were three things, he said, for which he was to be remembered: he was a great soldier, he was a great Christian, and he was a great gambler. ‘Padre’, he used to say, ‘you ought to gamble. Everyone ought to gamble. All life is a gamble, and when there's nothing doing gambling is the best way to keep your hand in for living’. An exaggeration, perhaps, but there is truth in it. We should always be suspicious of expositions of divine guidance which imply that if we were sufficiently pious we should never have to make decisions and act in circumstances which involve taking a leap in the dark. We come into existence as creatures moved hither and thither by the inherited habits and customs of our race. We must not let our religion become an excuse for refusing the responsibility of becoming selves. If we are asked ‘Why on earth did you do that?’ we must be prepared to explain the grounds on which we made the decision for which we take responsibility. It is not unreasonable to suppose that for the creation of genuinely free persons there is needed a world in which they can grow up amidst ignorance and error. Possibly we may also account for ugliness on the ground that, starting as we do, we need to be trained in aesthetic appreciation. God will no more be content with a parrot-like expression of conventional judgments in art than He will with a mechanical going through the right motions in morals. In the perfection of created freedom a man's acts must be his own acts and his judgments his own judgments.

Human suffering, apart from what is due to human wickedness, would seem to come from our living amidst the interaction of causation and contingency. Here it becomes most difficult to believe that everything that happens makes for good. On the postulate of creation as I have tried to present it we cannot take refuge in a deistic view which would relieve God of responsibility for what goes on in the universe after He had wound it up and set it going. We have to think of Him as intimately concerned with every detail of its happenings. Perhaps we have here reached the limit of explanation possible to purely natural theology, the point at which our right conclusion is to confess an agnosticism well expressed by an earlier Gifford lecturer:

I might be challenged, ‘Would I maintain that such things could exist in a just universe?’ I am not going to answer the challenge, but to point out what I hold an absurd implication in it. Am I, an elderly gentleman almost tied to his arm-chair, to be asked to dictate the limits of heroism and suffering necessary to develop and elicit the true reality of finite spirits?11

I think this is probably so, and that for further light we have to turn to the Christian interpretation of those events in the history of this world which for Christians are in a special sense revelatory. Natural theology has brought us to the point where we can see that the universe will only make sense if everything that exists and happens contributes to the creation of a community of finite persons perfected in the exercise of freedom. It contains irrationalities which can only be accounted for on the postulate that it is the creation of a Creator who gives it a mode of reality in which they can play their part as incidental to the fulfilment of His purpose. Among these irrationalities are various evils: in some cases we can form some idea of how they may play their part, but others leave us asking for further light.

There are, however, a few more things that can be said. We must not forget that the evils occur in a world of scientifically knowable change in which what meaning they have may be in the first place a meaning for action. We must get to work on the jig-saw if we are to see the picture. It often seems to be taken for granted by religious people that the natural world, as it is given to us unaffected by human intervention, is more directly revelatory of God than are the actions of men and women. We think we are more likely to see His beauty in landscapes and sunsets if we get away from streets and factory chimneys, to hear His voice in thunderstorms than in the roar of aeroplanes. Storms and earthquakes are referred to in insurance policies as acts of God.

Years ago, in the days of the silent cinema, I saw a film in which the villains were a gang of Chinese thugs in San Francisco. The beauteous heroine had been seized and taken to their underground lair, where she was at the mercy of the lustful leader of the gang. In a flash back one saw the hero vainly searching, beating his brow and tearing his hair as he failed to obtain entrance to the den. All expostulations and entreaties having failed, and the heroine being about to suffer what was described as a fate worse than death, the villain was called away for a moment on some pretext. Slipping off the bed on to her knees by its side, she turned to prayer. Sentence by sentence the words of the ‘Our Father’ appeared on the silent screen. At the petition ‘Thy will be done on earth’ there came the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906, and amidst scenes of ruin the hero rescued the heroine and the villains were destroyed.

If this cinema theology were the true natural theology we should have to hold that God is more fully revealed in the earthquake than in the response of those who took up the work of rescue and healing. That is not how we see God revealing Himself to us in His creation. If the history of creation is the history of the universe receiving from God in increasing measure the fullness of being which He wills to give, we shall expect man to be the creature in which God can be most fully revealed. But because for man to be the image of God his goodness must be the expression of his freedom, he who is capable of the most sublime revelation is also capable of its most blasphemous disfigurement. It is the measure of our failure that we so easily fall into thinking that nature is more likely to be the image of God if left untouched by man. We should rather think of it as material put into our hands by God which we are to use in such a way as to bring out its revelatory powers.

