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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Exorcising the Devil

Although the discussion of my last posting was done mostly on Facebook, it drew a few who found my admission here that I don't believe in a literal devil, off-putting. So I decided to continue the theme at least for one more post.

Some objected that since the devil is prominent in the New Testament, who am I to disregard that witness? Whenever one decides against a biblical point of view, it must be for good reason. Perhaps, I should first defend the notion that not agreeing with portions of the Bible is not heresy. In fact, we do it all the time. There is even a biblical precedent, after all, for doing so. The Deuteronomist School plainly taught that faithfulness to God will bring abundant blessings, including prosperity, health and progeny. Qohelet (the "preacher" of Ecclesiastes) begged to differ. His experience was just the opposite: the rich oppressed the poor, the faithful poor languished. 

An Evangelical commentator (read "Bible believer"), in an interview about his upcoming commentary on Ecclesiastes, summarizes the tone of the book. (“Everything is MEANINGLESS!” Interview with Pete Enns on Ecclesiastes

Qohelet looks around him and concludes that all of life is utterly senseless and absurd (“vanity of vanities” as the KJV puts it, “meaningless” in the NIV)....
You can’t make Qohelet out to be theologically safe. He does not give you that option. Nor can you write Qohelet off, either, as some heretical, impulsive, or immature simpleton. The fact that he is allowed to carry on for 12 chapters should send a clear signal that his words are not meant to be brushed aside.
Further, the end of the book won’t let you dismiss Qohelet’s words. In 12:9-14 we hear the voice of the book’s narrator (the same narrator who introduced Qohelet in 1:1-11). He neither condemns nor even corrects Qohelet, but calls him wise.
In the New Testament, James argues with Paul about the place of works in salvation. As Paul saw it, For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. Ephesians 2:8-9 But James disagreed: You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith aloneJames 2.24

Marin Luther thought James undercut salvation by faith alone so dramatically that he referred to the Book of James as "an epistle of straw," and tried to get it removed from the Bible. 

Arguing with the Bible is nothing new or cause for alarm. In fact, there is nothing honorable about taking everything in it at face value and not loving God with all of one's mind.

As for the rest of us, who would defend slavery simply because the Bible does, or the silencing of women in the worship assembly, or that women will be saved through childbearing? Or that long hair on a man is "unnatural?" (We could go on and on, couldn't we, but we won't.)

Now, as to specifically why I feel it is responsible to reject the idea of a literal devil or Satan, I first refer you to the harm that this belief has caused. Witch hunts, Inquisitions, exorcisms of the mentally ill, the naming of certain individuals as the Antichrist, assigning demonic motives to enemies, superstitions that immobilize people, living in fear of Satan that diminishes joy in the Lord, all stem from implications people see in a literal Satan who may materialize at any moment.  Admittedly, this argument is on tenuous ground, because belief in God has caused much harm as well. However, much of that harm is due to the belief in a literal devil that prompts others to defend God through various means, violent and otherwise, and see demonic presence in processes and people otherwise without fault. 

While I readily admit that some biblical writers believed in a literal Satan or devil, I'm not obligated to follow suit, as one could hardly escape that belief given the prevailing worldview of their time which is radically different from our own. I find a much more compelling view that comes from treating Satan as metaphor than reality. 

Before we dismiss metaphor as lacking, let us consider for a moment that even the notion of God must finally be considered metaphorically. Describing God in anthropomorphic terms, such as the hand of God, or the face of God, or anger, or even love, is to use metaphors, because God cannot really be described in any other way. God is a metaphor for that which we cannot get beyond. This prompted Tillich to say that after we have said God is, we are now in the reduction of God business. That's why he also said that the true representation of God is "the God above God," the unknowable God that is beyond human comprehension. 

Finally then, if God is a metaphor for that which upholds all good and is the ultimate subject of our devotion, Satan is a metaphor for all that is evil. This seems to me a better notion than Satan as instigator of evil. The "satanic forces of evil" surely describe a potent influence in our world, but not by assigning a real personage behind it. As I noted in yesterday's post, evil is real and is part of humanity's story quite apart from a need to create a source beyond humanity to explain it. In fact, if biblical explanations are necessary, how about this one: I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things. Isaiah 45.7

Given the horrors of our present world, those who despise our president because they think he's a Muslim, those who despise Muslims in general, those who kill the enemies of their God, those who kill abortion doctors, those who hate all non-Whites, those who send people to hell for whatever reason, those who hate gays, those who hate generallymost of them believe in a literal devil. Ironically, they are doing the devil's work for him, which prompted St. Theresa of Avila to remark: "I don't fear Satan half as much as I fear people who fear Satan." A popular bumper sticker in our time says, "Dear God, please save me from your people." I'll settle for just saving us from those whose belief in a literal devil leads them to make enemies of any who believe otherwise. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

People like you cause me to truly appreciate the Faith I have been given and sheer gratitude to Jesus for making me a member of His Body, the Catholic Church! Your theology appears to me to be: nothing is Sacred, all of God's Word is questionable and bendable to one's own liking &, therefore, there is no need to repent. Not Christian at all.