I recently played God — the smallest role in an original play based on the Batman-Joker movie, and written by a 19-year-old for presentation at our church. I mention this because my key line was, “Man is duality, good and evil,” and it got me thinking. It’s not a line I would have written for God, but an idea that more and more pervades the young minds of today.
Many of today’s youths don’t automatically assume the ultimate triumph of good. Rather, they offer a Zoroastrian vision of equal, contending forces of good and evil, struggling for supremacy on an indifferent canvas of creation. The Batman movie “Dark Knight” portrays that cynical vision so depressingly that some speculate it may have contributed to the tragic death of Heath Ledger, who played the evil-incarnate Joker.
Undeniably there is evil in the world, and as a chaplain I’m challenged every day to explain why. So how can we put it in perspective? Is evil a spiritual force, as personified in Satan, or merely the absence of good — poor, benighted holes in the Creation that somehow escaped being filled with God’s love?
There is evidence throughout nature that creation required duality: night and day, light and dark, male and female, the double helix of the genetic code. The universe came from nothing, we are told, and to nothing it will return, the theory goes, if the totality of matter and anti-matter come back together again. At the same time, many view the physical world as a matrix of lies masking the true, spiritual reality.
The “Matrix” movies, in a deft combination of Christian and Buddhist images, convey this notion very well. These movies also describe a battle between good and evil, with evil’s defeat coming through the heroic sacrifice of the One, the Christ-figure, the only one who can embody truth, absorb the evil and purify the world through self-sacrificing love.
One analogy I use is the structure of the binary code, zeros and ones, to express the relationship of evil and good in our dualistic world. In the language of computers, ones and zeros combine to communicate everything, and without that dualism, nothing would compute. In that sense, no intrinsic value is attached to being a zero or being a one; it’s only the difference that matters.
But for the sake of this discussion, let’s call evil “zero” and goodness “one.” You could even personalize it, and call Satan the Zero, and Jesus the One. Now we have assigned a value to each, by implying that zero is just that — ephemeral, nothing, yet serving a function by holding a position necessary to differentiate not-goodness from the other, the goodness. One also implies a value: unity, wholeness, completeness, everything.
Everything and nothing, good and evil, truth and vapor, are expressed in this use of one and zero. We need both to make the nature of the other meaningful. But we are not mere observers to the difference. We are active participants. And we must choose the cipher we will serve. Will we make ourselves nothing, or shall we unite ourselves with the one? Pick a number and take your chance.
Now here’s another thought to chew on. The creative act that made the universe was accomplished by the one, yet it came from zero and will go back to zero. So the very act of creation required duality. It’s only in another, spiritual reality that oneness can exist on its own. Does that make evil an equal? Hardly. Add zero to one and you get no increase. Subtract zero from one and you have no loss. Only in this world of illusion is duality necessary, not in the real world of the spirit. And can we comprehend the difference, living in the material world? Probably not without help.
In his Pensee, Pascal wrote: “For after all, what is man to nature? A nothing compared to the infinite, a whole compared to the nothing, a middle point between all and nothing, infinitely removed from an understanding of the extremes; the end of things and their principles are unattainably hidden from him in impenetrable se-crecy.”
By this definition, Pascal saw us as 0.5 , a number hopelessly trapped in illusion. And so we are, without the window into heaven provided by the one. Yet with that vision comes responsibility. As participants in this life, we must understand the consequences of our decisions and our actions, as we vacillate our way between zero and one. Will we make something of ourselves, after all?
Lee Witting is pastor of the Union Street Brick Church in Bangor. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.