Whatever Happened to Evil?
James Morrow's Blameless in Abaddon
by Tom Radcliffe
Copyright: Tom Radcliffe
Harcourt Brace and Company, 1996, ISBN 0-15-188656-3
Ancient philosophy, particularly amongst the Greeks, tended to focus much more on the nature of good than of evil. Lacking any positive, universal incarnation of evil -- lacking, in short, Satan -- the Greeks were stuck with mostly talking about the Good. Christianity's big innovation was the introduction of a single, simple personification of evil, which had a number of profound consequences, not all of them entirely bad.
James Morrow explores the problem of evil in Blameless in Abaddon, a magic-realist satire where the absurdly impossible (the discovery of the corporeal body of God) and the brutally mundane (prostate cancer, AIDS, car crashes) are mixed seamlessly. Morrow describes himself as an author of moral fables, and while his entrancing first book, The Wine of Violence, was clothed decently in a cloak of science-fiction, the present offering is "fabulous" in a much more traditional way, transmuting the abstract problems of everyday life into metaphorically powerful concretes. In this book Morrow delves deeply into the natural history of evil by the device of a small-town magistrate, Martin Candle, who decides to have God tried by the World Court at the Hague for Crimes Against Humanity.
The book is an independent sequel to Towing Jehovah, which told the story of the discovery of the two-mile long Corpus Dei in a Greenland icecap, and its subsequent installation as the Main Attraction of Celestial City, USA, an evangelical Christian theme park in Florida. Although apparently inert, it isn't clear if the Body of God is dead or merely comatose. According to the explanation favored by its evangelical keepers, God isn't dead, but has shed his body like the skin of a serpent in some divine metamorphosis.
After a series of personal tragedies, including prostate cancer and the death of his wife in a senseless accident, Martin Candle realizes it's time humanity called God to account. After a rocky start, he proceeds to build his case by examining the pillars of Christian theodicy. A theodicy is an attempt to reconcile the following propositions:
Unlike the average Christian, Morrow knows his bible, and lightly covers some of the more egregiously sadistic acts of God, from Lot's wife to Job's children. Most Christians, of course, have no clue what the bible -- particularly the old testament -- actually says. If they did, then we'd at least be spared the spectacle of fundamentalists dressed in cotton-polyester (Deut. 22:11). Jonathan Sarkos, otherwise known as the devil, narrates part of the story, and we hear from him that taking prayer out of public schools was a great blow to his cause, because it reduced children's opportunities to hear how God so loved the world he killed every living thing in a great flood, that one small arc would not perish, but provide the Earth with life.
The story breaks down into three parts: Martin Candle's misfortunes, which motivate him to indict God, the visit that Candle and a team of scientists make to God's brain, and finally the court case itself. The expedition of the second part is intended to determine if God is actually alive -- to see if there's any activity in his dormant form. So while the Corpus Dei is being towed across the Atlantic to have it's day in court, Candle and company are escorted around the divine cerebellum by the Idea of Saint Augustine.
That's Idea in the Platonic sense, for Morrow's God is remarkably Greek ("I expected something more Jewish" one of the neuronauts comments.) Morrow demonstrates the absurdity of realism with regard to universals by juxtaposing the Idea of the Paperclip with that of Freedom -- if particulars are subsumed under concepts by virtue of partaking in an exemplification relationship with a real universal, then there must be a real universal out there that is the concept PAPERCLIP, and presumably that real universal predated the existence of the first particular paperclip by roughly the age of the universe. Realism is thus incidentally exposed as a remarkably conservative doctrine, which denies that humans have any ability to innovate conceptually -- the universe must already "contain" all the universals there can ever be, and they are just waiting for us to discover them.
Morrow's Augustine is a delightful character. As the inventor of concupiscence, he's continually asking Candle if he's ever experienced a wide range of improbable sensual desires, the most unusual of which is probably, "Have you ever felt the desire to suck on the ears of a hippopotamus?"
