Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on the First Sunday of Lent 2020

What is evil? How would we have knowledge of it?

The Reverend Mark Birch Minor Canon and Sacrist

Sunday, 1st March 2020 at 11.15 AM

In recent years I have found myself increasingly subject to a very particular urge.  It features heavily in my dreams, it diverts my attention in any number of meetings, it intrudes even into my prayers.  It isn’t something I ever imagined I would be attracted-to, let alone possessed-by in quite such an urgent, atavistic way.

Lest you are beginning to feel uncomfortable, or think that you might need to call some kind of specialist, this urge is not, I think, pathological – it is, dear sisters and brothers, merely the urge to garden – to dig, to prune, to plant, to mow, to end the day with hands shredded by brambles (yes, I know gloves would help), nails brimming with soil (again, gloves), and a spine in sore need of anti-inflammatory medication.

It is a strange thing this urge, but some of you may understand it, or even sympathise.  To avoid any misunderstanding, this urge to garden is not a matter of pleasure or recreation – it isn’t a diverting hobby, pursued for the sheer joy of it.  It is much more painful and much, much more fundamental than that.  It is something primal – it is about discovering what kind of creature I am as I find myself reflected in the struggling ill-positioned shrub, or the blossoming fruit tree, or the unbidden relentless bindweed, or the tragic blighted rose.

When the Lord God placed the man in the Garden of Eden He knew what He was doing; there is nowhere better than a garden for this creature to find out what kind of thing he is.

There are, to my knowledge, which is not certain, no serpents in my garden – spiders, yes, huge octopod athletes springing out of sheds and woodpiles; hornets the size of your fist, rising up like Klingon Birds-of-prey (not often you get a Star Trek reference in the Abbey); and brooding over everything, the constant menace of wild boar, plotting raids in their Forest lair, bent on total rotovation.

The serpent in the Garden of Eden was much more subtle than any of those – crafty, so the Bible says.  ‘You will not die – you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’

But human beings were already made in the image and likeness of God – no more than a chapter earlier in Genesis – nothing could make Adam and Eve any more like God than they already were, not even ‘the knowledge of good and evil.’  The serpent was mistaken.

But this is an important conundrum.  We assume that ‘the knowledge of good and evil’ would be a good thing to have, because we think knowledge is important, especially knowing right from wrong – and we would be correct.  But talking about ‘the knowledge of good and evil’ rather implies that we are talking about two different types of thing; good things and evil things.

In the first chapter of Genesis we hear the famous account of creation in seven days, punctuated again and again with the phrase; ‘God saw that it was good’.  There was nothing in all creation that God saw and said ‘this is evil’, not even the serpent.  The first chapter ends with a triumphant final refrain – Handel would have given it trumpets: ‘God saw everything that he had made and indeed it was very good.’

So what is evil?  How would we have knowledge of it?  Well if it isn’t anything God has made, and since God is, by definition, the Creator of all things, then evil cannot be a thing.  It is, at most, a non-thing, a ‘privation of good’, as St Augustine put it; no more than the undoing of a good creation.

So why is there a tree in the Garden of Eden called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, if evil is not a thing?  It seems that God placed in his good creation the thought, the possibility of its undoing.  Why would he do that?  Perhaps it was to guarantee the freedom of his human creatures – their freedom to know only good, to heed the commandment not to eat; to be happy with what they are, to let God be God, and to let creation be his good gift to them.

We tend to assume that a commandment must place a limit on our freedom.  If someone is telling us not to do something, it feels like our freedom to choose is being diminished.  But if the command comes from God who is our Creator and therefore in no sense our rival, then his commandment might turn out to be the condition for our freedom, the guarantee of it, rather than any infringement of our liberty to choose.  Adam and Eve are free to eat, as the scripture says, but they are commanded not to.  There is freedom here, and it is the freedom to choose well.

The serpent, crafty but not evil as such, proffered the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil on the misunderstanding (to put it mildly) that Adam and Eve might thereby exceed themselves, might become more than they already were; that having the knowledge of good and evil, entertaining the possibility of the undoing of creation, might make them equal to God.

But of course, entertaining the possibility of evil, the ‘making not good’ of a good creation, leads not to equality with God (which is impossible and illogical), but sets up God up as a rival.  A God who is no longer simply the good creator of a good creation is a God to be feared – hidden from – as Adam and Eve hurriedly sewed their fig-leaves together.  Not only that, but creation itself becomes a rival to be feared, subdued, exploited – a theatre not only of good, but of evil.  God becomes eclipsed - no longer able to be reliably known or trusted through the things he has made.  Adam and Eve end up mistaken about themselves, mistaken about creation, mistaken about God.

If this all sounds a bit complicated, then I think that is no mistake – although it could be that the preacher has got himself into deeper waters than he is competent to swim in.  The Scriptures make the origin of evil mysterious.  It has no place in the story of a good creation, and yet it emerges.  It is an affront to the goodness of life – an affront we feel within ourselves whenever death takes away someone we adore, when a terminal diagnosis appears out of nowhere.  It feels unreal, impossible, that it just shouldn’t be.  We should take note of that feeling, because if what I am saying is correct, that feeling is spot-on – evil has no place; it shouldn’t be; it is an undoing, an affront, a painful tearing of the fabric of a good creation.

Adam and Eve end up forfeiting their communion with God in the garden for the sake of an illusory freedom, an illusory knowledge, where God is no longer God, no longer their Creator, but their rival – someone they needed to feel equal to, when they had already been endowed with nothing less than the divine image.  They chose, and they chose badly – and don’t we all.  They mistook themselves, they failed to realise what kind of creature they were – that there was nothing more for them to be; no knowledge that could make them freer than they already were.  The knowledge of evil could only lead them into painful unreality; cast out of the garden and into the wilderness. 

So can there be any surprise that the wilderness is where Christ goes, driven by the Spirit.  Even the most catastrophic human choice, repeated again and again, spread throughout the human race more efficiently than any emerging virus - repeated whenever we find the knowledge of evil not only real, but alluring - whether in online fantasies or in ideologies of hatred and violence or in the pursuit of unjustifiable wealth or the reckless exploitation of the earth – even these highly infectious, catastrophic choices do not daunt the Son of Man.

Into the wilderness he goes to wrestle with his own humanity – with all its urges and passions, its mistaking of itself as god, its mistaking of God as its rival or a fickle superpower to be cajoled and manipulated.  He goes into the wilderness on behalf of every Eve and Adam, to wrestle our humanity out of illusion, out of our undoing of ourselves, back into right relation with God whose image we bear.  In his temptation He shows the way to our true nature, our true glory and dignity.

Evelyn Underhill, in her writings on the Spiritual life uses a fabulous phrase, which might be a useful rallying cry for Lent – she says that we are called to put this whole beast to work.  Our human urges and desires, especially the more atavistic ones, send us in all kinds of unhealthy directions, but the work of the Spirit is not to suppress them or deny them but to marshal them, like getting a wild Mustang into harness; like getting this middle-aged male into his gardening clothes (and gloves) – directing all that good created energy towards our high calling as human beings – directing us, through penitence, fasting, prayer amd almsgiving towards the knowledge of our true nature and the true knowledge of the God who is God, and who has made, and is making, and will make all things good.