Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Prince of Darkness

Preliminary Considerations

The Devil occupies a curiously ambiguous position in contemporary American spirituality. There are two main atmospheres. The distinction cuts across the important distinction between Protestant and Catholic Christians, and people of each sort can be found in nearly every denomination, if not every congregation.

One may, loosely, be called the minimalist school; it is far the larger of the two. Many who are (in this respect) minimalist doubt, or explicitly deny, that the Devil exists at all; or redefine it to the point that it means little more than the selfish impulses of mankind. Some others who are of this atmosphere, particularly evangelicals, admit the existence of the Devil as a personal being but pay little attention to the matter. The Devil, for them, is a being who does exist in principle, but cannot be expected to exercise any noteworthy influence upon the daily life of the Christian. Such views are often bolstered by the contention, not supported by Scripture or the historical consensus of the Church but popular nonetheless, that believers are immune to possession or indeed any form of diabolical attack because of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

The other might be called the apocalyptic perspective. It consists chiefly in charismatic Christians both Catholic and Protestant, Dispensationalists (a la Left Behind), and such Catholics as might be called 'rigorous.' These believe quite fervently in the Devil, and see his operations in many if not all areas of human life and society. Some of them are very happy to instruct the ignorant and admonish the sinner enthusiastically on such matters; and we may pray that their works of mercy commend them to God.

Some readers may be surprised that I have used liberal and conservative, respectively. This is intentional; the terms are not really applicable. The word liberal is properly a political rather than a theological term, and is therefore not specially suitable for discussions of Christian thought. A more accurate term for that theology called liberal would be Modernist; but, since Modernism has been condemned as a heresy, there are few who would take up such an appellation in the Catholic Church; and Modernist Protestants are many things, but being wedded to clear, fixed terminology is not one of those things. As for the fanaticism being conservative, that is a fantasy, projected by progressivism onto ignorance of the past. The degree to which orthodox theologians emphasize the reality and activities of devils varies and always has; some ages have been hysterical on the subject and others stuporous, or anything in between; and the attention paid to the diabolical by the Church has rarely corresponded to the rationalist's definition of what qualifies as a superstitious age.

The sort of attitude taken by informed and thoughtful Catholics has been -- with allowances for the emphasis of differing times and cultures -- that the Devil is not only personally real (of which more in a moment), but that devils are active in the spiritual lives of human beings; but that, nevertheless, most things which people attribute to the Devil are natural phenomena. This is not because the activity of evil spirits is intrinsically improbable, but just because people are excitable and prone to make mountains out of molehills.

The Doctrine of the Fallen Angels

The Catholic belief in devils is derived both from Scripture and from the unanimous testimony of the Church. It is dependent on the ancient Jewish-Christian belief in angels: these are free, intelligent, incorporeal beings who carry out the will of God. It has long been believed that there are nine varieties of angelic beings, of whom three do not concern us, while the other six are concerned in differing capacities with the material universe in general or with the human race in particular. Of these, some -- since they have free will and can therefore choose either to obey God or to rebel against Him -- chose to revolt against their Maker, thus becoming what we call devils or demons. In so doing, they became morally depraved; but their powers, which are in the nature of angels rather than being a reward for obedience, remained intact.

None of this should be confused with the dualist concept, popular among the Gnostic heretics of the early centuries of the Church and the high Middle Ages. Many ill-educated persons, Christian and otherwise, are under the impression that it is an article of the faith that the Devil, like God, is eternal, all-knowing, omnipotent, and as it were disinterested in his pursuit of evil. The Devil, in a dualist ideology, is the embodiment of evil as God is of all good.

This is not only unorthodox but literally impossible in Christian theology. Christianity regards God as the Maker of all things seen and unseen, and the Catholic is bound to regard existence as good in itself. C. S. Lewis disposed very neatly of this idea in his introduction to his invaluable book The Screwtape Letters; he there points out that no being could attain a perfect badness as God has perfect goodness; for once you had taken away every kind of good thing, including intelligence, will, and being itself, there would be nothing left to be bad with.

It is likewise worth pointing out that, though Catholics do believe that the Devil in fact brought about the Fall of Man by tempting us, this did not have to happen. Most if not all the evil in the world may be traceable, directly or indirectly, to his malice; but men are free also, and there is no particular reason why we should not have fallen all by ourselves, if the Devil had remained good or if his assault on our innocence had been unsuccessful.

The Satanic Verses

Now, down to brass tacks. The existence of the Devil in the abstract is all very well (or perhaps not), but what has it got to do with our lives as we live them?