The tendency to see God in nature as it stands, and attempts to find a rational explanation of evil as it actually exists, are relics of the classical and renaissance outlook, the outlook which demands that the creative process shall arrest its development, shall stand still and present to its would-be knower a cross section of itself which can be logically defined. Neither it, nor we (who are part of it) are of this kind. The universe is in the making, and we have come into existence at a stage in the process at which we are made by God to have a hand in the making of it. The natural world, over which by progress in scientific research we extend our control, and the circumstances of our own lives as they come to us from day to day, are raw material put into our hands for us to make of them what we will. As they come to us they may be as shapeless, as devoid of meaning, as a casual lump of clay in the eyes of a sculptor. Or, like some block of rough-hewn stone, they may already suggest to the expert the treatment by which their latent possibilities for good can be revealed. Only in retrospect, when the work has been done, will it be possible to understand how it has come about and to appreciate the materials that have been used.

Can this throw some further light on the subject of human pain? We are all familiar with the apologia for pain which points out how much that is most valuable in human character, patience, for example, and fortitude, is bred and born and raised by the endurance of pain. It is not always sufficiently remarked that whether or no the pain will have this good issue depends on how it is taken. The real problem of pain is not presented by pain endured heroically in a noble cause. We must bear in mind those for whom neither to themselves nor to those around them can their acute or long-drawn-out agony appear to serve any useful end, and, worst of all, those who perish embittered and resentful, a curse to themselves and to others.

Here the problems of pain and of moral evil are interfused and need to be kept distinct. If we are asking for a rational explanation of the pain which serves no useful end or is the source of further evil, we are pursuing a will-o'-the-wisp. Pain is one of those irrationalities of which no rational explanation can be given until it is rendered intelligible by the use that is made of it. If that use is not made, it is no good wasting our time trying to explain it.12 The question to be asked is why God has put it in the power of His creatures to decide between use and misuse. Again we are driven back to find our ultimate explanation in terms of God's care for freedom. Again we have to confess agnosticism when we are asked how in detail the unused suffering can be related to the intelligible end.

If this be so in the case of human pain, it is even more so when we turn our minds back to the evils existing in the pre-human stages of the creative process. I have already expressed my conviction that we cannot explain these away on the ground that where there are no human spectators we need not bother our heads about ugliness and squalor, and that pain may be a negligible quantity in the absence of human sensibility. One may admire the ingenuity displayed in the successive phases of the story of a liver fluke as told by Sir Charles Sherrington in the last of his Gifford Lectures,13 but one cannot help asking how such things can fit in with the purpose of creation as I have been trying to expound it. A Christian of simple faith and no philosophical pretensions may put the question in the form of asking how God could have made creatures like this, or how He could allow them to behave like this. We have translated his question into asking what part they can play in a process which expresses God's will to create a community of free finite persons, but I doubt whether by doing so we have come much nearer to giving a satisfactory answer to it. We have made some advance by discovering the lines on which the answer must be sought. It does make a difference that we give up trying to find a point of view from which it can be seen that whatever exists or happens is as it stands explicable as revelatory of God; that we think of it as a phase in a process contributing material to be used towards the fulfilment of His purpose. We may now know the question to be asked, but in its details much of the answer remains obscure.


In discussing the problem of the co-existence of good and evil in one universe, we have approached the second of my two questions. If evil is neither to be explained away, nor accepted as one constituent in an eternal dualism, how are we to account for its having come to play the part it plays in the creative process?

If what is desired is a quasi-historical account of the actual event or events in which an otherwise good process first suffered infection by evil, the only possible answer is that no such account can be given. That is the kind of question which requires evidence of a kind we have not got, about which the best we can do is to frame a Platonic myth.14 History there cannot be: the myth can only be ‘like the truth’ in the sense of being in accordance with what by now we have discovered to be the nature of things.

