Wednesday 7 January 2015

The Devil is Dead?

                                            St Wolfgang and the devil - Michael Pacher

Be sober, and watch: for your adversary the devil as a roaring lion walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: Whom resist steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren which are in the world.
1 Peter 5:8-9

Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains
Jean-Jacques Rousseau 

The philosopher Nietzsche was somewhat premature in his announcement  "Could it be possible! This old saint in the forest hath not yet heard of it, that GOD IS DEAD!" (Thus Spake Zarathurstra- Prologue) Despite several centuries of continuous assault belief in God is still buoyant even in Western Europe where the atheist campaign began and where it has been most successful. The associated attack on organised religion, specifically Christianity, has had more effect but still the Christian Church and the ecclesial communities of the Reformation remain stubbornly alive and kicking in Europe whilst expanding elsewhere in much of the world. By contrast there has been no real parallel assault on belief in the devil yet such belief has withered on the vine and even among Christians there are many who do not take the idea seriously.

Various factors no doubt contribute to this decline in satanic credibility but I will focus on one. The answer to the question 'what is Man?' (meaning female and male) has changed over the past six centuries or so and with this altered understanding of ourselves has come an altered conception of the forces that influence us. The rediscovery of classical sources during the Renaissance led the humanists of that epoch to recast human nature as being essentially good, that is, not fatally tainted by Original Sin in the way that had been understood since the time of St Augustine. The Enlightenment added to this the notion that Man was essentially rational, that is, governed by Reason. Man being good by nature and rational in motivation could, therefore, be relied upon to make sound moral choices unless external environmental factors caused them to act contrary to their nature and to reason.

To the obvious objection that Man everywhere behaved in cruel, selfish and immoral ways Enlightenment thinkers echoed Rousseau that the cause for this was to be found in the chains which bound Man, ignorance, poverty, tyranny and so on. If those chains were once removed through a restructuring of society and the banishment of ignorant superstitions (by which they meant primarily the Catholic faith) then Man born free would everywhere actually be free since there would be no impediment to them acting upon their naturally good and rational impulses. In this schema room could be found for God, conceived as an idealised form or collective expression of perfected Man, but not for the devil since Man's wicked actions could be explained as the product of environmental factors.

Every world changing idea is true to some extent, otherwise it would have no persuasive power. Here Renaissance humanism supercharged with Enlightenment deification of human rationality has several good things going for it. It is certainly true that humans are good-natured by design, that they are capable of governing themselves by Reason and that environmental factors play a major role in the moral and intellectual decisions which they make. The flaw in the argument consists of the fact that St Augustine was right, Man is tainted by Original Sin. The essential nature of Man is wounded and vulnerable to concupiscence independently of whatever their external environment may be. Once could recast this philosophically and say that because of his intense internal life of thought and emotion Man, alone in visible Creation, is capable of putting himself out of harmony with the cosmos and all around him through paying heed to his random thoughts and feelings ahead of anything else. Or, to say the same thing the other way round, Man requires to make a conscious and deliberate effort to put himself into harmony with the cosmos.It follows from this that we cannot bank on Man's essential goodness flourishing because it is subject to temptations from within that no restructured society can fully eliminate nor can we rely on Reason always conquering desire, lust or fear because the mere presence of the rational principle in Man is not the same as its sovereignty.

                                           The Good and Evil Angels- William Blake

It might, perhaps, be argued that modern thought has simply replaced one external agent, the devil, with another, the social environment and that while we have evidence for the latter we have none for the former. However, the Church has never accepted the validity of the argument 'the devil made me do it' The devil only has the power over us which we permit him to have. He is also called 'the tempter' and that because his power is a persuasive one, if we did not provide him with the materials to work with, our selfishness, greed, fear, ambition, desire and so on then he would have nothing with which to tempt us. Our fallen nature is the source of our propensity to sin and the more we deny that fallen-ness, the more we insist on our own perfectibility, then the less able we become to see the temptations that assail us without and within.

When we accept the universal and humanly unalterable nature of Man's vulnerability to temptation then reason will lead us on to recognise the need for a universal redemption from that bondage to sin. And universal redemption requires a universal Redeemer made to known to all through a universal revelation. And who better as Redeemer than one like us, tempted in all points by Satan yet triumphant over him, subject to the ultimate victory of sin and corruption which is death yet yet conquering over it? The same revelation which assures us that Jesus is our Saviour and Lord tells us too of our enemy the devil and if we accept the one then we must accept the other.

Of course there are many who accept neither. For those I have this thought. If the slogan of a century ago was Nietzsche's 'God is Dead' today it is Christopher Hitchens 'God is not Great.' The obvious answer to the first was 'God lives', the slightly less obvious answer to the second is 'Man is not Good' The problem of human wickedness is not solvable by human means alone. The chains which bind Man are not external to him, he generates them himself and will always generate them because he is always tempted to disharmony with the cosmos. If you defeat Christianity, if you destroy organised religion in the world there will still be one thing preventing you from creating the perfect society. The devil will be sitting on your back.

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