Embracing Evil

At one point in his memoir, Cornel West seemingly responds to Timothy Beal’s (2002) discussion of theodicy, the concern with why a “good” god would permit “evil.” West, whose life can be seen as embodying paradox, writes,

The central question with which Jim [Washington] grappled was unjustified suffering—the problem of evil. Why would a benevolent, all-knowing and all-powerful God permit such pain on any people? He and I didn’t approach the dilemma theoretically, however, In the end, we saw the answer as the conclusion of a practical Aristotelian syllogism. It was all about action. It was all about the practice of faith. As in the novels of Dostoyevsky, your life becomes your response. Your response doesn’t take the form of a written-down, reasoned-out argument. Your response becomes the quality of your day-to-day behavior. The question doesn’t go away. It remains powerful and daunting. But the fact that there is no reasoned-out answer doesn’t turn you cynical. You live with the reality that the question remains, a challenge to your mind and your heart. You can’t bring back the bodies that died in the Atlantic Ocean during the slave trade. You can’t reconcile a tidal wave wiping out an entire city with the notion of a sovereign God. You can’t equate catastrophe with the human condition—but you can, following the teachings of this particular Palestinian Jew, do what you can to help the least among us. (West, 2009, pp. 100-101)

In short, live with the unanswerable questions and do right and charitable things anyway. But without the premise in West’s writing that the god of Abraham—or his purported son, Jesus, the “Palestinian Jew,”—exists, these questions cease to be mysterious at all. At the very least, one might argue, the portrayal of deity in much of the Bible is of habitual, inexcusable, and unjustifiable cruelty, certainly unworthy of worship and unworthy of further consideration. These are alternatives that West never considers. He prefers—chooses—paradox.

In The Black Sun: The Alchemy and Art of Darkness, Stanton Marlan (2005) chooses instead to embrace the darkness, to see it as essential to light, to consider such questions of goodness and evil as an alchemy, neither as good, nor as evil, but as what is real. Perhaps so. But unlike West, this is to acquiesce to the suffering of others or even of the self. West (2009) still sought to do good. Marlan spends 266 pages ducking the question. Where West (November 19, 2010) criticizes the United States political establishment, and President Barack Obama in particular, for not caring about the poor, Marlan offers a picture of Kali copulating with Siva and calls it enlightenment.

The question is far from academic, though Marlan (2005) clearly would prefer to treat it as such. At the end of the day, one must ask of Marlan, what has his work done to feed the poor, to redress the grievous inequities of society, or to address the challenges of climate change and resource depletion that threaten our species? How, in fact, is it in any way even remotely relevant?

Marlan’s (2005) answer would seem to be in psychoanalysis, that in a refusal to reject evil, but rather in choosing to embrace it, he exposes it to be dealt with. Yet the corporate greed that has run amok in globalized governance is now barely even disguised. The human dilemma is not about excavating and revealing evil, but rather about the power of evil over us, that threatens our survival. But Marlan, as a psychoanalyst, just wants us to feel better about the situation.

In effect, Marlan’s (2005) approach, for all its intellectual twisting and turning through the passageways of the subconscious, is passive. It is a really rather revolting request for recognition that smiles and asserts against the vastness of human cruelty, “I’m so cool.”


Beal, T. K. (2002). Religion and its monsters. New York: Routledge.

Marlon, S. (2005). The black sun: The alchemy and art of darkness. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University.

West, C. (2009). Brother West: Living and loving out loud: A memoir. Carlsbad, CA: SmileyBooks.

West, C. (2010, November 19). Interview by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzales. Cornel West on Charles Rangel, Bush & Kanye West and why Obama admin “seems to have very little concern for poor people.” Democracy Now! http://www.democracynow.org/2010/11/19/cornel_west_on_charles_rangel_bush