The Mai Lai incident of last spring and recent atrocities and mass murders along with the recent assassinations in the U.S. have elicited a kind of national self-examination. Our society is now considered “sick” and people wonder how representative of the American people are Oswald and Lt. Calley.
Illustrative of this is a recent essay in Time magazine entitled “On Evil: the Inescapable Fact” (Time, Dec. 5, 1969). The author asserts that America as a people have too readily ignored the ubiquitous and haunting presence of evil in the world. The U.S. lacks a “tragic sense of life.” Moreover, it troubles the author how the “basically pessimistic theology” of Puritanism could turn into the underpinning of a cavalier and optimistic society. Part of the answer, he contends, lies in the fact that the Puritan ethos depicted not only the fall of man but also the reality of an Elect of God, and America has since then assumed that it was God’s Chosen, “almost to the point of Pelagianism.” Americans think that American intentions are always virtuous, that America never started or lost a war, and that America is always on the side of justice and liberty; in short, on God’s side.
The particular heresy of Americans, the essay continues, is that Americans see themselves as “potential saints rather than real-life sinners.” The Puritan ethos was a stimulus to striving and hard work; no wonder, the essayist says, it gave away to its secular descendent, pragmatism, the rational humanism articulated by Dewey and William James. Pragmatism does not deny the existence of evil, but optimistically assumes that it exists in institutions rather than men and can therefore be legislated away. Thus, the American ethos – part pragmatic, part Puritan, part Pelagian – has had the effect of masking the popular consciousness of evil. In conclusion, the essay states that only the nation that has faced up to its own failings and acknowledged its capacities for evil has any real claim for greatness.
Much can be said, I think, for the author’s sagacity and astute analysis of the contemporary American ethos. Rational humanism and Pelagianism have saturated the American way of life, and for that matter, that of the whole Western World. Evil always defined as concrete problems that can be dissected and analyzed and can be done away with if the will is there to do so. And above all, evil is thought to be exorcised by education. The author comments on all this with surprising insight. (I say surprising because the essay appears ostensibly to be Christianly oriented.)
But on the other hand, if the reader is impressed with the documentation of the fact that evil is inescapable, he is commensurately frustrated with the author’s failure to say what that evil really is, and more importantly, what to do about it. The essayist tragically resigns himself to the fact that evil is inescapable and irreconcilable – and seems to think that the mere acknowledgement of evil somehow dissolves the dilemma. Moreover, in his abortive attempt to talk about evil, the essayist quotes Rousseau, Jean Genet, Dostoversky, and W. H. Auden.
Confronted with this attempt to explicate evil, the Christian shakes his head knowingly. The faint hope that at last men are beginning to examine themselves with honesty and candor is destroyed by their obvious rejection of any attempt at a Biblical analysis and solution. A Christian doesn’t need a Mai Lai to see what man is; but so much more importantly, he knows what comfort and escape are. He realizes that the diagnosis of a disease is never a remedy.
Originally Published in:
Vol. 30 No. 3 May 1970