As Augustine guides the explorers through God's brain, they encounter various characters from biblical history, but in fact learn very little. They find answers to a few of the traditional theodicies -- the eschatological defense, for instance, which claims that suffering is required for further moral growth in the afterlife -- is easily dealt with. But they are stymied by the free will defense and the ontological defense -- the former claims that evil is a necessary consequence of free will, and the latter that God made the universe, and who are we to complain?
The encounter with Christ I found a bit disappointing, but it's hardly a criticism of Morrow that he couldn't quite sustain his deftness of touch throughout the whole of this marvelous book.
Back in the world, Candle takes his case to the world court, arguing against Professor G. F. Lovett, fabulously wealthy theologian and author of children's books, who in fact bankrolls the whole process for the sake of the opportunity to defend his God from the blasphemers. Candle's task of presenting the horrors of history is made difficult only by their superfluity. How could you possibly recount even a fair sampling of "Acts of God" in a reasonable time? Like Candle himself, you can see Morrow wishing he could pack more in. We live in an historically impoverished age, where many educated people aren't aware of the horrors cataloged by Solzhenitsyn or Shirer in the past few decades, much less what happened at the end of the Children's Crusade, or the fate of the Heguenots, or the plague that depopulated Europe toward the end of the Middle Ages. Here is Morrow's opportunity to parade some of the lesser-known horrors of history and he uses it well.
Throughout, Morrow never loses his dark sense of humor, or forgets the fundamental cause of many of the human evils that plague us. While cross-examining theologian Eleanor Swann -- who is a mean-spirited caricature of Elaine Pagels -- the following exchange takes place:
"The eschatological argument has a venerable history, does it not?"
"Oh yes. I'm particularly moved by Bishop Origen's concept of apocatasis, according to which even the Devil can be saved."
"Origen cut off his own balls," Martin informed Randall.
I shan't spoil Morrow's ending, which is logical enough in the context of a universe where God exists. But it's interesting to consider the question again: does God exist? How could it be that so many people for so many centuries shed so much blood, from crusades to witch trials to the inquisition, and they never noticed the trivial impossibility of what they they were purportedly fighting for?
For it is trivially impossible to reconcile the goodness, omnipotence and omnescience of God with the existence of suffering, which is what we don't like about evil. If God is omnipotent -- by which I take it to mean that God could make A identical to not-A -- then no argument that uses words like "necessity" or "must" holds any sway. If God "must" anything, or if God is in any way bound by necessity, then God is not omnipotent, but rather there is a higher law (the law of non-contradiction) that even God must obey.
But all the theocies depend on some sort of divine limitation, and operate solely by confusing the issue to the obscure this fact. For example, consider the claim that suffering is necessary to produce moral improvement. This fails because an omnipotent God could have produced exactly the same moral improvement without the suffering. It's no good saying that it "wouldn't be the same" if God just did the Job without any suffering involved, because that is precisely the point: an omnipotent God could make it exactly the same without any suffering being involved. If God is bound by the laws of logic, then there is a higher law that even God is bound by, and therefore God is not omnipotent. How God could make it exactly the same without any suffering involved is of course beyond human comprehension, but that's what God is supposed to be anyway.
The very existence of theodicy as a field of endeavor is a triumph of faith over reason, and a measure of the lengths human beings will go to avoid the obvious: there is no God, and only someone who is mentally defective or morally corrupt would believe that there is. I personally believe that most Christians are not morally corrupt, but rather with regard to this single subject -- which is thankfully now often separated from the rest of their lives -- they are mentally disfunctional. Many intelligent, thoughtful, capable people believe in a good, omnipotent God on the basis of arguments that they would reject out of hand were they applied to any other subject.
I've got a lot more to say about the nature of evil that goes beyond the scope of this review. Like any good book, Blameless in Abaddon has provided opportunity and motivation to think at length about its central question, which in this case is: "What is the nature of evil, and if God exists, why is there so much of it about?"