25 Jan 2017

Our enduring fascination with evil

From Nights, 7:12 pm on 25 January 2017

Sin, guilt and the demonic are all in a day's work for Professor Paul Morris. He’s teaching a course about evil – and its converse, salvation ­– at Victoria University.

Prof Morris says the two concepts are inextricably linked.

Fall and Expulsion from Garden of Eden, Michelangelo.

Fall and Expulsion from Garden of Eden, Michelangelo. Photo: Wikicommons

“You can’t understand notions of salvation and redemption in different cultural and religious traditions without grasping something of what’s understood to be wrong with the world.”

Western theology has long struggled to define and understand evil, but Prof Morris says he’s interested in a contemporary, functional definition.

“I want to know why we’re so obsessed with evil.”

A strong sense of good and evil can be traced back to the ancients, he says. The Greek philosopher Epicurus devised a “philosophical matrix” to help make sense of evil and how God could allow it.

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able, then he is not all-powerful. Is he able but not willing, then he’s malevolent. Is he both able and willing then where can evil come from? Is he neither able nor willing then shall we call him God?”

The modern, secular take on evil is more scientific.

“We want to explain it, not in terms of metaphysical evil, not in terms of Satan - in terms of demonic forces, but in terms of psychology, pathology sociology and biology.

“Why do we need evil and what function does it serve in terms of our thinking and our social ordering?”

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