Here, as always, our starting-point must be the world of our actual experience. For myths, as for theories and doctrines, the content must be the criterion of the source. That we men are sinful is not a deduction from an assumed historical event in the Garden of Eden of which the historicity is guaranteed by its source. Our sinfulness is the fact of experience from which we start. Just as the problems of time and eternity and of good and evil remain problems whether or no we believe in God, so the fact that we are sinful remains true whether or no there is any historical truth in the story of Adam and Eve. The extent to which it is ‘like the truth’ depends upon the extent to which it is in accordance with what we know of the interaction of good and evil.

In one respect it is, to say the least, inadequate. It rings true to our experience of meeting and yielding to temptation. It is a myth which may be taken as truly picturing the way in which moral evil originates at the human stage of the creative process, picturing it as seen from the receiving end, from the point of view of those who are tempted and fall. So far, so good. But it has nothing to say about whatever evils had infected creation in the pre-human stages, or of how they can be explained and justified by reference to God's creative purpose.

I have argued that moral evil, or sin, is the easiest kind of evil to justify in this way because it can be directly related to God's will to create persons perfected through the exercise of genuine freedom. It is not surprising that the framers of modern myths carry their imagination back beyond the observable origins of the creative process and picture it as consequent upon a prior rebellion of a creature or creatures endowed with personal freedom.15 From those that I have read I have not been able to gain any clear idea of what kind of creatures they were that are held to have rebelled or ‘fallen’, and I am profoundly sceptical of attempts that have been made to give the myths a historical colouring by quasi-scientific correlations of stages in evolution with parallels in their moral rehabilitation. To my mind, if we are to have myths of this kind at all, there is more to be said for the traditional story of fallen angels who still persist as devils. On this I cannot do better than quote from Dr. C. C. J. Webb:

The problem of the suffering of the lower animals is the most difficult part of the problem of pain. When it was usual to regard such suffering as always due to the results of the fall of man… the fact of animal suffering was considered to be due to human sin, and so we might pass on to the problem of human sin. Nor can we in any case hold this view, since we have every reason to suppose that animal suffering existed ages before the appearance of man upon the earth. We are not, indeed, debarred… from the conjecture that this pre-human suffering might yet be traceable to an evil, though not a human, will; for such a conjecture cannot be ruled out of court because it has in the past been presented in a mythological shape in which we cannot accept it.… It is worthy of notice that some of the difficulties which are commonly felt in approaching the problem are certainly due to an assumption which we are nowadays too apt to make without hesitation, that moral evil can exist only in human wills, and that the environment of humanity must be attributed wholly, if at all, to God. The very ancient and widely-held view that the world, as we know it, is depraved through the activity of an evil will or wills antecedent to the appearance of man in it, is often hardly considered as worthy of serious consideration. Yet many thinkers have found themselves unable to dispense with it. Plato… Mill.… For my part I cannot doubt that an ultimate unity is required alike by religion and by philosophy. But that morally evil human wills exist, we know; that they affect injuriously the environment of other persons we also know. No new difficulty is added by the thought that superhuman evil wills exist and have injuriously affected the environment of humanity as a whole. And this supposition would go some way towards explaining why it is hard to regard nature as altogether good.16

Ever since I first read this passage forty years ago it has remained in my mind as making more sense than its rivals. Even so it leaves much that is obscure. Attempts to work out its implications in detail, to describe the original creation of the angels, to picture the circumstances of their rebellion and transformation into devils, to trace the connection between these events and the creation of this actual universe which we are trying to understand—all such attempts, however ‘like the truth’ they may be in the Platonic sense, leave us without conviction that they give any record of what actually occurred.

What, then, does it all come to? Our setting out to make sense of the universe has brought us up against the problem of evil, and the problem of evil gives us the sharpest reminder of what is our situation throughout. We start from our actual experience. We try to observe it carefully and to describe it accurately, seeking to avoid pitfalls by paying attention to questions of logic and epistemology. All this is with a view to working out its implications. We come to see ourselves as creatures existing at a certain stage in an evolutionary process in which we are given the opportunity of growing in freedom as individualized persons. To make sense of this whole process we postulate an eternal Creator who is creating us into a community of persons perfected in their freedom. To a certain extent we can see how the evils we encounter and the evils which we harbour in ourselves can contribute to this creation of our freedom, but we look out from the sphere of our immediate experience in which we can see this more or less clearly, peering into a world around where there is much that is obscure.

