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Homilies from St Etheldreda's

Talk of the devil!

Posted March 12, 2019

What do you imagine the devil to be like?  It’s fascinating how his profile has varied down the centuries.  Even in the Bible (where, admittedly, he is not mentioned all that often) he turns up in different guises.  In today’s Gospel reading (Luke 4: 1-13) he comes across as a mischievous but not-very-bright rabbinical student who is easily slapped down by the Rabbi with an apt scriptural quotation.  In some other places in the New Testament he is a rather more daunting figure.  The First Letter of St Peter tells us that he ‘prowls around like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour’.  In the centuries following the New Testament period he acquires an ever more gruesome profile, and by the time we come to the medieval period he has established himself as that disgusting beast that we are all familiar with, complete with trademark horns and hooves, furry legs and lethal trident.  There he is in Michelangelo’s Last Judgement inflicting horrible punishments on sinners writhing in hell.  In Dante’s Inferno he is a grotesque three-headed slobbering monster.  These medieval depictions of a truly disgusting and fearsome beast eager to clutch at you in this life and to torment you in the next have burnt themselves deep into the Christian psyche.  And what harm they have done, even in our own times!  But we have come away from all that stuff – one hopes.

And would it not be better, I ask, to do away with the notion of the devil altogether?  Is there anything that obliges us to hang on to the idea?  After all, we recite the creed every Sunday and I don’t recall that it contains the words ‘And I believe in the devil.’  Surely we can ditch the devil, or at least demythologize him?

There do exist sober alternatives to all that devil talk.  Take, for example, mainstream Judaism.  Mainstream Judaism has no need of the devil to explain the origin of moral evil and our vulnerability to it.  Instead, it speaks of two ‘impulses’, the ‘good impulse’ and the ‘evil impulse’.  Both these impulses are innate in the human being.  Our moral destiny depends on which of them the individual allows to get the upper hand.  No room for the devil.

Similarly, when we moderns want to explain the negative forces at work in our world, we turn not to mythology or to theology but to the social sciences, to psychology, to genetics, to political theory, to economics, or, if all that is beyond us, to The Guardian newspaper.  Modern science teaches us that human factors alone are sufficient to explain even the most negative forces at play in our world.

So we don’t need to bring in some malign supernatural force to explain evil influences in the world.  There exist sober alternative explanations, whether theological or social-scientific.

But while not recommending a return to devil mythology (heaven forbid!), I do doubt whether those alternatives do justice to the reality.  They come nowhere near conveying the magnitude of the horror, the sinister nature of the influence of evil, its power to blind and deceive, to invade and destroy.  Modern theories about the origin and nature of evil are just too tame.  Instead of awakening us shrieking as out of a horrid nightmare, they leave us  untroubled in our slumbers – to our very great peril.

No social scientist or psychologist can explain Auschwitz or Syria or Yemen or Isis or Boko Haram or genocide or the other extreme manifestations of evil that we see in our world.  But it gets worse than that, for at least with those manifestations we are dealing with something immediately recognizable as evil.  They are spectacular assaults on everything human, instinctively condemned by all people who have not themselves been dehumanized.

But there are things happening in our world that are not recognized as evil, that even perhaps get our compliance and find a willing ally in our own murkiest depths.  I am thinking of the social media.  Alongside a lot of good, it brings us a lot of evil: think the tabloids, the glossies, the porn industry, the advertising industry, your social networks; so many toxic influences that seep into our souls and into our homes unnoticed.  Yes, unnoticed.  We don’t even suspect what a destructive force the social media can be, how it uses propaganda techniques and technology to deceive, to lure, to recruit, to persuade, to pervert, to devastate, and still to remain devilishly anonymous.  The more we see and hear of this negative side of the media, the more we might feel confirmed in the view that there is something out there that cannot be explained by some theory of an innate evil inclination or by the theories of our social scientists, psychologists and newspaper columnists.  The devil mythology explained it all in terms of a horrific personalized demonic beast seeking to devour and torment us.  We have grown out of that mythology, thank God.  But the trouble is, we have no adequate alternative explanation; we don’t even look for one.  We don’t even think there is anything to explain.

Jesus in St John’s Gospel calls the devil ‘a liar and the Father of Lies’.  That takes us closer to the heart of the matter.  For whatever it is that wreaks such havoc and devastation in our world, it begins by depriving human beings of the one faculty that distinguishes them, the one thing that protects and ensures their positive potential: that is, their power to recognize and to communicate truth.  It begins by depriving language of its objectivity and truth value.  As Humpty Dumpty tells Alice: ‘When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean.’  It’s what C S Lewis is referring to when he has Screwtape, the senior devil, advise his apprentice: ‘Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping [people] from the Church.’  As when the Irish abortion referendum result was greeted with jubilation in the streets as a ‘triumph for reproductive rights’.  That’s how it is when language has become meaningless.  That’s how it is in a post-truth era.

This source of the evil that seeps into us can destroy us more effectively than all the mythological devils of old.  I am not thinking only of the tragic cases of young people being pushed into despair.  (‘Instagram helped kill my daughter’, Molly Russell’s father said.)  I am thinking more of the destruction of the person that results when fake values invade our souls and we are defenceless against them because they come disguised as forward-looking enlightenment: for everyone approves them, interest groups promote them, newspaper columnists applaud them, the experts recommend them and politicians gain street cred by voting for them.

The devil mythology at least did humanity a service in those periods of history when it was an effective means of eliciting fear, disgust and revulsion.  It doesn’t do that for us.  Evil influence no longer presents itself to us in the form of a repulsive beast.  If only it did!  The threat of evil would at least be recognizable.  But it doesn’t: it comes unnoticed; it comes in the creepiest manner; lethal, yet unrecognized, like a symptomless cancer; disguised, as if by some satanic intelligence.

I don’t think we can ditch the devil: only we must bear in mind that the devil is immeasurably more sinister and more lethal than any mythology could ever imagine.  The devil that past ages taught us to dread is a joke, compared with the reality.

Fr Tom Deidun

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