Well, to begin with, there are the continually reiterated Scriptural warnings to beware of him; they are in St. Paul:

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. (Col. 2.8)

What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. (I Cor. 10.19-20)

And you were dead in trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience ... (Eph. 2.1-2)

St. Peter:

Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, solid in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. (I Pet. 5.8-9)

St. James:

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. (Jas. 4.7)

And certainly St. John:

Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. ... By this it is evident who are the children of God and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. (I John 3.8, 10)

Nor can we reasonably suppose that these were superstitions indulged by the Apostles, which their Master took no part in. Quite apart from His character as an exorcist -- up to and including discourses on the habits of devils (cf. Matt. 12.22-45) -- He speaks freely in the Gospels about the Devil as the animating power behind evil in this world:

Jesus said to them, 'If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I came from God and I am here. ... You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.' (John 8.42, 44-45)

The New Testament both presupposes (in speaking of exorcisms) and directly teaches the existence, malevolence, and power of demons. But what does that mean -- especially if we do not need to suppose a diabolical origin for every human evil?

The key is to be found in a passing remark of St. Paul's: he speaks of those trying to discredit his ministry, calling them false apostles, and adding, And no wonder, for Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. As the Flesh signifies the temptations of individual human nature, and the World the temptations of the various established systems, so the Devil signifies not simply one depraved seraph, but the general category of depraved spirituality. It is more than natural that we should be warned of his power so constantly, and in such severe terms, as the Apostles insisted on penning. For a depraved spirituality, which the devil and his angels are specially concerned to produce, is obviously a danger for anyone embarking on the spiritual life.

Such transcendental evil may ordinarily take one of three forms.

The Devil In the Details

There is, first, spiritual predation. This encompasses everything from temptation to full-blown possession, and makes better movies than the other two kinds.

On the whole, the predatory activities of the Devil are comparatively straightforward in this category: in temptation, he flatters and frightens in order to push us into sins, and then takes a malefic pleasure in accusing us thereafter. In obsession, a step deeper than temptation, he takes advantage of a pattern of sin into which he has trained a person, and uses it as a foothold within his personality, from which he tries to expand his territory. If he succeeds in tricking, cajoling or terrifying his victim into consenting, he may then move on into possession, in which he takes command of the person's body at will. This last requires an exorcism to be fully dealt with.

With most people, naturally, things do not go beyond temptation and similar forms of exterior harassment -- or, at most, obsession. Possession is rare, though not perhaps so rare as it was a hundred years ago; and this is in large part because of the second main form of spiritual evil.

This second form is spiritual error. This encompasses all manner of false beliefs, and the channels for invasive diabolical activities that such beliefs open. Everything from heresy to atheism to false religions can constitute spiritual error.

However, certain distinctions must be made. Not every incorrect belief has its origin with an evil spirit, or even that they find all false beliefs equally easy to manipulate. An untrue belief held merely by mistake, for instance, will not prove very fertile soil for the devilish weed; especially if the person who holds it is intellectually responsible, in which case the error will very likely be corrected. Nor does it mean that all or most principles of non-Catholic faiths are of diabolical origin. The Second Vatican Council's statement on the relationship of the Church to other religious traditions, Nostra Aetate, went out of its way to say that good and holy elements exist in the higher religions of the Orient -- even more so in Judaism and Islam -- and these good elements are not to be rejected.

What is necessary for a false belief to be a spiritual error in this sense is that there must be a spiritual agency of deceit operating within it. Some religions may have originated in this way, or incorporated such elements in themselves -- for example, through divination, inviting powers into human minds and thus opening them to demonic influences. The foothold of a devil in a specific person, exacerbating his desires not to see this or that truth and clouding his mind, would also qualify.

Spiritual error differs from spiritual predation in that it is directed toward a diffusion of falsehood, rather than tearing down one person -- it is the tilling of the soil, whereas evil spirit preying on an individual is comparable to a specific weed. Each furthers the other, but neither is necessary to the existence of the other.

Both are different from the last and worst form, which may be called false holiness. This is what the Bible calls hypocrisy; but the word hypocrisy has been rather worn down from overuse, and now includes things as simple as human failings out of weakness. Dr. Johnson's maxim should be kept in mind: precept may be very sincere where practice is very imperfect. Indeed, that seems to be what St. Paul is going on about in the second half of Romans 7. Mere failure to live up to one's convictions is not properly called hypocrisy, but simply sin.

What distinguishes false holiness from human weakness is a terrible sincerity in the person afflicted with it. False holiness need not be supported by heresy, or even moral inadequacy. Christ's attitude to the Pharisees is much to the purpose here, if only we will remember what it was. For it is noticeable that Jesus Christ and the Pharisees had a very substantial agreement on matters doctrinal. Nor was their practice, in His eyes, always reprehensible. Their study of the Scriptures was admirable in itself; their care for ritual purity may have gone beyond the Law, but it did not fall short of it, which is more than could be said for some Jews in Galilee or Samaria; and, while it may not have been in debilitating proportions, they did give to the poor. False holiness is often arrayed not only with doctrinal accuracy, but even with impressive personal virtue -- as was said of the puritanical nuns of Port Royal in seventeenth-century France by the local archbishop, "as pure as angels and as proud as devils."

