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Ancient Core/Postmodern Periphery: Musings on the Nature of 'Evil'

Copyright 1997 by Saille Ní Caróg. Previously unpublished. Presented at a "Write Your Own Ticket Party" hosted by Richard James, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on November 15, 1997.

As we sit in comfort, and in good company discussing "the nature of evil", terrible things are happening in our communities.

Somewhere, a woman has just been hit by the man she loves. Her cool shock, her guilt and shame, will prevent her from even attempting to bring her abuser to justice.

Despite the record profits recorded by major corporations in this quarter, they continue to "downsize", and the average person is less able to meet her monthly bills than she was ten years ago.

In Ontario, and throughout Europe and North America, the group of people living below the poverty line consists, increasingly, of women. This is called "the feminization of poverty".

In the St. Lawrence, deep in the bodies of Beluga whales, cancer grows. Whales do not smoke, and the cancer is linked to environmental pollution from as far away as Mexico. No one is taking responsibility for the dark and secret pain of these whales.

We, for the most part, are thinking and conscientious Wiccans who deeply love our world. We feel passionately for its wildlife, its women and men, and its varied and vibrant communities. And we love our gods, who constantly reveal themselves as immanent and fully attached to this world, indwelling in a gently flowing stream, a rowan tree, our lovers' smiles, and our own just fury.

If this is the position from which we speak, I suggest that our answers tonight to the "problem of evil" should meet two criteria:

  1. First, they should adequately and accurately reflect the physical and psychic realities which we experience, including the problems I have mentioned.

  2. Second, if we believe that we have the ability to change our world, our theories should be shaped so that they permit of realistic solutions.

I want to propose that the remedy for our current social and ecological ills does not lie in the cool hands of a Doctor of Metaphysics.

If Wicca were a tree, it would have a deep taproot into earth-based tradition and experience, grafted at its trunk onto a network of high branches which represent European metaphysics in the form of Ceremonialist tradition and practice.

Euroamerican metaphysics and rational thought depend on the creation, in the imaginations of their proponents, of a deep split between physical and intellectual realities. They reject and devalue physical items and experiences in favor of an abstract intellectuality. An early and familiar example is seen in Plato's theory of forms, which claims that true and perfect shapes and concepts exist only on an intellectual plane, and manifest themselves on earth in a deformed and imperfect manner. In the seventeenth century, Descartes' rationalism, epitomized in the statement, "I think, therefore I am", divorced mind from body, and at the same time made a value judgment which denigrated physical reality.

All of modern science, technology and economics began to be made possible, in the eighteenth century, by the slow victory of this view of the world over alternative views. We must not forget that the "Enlightenment", the period of this victory of rationalism, obtained its brightness in part from the pyres on which alleged witches, who embodied the remnants of other criteria for knowledge, had been burned.

The rationalist, Enlightenment paradigm of reality is deeply flawed, for it forces a radical divorce of a variety of parallel elements. It splits mind from body, abstract theory from the concrete facts it is responsible for describing, spirit from nature, masculine from feminine. In its wake, concrete realities are obscured by the theories which purport to describe them, and it is more true now than ever that the Hebrew god cries as he wanders the desert looking for his Shekhinah, his feminine counterpart.

Feminists have suggested that it is this tragic divorce which has led to the imbalance between men's and women's powers in daily life; and environmentalists claim that this same split lies at the base of our culture's abuses of the wild.

When expertise becomes ungrounded, the place of reality is usurped by theory. Without the recognition of the connections between mind and body, spirit and nature, and so on, everyday experiences of injustice are not adequately reflected in theories of ethics. And the ethical theories which are created are so radically and inaccurately abstracted that they can provide no practical solutions to the ills in our communities.

In developing my own view on the "problem of evil", I seek a perspective which empowers individuals to speak about the particular problems in their communities. In addition, my perspective must not replicate the rift caused by the ossification of rationalism into dominant thought structures, but instead work to heal this break.

On these grounds, I reject a metaphysical solution which would propose the existence of some unseen absolutes of "good" and "evil", to be researched and created only by expert minds well versed in philosophy and the history of philosophy. These absolutes would be highly abstracted mental structures which would not jive with my Wiccan experiences.

Wiccans, though they may interpret their gods, in part, as abstracted representations of the powers in Nature and of psychic forces, do not live and worship merely on the level of intellectuality. We strive to remain open to new experiences with the Gods. The rich texture of these encounters exists on a variety of levels: spiritual, intellectual, emotional, physical. We are inspired in a variety of contexts: in indoor temples, out in the wild, and in among the joys and sorrows our daily lives. The language of our Earth-bound gods speaks itself through all the beauty and powers of the Earth.

