In an old interview, Andrew Tate explained his abandonment of atheism in terms that are likely very sympathetic to many people. As he put it, he came to believe in God by way of Newton’s third law, according to which, for every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction. Being that there is evil in the world, and that its presence is empirically observable, there must be a ‘god.’
I write ‘god’ without capitals, because such a being would not be the God of classical theism. He would be a kind of privatio male (absence of evil)—where tradition understands evil as privatio boni—or else both god and evil would be irreducible substances.
In truth, the opposite of evil is not good, but more evil: the opposite of evil pleasure is evil pain, the opposite of evil comfort is evil conflict, just as the opposite of rashness is cowardice, and hubris oscillates with humiliation, not humility.
Tate’s understanding does point to a true intuition, however: Evil does indeed indicate the existence of good (and, therefore, of the Divine Good), just not as a contrasting opposite, but rather, as a parasite. By way of example, we may consider the idea of a square circle. To insist on the possibility of a square circle only highlights the true definition of a circle and how it is not the same as that of a square. It is not the case that the opposite of a square circle is a ‘circular circle’ or a ‘square square;’ it is rather that ‘square circle’ is nonsense. We do not assert God as the opposite of evil, but as Truth, and we understand evil as a denial of Truth.
Those of us committed to traditional boundaries will maintain that, ultimately, what previous ages described as ‘disordered desires’ are ‘square circles,’ that is, they are disordered because they are at odds with the nature of the human subject. To desire, for example, to sadistically cause harm to another person is to misunderstand what it means to be human: One is doing to one’s nature that which waxing on about the possibility of a ‘square circle’ does to reason.
Thus, when we are faced with the denial of essences—as through certain trans-humanist fantasies, for example—we are fortunate if this elicits in us a fearful retreat back to a bedrock understanding of what it is to be human: what the Muslims call Fitrah, and C.S. Lewis described as the Tao.
But this retreat is not merely a matter of psychological reassurance. Again, it is a matter of reason and, beyond this, of metaphysics. Writes Lewis:
The Chinese also speak of a great thing (the greatest thing) called the Tao. It is the reality beyond all predicates, the abyss that was before the Creator Himself.
Lewis’ distinction between “the Tao” and “the Creator” is the same as that which neo-Platonists make between ‘The One’ and ‘the monad,’ but I would prefer to speak of “the reality which is anterior to the Creator as Creator, that is, prior—in a non-temporal sense—to His act of creating:”
It is Nature, it is the Way, the Road. It is the Way in which the universe goes on, the Way in which things everlastingly emerge, stilly and tranquilly, into space and time. It is also the Way which every man should tread in imitation of that cosmic and super-cosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar. ‘In ritual’, say the Analects, ‘it is harmony with Nature that is prized.’ The ancient Jews likewise praise the Law as being ‘true’. This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as ‘the Tao’.
If we ask how “the reality beyond all predicates, the abyss that was before the Creator Himself” could possibly have any implications for contingent beings, even recommending one kind of contingent action over another, the answer is that reality can be said to ‘recommend’ we understand circles as circular rather than square, simply if we are to keep from erring. But err we can, and just as believing in a square circle is an error that misses the reality of the circle, so too, as all religions hold, to sin is to alienate ourselves from our own reality, the end-point of which alienation is to ‘experience’ our own non-existence.
But some will insist that ‘reality,’ in the sense of circles being circular, is arbitrary with respect to “the Tao” which is “beyond all predicates.” Could the Tao not emanate a universe in which circularity does not also include the definition of square? If ‘circularity’ means what it means, then the question is as absurd as “could God make a rock so heavy he cannot lift it?”
The retort is usually that if God does not ‘choose’ to be good rather than evil, and to make a universe in which circles are circular rather than square (in much the same way as we choose to drink water or milk), then He ceases to be omnipotent, for it must be the case that He is somehow under compulsion to create as He creates and to be as He is (just as we imagine that, in our case, if we are drinking water rather than milk but did not choose this, than we are being compelled to do so, even if only by an impersonal automatism, force of habit).
The misunderstanding of this objection is explored by Eric Perl:
In fact, the disjunctive presupposition that either God chooses between possible alternatives or he is necessitated to create situates God within a total framework of possibilities, as though the logical conditions of possibility and impossibility were prior to and more universal than God, conditions to which even he is subject. This presupposition envisions God either as confronted with a multiplicity of logical possibilities among which he can choose, or as subject to a logical law such that there is only one possibility open to him.
And yet, this “disjunctive” is precisely where modernity went wrong. As soon as God’s ‘Freedom’ (or ‘Sovereignty,’ or ‘Power’) came to be absurdly understood as somehow distinct from His other attributes, like ‘Goodness,’ ‘Justice,’ or ‘Mercy,’ we began to get the idea that He could have deemed immoral acts moral, that He could have made a universe in which hatred is more spiritually edifying than love, and yes, in which circles are square, and boulders are too heavy for their creator to lift.
In the Islamic world, we find this conception in the work of some Hanbali and Salafi theologians who hold to an anthropomorphic understanding of ‘Allah.’
Of course, such a ‘god’ is no different from a purely arbitrary accident-generating universe, since his will is not conditioned by any prior essence (an essence the older tradition felt confident describing in terms of attributes like ‘Goodness,’ ‘Mercy,’ etc.). If we follow such a theology, then, we have essentially arrived at materialism. In fact, we have arrived at liberal materialism, since the idea of such a thing as a ‘freedom’ that can be exercised distinctly from the character of the subject exercising it is, once secularised, the basis of western, political liberalism.
In Christianity, this is the Calvinist error (with roots in Augustinianism), whereby, we may suggest, Protestantism led to secular materialism.
When setting out to correct this error and retrace our steps back from the post-modern precipice, therefore, we cannot be satisfied with a god who asserts ‘reason’ and ‘moral good’ as one option among other possible options. That is, we cannot be satisfied with the god whose freedom just so happens—as a function of nothing but the pure exercise of his power—to deem hatred wrong and circles circular.
We might find that, in combating moral relativism, many people’s reflex is to reactively opt to assert precisely this kind of agonistic, Zeus-like, celestial figure to bear down on the earthly Titans that assail us. But this would be idolatry. Tempting as a ‘hard,’ pagan dualism might be, it represents a kind of parody of masculinity, to the same degree as the ‘soft’ relativistic, pantheistic postmodernism we see today is a sort of parodic femininity. We have:
A false image of femininity as the rebellion against structure and stability—shorthanded as “the patriarchy”. The corresponding false image of masculinity, then, appears as a force that constantly works to restrain chaos, never resting in itself or providing a truly stable center. It deviates from the equanimity inherent to traditional patriarchal figures.
I have explored this gendered dialectic of metaphysical (and moral) error in several essays, including “The Great God Pan is Dead.”
Faith should not rest in a god who is opposite, but equal, to evil. It must assert the God whose truth is highlighted to us by the un-truth of evil, never rivalled by it.