The recent tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut initiated a predictable array of “solutions” in the public square. Advocates claim that gun laws need to be stricter, that the government needs to put more funding into mental health, that teachers should be armed. Many people, certainly, turned to prayer and looked for solace in community vigils and remembrances. But most looked toward pragmatic or political solutions to what is essentially a metaphysical problem, the problem of evil.
Thinkers of the twentieth century, however, generally concluded that “metaphysics is dead.” And along with metaphysics, they also declared God to be absent, weak: dead enough, if not completely dead. As a result, we, as a culture, have looked to psychotropic drugs, policy, and, above all, politics as ways to address the problem of evil. I don’t think it’s working.
Our situation seems to be much like that depicted in Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex. We, the citizenry, are looking for answers to the plague of violence that ravages our nation. The citizens of Thebes, in much the same manner, go to their king, Oedipus, to find answers concerning the disease that punishes them. Oedipus feels great compassion for their suffering, and he knows that they have offered sacrifices to the gods that the gods might alleviate their distress. Oedipus tells them, “You pray to the gods? Let me answer your prayers.” Thus politics.
Evil can’t be legislated away. And those who think “just pulling together” will be an antidote to the evil that plagues our culture, though their idealism endears them to me, are sadly mistaken.
With the decline of metaphysics’ impact on human life has been a correlative decline of belief in God and in church attendance. There has also been an increase in the kind of evil we saw in Newtown on Friday (and the eerily similar tragedy in Beijing on the same day) corresponding to the death of metaphysics by a kind of inverse ratio. Belief in God implies a belief in the metaphysical nature of both good and evil, qualities our culture now views as relative. Doubtlessly, many who shed tears for the twenty children of Newtown never give much thought to the millions who die from abortion each year. Thus relativism.
As St Paul tells us, “our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places” (Ephesians 6:12). A metaphysical reality, the problem of evil does not respond very positively to a “treatment plan.” Nor does it fall into policy’s firmly drawn line.
Metaphysics is not dead. But twenty-eight people in Connecticut are.
Spero columnist Michael Martin is a professor of English literature at Marygrove College in Detroit. Michigan.