Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
Today and tomorrow, I will be posting in two parts the paper that I gave at the New Foundation Fellowship gathering last month near Casper, Wyoming, U.S.A. As readers might surmise from the title, this paper examines the question of where resides the power to counteract and overcome evil. Nowhere are the essential criteria for victory over evil upheld and identified more succinctly than in Jesus's rebuttal of Satan, which occurs in the first 17 verses of the fourth chapter of Matthew. As the second part of the paper examines that passage, I hope the reader will refresh his or her memory beforehand.
Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth (Rev. 3:10).
Hannah Arendt was a philosopher and political theorist who left Germany in the early '30s. After having done relief work in France for some years, she was briefly held in a detention camp when France fell to the Nazis. She fled to the United States in 1941 where she taught and wrote for several decades. Some may be familiar with the phrase “the banality of evil” that she coined while covering the trial of war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in the early ‘60s. It was Eichmann's "absence of thinking," Arendt wrote, "that awakened my interest. Is evil-doing...possible in default of not just 'base motives'...but of any motives whatsoever....Might the problem of good and evil, our faculty of telling right from wrong, be connected with our faculty of thought?" (The Life of the Mind, New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1978)
Arendt came to believe that the great destruction wreaked during the times of Nazi and Stalinist totalitarianism was a direct result of the refusal to exercise our human capacity for critical thought. The forfeiture of reason opened the way for chaos and destruction, she claimed. The following is an excerpt from a monologue in the film titled Hannah Arendt:
This inability to think created the possibility for many ordinary men to commit evil deeds on a gigantic scale, the like of which had never been seen before. The manifestation of the wind of thought is not knowledge but the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly. And I hope that thinking gives people the strength to prevent catastrophes in these rare moments when the chips are down.
At another point in the film, Arendt defines radical evil as the continual obliteration of sense within daily surroundings that occurred in the concentration camps. Senselessness made superfluous the high mental functioning that distinguishes us as human beings. Thus, Arendt argued, the obliteration of sense was intended to make "human beings superfluous as human beings." In a classroom scene, she lectures her college students:
Western tradition mistakenly assumes that the greatest evils of mankind arise from selfishness. But in our century, evil has proven to be more radical than was previously thought. And we now know that the truest evil, the radical evil, has nothing to do with selfishness or any such understandable sinful motives. Instead it is based on the following phenomenon: making human beings superfluous as human beings. The entire concentration camp system was designed to convince the prisoners they were unnecessary before they were murdered. In the concentration camps, men were taught that punishment was not connected to a crime, that exploitation wouldn’t profit anyone, and that work produced no results. The camp is a place where every activity and human impulse is senseless: where, in other words, senselessness is daily produced anew.
Later Arendt wrote in a personal letter that evil was “thought-defying,” that its nothingness precipitated a frustration of thought. In that same letter, she modified her earlier view on radical evil.
I changed my mind and do no longer speak of “radical evil”....It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never “radical,” that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is “thought-defying,” as I said because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its “banality.” Only the good has depth and can be radical. (Letter to Scholem 7/24/63)
Arendt thought that evil spreads when man forfeits his capacity to think deeply. She later concluded that thought is frustrated by evil, as "thought tries to reach some depth," and evil has no depth. She rightly saw that evil destroys man, and man cannot overcome it by his own power.
Arendt’s ideas of the necessity for deep, critical thought to halt evil, and evil's impervious resistance to thought, has a Scriptural corollary in the work and execution of John the Baptist. Like Arendt, John is calling people to engage in thought when he cries, "Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Mt. 3:2). The word “repentance” at its etymological root means “to think differently.” John's call to repentance is a call to re-think or to begin to think more deeply and truthfully.
In the fourth chapters of both Matthew and Luke, John the Baptist’s story surrounds the temptation story of Christ in the wilderness. Both John and Jesus spend time in the wilderness, for the wilderness is the place where independent thought occurs, apart from the city where group influence dominates. John prepares the way by calling people to begin to think more deeply, to think for themselves and not be conformed to the group, to repent of that. “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand,” he urges. Furthermore, John acts with independence, clarity, and righteousness; he gives concise, righteous direction to people, publicans, and soldiers (Lk.4:10-14) who do not share his independence, his clarity. With clear resolve, he exhorts people, distinguishes right from wrong, the wheat from chaff (17), the worthwhile from the worthless. Herod puts him in prison for it and beheads him. Herod's taking the head of John the Baptist stands for worldly power (Satan) eliminating the faculty of reason, intellect, mind. Arendt concluded that thought cannot overcome evil, and John's execution by Herod represents the same idea in a symbolic narrative.