Merely to say pride, however, is not informative. The distinction between false and true holiness lies in the motive behind it. T. S. Eliot laid his finger on it in his play, Murder In the Cathedral, in which St. Thomas a Becket is tempted to become a martyr for his own religious glory rather than for God: The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason. A person under the power of false holiness may easily -- in fact, will probably -- be chaste, generous, truthful, wise, patient, just, brave; even humble after a fashion. It is deep inside the heart that the deadly poison has corroded him. It is there that, in truth, he cultivates these virtues, fights temptations, scorns the World, and even perhaps fights spiritual error -- for himself.

And there the devil sits, laughing without mirth.

Get Thee Behind Me

How, then, is the Devil to be fought? There is absolutely nothing we can do of ourselves. Our sole recourse is to give ourselves up to God, continually: through prayer, through Scripture, through the sacraments (particularly Confession and the Eucharist), and through sound spiritual direction (a principle neglected all too often). It is in these things that the Holy Spirit works. Prayer, so as to breathe the Holy Spirit, to be in continual, intentional contact with Him to the best of our ability. Scripture, to know what God says in general, and thus be better equipped to recognize His specific intimations to us. The sacraments, because in them God literally meets us; Confession, where He meets us with His forgiveness and healing, and the Eucharist, where He meets us with Himself. Spiritual direction, because we cannot dispense with the mentorship of someone who knows God and knows people, and knows how to bring people close to God -- the Pope himself doesn't go without one. (St. Teresa of Avila said dryly that he who is his own spiritual director has the devil for his spiritual director.)

And how are we to know that these very things are not done out of false holiness? Well -- we cannot manufacture true holiness; we can only ask for it. So ask for it.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Unspotted From the World

Having taken a look at the Flesh, it seems appropriate to look next at the World.

The Greek word that is usually translated "world" is rather interesting. It is kosmos, derived from a verb, kosmeo, meaning to arrange or set in order, especially in the sense of making something beautiful (thus cosmetics). As the English universe reflects the tendency of our own age to consider 'everything there is' in terms of a singular mass of hugely varying individual things, so the Greek kosmos reflects the tendency of the ancients to think of 'everything there is' in terms of a harmoniously ordered whole.

The word aion, typically translated 'age' (hence eon), can also mean 'world.' However, it has slightly different connotations. Where kosmos means the world as a physical location, aion tends to mean world more as we speak of 'the ancient world' or 'the modern world' or 'the Roman world.'

Both words contribute, probably, to the Biblical significance of the World as a source of temptation. All Christians confess that the world (kosmos), as it was made, was originally very good; however, that kosmos has become infected by evil in its very structure, both human and angelic, and hence this present world (aion) is contrasted in Scripture with the world to come, an aion of its own. Jesus, in descending from Heaven and executing judgment, will cleanse this kosmos of its present aion and usher in a new aion; He will cleanse the world itself of worldliness, as it were.

By World, then, are signified those temptations which come, not from our interior pressure to sin (what technically is called concupiscence by theologians, and which we have discussed under the name of the Flesh) -- rather, the World means those temptations which come from deficient or depraved structures of sinfulness. These are pressures not interior to individuals, but systemic in societies. It doesn't matter terribly what sort of society we have in mind: political, artistic, religious, economic; all are vulnerable to weaknesses flowing, not just from individual follies and failures, but from systemic and corporate sins and blind spots.

Stereotypically, the class of sins a person is willing to recognize depends upon their socio-political disposition, at any rate in our time and country. Conservatives are generally fairly good at seeing sins of the Flesh, and also in seeing that individual lapses have consequences for the rest of society too. The remedy to such things, as they say, is an increase of personal responsibility.

Liberals, meanwhile, tend to see systemic wrongs and injustices more clearly. Racism, sexism, environmental concerns, education, and the disparities between classes are problems in which political and economic systems are heavily involved, and the American left has become associated with advocacy for such causes. The solution they generally set forth is legal reform, so as to establish a system in which (as the slogan Dorothy Day loved goes) it is easier for people to be good.

And all of that would be fine, if it resulted in a united society with stereoscopic vision. Unfortunately, though rather predictably, what it has in fact produced is a society bitterly divided between people who cannot see individual responsibility, and people who cannot see anything else. Since, by and large, Christians tend (for reasons we need not examine just now) to fall among political conservatives in America, it is precisely the battle with the World that we have a tendency to be blind to -- and to lose.

