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What is evil?

Unitarian Universalist views of human nature are grounded in human possibility rather than pathology.
By Patrick O'Neill
Winter 2007 11.1.07

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Radical fundamentalism casts human existence as an epic, ongoing, still-undecided battle between the forces of good and evil, of the divine versus the demonic. This is the most primitive human myth of all and the most powerful. Wherever humanity has walked, wherever it has gathered to hear fables at firesides or offer ritual around altars, good versus evil is the story at its most elemental and descriptive.

We UUs do not have the “easy” solution of a theology that blames all evil on the workings of some devil. But many of us have witnessed unspeakable human acts that can only be described as evil: in Auschwitz, Cambodia, Dresden, Rwanda, and in the barbarity of biological germ warfare. Some formalists would argue that the very existence of evil in the world would seem to negate our humanist valuing of dignity and worth in every person, expressed in the First Principle of Unitarian Universalism. But it seems to me that just the opposite is true. Our cherishing that Principle leads us to live by a view of human nature that is antithetical to radical fundamentalism.

The witness and mission of liberal religion have always been to seek the liberation of the human spirit—in the words of the hymn, from “the bonds of narrow thought and lifeless creed.” We stand willing to testify for a religious approach grounded in human possibility rather than pathology. Our starting place is the exaltation of the human spirit, rather than its denigration.

People are almost equally capable of both good and evil, but most of the time—say, three times out of five—people choose the good. The seesaw tilts just a few degrees toward the good in this tentative world, but those few degrees are the difference between peace and Armageddon. The job of the church is to put the few stubborn ounces of our weight on the side of goodness, and press down for all we’re worth.

Reprinted with permission from a new pamphlet, Unitarian Universalist Views of Evil, © 2007 Unitarian Universalist Association.

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