All the major religious traditions have some elements of world rejection. They all have their “salvation” schemes. In Christianity and Islam creation is “fallen” and in need of salvation which will eventually occur in some eschatological event. In Buddhism and Hinduism, ultimate salvation is liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth. The question for theologians in this new millennium is whether the world rejection found in the traditions is still valid or whether it can no longer be sustained both for theological and worldview reasons. Religious scholar Robert Bellah breaks down religious evolution into 5 major phases: primitive, archaic, historic, early modern, and modern. Acceptance or rejection of the world varied in these periods. Robert Bellah:
There are 5 major phases in the world-wide evolution of religion. Acceptance of “this world” is emphasized in the first and last phases. Rejection of “this world” is highest in the middle phase, Historic Religion. Rejection of “this world” is a function primarily of religious dualism. Dualism reaches its peak during the historic phase when the “great, universal, ethical religions” emerged—Christianity, post-tribal Judaism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Islam.
There are, I’m sure, many cultural reasons for this modern “acceptance” of the world. Not the least of which must be the changing worldviews that have emerged in this age of science. There are various cosmological theories regarding the future of the universe. Some say the universe will end in a cold death due to the second law of thermodynamics. Others suggest there will be a big crunch at some point in the distant future that may result in another big bang that starts things over again. For people who take theories like these seriously, it can be difficult to accept the world rejection and eschatological salvic messages in the traditions when there doesn’t seem to be a naturalistic opportunity for a salvic event.
Now one might think that the next big bang will “get it right” but is that really compelling? Perhaps instead of thinking there is something inherently wrong with the world that requires salvation there is another way to think about the cosmos that both accept the world as it intrinsically is while still rejecting the “wrongs” found within it. I suggest the rubric of life. Is there really something wrong with life as it inherently is? Or is life the grand gift of God even if there is a potential for evil within it? I think so. So did Leibniz. He claimed that we live in “the best of all possible worlds”. How can this be when we constantly see the evils in the world around us? Life is constrained being. There are limitations and boundary conditions in which life emerges and plays out. Science has shown us that at its very core there is a yin-yang operating that creates the world we live in. There are poles of positive and negative, give and take, growth and decay, creation, and destruction. In fact, it is this interplay of opposites at the very foundations of the universe that makes life possible. Take away one pole and the whole collapses. What this means is that life is about both creation and destruction. It is about both competition and cooperation. The food chain is a good example. The creation of life at the higher levels requires the destruction of life at the lower levels. Even in culture we see the same thing. There is a struggle for resources and meaning. Both good and evil result because of the same fundamental core of reality of yin and yang, opposites struggling with each other, mixing and merging, striving for meaning.
Let’s look at a couple examples where the same fundamental fabric of yin and yang that can create evil can also create good. Take learning for instance. Is not learning often the destruction of prior assumptions and knowledge so a more complete understanding can be attained? Creative learning is, in many respects, destructive and yet it is for many their lifeblood. Learning both takes and gives. It creates but it also destroys. It is the interaction of yin and yang that makes it what it is and something to long for. The examples of this interplay are everywhere. How much pleasure would one get from eating if there was no hunger? Although hunger represents an “evil” is also drives towards the life processes that are thought of as positive. Would playing cards be enjoyable if one always won? If you always won at tennis would you want to play? One way to approach this problem is to look at the alternative. For those who would reject this world claiming there is something inherently wrong with it, what type of world would they want? If there were no real risks and challenges would life be something to desire? If there was no struggle how would one feel the thrill of success? If insight was attainable without struggle is this the life one would want? Those who would reject this world should take seriously trying to imagine the structure of a different one. Can one really imagine a world where all the things we appreciate are there and none of the things we hate? I think not.
Life, even with the potential for evil, is such a wonderful gift. In fact, it is the fundamental core of life that offers the good which also creates this potential for evil. So what about the problem of evil? If the potential for evil is a necessary component of life, does that mean we should acquiesce to it or tolerate it? Obviously not. While life entails the potential for evil, it does not entail a specific evil. Specific evils are not necessary. They ensue only if allowed. What we also see in examining life, particularly as presented by culture is another struggle, the moral struggle. Evil is obviously a relative term, depending on the perspective of those concerned. This is also part of life. Moral decisions not only involve the individual but also the collective being of all things. As such, moral decisions must accommodate both the needs of the one as well as the needs of the many. These accommodations will be evil to some but positive to others. Back to the basic question of the future of the cosmos. If life, itself is primary and not some ultimate culmination, then what do the changes in life mean? I think that rather than looking to some distant resolution of the “fallenness” or problems of life today, we can see life as an eternal creation of love, beauty, and meaning. Each generation builds on the love, beauty, and meaning of the prior generations, but that change is not towards some ultimate goal but as part of the eternal process of life.
Is there really some point where love, beauty, and meaning play out in a perfection? If they did they are not something we would want, because their presence today would be denigrated by that distance perfection. Instead, I believe the creative processes of life are eternal, because the divine life is also eternal. Clearly with the starvation, persecution, violence, and hate that we find in our world it is hard to affirm it. I believe, however, we can affirm that we live in the “best of all possible worlds” because it is in this world that we find something ultimately precious, life itself. If evil is a necessary component to life the questions become, is it worth the risk of evil to have life? I think most would say a resounding, yes! If so it creates an affirmation of life as it inherently is that has enormous practical consequences. It means that one should not look to some eschatological event to “make things right”. Instead, it places the responsibility for positive change in the world squarely on individual commitment and action to make the world a better place. This can occur when each individual and culture as a whole embraces the divine depth and acts on it. Rejecting world rejection places an urgency on the human tribe to attune itself to the divine telos and act upon it.