As we all learned at mother’s knee, we should not judge by appearances. Indeed, as our Lord told us, we are not supposed to judge in an ultimate sense at all. But an incarnational religion has to take seriously what the material world shows.
I write in the immediate after-math of the horrible massacre at the Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. This event will no doubt be dissected by a whole herd of politicians and pundits in the coming weeks. But it is unlikely that they will get to the heart of the matter.
For the heart of the matter is theological, a category that does not often appear in American public discourse. Instead, we will hear talk about psychology, community, exclusion—the narrow, modern litany of cause and effect. David Mandel, a psychologist who has studied the Goth subculture—one of the causes being invoked—wrote last year, “It is not sinister, but tongue in cheek.” And he continued: “People who are really into it use it to construct meaning in their lives. They really find beauty in the dark things much the way others find beauty in bright, happy things.”
This characterization fits quite well into the non-judgmentalism and radical individualism that have become the hallmark of psychology in this century. But it really conceals an attitude for which there is a technical theological term: Gnosticism.
Gnosticism was one of the early Church’s chief rivals. Unlike biblical creationism and the more optimistic views of nature found in some pagan philosophers, Gnostics saw the world as the product of an evil or, at best, indifferent, god; the true God was to be found only beyond material things. Evil was built in the foundations of this world.
If you want a rough idea of what this means in practice, you need look no further than Star Wars. The two sides of the Force are in perpetual conflict with one another. Neither Good nor Evil are ultimate principles, merely two parts of a whole. We are supposed to root for the good guys. But the dark side is always there, too, and has its “meaning and beauty” for some souls.
In similar fashion, our culture does not wholly accept groups like the Trench Coat Mafia. Many principals and teachers are engaged in a daily struggle to keep groups like them under control. Any school, for example, that lets gang insignias and graffiti go unchecked is headed for disaster. So administrators are quick to check them whenever possible.
But the black trench coat presents a different kind of problem. It is not hard to imagine the outcry from the ACLU and other groups if schools move to ban otherwise harmless articles of clothing. And wherever the argument begins to be made that such fringe groups are dangerous, we are likely to hear claims that excluding them will stifle diversity or only exacerbate the problem.
Whatever social problems Columbine High may have had, only those hypnotized by current social cant will mistake the root of the problem: evil. Evil exerts a strange fascination on the soul. Even those of us who have been taught to know better know how strong a grip it has on us. Healthy societies set up a whole system of coercive and non- coercive measures to deter and deflect evil. Our society, wonderful in so many ways, has also come to accept playing with dark forces as an alternative lifestyle. Acknowledging evil as evil takes courage, the kind of discernment of spirits that we are called upon to practice even if we are not the final judge.
If any good comes out of the evil that occurred at Littleton, Colorado, it will be a serious reflection on some of the assumptions that have marked significant parts of our culture—not the least elite culture—in recent decades. It would be a difficult task, as moral reflection always is. Unfortunately, we are more likely to hear in coming months psychological, sociological, and political arguments that cannot help us. No amount of community dialogue, counseling, or gun control can deal with what showed its ancient, ugly face in Littleton.