Monday, July 27, 2015

The Devil We (Think We) Know

Mama, she keeps them unprepared
to meet the enemy
that's comin' unto us. . . .

Down in the heart of town
the Devil dresses up.
He keeps his nails clean.
Did you think he'd be a boogeyman?

To date there have been two especially insightful comments posted over at America in response to James Martin, SJ's op-ed about a self-described "Satanic" group that unveiled yesterday in Detroit a statue of "Baphomet" (left), which Martin describes as "a goat-headed god that has become a kind of stand-in for Satan."

What Martin doesn't mention is that the Satanic Temple, the organization that erected this statue, uses the literary Satan as a mythological foundation for a non-supernatural religion. The aim of this "religion" is to promote skepticism, rational reciprocity, personal autonomy, and curiosity. Both of the group's co-founders are self-proclaimed "atheistic Satanists" – they do not believe that Satan actually exists.

The group actively participates in public affairs, political actions, and lobbying. Its focus is on the separation of church and state, and it uses satire against religious organizations that it believes interfere with freedom and the pursuit of happiness.

Despite all of this, Martin believes members of the Satanic Temple are "playing with fire," and cites events that inspired the book and film The Exorcist to illustrate his belief in – and fear of – a "personified force" of evil capable of possessing individuals against their will. "These people have no clue what kind of forces they are dealing with," writes Martin of the Satanic Temple members.

Using the language of my Christian faith, I understand evil as the absence of love, of that transforming Christ-spirit of compassion and justice that Jesus so powerfully and beautifully embodied . . . and called all who claim to be his followers to embody.

When we follow Jesus' example, we are Christ in the world. When we don't act and live in ways that embody compassion and justice, we are anti-Christs. Each one of us, then, is capable of being the "personification," to use Martin's terminology, of both the Christ and the anti-Christ.

Martin comes close to this way of thinking when he quotes St. Ignatius Loyola who, he says, was "able to describe some of the ways that the evil spirit works . . . like a spoiled child (wanting to get his way); like a 'false lover' (wanting us not to reveal our selfish motivations and plans); and like an 'army commander' (attacking us at our weakest point)."

And what of demonic possessions? Of people being taken over against their will by "the devil" or "evil spirits"? I think it's unfortunate that with our modern knowledge about addiction, psychosis, dissociative identity disorder and various other forms of mental distress and illness, we still attribute these complex and, yes, often very disturbing and destructive realities to a personified notion of "the devil." As Joe Waters says of such thinking as expressed in Martin's article, it is "backward, frightening, Medieval."

Below is Waters' comment in its entirety, followed by PJ Johnston's response to Martin's America piece. Both were originally published July 27, 2015 as comments on the America website.

Oh my goodness. I don't know where to begin with this article.

First, Father James, I love your writing but I'm sorely disappointed with this post. Backward, frightening, Medieval – should I go on? I just discovered that this bright, lovable and intelligent priest is living in the 5th century with unicorns, sea monsters and fixed stars.

You think this statue is dangerous? You know what is REALLY dangerous? Talk of Satan, Falls from Heaven, imps, hooves, tails, and talk of scary goat-headed gods. Yes, evil is REAL! Does it take the shape of some statue or "personified force"? No more than that the earth is 6000 years old, that Elijah went to heaven in a chariot of fire, and we were thrown out of some perfect garden because of a woman, a snake and a weak man.

. . . [T]his is just the type of talk that turns people off to Christianity. Inflexible, threatening, outdated and – if the current generation of Gen Y and Z have any say in it – extinct. You warn this group that they are "playing with fire." At least they have one. Yours is almost out. Maybe that's why you are so frightened.

When are we really going to think and live like real men and women and not be ruled by superstitions and scary bedtime stories? Evil is real. So is God's love and power. That statue is just a piece of rock. That rock in your heart is the only evil you need to worry about. Start with the evil within and the devil without will exist no more.

