by Fr. Dumitru Stăniloae
The question of evil has been addressed hardly at all in the Orthodox Church. In comparison with other Christian dogmas, the answer is still expressed in a form that, of course, reveals the truth, but rather nebulously developed. Evil has its origins and draws its strength from the free will of created spirits, be they a part of the ranks of angels or human persons. This is the Orthodox position. But it’s a long way from being fully comprehensible.
Nevertheless, the Church at one stage- at the time of the Gnostics- came under great pressure to develop the theory concerning the source of evil. All the Gnostic movements were tormented by the question: ‘Where does evil originate?’. And they all came up with dualistic responses, setting a special authority over the notion of evil. And the furthest that this realm managed was to intermingle with that of good but it could never penetrate to the core, could never transfigure goodness into evil. The Gnostic currents of thought all tended towards Manichaeism, which derives evil from matter, from the body as a particular, independent existential principle.
The danger expressed by these movements and that of Manichaeism itself, appears not to have been serious enough to provoke a more robust response from the Church regarding the dogmatic question of evil. A contributing factor to this was certainly the optimistic view of people which is held by our Church. The Orthodox Church teaches that the divine image was not radically altered in the human person, though it was besmirched to some extent. This means that even the most sinful of people should be approached with trust and hope and that we should see their flashes of good rather than dwell on their shadows of evil. For us who’ve been nourished by the spirit of the Eastern Church, no sin, no fall can deprive us of the hope of seeing sinners reborn. It cannot destroy our conviction that there remain in those people hidden facets, which, if we could but reveal them, would astonish us with the delicacy of their goodness.
Today, however, it’s absolutely imperative that the answer to the question of evil be developed in detail and proclaimed publicly. The mind-set of Orthodox Christians is under threat from a Manichaeism which is Western in origin.
How did this Manichaeism grow to such an extent in the West? Not, I think, so much because of the influence of Catholicism (although their teaching, that sin consists of a concupiscentia carnis, and is therefore something purely carnal, helped to a certain degree), nor to Protestantism, but more to the influence of rationalism. People who have confidence in their own abilities think that the higher their cultural level, the fewer their sins, while the wise and learned are considered to be almost angelic since they’ve transcended the carnal excesses of ordinary mortals. The idea is common that we can become perfect through our own selves, without any assistance from above, once we overcome the carnal excesses of the uneducated. In general, sophisticated people don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t break the law, don’t judge others, don’t make scenes and think everyone’s innocent. In this way, the notion gradually took root that sin is exclusively carnal and that the more our carnal impulses are crushed, the more we – being less, if, hardly sinful, at all – can live in the spirit.
This rationalistic and humanistic spirit (excessive confidence in our own abilities as people) is also true of sects (we should note that it reached the Orthodox world in two ways: via the circulation of books and through sects).
While the Manichaean spirit is so attractive to many, it’s never taken hold among our Orthodox people. Fasting, church attendance, the monastic vows, and restraint as regards smoking, drinking may have been strictly observed practices, but have never been thought of by those undertaking them as means of complete purification. The dominant awareness is still that of our sinfulness.
Today, it’s more important than ever that we should remind people that the ultimate source of evil lies in the spiritual sphere. Spirituality isn’t merely purity and moral fibre. In the deepest recess of the spirit there are always two views: one light and one dark, as the Russian theologian Vasily Zenkovsky so clearly argued (The Problems of Education in the Light of Christian Anthropology, Paris 1934, p. 110 [in Russian]). This dualism in the essence of the soul is not immediately obvious to those who are not entirely familiar with the spiritual life, to those still influenced by the external, superficial aspects of life. But, the further we progress in the spiritual life, free of the constraints of our external life, the more the temptations and spiritual errors increase within us. The more we’re raised to spiritual heights, the more the wheat of good intentions is choked by the tares of the temptations.