In an open defiance of our ideas and theories about the gods and the world, the neat tapestries on which we picture the universe are constantly being torn by the shifting of reality and the assertion of truth. Over and over, they call for mending, re-imagining, re-weaving. Switching to another metaphor, we might say that in this process, thought and action become partners in an ecstatic, seemingly chaotic dance.

In speaking of "evil", I wish to reflect this flexibility and mutability of belief in the growing and evolving Wiccan tradition of which I am a part.

To recap, then, I have developed four criteria:

  1. Adequate and accurate reflection of physical and psychic experience.
  2. Flexibility and potential adaptation to new experience.
  3. Healing, not perpetuating, the mind-body split, and
  4. Permitting of solutions to concrete, particular examples of injustice (which, often, could also be termed "evil").

Clearly, there are several directions in which I might take my quest to define "the nature of 'evil'". At this point, I would like to claim that there are a variety of valid and adequate descriptions for any situation. With this claim, I am embracing an element of postmodern thought. Each description will most adequately fit the experiences of one person or another. These alternative views of the "problem of 'evil'" need not compete but can add to one another, creating a rich variety of views which people may draw on, depending on their needs and experiences in a given situation. A variety of cosmologies and theories of evil, should then, coexist, interact, and enrich one another. In our community, I believe this is a daily reality.

My own favorite conception of evil is that evil is imbalance. As a Wiccan, I believe that the world is governed by a variety of forces which it embodies. In different systems of thought which I use in my Wiccan practice, these forces are variously symbolized by: the four elements and Spirit; or, the Spheres of the Kabbalah; or, the Gods themselves. Other Wiccans draw on representations which are not part of this list. The important commonality between the systems listed here is that they conceive of energies in the world as multiple, often fragmented, and in a dynamic balance with one another.

Each of the above systems foregrounds a different level of Being, and, each is governed by different principles of operation. For example, often the energies represented by the gods behave towards one another in the manner in which, in the myths, the gods interact. Here, we might think of the rivalry between Pele, the volcano goddess, and her sister, the ice lady. Just as, in the myth, they were constantly chasing one another away, so fire and ice and the things they represent metaphorically, perhaps "explosive anger" and "stable structure", cannot coexist. Each system provides metaphors which best describe certain kinds of interactions. Together, they approach a complete picture of the world.

All of the above systems represent elements and forces which, for their proper operation, must sustain a dynamic balance. When humans interfere in this balance, a state of imbalance may result which can be called "evil". The disproportionate dominance in the world or a section of it, of technological thought and practice, (which we might conceptualize using the Kabbalistic sphere hod) can have tragic and devastating results. This is one way that we might theorize the ethic of progress without empathy which has led to the dumping of chemicals that brought cancer into the bodies of the Laurentian Belugas. According to this partial perspective (which is one of many that would satisfy my criteria), "evil" is too much of a thing which, in itself, is neither good nor bad.

Using a theory of evil as imbalance, feminist Wiccans might claim that many problems in heterosexual relationships come from the widespread neglect of goddess-associated values: earth, mystery, creative process and so on; in favour of the over-valuation of qualities associated with the god: action, fertilization, and linear thought. The situation of an abused woman is more easily described in these terms than in terms of, say, the Kabbalistic spheres.

In sum, then, Wiccans use various systems to describe reality. We can use the concept of imbalance in these systems to describe "evil", because these ways of describing the world, taken together, do provide an adequate and accurate reflection of physical and psychic experience. Through ritual work which is structured according to the principles of these dynamic systems, we see that they, and the theory of evil as imbalance which follows from them, have the flexibility that I have demanded. I have seen on an everyday level that my Wiccan thinking about "evil"/injustice, structured as it is along these lines, accounts well for new experiences.

The concept of evil as imbalance directly addresses the problem with Western Rationalism, and shows why it is wrong to separate interdependent elements and concepts, such as mind and body, nature and spirit, male and female. It explicitly shows the valuing of one of these terms over another to be a central problem in modern thought. And, finally, it brings to light realistic solutions to our social and ecological ills, both in a general sense (i.e., imbalance in Western cultures) and in particular cases (like the whales).

According to this concept of evil it is clear that Wiccans must right the balances in the world. We must do this both on the large scale, using consciousness raising ritual and creating art which expresses our values; and on the small scale, in our daily attitudes and habits and in the various ways we create little tides of change in the communities in which we live. And love.


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