Have you ever seen one of those games where a ball is placed under one of three cups? The cups get shuffled and you have to guess which one has a ball underneath. Have you ever played? This post will be like one of those games, and I apologize, but it seems we’ve shuffled up three concepts in our culture and I’d like to try to unshuffle them a bit. Ready?
First, I want to introduce Good and Bad. These can be tough concepts, mostly because they are so fundamental. They can be displayed, explained, and explored, but at the end of the day they indicate the preferred and not-preferred. The good is what I or we or the universe prefers. The bad is the opposite. For the sake of today’s post, I’m going to presume that the Good is the Christian good, that is what we think God prefers and what we think everyone will prefer in the end. It is the ideal good, of which our intellectual, de facto, doctrinal conceptions of good are only a pale reflection.
Second, want to introduce Order and Chaos. The first represents systematic meaningful interaction between all of it’s parts, while the latter represents a meaningless, orderless jumble of stuff. We get these ideas from the ancient Babylonians who saw the world as a battle between Marduk (king of the city and order) and his mother Tiamat (queen of the floods and chaos). For them Order and Good were equated as the citizens of Babylon collaborated to stave off the disaster that could result from the flooding Tigris and Euphrates rivers. They abhorred the destruction that the rivers could wreck upon buildings, crops, and people. They also recognized their importance in maintaining fertile soil. The Babylonians were dualist. Though they believed that Marduk was Good and Tiamat Evil, they also saw them as opposed universal forces, equal in dignity.
Third, I want to introduce Known and Unknown. These two look at first like Order and Chaos, but they are not quite the same. By known I mean known by humans, comprehensible and meaningful to us. Christians, Babylonians, and even Modernist philosophers recognize such a thing as unseen order. Things may appear totally chaotic, but have an underlying pattern and structure. The field of “Chaos Theory” refers to a type of unseen order in math. Indeed, it specifically refers to deterministic processes, which follow mechanically and invariably from their initial conditions, which nonetheless are so minutely dependent on those conditions that we can rarely predict the actual outcomes. Tiny forces – like the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Iowa – can have huge consequences in distant places – like hurricanes in China. Similarly, there is something to be said for known – even predictable – chaos. Fundamental particles (quarks, electrons, photons) come in and out of being on a regular basis. Their positions and speeds cannot be determined precisely, and yet, as aggregates, as collections of particles, they are regular and predictable. They make up stable atoms and molecules and organisms like you and me.
So we have three pairs: Good and Evil, Order and Chaos, Known and Unknown. Alas, we often mistake one for another and that can be a challenge. One old confusion, popular in the Middle Ages, was to confuse Goodness and Order, to slip from Christianity into the Babylonian Dualism. In light of Christendom (consolidated Christian European society) and systematic theology, it was tempting to think that the order of empire or kingdom was identical to the goodness of God. Anything outside that order must be evil.
In the 20th and 20th century, we have largely escaped this kind of simplistic thinking, but we are prone to other errors. In the Enlightenment, we discovered that human reason shed light on much that was previously thought to be Chaos. The city expanded at the expense of the wilderness. The human order imposed on nature became preferred to the forces of nature which still threatened and at times dominated human concerns.
The authors of the Bible recognized a place for city and wilderness. Jerusalem, the holy city, was viewed as the center of goodness and relationship with God. And yet, the prophets were almost always found in the wilderness. After baptism, Jesus is forced into the wilderness, and often prayed in the relative quiet of nature. For Christians, this was contrasted to the decadence and corruption not only of Babylon (the Christian type for evil) but of Jerusalem (the Christian type for good).
In the Middle Ages, Christians used the vast wilderness and the boundless sea as symbols of a God who transcended human endeavor. Monks in Iona looked out upon the Western Sea as monks in Syria looked upon the desert as transcendent, inspiring awe and humility. They recognized God’s presence in the city and in the wild.
In the Enlightenment and the Industrial revolution, we began to domesticate the wilderness. We built homes…everywhere. We strung rail tracks and later telephone wires across all the deserted spaces. We began to think of ourselves as dominating nature…successfully. Whereas acts of nature (also known as acts of God) used to be regular occurrences, we know see them as isolated and rare tragedies. Wilderness, which used to cover everything in between the centers of human life, has turned into something you have to go out of your way to find.
