The devil. What a fascinating historical and literary image that scholars have passionately pursued for generations in all areas of art. The movies, in particular, offer eerie representations of what happens when human desires reign and a pitchforked, latex wearing red thing wields destruction and demise. In almost every religious expression, we see a representation of evil at work in the world, but in the faith that is rooted in Biblical texts, there is a figure that carries many names (Prince of Darkness, Beelzebub, the Antichrist, Father of Lies, Satan) and has one purpose – destruction.
Recently, I have been watching National Geographic’s The Story of God with Morgan Freeman. This fascinating look at all aspects of faith and religious practice has been a wonderful trip around the world to explore the way that people connect with the Divine. The first episode of season 3 is called “Search for the Devil.” In this episode, we are introduced to many expressions of perceived evil. While the different understandings and approaches to the existence of evil is intellectually fascinating, I find it important to note that there is a universal stream of belief that flows through most religious traditions. Almost without exception, there is a base agreement that there exists in the universe a presence that divides. I often wonder if my attempt to quantify and define the presence of the forces against, have pushed me to once again build a box of “understanding” that fits. The more I explore the “why’s” and “how’s” of my faith life, the more insufficient these boxes feel.
Like many belief structures of the Christian faith, it is fascinating to me the ways that different periods in history had vastly different views the devil. While many people who study the Bible would trace evil to the serpent in the Garden in Genesis, there is actually no mention of the devil in the creation narrative. Interestingly, the Hebrew word that is later translated as devil or Satan, was used to describe the human oppositions to the prophetic work of the Spirit of God in the Old Testament. In the direct translation of the Hebrew, the same word is “the adversary.”
While we can spend an enormous about of energy dissecting and challenging the way the Church has defined evil in the past, I wonder if a more valuable conversation is rooted in our experience of division. If the roots of “evil” and the “devil” are in separation and destruction, we know about those things. We don’t need to define them because we see and feel them every day. There is no doubt in my mind that you and I both know evil: cancer cells dividing to kill, the bullet that flies through an English classroom, the fist that lands on the cheek of a child as a drunk parent rages, the trauma of rape, the bottle of pills that is a siren in the mind of a suicidal teen. These are images that define the desperate and powerful work of adversarial force.
We live in a world that is saturated with a power hungry hierarchal pyramid of inequality and hate. We continually make excuses for the ways that we (YOU and ME) are outside of this norm, and yet each and every one of us are perpetuators of the very divisive nature that scriptures and mystics and shamans and elders teach others to caution. The more I study the devil and the power of evil, the less I care about the definition or the “correct” theological wrapping paper. What I know is that the elements of separation (the very context of evil) are all around, many in ways that we would like to ignore and minimize. What if rather than worrying about the reality of the horns or the talons of the creature, we acknowledged in our spirit that we look evil in the eye everyday – in others and more importantly in ourselves. The only way that I know to drown the voices of hate and division and lies is to first recognize them and call them out, and secondly to breathe (remember our conversation on this subject?) love and healing all over those wounds.