Author and lecturer Os Guinness has written or edited more than 20 books, including The Dust of Death, The Call, and Invitation to the Classics. Earlier this month, HarperSanFrancisco published Guinness’s latest work, Unspeakable: Facing Up to Evil in an Age of Genocide and Terror. Stan Guthrie interviewed Guinness. This is the first in a two-part series.
Why did you write this book, and why now?
I actually had the date September 11 marked down in my calendar for a dinner discussion in Manhattan on evil, which was suddenly made all the more urgent by the terror strike, and I found myself in a passionate discussion of evil among leaders in New York and Washington.
Far earlier than that, evil has somehow been the horizon of my life ever since I was born in China in World War II. Twenty million were killed during the Japanese invasion that swirled around us, and 5 million—including my own two brothers —died in a terrible famine in Henan province, in three nightmarish months. My parents and I nearly died, too. Later, I witnessed the climax of the Chinese revolution and the beginning of Mao’s repression.
So my own life challenged me to think about the problem of evil at a very early age. This left me wanting to address what I have never seen elsewhere: a book that tackled both the personal and the public issues together: Why do bad things happen to good people? And what does it say of us, after the most murderous century in human history, that the people who did these things are the same species we are?
Why do we need to study evil?
Evil is quite simply the greatest mystery in human experience, the greatest challenge in our human lives, and the greatest problem in the modern world. Yet many people haven’t thought it through. If Socrates was right that the unexamined life is not worth living, many people are leading lives not worth living because they haven’t begun to think about life’s greatest dilemma.
For followers of Jesus, evil represents the greatest test for our faith—it has even been called the “rock of atheism”—so we are irresponsible if we haven’t taken the trouble to think it through.
Talk of evil is in the air, from the president’s listing of the “axis of evil,” to the televised beheadings by the Muslim terrorists and the Abu Ghraib prison abuses, and now the tsunami disaster. Several new books, including yours, are grappling with the topic. Yet you say in the book that we are illiterate when it comes to evil. How so?
Sadly, the terrorist strike found the United States as unprepared intellectually and morally as it was militarily. This is the country with the most radical and realistic view of evil at its core—expressed in the notion of the separation of powers in the Constitution because of human nature and the abuse of power. But various philosophies and ideas have undermined that view over the last 200 years, so that American views today are weak, confused, and divided. On one side, many progressive liberals still think that we humans are essentially good and getting better and better. On the other side, many postmoderns actually think it is worse to judge evil than to do evil. And in the middle, many ordinary folk plaster life with rainbows and smile buttons and wander through life on the basis of sentiment and clichés. All of these views and others are shown up as bankrupt by the savage reality of September 11—and Auschwitz and the other terrible atrocities right through to the ghastly spate of car bombings and beheadings in Iraq.
In the book, you mention how the terrible earthquake that hit Lisbon in 1755 undermined religious faith and bolstered the Enlightenment idea of man as the master of his fate. What role will recent tragic events, such as the South Asian tsunami tragedy, have in undercutting faith in God?
Natural disasters are like “nature’s terrorists,” showing us how helpless we are before the terrifying forces of the universe. But, mercifully, the Indian Ocean tsunami will do far less damage to our faith for a whole number of reasons—ranging from the fact that Christians are in the forefront of the relief efforts, seen to be demonstrating the compassion of Christ, to the fact that 20th century evils have put secularist views on the ropes. Recent secularist approaches to evil have proved even weaker than traditional ones. In fact, you might say that evil has reduced the secularist mind to reason at the end of its tether. Those who in the light of evil set out defiantly accusing God are now doubting themselves, their reason, and their ability to assume responsibility for the world —and no wonder.
Do you consider natural disasters like these to be evil, or simply unfortunate?
Following the tsunami, we saw a rush to judgment from many Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and some Christian spokesmen. It happened for this or that reason, they said. This is quite wrong. We simply do not know why it happened or why God permitted it, and we can be as cruel as Job’s “comforters” when we say we know why when we don’t. We Christians must begin as Jesus did when he dismissed his contemporaries who judged the victims of the riots put down by Herod or those crushed by the collapsing tower. In the biblical view, natural disasters are the dark, sad fruit of a world gone awry because of the Fall, and they are clearly part of the creation that is groaning in anticipation of its coming restoration.
You say modern evil is worse than evil committed in prior eras? Why?
I am not saying we are more sinful or more evil than previous generations, but that we are more modern. The modern world has simultaneously magnified the destructiveness of evil and marginalized traditional responses to evil. From the Armenian massacre in World War I, through the Ukraine terror famine, Auschwitz, the Gulag, the Cultural Revolution, the killing fields of Cambodia, down to Rwanda, the Sudan, and the Congo, the terrible toll reaches into the hundreds of millions of humans killed by their fellow human beings. And the reason for the destructiveness is not weapons of mass destruction; only the U.S. has used one of those. The reason lies in the unholy marriage of modern industrialization and modern processes and attitudes with killing. And by marginalizing traditional responses, I don’t just mean that notions such as disturbance and dysfunction have replaced sin and “grief counselors” have replaced pastors. We have gone far further, and as Roger Shattuck and others have pointed out, we have destroyed so many moral boundaries and limits that we have made evil cool.
Many in the liberal intelligentsia say monotheism—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—is the greatest source of man’s inhumanity—if that is the right word—to man. Yet you say some of the worst atrocities, such as the Soviet Gulag and the Cultural Revolution, were committed in the name of secularism. Which is worse as a source of evil—secularism, or religion?
Monotheism is the “great unmentionable evil” at the heart of our culture, Gore Vidal thundered in the Lowell Lecture at Harvard in 1992, and his charge has been picked up widely and unthinkingly by educated people. The accusation is in fact ignorant, prejudiced, and dead wrong. On the one hand, monotheism is unquestionably the most innovative and influential belief in human history—for instance, its link to the rise of science. On the other hand, more people in the last century were slaughtered under secularist regimes, led by secularist intellectuals, and in the name of secularist ideologies than in all the religious persecutions in Western history combined—more than 100 million by the communists alone. The point is not to trade charges and countercharges about whether religion or secularism has produced more evil but to challenge secularists to engage in serious discussion about public life with a great deal more honesty and humility.
Next week: Part 2