Columnists > Voices

The problem of good

The existence of evil is not all that requires some explanation

Issue: "2004 Olympics Preview," Aug. 14, 2004

Much worthwhile ink has been spilt on the problem of evil-how can evil exist if God is holy and omnipotent. Less strenuous debate, it seems to me, is waged over the problem of good. This is unfortunate since the latter is a conundrum no less formidable for the person who sets out in earnest to understand the world in which he finds himself. The good begs an accounting.

I also had once dismissed God over the problem of evil. The syllogism is a commonplace: "God is good. God is omniscient. There is evil. Therefore God does not exist." But the fly in the ointment was always-when it would break in upon me from time to time-the unbidden and fleeting experience of what I can only call the "good," or "beauty" (for in that moment the two appear one).

To speak of it out loud is trifling and unpersuasive. To be overwhelmed by it in a moment is to have one's agnosticism shaken to the core. The immediacy of the experience makes a mockery of the pretenses of philosophy. The certainty of the experience raises the age-old question of what constitutes proof.

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It is the experience of the good that ushered C.S. Lewis into faith. He describes his first encounter, during the bleak time after his mother's death and his brother's being packed off to boarding school: "As I stood beside a flowering currant bush on a summer day there suddenly arose in me without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries, the memory of that earlier morning at the Old House when my brother had brought his toy garden into the nursery. It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton's 'enormous bliss' of Eden (giving the full, ancient meaning to 'enormous') comes somewhere near it. It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what? Not, certainly, for a biscuit tin filled with moss, nor even (though that came into it) for my own past."

Lewis continues in Surprised by Joy, "Before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased. It had taken only a moment of time; and in a certain sense everything else that had ever happened to me was insignificant in comparison." Of subsequent and similarly joy-filled epiphanies, Lewis cites as the common denominator, "an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction . . . anyone who has experienced it will want it again."

The experience of the good: There's the theological problem. How is it that in the midst of a perfectly horrid day, or in a world in which foreign contractors are ceremoniously beheaded for no reason and Sudanese toddlers are run through with the swords of the Janjaweed militias, we experience a whisper in the pine tops on a sleepy afternoon, or the grazing of our cheeks with a breeze, or a lilac scent that no poet has captured, or the pleasure of friendship?

The problem of good is what rallied Puddleglum (in Lewis's The Silver Chair) from the brink of deadly soul sleep by the witch's evil enchantment in her dungeon kingdom. Prince Rilian, Scrubb, Jill, and he had nearly succumbed to her specious logic disproving the Overworld, or Narnia: "Your sun is a dream; and there is nothing in that dream that was not copied from the lamp. The lamp is the real thing; the 'sun' is but a tale, a children's story." But the Marshwiggle, in his finest moment, would not deny what he had seen: "I know I was there once. I've seen the sky full of stars, the sun coming up out of the sea of a morning and sinking behind the mountains at night. And I've seen him in the midday sky when I couldn't look at him for brightness."

Puddleglum added an interesting twist: "Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things-trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one."

Which strikes me as another proof. All are road signs, all pointing to God-the True, the Omniscient, the Good.

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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