What are we to do? We must go on peering. We need make no apology for being unable to answer all the questions that puzzle us. Philosophy is a quest, and so long as we go on peering we may be most philosophical when we confess ourselves baffled. What we can see, we see by the rays of what light we have got, and our only hope of being able to see more lies in our allowing those rays to penetrate further into the surrounding obscurity.

This year I have been doing what I can to see by the light of natural theology, and have got as far as I can. One thing, however, remains to be said. We must not forget the lesson we have learned from the pragmatists. The light we have got is light by which we must live as well as look, and it may be that by the action we take this or that opaque object in the surrounding darkness may be changed so as to become transparent to thought. It may be that to have learned something of the nature of true freedom, and that we are created to grow in it, will give us light enough to walk by, and that to walk by it is the way to the solution of our puzzle.

We need make no apology for being unable to solve all the questions that puzzle us. It is a clear implication of our Lord's prayer in the garden of Gethsemane that the problem of evil was one which in His earthly ministry He was content to leave veiled in obscurity, and that at the point at which we have found ourselves most baffled. We seemed to see our way towards making sense of the universe and of our lives within it by deriving it all from God's will to create freedom. But we had to acknowledge a good deal of evil of which we could not see why its occurrence should be necessary for the achievement of this end. If He whom we believe to have been God incarnate could not see clearly why His death was necessary to the fulfilment of God's purpose, why should we be surprised when in this life we find that we too have to walk by faith and not by sight? ‘It is enough for the disciple that he be as his master, and the servant as his Lord.’

Appended Note

Towards the end of the eighth lecture I was saying that education is an art rather than a science in that the kind of question involved is whether a particular pupil at a particular moment is more in need of discipline or of independence, of sympathy or of severity. To this may be added considerations drawn from the statement near the beginning of this ninth lecture, that ‘our idea of the perfect, of the ideal, must be grounded in our experience of the actual: it must be the kind of perfection towards which the actually existing imperfection points’.

If this be so, there may be two opposite errors in educational theory and practice. The one is to start out with a fixed idea of perfection, a stereotype of character to which all children and pupils must be made to conform irrespective of their various idiosyncrasies. The other is that each individual should be allowed to develop along his own lines without correction or discipline. It may be that the traditional educational practice of the Victorian age tended towards the former error, and that in reaction against it some Edwardians went too far in the direction of the latter.

The upshot of what I have been urging in these lectures would seem to be this. The universe reveals its Creator to be aiming at the production of a community of persons who grow in freedom try devoting themselves to the pursuit of ends of eternal value. These ends are of various kinds, demanding various kinds of service for which in turn are appropriate various types of character or capacity. The task of the teacher, therefore, is not only to discern what kind of treatment a pupil may need at this or that moment of his career, but also towards what type of perfection he should be encouraged and trained to aspire, this being ‘the kind of perfection towards which the actually existing imperfection points’. Thus doubly it is a matter of aesthetic perception rather than the application of a scientific rule.

  • 1.

    Above, Lecture II, pp. 32 ff.

  • 2.

    Above, Lecture VIII, p. 178.

  • 3.

    Above, Lecture II, p. 37.

  • 4.

    See Lecture VI, p. 129.

  • 5.

    Above, Lecture VII, pp. 161 ff.

  • 6.

    Above, Lecture VI, p. 133.

  • 7.

    On this, see my Christian Faith and Practice, p. 35.

  • 8.

    Above, Lecture VII, p. 152.

  • 9.

    Above, Lecture VII, p. 165.

  • 10.

    Above, Lecture VII, p. 152.

  • 11.

    B. Bosanquet: The Value and Destiny of the Individual (London, 1913), p. 157.

  • 12.

    I.e., in terms of the kind of explanation with which we are now concerned.

  • 13.

    Sir Charles Sherrington: Man on His Nature (Pelican Edition, 1955), p. 272.

  • 14.

    Above, Lecture VI, p. 121.

  • 15.

    E.g., C. W. Formby: The Unveiling of the Fall (London, 1923); N. P. Williams: The Ideas of the Fall and of Original Sin (London, 1927); P. Green: The Pre-Mundane Fall (London, 1944).

  • 16.

    C. C. J. Webb: Problems in the Relation of God and Man (London, 1911), p. 268.