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The Devil is (no longer) in the details

About a year ago I found a note someone had slid under my office door following a service: “Talk to us about the Devil,” it read. “Is he real? How do we tell if he’s messing with us?”

I freely admit that I’ve never been one to ascribe supernatural import to most events. I was raised in the sort of household where fatherly wisdom over concern about the possibility of ghosts consisted of the statement (filtered through combat experience in Vietnam): “I’ve been around the world, son, and I can tell you, there’s no reason to worry about dead people. It’s the living ones you have to worry about.” Or, to put it another way, quoting a Cumberland Presbyterian classmate of mine from seminary, we don’t want “to see a demon behind every tea cup.”

If I were to express the sentiment in more theological language, I would probably quote Origen, who wrote:

Within you is the battle you are to fight; the evil structure which must be torn down is within; your enemy comes from your own heart.

The enemy would not grow strong against us, nor would the Devil himself be able to do anything in us, unless we gave him strength by our vices. Our enemy would be quite weak against us if we did not make him strong by sinning, and if he did not find through our sins a place to enter and take over (quoted in Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Origen: Spirit and Fire, p. 224).

I suppose this, among other things, explains why I gravitate toward the Augustinian understanding of evil as a privation and accept the fundamentals of Augustine’s anthropology.

And yet, even though I begin with a sceptical stance when it comes to supernatural explanations of specific events, I believe in Satan and “all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God” (BCP 302). Likewise, I believe there is a reality to what we are renouncing when we say “I renounce them” to the question in the baptismal liturgy which asks “Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?” I acknowledge that there are times when it is difficult for many of us, given our post-Enlightenment and science-influenced worldviews, to talk easily of evil, demonic forces, or the Devil himself. And yet, I believe it is partly that difficulty that makes it so necessary that we do talk about these forces. And so, while it’s unlikely that I’d do a topical sermon only on the Devil — at least at a Sunday Eucharist — I try to tackle questions of the Devil and the demonic head on when they are raised by the lectionary. I’m sure these efforts meet with mixed success, but they are my efforts to answer the question and challenge scrawled on that paper under my door.

And this is a challenge that isn’t limited to my parish, but is, I think, something abroad in the culture and even integral to our human nature. We understand that there are evils that seem to go beyond normal human capacity, for example. Where do they come from?

This is why, despite the discomfort — or because of it — I am thankful that the baptismal service in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer gives us a regular opportunity to acknowledge the existence of the Devil, and to renounce him and all the spiritual forces that exist in his marred image, rebelling against God and trying to take as many human beings down as possible.

This is one reason I’m so concerned about a proposed alternative baptismal service in the Church of England. This summer, I came across an article on the Religion News Service site entitled Church of England kicks the devil out of baptism rite. This sort of attempt at cultural intelligibility, it seems to me, usually backfires and ends up making beliefs far more ambiguous and people’s feelings more ambivalent. Far better, it seems to me, to remember Dean Kevin Martin’s admonition that non-Christians expect the church to have a culture of it’s own.

At the time, I attempted to find the text of the proposed liturgy, but was unable to do so. A few evenings ago, a friend shared a link to the Episcopal  Café’s posting of a Giles Fraser opinion piece about this shift. (A partial text of the proposed baptismal rite is available here).

As is often the case, Fraser minces no words in his assessment, writing:

Unfortunately, however, the Church of England has just agreed to take the devil out of the baptism liturgy. “Those who work with young people give constant advice that references to the devil are likely to be misunderstood in today’s culture,” the Bishop of Truro told the Church of England’s General Synod this week. What a pity. I’m going to miss the devil and all his works. I always thought those passages rather importantly referenced that little bit of Michael Corleone in all of us. And by their omission, we are being taken still further along the road from baptism as an expression of the big themes of death and resurrection to baptism as a polite middle-class naming ceremony. Once again, it feels like the church is chopping off its own balls.

Baptism is not supposed to be nice. It’s a simulated drowning. The old person is put to death so that the new person can emerge. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus have been baptised into His death?” asks Paul, polemically, in Romans. This is what it is to become a new person, to be reborn — or born again as evangelicals like to say. In film terms, think Neo being unplugged from the Matrix and unceremoniously spat out into reality down that slimy artificial birth canal. His old self had to be put to death in order for his new self to emerge into the light.

And here is the true site of Christianity’s confrontation with secular humanism. Let me put it baldly for argument’s sake. Christians have a generally dark and negative view of human nature. Which is why human beings need to take such drastic existential measures as baptism: death and resurrection. This is not a disparagement of human beings — simply a realistic assessment of the egotistical stuff from which we are made. {read it all}

For myself, I’m not certain I can go the whole way with Fraser and look upon the Devil as a sort of personalization of the dark side of human nature. But I will say the Devil is at least that, and, as such, the renunciation should not be removed from the baptismal liturgy, regardless of the possible confusion. The reality is that people will be confused by the faith. It’s our job as Christians to make the faith comprehensible without diluting it.

It may be that part of this issue is driven by the impulse within the Church of England to fulfill its role as a national church (an impulse that I am in many ways sympathetic to) and therefore to ensure the sacraments are open to all, no matter how ill-informed or unwilling to become informed they may be. If so, I’d stake my ground out on the move that underlies the reform of the baptismal liturgy in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, namely, the shift away from so-called “indiscriminate baptism” and toward the normative baptism of adults, with allowance for the baptism of children of believers (broadly interpreted as children whose faith formation a responsible Christian adult will take responsibility for).

I do hope that the Church of England remembers that the Devil is indeed in the details of human experience, whether they want to name him or not.

The featured image is “Satan Sowing” (ca. 1872) by Félicien Rops. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 


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