The idea of “evil” had lurked over my work for decades.
In 1977, my doctoral committee invited me to come to Berkeley to deliver a public lecture on The Parable of the Tribes (at that time, written up as a 1600-page doctoral dissertation) in lieu of an oral defense of the thesis. I regarded it as an important opportunity, and in the month I had to prepare my talk, I gave the effort everything I had.
The title I chose for the talk was “The Riddle of Evil,” because I saw that that selection for the ways of power helped solve the riddle of “Why has there been so much torment and destruction – so much Evil – in the human world?”
(That question was what launched me on my life’s work. It was the events of 1968 that drove me off the “beaten path,” dropping out of graduate school and otherwise suspending my goal-directed way of life: the Tet offensive in Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and of Bobby Kennedy, the Soviet tanks rolling into Prague, the Chicago convention. Just fitting into a world I now realized was out of joint no longer seemed acceptable. And I needed an answer to that question before I could know what might make sense to do in such a world. When the idea of “the parable of the tribes” came to me two years later, I had both an answer, and a mission.)
In the late 80s, I published a minor book titled Sowings and Reapings, with the subtitle, “The Cycling of Good and Evil in the Human System.” The core idea of that book was that “as is sown in us, so does the world tend to reap from us.” (In the way, for example, that often people who were abused as children end up abusing their own children.) It was another approach to the phenomenon of how brokenness (which might be described as the “goal” of “Evil”) gets transmitted through the human world.
(In the 90s, I focused on doing radio conversations with a conservative audience in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley – “the Not Rush Limbaugh Show” the newspaper in Harrisonburg headlined it – because I could see the pernicious way the right-wing Godzilla of Talk Radio was poisoning the minds of millions of “dittoheads.” My characterization of the conversation that Limbaugh fostered what might be reasonably described as aspects of evil – “panders to people’s worst prejudices, fans their resentments,” is “fundamentally dishonest” – but I don’t believe I used the word, even in my own thinking.)
But it was in 2004-05 that the issue of “Evil” – as such – became a major focus.
What happened was that my life got hit by another figurative ton of bricks that changed the course of my life.
It was different from what happened to me in 1970 with “the parable of the tribes.” This second life-changing impact came not from being struck by an idea, already formed, but from some strange experience of seeing something. Something that gave me gooseflesh.
I was watching the 2004 Republican convention on TV, and there came a moment when I just “saw” something. My experience was that I saw evil.
It was a kind of “seeing” that I can neither explain nor describe in words. What I saw simply registered in my mind as “Evil,” something so dark and threatening that I felt compelled to turn away from a project I loved – “Mapping the Sacred,” I called it, which explored the various components of the realm of Wholeness — and to dedicate myself to combatting that dark “Thing” I’d seen.
(The one major public articulation of the vision of things that gave rise to “Mapping the Sacred” was “Our Pathways into Deep Meaning,” which was delivered as a sermon in several places, and was published in written form. It can be found here: Our Pathways Into Deep Meaning – A Better Human Story.)
And, while that impactful experience in 2004 didn’t begin with a Big Idea, like the “understanding-in-a-flash” in 1970, the investigation it called me to embark up0on did lead to what I now consider my second Big Idea about the forces that must be overcome if we are to have the kind of human world that we would want. It lead to that “Secular Understanding of ‘the Battle Between Good and Evil.’”