William Golding, in his book ‘Darkness Visible’, has had a profound influence on my understanding of good and evil. To be fair, it contains much to make you blanch, but it also captures something profound. The story is based around two characters: the beautiful and intelligent Sophie and the disfigured and simple Matty. Sophie, for all her charm, views the world through herself; Matty, by contrast, uses a beaten up old Bible that he doesn’t really understand. The story then unfolds.
Nietzsche had his own view of the problem. In the nineteenth century people increasingly doubted the existence of God, but as this belief was thought to keep people compliant they continued to promote it to stabilise society. God was doubted, but in private. For Nietzsche, this was nonsense. If there is no God, then we needed to re-think our world from the ground up, a world without good or evil, where our moral standards are nothing more than a meaningless fiction created by priests. All that is left is the relentless will of nature towards power. We have not all had the ruthless honesty of Nietzsche. We looked into the abyss and we stepped back. Instead we come up with our own ideas of good, be it the ‘utility’ of economics, the ‘pursuit of happiness’, or, indeed, any of a legion of other standards. But, as Nietzsche points out, once God is dead, there is no basis for any.
Back to William Golding. Everyone loves Sophie, but she is indifferent to the people she hurts along the way. It is perhaps this contradiction between her outward charm and her inner indifference that makes her character so dark and sinister.
Now, I used to puzzle over why God would object to man knowing about good and evil. But, what William Golding has helped me realise is that God’s intention was that we should understand goodness in relation to him. Our rebellion was not so much our disobedience to an arbitrary command, but our wanting to decide for ourselves right from wrong. It turns out that the serpent did not lie. In eating from the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil we did become like God, we put ourselves in his place. Yet it is God who is the source of goodness and we detach ourselves from him at our peril. We become like Sophie and all manner of evil follows and, as Nietzsche understood, once God is removed good and evil disappear entirely.
We live in a world that is no longer sure about right and wrong, good and evil. It clings to a past with its certainties, but, like a tree that has died from within that look sound, sooner or later it must fall. We may be able to prop it up a little longer, but it has died and may be better let to fall. We cannot give the world back its stability through outward forms, its centre is dead. It will decide for itself what is good and evil. For a while it may remember the values it once had, but that memory will fade and it will increasingly call evil good and good evil. Maybe then the light will be easier to see. Even so, it will be a dark day. Yet our hope is not in propping up a world that has died at its centre, but in a kingdom that confronts it, a kingdom rooted in the other tree.