HOW, MAY I ASK, is your Lent going? Only one week left...
Mine has been terrible, with lots of obstacles, disappointments, worries, and it seems all so rather.... penitential. Ah yes, of course; that's the point of Lent.
The end of the liturgical year calls to mind the end of times, and our ultimate destination. But as we approach the middle of the yearly cycle, we recall our own life and how we live it. This is put into the historical context of the betrayal and suffering of Our Lord, and how our sins are the cause of this suffering.
I decided on Dionysus the Areopagite's On the Divine Names as my spiritual reading this Lent, perhaps somewhat on a whim. Certainly this volume is not typically found on the standard lists of Lenten reading. But its high and lofty approach to mystical theology is quite refreshing in relation to the reductionistic and egotistical approach so often found in our contemporary world.
Dionysus makes the striking claim that evil has no essence or being. There is no supreme or pure evil. Rather, evil is the deprivation of good, and only good has essence and being. As a physical example, consider heat; there is no such thing as 'cold' for it is merely the deprivation of warmth. Heat itself is found in the motion of the particles that make up a physical object, and so there is no corresponding principle of cold in and of itself, there is only less or more heat. Likewise there is only less or more good, and we call the less-good 'evil'. Unfortunately people often choose the lesser good, which is evil, over the greater good, and place lesser things over greater things, which is idolatry.
If evil were to fully corrupt something good completely, then the good thing, and the evil itself would both disappear into nothingness. You can make a donut hole so large that the entire donut disappears — and so the donut hole also disappears. For example, disease is a deprivation of health in a body, and health is good for it leads to a lively flourishing life. If disease fully deprives a body of health, then the body is dead and the disease itself loses existence. Evil, if allowed to fully extend its influence, ceases to exist. Evil is contingent on, and requires good to even exist. Only a living human being can be murdered, and only a good reputation can be destroyed by malice. And so evil and sin can be recognized by its destruction of order and being, and by its preference for lesser things over greater.
Dionysus' approach to the problem of evil is that what happens works out for the good only inasmuch as we are united with the Supreme Good, or God. As evil has no being or essence, things that are very evil are as far from being and existence as is possible, and therefore far from God — cast out in to the outer darkness — and are as close to annihilation as possible. As we believe that our souls were created good, and are immortal, then the ultimate evil that can occur to us is Hell, which is permanent and as far from God as possible, and this is a place that we choose to go when we do not choose to be united with God.
A brief summary of this can be found in Aquinas; note that his article shows objections first — which he disagrees with — and then states his own opinion after 'On the contrary'.
Many reform and dissenting theologians think that God's commandments are arbitrary rules in the realm of so-called positive law, which leads to a dangerous discounting of the possibility of sin as well as a defective model for human law. Rather, Dionysius shows us that sin is cosmic and harms all of creation; it is an evil tendency that unmakes creation and causes a divorce in the relationships within ourselves, among our fellow humans, with nature, and with God. And so, we can see how this causes God Incarnate to suffer.