The Good That Lies Within

The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.

Solzhenitsyn’s statement that “even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained,” is, I think, the single most hopeful statement regarding humanity that I have ever encountered. It is, first, an axiom of Orthodox Christian belief. A notion of total depravity, of human evil so thorough that nothing good remains, is alien to Orthodoxy. Whether it is Dostoevsky’s story of the old woman saved by a rotten onion (or “potentially saved” by that single miserable act of generosity), or the last-minute salvation of the thief on the Cross, the faith celebrates the extreme mercy found in such stories.

C.S. Lewis, in The Great Divorce, offers an interesting take on the presence of this tiny bridgehead of goodness. People from what might become hell take a bus-ride to the edge of heaven, and may stay. It is an offer that reveals the innermost heart – the in’s and out’s of how someone might walk away from heaven itself. There is a woman in the story who seems to have nothing wrong with her other than the habit of grumbling about everything. Lewis wonders what is so wrong with her. He is told:

The question is whether she is a grumbler, or only a grumble. If there is a real woman—even the least trace of one—still there inside the grumbling, it can be brought to life again. If there’s one wee spark under all those ashes, we’ll blow it till the whole pile is red and clear. But if there’s nothing but ashes we’ll not go on blowing them in our own eyes forever. They must be swept up.’

‘But how can there be a grumble without a grumbler?’

‘The whole difficulty of understanding Hell is that the thing to be understood is so nearly Nothing.

I wrestle with questions of “anthropology” when I think of such matters. By that, I mean the question of exactly what it means to exist as a human being. I have written numerous times about the “ontological” versus a “juridical” approach in theology. We are not legal objects, nor is our relationship with God rightly to be understood in juridical terms. We are beings and what we have with God and from God must be understood in terms of being. Being alone is real. There are no other categories of real. If it doesn’t have being – it doesn’t exist. This is the ground on which all of the doctrines of the Church were founded. The language of the Trinity, of Christology, of sacrament and icon were (and are) propounded in terms of being.

If Solzhenitsyn is right, and, there remains, even in hearts overwhelmed by evil, a bridgehead of good, then there are realities that follow. I believe that Solzhenitsyn is correct. Accepting this means thinking carefully about what we mean when we say “good” and “evil” in the human context. The Fathers of the East generally conflated goodness, truth, and beauty as aspects of authentic and true being. Evil, on the other hand, is only ever a perversion of what is good, true and beautiful – it has no existence (being) in itself.

Lewis’ suggestion of Hell as being “so nearly Nothing” conforms to this understanding. However, when “non-being” is described  in the Fathers’ writings, it is always “relative” non-being, using the negative particle μή (me) rather than οὐ (ou). “Me” indicates a direction and movement rather than an accomplished fact. This same distinction, however, clearly leaves room (and tacitly acknowledges) the “bridgehead of good.” Nothing that we describe as evil is ever utterly and completely evil (as troubling as that thought might be). They exist. We cannot say, even of a demon, that there is nothing “good” that is present. As mysterious as it remains, they exist, because it is the gift of a good God, and their existence itself remains a good thing.

St. Paul uses the image of a race to describe the Christian life. It has much to recommend it, particularly because it describes something in motion. We are not a set of categories or static entities. We are alive and moving. Our proper direction is to move towards union with God. This is the very definition of “good.” To use the examples of the demons again, we can say that their “motion” is towards non-being, and is thus “evil.” Christ says that Satan is the “father of lies,” and a “murderer from the beginning,” both rooted in aspects of non-being (lies, murder).

So, when I consider that there is possibly some movement towards God (a bridgehead) in even the most “evil” of persons, then I maintain a hope for that small “coal” (to use Lewis’ image) to be fanned into a flame. I am very doubtful about many of the things predicated of the human will, primarily because it seems to be as much in motion as the cells in our bodies. Is the will to be measured at some moment – say, the last moment? Is it taken as an average of all moments? Or do we often die as a collection of conflicted moments, tossed about by everything around us?

The Russian theologian, Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, who was known for holding opinions that sometimes conflicted with the faith of the Church, had a very interesting take on the parable of the Sheep and the Goats. He treated those images as two things within each person rather than a distinction between different kinds of people. As such, the judgment described would be a winnowing and a purification, a saving of the Sheep, however feeble and muted its movement towards God.

That manner of reading the parable is not unlike many treatments of parables in the Fathers (internal and mystical rather than external and historical/moral). My “take-away” from these thoughts has to do with the nature of the struggle that surrounds us and is within us at all times. In the darkest of moments, even when our will is in its greatest rebellion, there remains a “bridgehead” to the good, some portion that represents a foundation for repentance. The “noise” of our sin is the fury of nothingness, raging against the reality that dwells at the bridgehead.

I’ve counseled with parents across the years who are baffled by the behavior of a teen or a young adult who is lost in the noise of sin. It is a common thing for them to speak about the essential goodness of their child and their own inability to understand what has happened. “Nothing” has no explanation. I’ve always heard in those thoughts an echo of the heart of the Father in the story of the Prodigal Son. He sees his son from far off, indicating that he had always been watching and waiting. His son returns “alive” and not “dead.” The “dead son” remained behind with the swine. “This my son was dead and now he is alive.”

The repentance of sins is never anything less than resurrection from the dead. There is not a “reform” of that which is dead. It is a “new creation” in the words of St. Paul. It is the brushing away of the ashes that are so nearly Nothing.

I have found these ideas helpful in dealing with other people (and myself). That bridgehead of goodness is often held captive, trapped in the web of near-nothingness that we call sin. When we pray for others, we pray for the truth of their being, and its triumph (in Christ) over all opposition. Most importantly, it is vital that we recognize, even in the darkest of souls, that something remains of the good. In the work of salvation, it is the discovery and nurture of that very thing that is essential. We must fan the coal and pray for the flame of God to consume us.

 

 

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