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Evil: Conversations with the Bible and with Contemporary Voices

Dr. Carol Newsom of Emory University’s Candler School of Theology will present the 2013 Zenos Lectures on Monday, February 18, 2013, at 1:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. in McCormick’s first floor Common Room. In the conversation that follows, Dr. Newsom gives us a detailed look at the lectures that she will be delivering.

Dr. Newsom says, “The philosopher Susan Neiman suggests that evil be thought of as that which “shatters our trust in the world.” Those traditions that do not see the problem of evil as critical construe humans as being “at home” in the world. Those in which the problem of evil becomes acute construe humans as “homeless.” But in those contexts in which the sense of mistrust and homelessness arises, where does it lodge? What or who is to blame? Is the problem in the cosmos? Or in ourselves? These two talks examine three ways in which the authors of biblical and early postbiblical texts examined this question.”

“The first talk looks at the wisdom tradition, which in Proverbs has a very positive estimate of the world as a trustworthy and supportive environment for the human quest for the construction of a moral order. But in two critical texts, Job and Ecclesiastes, questions are raised that frame the problem of evil in a way that suggests that the human quest for a world in which good is met with good may be utterly unsupported by any cosmic or transcendent structures. This is, in fact, one of the critical ways in which the problem of evil has been framed since the Enlightenment. It also has resonance with the stance of the “New Atheism,” which sees religious promises as self-deceiving evasions. The question of the human passion for meaning in the context of a vast and strange cosmos is taken up in a profound and thoughtful manner by the film director Terence Malick in Tree of Life, whose film can be understood as a meditation on the speeches of God to Job from the whirlwind.”

“The second talk looks at a different way the Bible thinks about the problem of evil: the problem of human nature as itself possibly flawed and of the external forces that affect it for good or for ill. The creation story in Genesis 2-3 is–to the consternation of the fundamentalists–actually an evolutionary story about how human beings ceased being simple animals and became an odd mix of animal and divine being that is morally unstable–and hence capable of evil, but also of good. That biblical story is one that has interesting resonance with recent work in evolutionary biology, which is also fascinated by the ways in which human development primed our species for acts of empathy and compassion but also for acts of competition and violence. Later apocalyptic tradition recast the creation story as one in which an external evil being tempted humans to do evil that they did not originally intend. In Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity there was a rich discussion about human moral psychology and the ways in which it was inherently susceptible to influence, and so subject to either good or evil powers. Although modern neuroscience does not use such mythic categories, it similarly explores the ways in which we are and are not agents in our moral lives.”

The Zenos Lectures at McCormick are presented bi-annually to honor the memory of Andrew C. Zenos, professor Bible and ecclesiastical history and dean at McCormick for more than 40 years, retiring in 1934. The Zenos Lectures were inaugurated in 1946 by Professor Emil Brunner to offer the wider community the opportunity to hear what’s on the hearts and minds of some of our greatest Biblical scholars.

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