Jesus, like John, will be executed by the world, with its love for power and glory that is Satan's to give. But unlike John, Jesus will overcome the power of death that Satan holds, for Jesus is "mightier" than John, as John informs those who receive his baptism (Mt. 3:11). Following John's execution, Jesus takes up the ministry where John left off, echoing his very words: “Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”(4:17). Jesus, however, has undergone the wilderness temptation by Satan and, in keeping the word of the Father, has become established in right relationship with Him. Therefore he, unlike John, is empowered to overcome the world, Satan, and death.
When Arendt claims that human thought cannot overcome evil, she is in accord with Scriptures, for John and the baptism of repentance that he ministers could not overcome evil. Both thought and repentance are the purview of human beings. Though it is exceedingly important that we undertake this preparation of critical thought (that is, thinking differently, independently), thought itself is not sufficient: it is not the Way. Evil frustrates thought, as Arendt observed. Herod, symbol of the worldly power of Satan, kills John, the symbol of independent, righteous thought. A brief look at one of Satan's temptations shows how futile thought is when attempting to understand or overcome evil.
Satan’s first temptation aimed at Jesus in the fourth chapter of Matthew employs a conditional if/then statement: “If thou be the Son of God, [then] command that these stones be made bread.” If/then statements are often used in arguments and show a causal relationship between two ideas: the form is a tool for determining truth or falsehood. Satan instead uses the if/then statement to obscure truth: he implies Jesus’s Sonship is conditional upon his successfully turning stone into bread. Additionally, when Satan says to Jesus “command these stones be made bread,” he is issuing a command. For when Satan adjures a person to command, who actually commands: the person or Satan? The command is Satan’s, and thus the person who follows Satan's command is subservient to him and is not, himself, in command. More, much more, could be said of the devil’s tactics in this passage: how he would diminish and destroy; tempt Jesus to use his Sonship in service to self rather than God; how he would have Jesus to do away with himself, using Scripture as an authority to subvert. The confusion is rampant, and reason is frustrated and exhausted by attempting to untangle the lies of the devil, the father of lies (Jn. 8:44).
The love of power and glory that entails willfully engaging in confusion and deceit is evil. When deceit and power are preferred to clarity and truth--darkness preferred to light--condemnation follows; humanity is lost. As human beings we are called to love and strive for truth and understanding. Our love of truth that we can manifest in thoughtful exercise of reason and conscience (that is, in the different thinking called for by John the Baptist's call to repentance) is the necessary preparation to receive Christ, the truth. In his essay, "Friends and the Truth," Lewis Benson affirms early Friends' devotion to truth.
For early Friends truth was the ultimate value. George Fox says, "prize the truth above all things" and "love the truth more than all" and in an Epistle to Friends he writes, "Let the weight and preciousness of truth be in your eye, and esteemed above all things by you." Truth is that which we are to love and prize and esteem above everything else. The truth, says Fox," is that that is stronger than all" and "do not think that anything will outlast the truth."
The term "truth" of which Fox spoke in such glowing superlatives has now disappeared from the Quaker vocabulary. How did this conception come to occupy the central place in Fox's thought and what meaning did it hold for him? Fox's conception of truth is grounded upon his belief that the life of man is determined by his relationship to his creator. He believed that the creator speaks to man calling for right action and for a community that lives under his rule. By listening to God and obeying his word man fulfills the basic law of his being. This basic conversational relationship between man and his creator is what Fox means by truth. Truth does not consist of particular propositions or a system of propositions. It is rather a dialogic relationship with God. When this dialogic relationship is broken, man ceases to fulfill the purpose and destiny that God intended for him. This is the fall of man--the failure to hear and obey the creator. This is what Fox calls "the fall from the truth" and to his opponents he declares: "To the witness of God in you all, I speak; that you may see your fall from the truth, out of the prophets' life, Christ's life, and the apostles' life; so you are out of the commands, and fallen from God..." Truth is experienced as the voice of the creator whose word must be obeyed, and so it is natural for Fox to speak of hearing truth's voice and obeying the truth. Truth comes by obedience in righteousness and therefore the wisdom of "Friends in the Truth" is not the wisdom of the wise but the wisdom of the just.