In perhaps an unguarded autobiographical moment I once characterized my adult intellectual life as a quest to understand three figures in history: Jesus of Nazareth, Martin Luther, and Adolf Hitler. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, my intention was to engage one of my classes in the reading assignments so that the students might not only learn of people and events, but also appreciate deeper truths about the human condition. The inspiration of Jesus and Luther needs little explanation, and these individuals correspond to my Reformed faith and scholarship respectively. The Nazi dictator, however, is another issue. I refer to him as a metaphor for a wider preoccupation with the darker episodes of history.
I've plumbed the depths of human depravity because I seek a sober, realistic assessment of humanity in all of its complexity. In developing an analysis I have availed myself of the social and biological sciences. On a more positive note, only an honest confrontation with evil and its disturbing implications for human nature, I submit, can help us achieve a more peaceful future. As journalist Lance Morrow wrote in his book Evil: An Investigation, “In the new instantaneous global dimension, it may be catastrophic not to think clearly about evil, not to be aware of what it is capable of doing.” To go a bit further, I also come to the Holocaust, and other odious events in history, for a source of hope and inspiration. When I read a book or watch a documentary about, say, Le Chambon, a small French village whose inhabitants risked their lives to hide Jews from Vichy officials and German troops, my world-weary soul receives more balm than if I had sung “The Star Spangled Banner,” not that I’m against that, mind you!
And yet acts of heroism are few and far between. Would that the world were a field of poppies, but when I come across a courageous soul who resisted evil at a cost, even when the society and culture opposed such resistance, it’s like finding a desert flower in a barren land—so precious, vibrant, striking, noble, beautiful, defiant. In quieter moments of contemplation, this search into things most foul and loathsome, I now recognize, has been a circuitous search for God, the divine, in a seemingly amoral and godless world.