It is understood within Orthodoxy that the fundamental problem with mankind is that our nous has been darkened.
I am, it is important to state, not a theologian. When I was an Anglican, I fancied myself sort of an armchair theologian. In Orthodoxy, the only real theologians are those who have truly come to know God. In the 2,000 year history of the Church, only three have been granted that title. So, what I have to say here will be my best effort to describe Orthodox theology a little bit. Forgive me for any errors.
The fall of mankind, contrary to Western views, did not result in an angry God punishing us. Rather, it resulted in our separation, by our own actions, from the grace of God. This separation, leads to our death, and the fear of death drives everything we do. Our greed, lust, and enslavement to the passions is driven by the knowledge of an impending death.
At the same time, due to our separation, our nous, that “organ” with man that allows us to apprehend God (different than the two words it is translated into in English, mind and heart), grew darkened by all of the sin and continued separation we strive for in our lives. This increased darkening through our lives is why you often hear of children having visions of angels and other things during the Divine Liturgy, but seldom hear of such among adults (except for people on their way to sainthood).
As a result of this darkening, our ability to perceive all around us is severely limited. Frequently, it is entirely wrong. We perceive ourselves as being really nice people, we perceive other people as having wronged us, when it is more likely that we are the ones who are guilty of wrong. At the same time, our inability to perceive God, to perceive truth and righteousness, means that our ability to perceive falsehood and evil has become greatly limited.
I came to ponder this after reading an article in Oprah magazine by the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the boys responsible for the Columbine massacre over 10 years ago. In the article, she tends to focus on two things: that the killings were part of Dylan’s desire to commit suicide, and that she had no idea that he was depressed.
At first, feeling very judgmental and self-righteous, I was rather annoyed with the article. After all, I would clearly have seen this evil living within my household. Planning a major assault on a school, killing a bunch of innocent children, ultimately blowing up the school (their plan, which thankfully failed in that regard). One thing that I disagreed with was the notion that this was simply a suicide, one of the rare ones that involved the taking of other lives, but a suicide nonetheless. Those usually involve the killing of loved ones to protect them from whatever pain the perpetrator was suffering from. The only other variation is a suicide after a murder, which this may be similar to, but the scale was clearly beyond anything previously experienced. I had reached the conclusion that this was an act of evil. How else can one describe it? That realization on my part, however, changed everything.
I began to wonder, in light of the fall and the darkening of our nous, how, exactly would I do at seeing the evil. If I have a difficult time seeing the God that is everywhere present, seeing the eternal Truth, would I be able to see what is in front of me as evil? It takes few examples from recent times, even current events to throw doubt on the notion.
On a more subtle level, although maybe it isn’t that much more subtle, how much evil do we overlook or ignore in our own lives and our own behaviors. How much hatred do we permit ourselves. Christ tells us that the mere thought of hatred toward another is equivalent to murder. I think that this clues us in to how far away we are from the sort of love God has for us, that actual physical murder, and a measure of hatred in our heart, are basically equivalent. I think about how so many people can support abortion, under the guise of “choice.”
So, I am left thinking that maybe I wouldn’t have been any better. Perhaps, my own blindness to my own evil behaviors would allow me to be similarly blind to this sort of evil. The thought makes me shudder, but then maybe that is a good thing.