“Spoiled goodness”: a reflection for Advent II

Found this quote on a friend’s Facebook page, and it sparked some thoughts:

“You can be good for the mere sake of goodness: you cannot be bad for the mere sake of badness. You can do a kind action when you are not feeling kind and when it gives you no pleasure, simply because kindness is right; but no one ever did a cruel action simply because cruelty is wrong – only because cruelty was pleasant or useful to him. In other words badness cannot succeed even in being bad in the same way in which goodness is good. Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. And there must be something good first before it can be spoiled.”

~ CS Lewis, Mere Christianity

Lewis (as is generally the case) makes a good point. I am reminded of the premise that evil is not a thing in itself, but rather the absence (or lack) of good, just as darkness is not really a thing in itself, but the absence (or lack) of light. And as the above points out, we can never really be completely evil, because even our most evil actions are predicated on the pleasure or satisfaction they on some level bring to us – and causing enjoyment is itself a good, even if in that case it is fundamentally misdirected (disordered).

So even our worst actions contain a seed of good! Not that that makes them good in and of themselves (they are “spoiled goodness,” as Lewis points out), but it does mean that they – and we – are not utterly and irredeemably evil, contra some radical Protestants (“utter depravity”). That makes sense, if we are indeed created in the image of God, for how could creatures created in the image of Absolute Goodness ever descend to irredeemable badness? That would be, in effect, un-creating us!

As the Eastern Orthodox phrase it, evil effaces, or “paints over,” the image of God within us, but it cannot destroy or remove it. Repentance, such as we should be practicing in the “Little Lent” which is Advent, cleans and restores the image of God within us, which sin has effaced. But just as “there must be something good before it can be spoiled,” so there must be something good before it can be restored. Otherwise would would need to be totally re-created ex nihilo, and thus be something other than we are.

All of which reminds me of one of Ma’s old sayings: “There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it ill-behooves any of us to talk about the rest of us!”


Author: The Anglophilic Anglican

I am an ordained Anglican clergyman, published writer, former op-ed columnist, and experienced outdoor and informal educator. I am also a traditionalist: religiously, philosophically, politically, and socially. I seek to do my bit to promote and restore the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, in a world which has too-often lost touch with all three, and to help re-weave the connections between God, Nature, and humankind which our techno-industrial civilization has strained and broken.

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