– Joe Waters

Maybe it would be helpful if we all engaged in a meditation exercise. Imagine that the statue was called "Fred" and didn't look like Baphomet, but more like Pan, and the group called themselves Freddists. Or imagine that the group in question was an organized group of Wiccans with a statue of the Lord and Lady. Now imagine that the groups' politics and professed religious values were (other than the name involved) exactly the same as the Satanic Temple. I believe that if that were the case, laudable Jesuits with a commitment to religious dialogue such as Fr. Martin and Frank Clooney (who wrote about the Harvard Black Mass last year) probably would make effort to understand the beliefs and practices of the groups in question, foster dialogue and understanding, and build common ground on the basis of the positive features inherent in the religion as Nostra Aetate suggests. In fact, liberal-tending Jesuits and the Satanic Temple have some of the same social and political enemies (Evangelical/fundamentalist Christians with right-wing politics), so were it not for the name, it's possible to imagine that there would be an effort to make common cause. I know that intellectually-speaking, educated Jesuits are familiar with the theology of inclusivism, so it seems as there must be some special animus driving the refusal to adopt this strategy vis-a-vis the Satanists, and I suspect the issue is the name. In this regard, C.S. Lewis (who in his Last Battle declared that an honorable follower of the Narnian devil Tash was necessarily really a devotee of Aslan, because the real Tash can only accept evil and the real Aslan can only accept honorable deeds) was more far-seeing than the contemporary Jesuit critics of the Satanic Temple, who appear to be getting hung up on the label rather than the thing indicated. (I am sure many of the Satanists are as well, in that the "God" many have learned to reject is nothing like the actual God of love Christianity teaches. It might be helpful to consider how this misunderstanding on the Satanists' part is reinforced by public misunderstanding and attack by Christians).

When I was an undergraduate, Christian consciousness about Wicca wasn't very far along, and Jesuits and liberal Christians often wrote op-ed pieces similar in tone to this one about Wiccans and Neo-Pagans. Now almost no one would. (Frank Clooney has rightly written positive pieces about inter-religious dialogue with Wiccans). I think that Christian awareness is likely to evolve on the Satanic Temple as well, and you're likely to find yourself in 20 years wishing that you'd taken more care to understand these groups and engage in dialogue, rather than wasting moral capital and compromising the credibility of the Jesuit project of inter-religious dialogue.

– PJ Johnston

There's also been some informed and helpful comments shared on James Martin's Facebook page in response to his "Playing with Fire" article.

Writes Gary Scheuer: Baphomet was actually a "god" invented by the Church so it could persecute and murder Templar knights at the instigation of King Phillip. It was the Church that "played with fire" when they burnt Jacques de Molay at the stake.

Writes Lindsay Wiggins: Playing with fire? Your own Christian god is about as maniacal, angry, genocidal, jealous, torturing, hateful and spiteful as possible. If Satan were real, there's very little worse he could do than what Christians happily praise their own god for having already accomplished.

Writes Jean Edouard Pouliot: "Worshiping" Satan is taken far too seriously. I suspect that most people calling themselves Satanists are doing it mostly to tweak we believers about our superiority, our tendency to freak out about the supernatural and our ardent desire to have government legislate our beliefs into law. I actually find their presence on the national stage to be rather useful. Nothing shows the idiocy of placing the Ten Commandments in public spaces than having a Satanist want to put their own monument there as well. Suddenly, even the devout (yet lame-brained about the need for a separation of church and state) understand the issue. Government spaces need to be resolutely neutral about advocating for one faith or another, or none. We Christians have become so immune to viewing our displays as unusual (from the viewpoint of a supposedly secular government) that we are mightily offended when our displays are "taken away." They should never have been allowed in the first place. Satanists, as far as I know, do not pose a threat to children, and are not violent. Can we say as much for our own believers, let alone clergy and bishops? We may feel that objectifying evil makes it easier to counteract by personifying it as a terrifying and monstrous presence. But that gives Satan far more power than he actually wields, don't you think? In the same way that America has done itself more damage by overreacting to the terrorist threat since 9/11, I suggest that Christians have done more evil in the name of fighting Satan than not. The Salem witch hysteria comes to mind as one signal case – nineteen innocents executed because they thought the Devil was causing a few unbalanced girls to scream and twitch. Let's keep the current hysteria under wraps and discern whether these supposed devil worshipers are for real, and dangerous or just giving a bunch of mischievous brats eager to give their pious brethren as an early Halloween scare.

