Monday, January 03, 2005

Evil, Tsunamis, and Problems...

Joe Carter has given good grist for a little comparative religious dialog, which can be nicely juxtaposed against Stephen Batchelor...

First, Carter:

... the modern age assumes to be able to know what can be real and what should be relegated to the realm of superstition. The line of demarcation is clear: physical reality is all that exists and the supernatural has no means of supervening upon it. While we may be under the “illusion” that there is something more, all reality is ultimately reducible to physical matter. There are no beliefs, just “folk psychology.” There is no mind, only a collection of neurons and synapses. There is no God, only the universe.

When such common-sense phenomena are excluded from consideration, it should not be surprising to find that the idea of Satan is considered merely an “outrageous and fantastic” story told by primitive people. Our chronological snobbery -- the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited -- prevents us from even considering the possibility that the will of a malevolent non-human personality could affect the natural world. We are to adhere to scientism, rejecting explanations based not on their correspondence to truth but to their ability to provide purely naturalistic explanations. Ironically, while the existence of natural evil is often used as a proof against the existence of God, it is rarely acknowledged as evidence of the existence of Satan.

But what if Satan not only exists but has a sphere of influence within the natural realm? Could it account for some or all of the natural evil that is found in creation?...

If Satan -- a non-human, morally responsible agent – actually exists, then we should not find it difficult to assume that, like humans, he has the power to choose a reality that is contrary to what God would have him choose. As Boyd points out, “Jesus never attributed genetic mutations, deformities, blindness, deafness, leprosy, blood diseases, fevers, falling towers, barren trees, life-threatening storms or death itself to God’s providence or to “natural” features of his Father’s creation. He consistently identifies them as evidence of the reign of the kingdom of darkness here on earth, a kingdom that his ministry was intended to destroy.”

I wanted to quote this at length to record my blunt Buddhist response: and you atribute this to "evil" because...? Look, it's an opportunity for compassion, sincerity, generosity, and wisdom. People DIE. It's part of our lot as people.

The Buddha gave a story - which to me is quite a bit more satisfying than a parallel Christian story- about a woman whose child had died. Instead of miraculously bringing the child back to life- a lot of good that would do us now- the Buddha said to go and get mustard seeds from 5 houses in which the dwellers had never known someone who died.

Now for Batchelor:

In Buddhism, the Mara, which is their term for the devil, literarily means, "the killer" and we can take that literally as that which actually brings our life to an end and thereby most effectively stops us from realizing whatever we were set out on doing in our lives. The Buddha, for example, speaks of being caught in Mara's trap, being caught by Mara's fishhooks—in a more metaphorical sense, in that we are caught or trapped in, let's say, a state of fear or paranoia. We are literally hemmed in and often feel ourselves incapable of actually moving out of that space.

In terms of the more popular images of the devil as a kind of a cruel, tyrannical tricksterish evil, demon, or goblin, we need to think less in terms of the outward form of that figure but in terms of what it would feel like to be under the grip of such figures. One would feel tied down, one would feel somehow tormented, and one would feel trapped and stuck. So to me, the demonic, or the devil, is a way of trying to articulate the existential feeling that we have when our life is somehow not moving anymore....

One of the images I like very much in the Buddhist tradition is when Mara, the demonic, is identified with the Indian god Namuci who is the Vedic god of the drought. Mara is literally that which prevents the waters of life from flowing freely. I think that's a very, very telling image. So evil is basically what we are prone to in terms of selfishness, in terms of projecting negativity onto the Other that stems from a particular clinging or grasping that we have in wanting to secure my identity as "me."

Now Mara, strictly speaking, doesn't really exist in Buddhism, being illusory and all that, but this wanting to cling, to tie down, to constrain, is very parallel to the original meaning of diablos, which is the being that puts obstacles in our way.

We don't have to see the tsunami as an obstacle, we can see it as an opportunity. We can make an obstacle out of it. Or an opporutnity. It all depends on whether we want to be beside Mara or Avolokitesvara, metaphorically or from the Lotus Sutra speaking.

Other ideas on Beliefnet are here and here.

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