JOY SYLVESTER-JOHNSON: Walter, I’ve Been Meaning To Tell You

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Joy Sylvester Johnson

“Breaking Bad” is a television series, in its sixth year, that I have never watched—until now. I heard a piece on NPR about the show with quotes from the author and the lead character about the nature of “evil” and it intrigued me.

“Evil” and it’s kissin’ cousin, “suffering”, is for me the spiritual Rubik’s Cube of my faith. I know evil and the suffering it causes is real, but I don’t know why they exist. I have seen it drive earnest seekers to a conclusion of atheism as they wrestle with the idea of suffering of the innocents and inexplicable injustice, all allegedly happening within God’s presence and plan.

James A K Smith*, writes about one such person, Albert Camus, who in 1948 told a group of Dominican priests: “I share with you the same revulsion from evil. But I do not share your hope, and I continue to struggle against this universe in which children suffer and die.” And later, “I feel rather as Augustine did before becoming a Christian when he said: I tried to find the source of evil and I got nowhere.”’

Smith sees Camus as “Augustine sans grace.” He then, in his book, On the Road with Saint Augustine, writes:

“From his early work On Free Choice of the Will to the mature reflections in The City of God, Augustine keeps tackling the problem of evil. His point isn’t to identify the cause as much as it is to fight for an intellectual coherence that will allow him to hold two convictions in tension with integrity: the corrosive nature of evil that eats away at the world and the goodness of the God who made such a world.”

Augustine wrestles with evil. He punctures and pulls and twists the concept of “free will” in order to explain evil as a choice. He argues with the “greater good answers” of Neo-Platonism. He is on a quest for an answer. But in the end, Smith argues, Augustine realizes he has no answer regarding the question of evil. Instead he concludes that evil is never adequately explained, but rather it is overcome in the Christ event. That preaches. (I know this because I have preached it.)

What Smith then adds to the conversation is the realization that to “explain” evil, or make sense of it, is to elevate it and to say it has a place in creation—God’s creation that God called “good.”

Perhaps my own wrestling match with the reality of evil and its sister question, “Why is there suffering?” exists because although I give lip service to the word “mystery as it relates to the faith”, my “enlightened” brain still refuses to admit there are some things we cannot know. Even as I write this sentence I want to pencil in the word “yet” at the end.

Inquiring minds want to know. In fact, we so want to know that like the tabloids we take what we have and try to fill in all the blanks. If this were just a parlor game it would not be so dangerous, but once we have filled in the blanks, we often take the next step and make our homemade (read “human” here) argument and give it a faux divine status by turning it into a creed or a doctrine or some other code for “answer” which we then add to the list of “that which must be believed.”

Eureka! This is the missing part of the life puzzle. And with no little satisfaction, like a giant picture puzzle we have all worked on for weeks to complete, we put all the pieces back into the box and put the box on the shelf and think we don’t have to think about it anymore. It’s settled.

But it isn’t.

Any faith that fits into any box (even a 5000 piece puzzle box) is insufficient.

It is at this point Smith says something that resonates with me: “Hope is found not in intellectual mastery but in divine solidarity…”

That’s what I want to say to Walter White, the protagonist in “Breaking Bad.”

Walter, all your rationalizations and explanations and strategies do not exempt you from being both a victim and a perpetrator of evil as well as both a cause and a recipient of suffering. What you are trying to work out cannot be worked out. Your grim diagnosis and your subsequent fear of your own death and its consequences for your family, have turned you into a monster. ( I know this, because I also harbor evil and I also have the power to become a monster when I betray the “good” of creation.)

We don’t need an explanation for our evil Walter.

What we need is Goodness with a capital G found in the memory of the beginning. What we need is the power of God (again with a capital G), not to explain evil, but to resist it. And when we resist evil, but fail (and we will sometimes fail), we need the balm of Grace (again with a capital G) to press on and try again.

Our hope, Walter, is not found in intellectual mastery, but in divine solidarity with The God of all Goodness and Grace.

Joy Sylvester Johnson

*Canadian-American philosopher who is currently Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College, holding the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology & Worldview. He is a notable figure associated with radical orthodoxy, a theo-philosophical movement within postmodern Christianity.

“When we make sense of suffering, we lose our ability to protest against it.”

– James A.K. Smith