The Problem of Evil and Spiritual Envy

I just finished a short modern saga by Felix Dahn called The Saga of Halfred the Sigskald.  It concerns the tragic adventures of a fictional Norse skald, who accepts a challenge to win the hand of a princess by completing a set of challenges.  The action of the saga is very reminiscent of the Nibelungelied, a medieval tragic romance which I highly recommend all my dear readers to read.  Through overcoming all these challenges, Halfred weds the princess, who discovers that he undertook winning her hand for the fame of the conquest rather than out of love.  (When a woman sets up a series of contests to win her hand, might this not be expected?)  In great wroth, she curses Halfred at a feast, and her attempt to strike him leads to setting herself on fire and the slaughter of many of the guests in the ensuing confusion.  This begins a series of tragic events for Halfred which lead to him denying the existence of the gods.  On the whole, the story conveyed that tragic flavor which I love to see in traditional sagas.

Egil's Saga is an especially great read.

Egil’s Saga is an especially great read.

However, I feel that none of my dear readers will be interested in this saga, especially because so many more medieval sagas deserve to be read.  If you are, you may download it for free on Kindle, iBooks, or Project Gutenberg.   I found the work interesting for two reasons: how it dealt with the problem of evil and depiction of spiritual envy.  Feeling no need to avoid spoilers with such a work, here is the sequence of events which leads to Halfred denying the gods:

1.  Halfred is cursed by his wife and forced to slaughter his own kinsman.

2.  His pregnant wife is killed in the scuffle and their firstborn lost.

3.  Halfred finds happiness again with a new wife, but her beauty produces jealousy among his blood-brothers and the crew, leading to a slaughter.

4.  His new wife commits suicide.

5.  Halfred, going on a crusade against paganism, is unwittingly slain by his son, who, as it turns out, survived though his mother did not.

norwegian-historical-events

If such events are possible–Halfred claims, then the gods cannot exist.  However, I would like to submit that perhaps Halfred’s madness at the end of the story makes him being killed by his son and thus finding peace more happy than if he had continued his crusade.  I particularly love how his son, then a shepherd, when asked whether he believed in the gods, responded that he believed in the one, triune God, and mortally wounded Halfred with his slingshot in a fashion reminiscent of King David.

At any rate, I have always found the mere existence of evil insufficient to deny the existence of God.  Look at these syllogisms:

1) If God were omnipotent, omniscent, and infinitely good, he would eliminate evil according to His omnipotence, i.e. completely.

2) There is evil.

Therefore, God does not exist.

But why should not the following syllogism be true?

1) There is good.

2) Without a good Creator, there could be no goodness.

Therefore, God exists.

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As a matter of fact, St. Augustine claims that the mere presence of evil actually shows God’s omnipotence; for, if God were not so omnipotent as to bring good out of evil, then He would never have allowed evil to exist in the first place.  So, I think that the problem of pain or evil is insufficient when arguing against God’s existence.  Rather, people who deny God’s existence on such grounds take to judging Providence because they think that He permitted evil where He should not have.  Perhaps, believers struggle with this question more than unbelievers, but the rewards for perseverance in faith, which in itself is an unfathomably immense grace, are to feel God’s love and goodness again and again.

Now to that most deplorable vice of spiritual envy.  I call it spiritual envy because people who struggle to lead a spiritual life, like the Italian monks in the abbey where Halfred’s son lives, are particularly subject to it.  One feels excessive grief or judgment against people who excessively indulge in the pleasures of life.  One might even rejoice more in hearing the downfall than conversion of sinners!  And yet, one calls oneself an upstanding Christian!  After Halfred’s son leaves the abbey, apostates, and perishes on the field of battle, the abbot actually rejoices in hearing of a vision of how this person has fallen into hell!  (In fairness to Dahn, he does give a positive portrayal of the Algo-Saxon monks and the prior Anglo-Saxon abbot, Aelfrik.  But this might just be due to the prejudices of the author, who seemed instrumental in the movement of German Nationalism prior to WWI.)  How contrary to the example of St. Benedict, who, upon hearing one of his disciples rejoicing in the death of St. Benedict’s clerical opponent, who had even attempted to murder the saint, rebuked his disciple and told him rather to pray for that person.

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The root of spiritual envy lies in a strange form of jealousy: this spiritual person, at the same time as he strives for higher goods and claims their superiority, envies the sinner’s enjoyment of material goods!  Rather than spiritual, this person ought rather to be called carnal!  Any yet, envy is an insidious cancer which most easily infects those who deem themselves immune.  The life of grace involves bitter trials.  Human beings, a combination of flesh and spirit, suffer from concupiscence, which renders physical joys more apparent than spiritual ones, for perception of which the grace of the Lord is necessary.

And yet, how deplorable is envy of all sorts?  How can Christians bring poor sinners into the fold if they see us, who are indeed sinners ourselves, contemning them and also jealous of the very things they enjoy?  Furthermore, how displeasing it is to our Divine Master, the Overflowing Fountain of Love Itself, to see envy in His followers?  But, by prayer for others and charity envy can be uprooted, and we learn the necessity of grace by overcoming these trials.

Created with The GIMPSo, the work provoked some very interesting thoughts, but I still can’t recommend it above other works.  I still imagine that it will be pleasing to some of my dear readers.

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2 comments on “The Problem of Evil and Spiritual Envy

  1. zeonista says:

    Most of the Icelandic sagas dealt with the tragic results of a decision-often a hasty or momentary decision-made on the basis of envy or greed or spite. The resulting trouble often spanned generations, and led to further misery before they could be ended, usually at great cost. Most of the non-Christian protagonists never abandoned or rebuked their capricious gods, though. It was considered part of Wyrd, and had to be confronted as part of the process of life and death. The shift of Iceland to Christianity in the time period between the actual events of most sagas and their recording by Snorri allowed for some re-interpretation of events and attitudes. Having not read the saga, I would say that Halfred sounds a bit more like Job than Egil or Njal.

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    • A Job that failed, you might say. Yes, the Vikings did have a strong belief in fate, and, now that I think about it, I never remember reading about them complaining about the gods about having a sour lot. But, that might be also due to the fact that the gods of the Norse were not as close to their people as the God of Israel. Why feel upset about an absence which was always there?

      I happy to meet another fan of the sagas here! My favorite is the Saga of Hrolf Kraki, though I also thoroughly enjoyed the ones you mentioned.

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Legens, scribe sententias tuas.

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