The reality of the World is in fact difficult to impress on people's minds nowadays, even on Christian minds. And, in a society so saturated with depraved forms of sexuality and general excess of pleasures, it is natural that our minds should be directed very largely to the Flesh rather than the World. But the idea that our very struggles with the Flesh are, in part, imposed upon us by a system designed to vex us on such counts, and that not only personal devotion but societal repentance and reform are needed, is frequently forgotten or even dismissed as leftism. For example, the sufferings of the poor -- a group to whom nearly every book in the New Testament pays significant attention, let alone the warnings and imprecations of the Old -- are regarded as being perfectly soluble by hard work in a capitalist society; without any analysis of the real effects of capitalism upon a society, not to mention its impact on the individual heart. That the rich systematically oppress the poor, in this society like any other, is not clearly before the minds of our generation in the Church. That economic success can be an occasion of sin, or even a temptation, is not evidently considered even by very good Catholics, despite our Lord's reiterated warnings that the rich will find it hard -- impossible, even -- to enter the kingdom of God, impossible certainly while they maintain their attachment to the kingdom of the World.

There is a sort of foul parody of the Holy Spirit going on here. Since God is love, there must be present in Him a Lover and a Beloved and Love between them; and Christian teaching identifies these three respectively with the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. The Spirit is given a pale reflection in the way associations of people differ from the members that constitute them. The very fact of association brings a corporate entity into being; the association influences its members, just as they influence it; it is a Gestalt reality, greater than the mere sum of its parts. The problem is, the World is such a Gestalt too. The World can corrupt individual people, just as individual people can corrupt whatever society they find themselves in. All of us, to be sure, have our sins that we found our own way into. But is any of us so independently minded, that there are no sins we have been led into because 'everyone was doing it'? Things we would never have done on our own initiative, but which a corrupt system -- social, religious, political, etc. -- made possible and even compelling?

The remedy to the World's tempting power is the Church. This may sound clericalist or naive, but it is not. Our present generation of Christians has, aside from Catholics, a contempt of the institutional church that I have never understood, one which often smacks too of a diluted Gnosticism about the Body of Christ.

When I say the Church is the remedy to the World, I mean 'the Church' in every sense of the word. True, local institutional churches may be of little credit to the Church Catholic; true, the worldwide institution has at some times been a somewhat regrettable sight. But when it comes to opposing the systemic evils of the World, there is very little good in setting up another secular system to purify it. You cannot wash water. The Church on earth is not perfect, but she is that very society set up, by Christ Himself, to be a rebuke and a corrective to the sins of the World; if she fails at that, it is right and necessary to reform her, but abandoning her has never yet gotten anybody anywhere. The Protestant Reformation was many things, both bad and good; but only a complete ignorance of the real conditions of the lives of common people in Protestant nations thereafter, will allow anybody to say that leaving the Catholic Church improved society. Nor, nowadays (and stretching back into the nineteenth century), has the exodus of many former Christians from the faith noticeably improved -- well, anything really. The rebukes of ex-Christians, and especially ex-Catholics, to the Church, reveal a frame of mind unable either totally to leave the religion and either ignore it or else judge it with real impartiality (as, say, a Confucian might), or to return to it and truly understand it, from within. It must be admitted that such a preoccupation does nothing to help the World become better, in any dimension. Chesterton sums it up quite nicely, I forget where, when he says that "If the world grows too worldly, it may be rebuked by the Church. But if the Church grows too worldly, it cannot be adequately rebuked for worldliness by the world."

But the reason that the Church is the remedy to the World is that she is not simply part of the World. A non-Christian might not accept the claim, but the Scriptures plainly teach that the Church is, mystically, the Body of Christ -- the Incarnation of Christ in this world -- and this claim is, therefore, binding upon those who profess Him. She is admittedly an earthly society as well as a heavenly society; as Jesus whom she communicates to this planet was Man, as well as God. In giving our allegiance to the Church, we are literally commending ourselves to the coming aion in the midst of the present aion. It is only such a supernatural appeal that can fix any part of the present age for any appreciable length of time. This world, infected by the World, cannot sustain itself. The Church alone can do so, for she is the vessel specifically appointed to bear everlasting life into every society. We can no more do that by ourselves than we could clear away a rainforest with a penknife. In opposing a system of evil, we need not only individual holiness, but a system of holiness; principalities and powers must be answered by powers and by principalities.

And again the Devil led Him to the top of a high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; and he said, "All these will I give to You, for they have been given to me and I may give them to whomever I please, if You will fall down and worship me." And Jesus said, "Get behind me, Satan! For it is written, 'You shall worship the Lord your God only, and Him you shall serve.'"