Writes Aaron Salzman: I realize that exorcisms have been performed, but I still have a hard time believing the things I hear about Satan (especially because there seems to be a perfectly scientific reason for these "possessions." What evidence besides the extreme cases of so-called exorcism prove Satanic or evil forces at work rather than just human meanness? What hope is there at a better future, and what choice do we have in creating a better future, if Satan is forcing humans to destruction and chaos? Why would God allow for this if he is all-powerful? I think this Calvin and Hobbes comic sums my feelings on this up best.

Writes Dominic Bosco: Fr. Martin, this article actually makes me question my recently found respect for you. Surely there are other subjects and current events that are far more deserving of your attention and illumination. If you must give a statue of Baphomet attention, please dedicate more effort into researching something that you do not understand.


Postscript: Let's Leave Pan Out of This, Okay?

One of the things that I've always found rather annoying is the identification of the Christian concept of Satan with the Greek god Pan (right). According to historian Ronald Hutton, this specific association is modern and derives from Pan's popularity in Victorian and Edwardian neo-paganism, a religious movement frowned upon by the Church. Medieval and early modern images of Satan tend, by contrast, to show generic semi-human monsters with horns, wings and clawed feet.

Notes Wikipedia:

In Greek religion and mythology, Pan is the god of the wild, shepherds and flocks, nature of mountain wilds and rustic music, and companion of the nymphs. His name originates within the Ancient Greek language, from the word paein (πάειν), meaning "to pasture." He has the hindquarters, legs, and horns of a goat, in the same manner as a faun or satyr. With his homeland in rustic Arcadia, he is also recognized as the god of fields, groves, and wooded glens; because of this, Pan is connected to fertility and the season of spring. The ancient Greeks also considered Pan to be the god of theatrical criticism.

In modern times there has been a revival of reverence of the ancient god as a figure representing not only traditional and neo-Pagan forms of pastoral worship, but as one symbolic of Romanticism, poetry, artistic craftsmanship and panentheistic notions of divinity or deity.

. . . [Literary historian] Douglas Bush notes, "The goat-god, the tutelary divinity of shepherds, had long been allegorized on various levels, from Christ to 'Universal Nature' (Sandys); [for poet John Keats] he becomes the symbol of the romantic imagination, of supra-mortal knowledge."

To read about Pan's appearance in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willow and about Matthew Claridge's contention that this description of Pan shares similarities with ones of Christ, see the previous Wild Reed post, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

See also the related Wild Reed posts:
Quote of the Day – March 23, 2011
Pan's Labyrinth: Critiquing the Cult of Unquestioning Obedience
Conversing and Arguing with the Theology of Philip Pullman
Questioning God's Benevolence in the Face of Tragedy
To Believe in Jesus
Responding to Bishop John "We Are at War" Finn
Oh, Give It a Rest, Papa!


Catherine said...

Thank you, thank you, Michael! Thank you for your thoughtful and articulate response to Fr. James Martin's post.

jamez said...

It's funny that when I saw that post, I just thought "Ridiculous! Really? C'mon..." and went along my merry way. I guess even the most erudite are allowed their eccentricities. I'm glad there are others that can or bother to shed some countervailing light on the subject of evil and it's personification...

Joe Nix said...

I appreciate your writing on this too, Micheal. I follow James Martin's writings, and was likewise taken aback and disappointed by his article.

Liam said...

Good for Fr Martin. (Just because there are phenomena that can be explained in natural ways doesn't exclude supernatural causes for other phenomena. Well, if you're a philosophical materials, it would, but then again a philosophical materials has no business pretending to be a theist of any sort.) Just because a teenager takes up smoking to demonstrate independence from her parents doesn't mean she won't get cancer.