What would a Medieval monk think of a quest for wilderness? It’s entirely reasonable today. It would have been utter nonsense then. Wilderness was just outside your door.
Likewise, unknown powers were just outside your door and perfectly capable of reaching into your life and changing things. The machinations of Greek gods, feudal lords, wild spirits, elves, or even the animals could have a profound impact on you life. They were easy (if imperfect) metaphors for an omnipotent, omniscient God who both cared about you and had the power to reach out and change you anytime and anyplace. God could be present in all the unexplored spaces in a way that suggested God everywhere. This was not a God of gaps (diminishing with human exploration) but a God of the World, a God of the Universe who lived in the world of worlds (“saecula saeculorum,” “for ever and ever,” “world without end”), what we might call the multiverse.
In a world with countless Unknown forces, it was easy to think of God as another force of the Unknown – or partially known.
Then came the enlightenment. Humans began to expand Order and the Known. We began to think colonially, that the Good went with these things. Just look at the rhetoric of the Salem witch trials and Manifest Destiny and the slaughter of Native Americans. (Yes, these happened during the Enlightenment.) In both cases, Good Known Order was said to replace Evil Unknown Chaos. The still popular image of Satan as half goat, half man was borrowed from late Roman urban Christians demonizing the religion of the rural [Latin: pagan] populace. That image became popular again in colonial America where the wilderness was associated with evil until it could be conquered by the enlightened Europeans.
We lost the ability to appreciate the Good Unknown. We lost the ability to recognize humble surrender to the wild as an avenue of self-transcendence. Mind you, I said AN avenue, not THE avenue. I’m not saying all unknown is good, only that some Good Unknown exists, just as some EVIL KNOWN exists.
Worse yet, we lost our regular contact with wilderness. 21st century humans rarely encounter the wilderness, and when we do it is often only in the context of tragedy. When’s the last time you contemplated the wild blue sea, or stopped (actually stopped) in the middle of the desert. We have luxury cars and ships and planes, full of amenities that protect us from being overwhelmed by the wild. We control our temperature, bring water and pre-packaged snacks with us everywhere. We can’t even see the stars of the sky because of all the light pollution. “The vast expanse of interstellar space” should dwarf even our most grandiose schemes of human adventure. We live on a thin skin of habitability on one planet among billions of stars and billions of galaxies. When’s the last time you contemplated the deeps of eternity?
Humans have become civilized and domesticated to the point where we may not even have the mental vocabulary to conceive of words like omnipotence and transcendence, much less God.
Sadly, this situation has only been an excuse for worse philosophy. Recognizing the problem, we have attempted several unfortunate fixes. Liberals have tried to domesticate Chaos, denying that Evil even exists, or associating all Order with Evil. Conservatives have idolized the Unknown, claiming that what isn’t known cannot be known, while Secular Humanist have idolized the Known, making it a virtue to deny even the existence of the unknowable.
The answer is, and always has been, to recognize all three dualities. We must argue for an against each one on it’s own merits. There will always be a place for talk of Good and Evil. Some things are preferred over others, not just for my sake or God’s but for everyone’s. You can call it good and bad, or utility, or eudaemonia, or what you will, but as long as there are groups of people there will be group ethics and group priorities. Likewise, there will always be a place for talk of Order and Chaos. We will always build, and we will always need to plow under. That’s the only way that crops grow. And there is a time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones together. Good comes in both forms, as does evil. It comes when when Order and Chaos are out of season.
Finally, there is a time to know and a time to accept without knowing. There is even, though rare, a season to refuse knowledge offered to you (see triangulation, family systems theory, cyclops). Far more often, though, we are faced with the Unknown which we must accept as unknown while striving to know.
New knowledge can only arrive when old certainty has been retired.
I hope all of you will cease making arguments that Order is inherently Good or Evil. I hope that all of you will cease mistaking human knowledge as the only or even the best measure of the Good. Rather, I hope you’ll have your eyes open to the Good which arrives in the most surprising ways and may be done by you, if you’re willing to do the hard work of figuring it out.