Vade retro, Satanas (Alpha week 6)

The snag turned out to be, when I got there, that this wasn’t actually talk 6 “How does God guide us” which I’d prepared for, but talk 10, “How can I resist evil”.

After a chat with the guest speaker beforehand (remember, I’m trying to be a constructive pain in the neck here!), he got started. And that gave me problems, because I didn’t want to tear the thing to shreds immediately.

The talk started off by following the standard line of saying “the Devil” is referenced in the Hebrew Scriptures. And he’s not. There is the serpent in Genesis, there’s the morning star/lucifer in Isaiah and there are a few references to “Satan”. The Hebrew “ha-Satan” (meaning “the accuser” or sometimes “the adversary”) has pretty much the function described in Job; he’s an agent of God, there to act as something like counsel for the prosecution, to test faith by temptation. According to Judaism, he’s absolutely nothing like a personalised force of evil and, frankly, where there doesn’t seem to be any need to look at it too closely, I’m very happy to let Judaism claim prior copyright in the Hebrew Scriptures and let Jewish scholars do the interpretation. Call it intellectual laziness or “standing on the shoulders of giants” as you like. Also according to Judaism, the serpent is ha-Satan, as he is performing a somewhat similar function, so not “the Devil”. haSatan is regarded as real, but as a servant of God (hence permission being asked and given in Job).

Lucifer, in Isaiah, is a translation of the Hebrew words which indicate “morning star”, and this passage specifically refers to a king of Babylon. So, also not the Devil. (From this point, if I wasn to indicate the Jewish conception, I will use “haSatan”, otherwise if I use Satan it means the Intertestamental/Christian conception.

Yes, the New Testament concept is more like our current ideas of “The Devil”, and it doesn’t derive from the Hebrew “ha-Satan”, it derives from the intertestamental literature, Hebrew writings from between the Hebrew Scriptures and the time of the new Testament, notably the Book of Wisdom and the Second Book of Enoch. Wisdom is part of the apocrypha, i.e. it appears in the Catholic Bible but not in Protestant Bibles; it was part of the Septuagint (i.e. the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) but is not part of the TaNaKh (the Judaic Hebrew Scriptures). Enoch is usually regarded as pseudepigrapha (generally a polite term for “fake”) but is accepted as canonical by the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Churches. Both of these are quoted in the New Testament.

There is an immediate problem here for those who are not Catholic or from the two small Orthodox churches mentioned; that is that the concepts which become quoted in the New Testament are themselves not canonical; the church fathers, in other words, thought that they were unreliable.

There is a much bigger problem, though, and that is that one of the probable reasons they are not canonical in most of Christianity or in Judaism is that they are considered to do two things, one being to introduce a tendency to gnosticism, the other being to be heavily tainted by Zoroastrian thinking. Zoroastrian is a dualist religion with equal opposing good and evil Gods (Ahura Mazda and Ahriman or Angra Mainyu). The Zoroastrian concept of Ahriman is quite similar to the concept of the Devil in the New Testament, and I think transmission of this idea is a certainty.

Judaism is an ardently monotheistic religion, and in theory so is Christianity (arguments about the Trinity set on one side here). Zoroastrianism is not.

Some time ago, I wrote “If the Devil existed, it would be necessary to disbelieve in him”. The theological reason for this is that I am a panentheist, and in this conception there is just no room in metaphysics for a second force; I could point out that if we believe in omnipresence (and panentheism is to a great extent an extreme and literal assertion of omniscience) then, if there were an “evil god”, then God would permeate him as well. Also, the presence of an opposing force of real power limits the conventional belief in God’s omnipotence and, in order to function with any actual power at all, his omniscience. God stops being almighty, and whatever you say about God having the final victory, this has to be the case. In any event, I cannot read Isaiah 45:7 “I form the light and create darkness: I make peace and create evil: I the Lord do all of these things” (KJV) and not consider that there is direct biblical authority for there not being any creator whether of good or evil than God. Yes, you will find the word “ra-ah” in Hebrew translated by all sorts of words other than “evil” in other, later, translations, for instance “woe” in the RSV, but it is impossible to get away from a very strong connotation of evil and still preserve the meaning of the original.

And as has happened earlier in the course, they have to quote C.S. Lewis. Lewis was an amateur theologian only, his academic background lay elsewhere and he was best known as a novelist and poet. How it is that Lewis has become the theologian of choice for Alpha beats me, because I have never encountered a C.S. Lewis quote used in this kind of situation which is not theologically unsound and/or logically false. In this case, Lewis claims there are two mistakes to make, disbelief and unhealthy interest. I agree with him on the second, but not, as you can see above, the first. I’ll deal with this more later.

In the questions at the end of the main discussion, what I then made was the point that a “real Satan” was untrue to the Jewish monotheist tradition from start, and introduced the real risk of a slide into complete dualism. However, I said I agree that if you the New Testament references metaphorically and referring to inner forces, then I find little to argue with. There was quite a bit of agreement.

At the discussion later, reference was made to Paul’s use of the term “God of this age”, also rendered “God of this world”, but I didn’t have an opportunity to address it. This is even more dangerous terminology as it can easily be read to indicate actual dualism, and also to support a gnostic concept of the material world being incurably bad, annd the only good to be reached post-mortem. It’s beyond the scope of what I’m writing here to say more than that gnosticism was thoroughly disliked by the early Church Fathers (this is Irenaeus’ position) and led to the non-inclusion in the canon of the New Testament of the Gnostic Gospels. (There is one of those, the Gospel of Thomas, which I regret not being included, on the grounds that firstly it’s the only pure “sayings” gospel I’ve read, secondly that it contains the one scripture which most persuaded me that Jesus was to be followed, “I am the light that shines over all things. I am everything. From me all came forth, and to me all return. Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift a stone, and you will find me there.” (Tho. 77) and thirdly that if it’s gnostic at all, it’s less gnostic than John, on which very much Christian doctrine is based).

I didn’t mention, but will note here that when taken metaphorically, the New Testament references to Satan or cognates encourage a form of exteriorisation of our own baser urges. There can be psychological benefits to this (which I why I agree the metaphorical interpretation is worthwhile) but there are also some significant psychological dangers, particularly in persons with mental illnesses or psychological disorders; I would recommend that this kind of concept is not used by anyone with such a mental health background without the utmost of care.

Firstly, it is an unfortunate fact that the more you stress the reality of something “bad” and stress it’s power, the more attractive you tend to make it. If it’s powerless and/or imaginary, it isn’t attractive. Put very briefly, I can speak from personal experience, as though by around age 9 I was atheistic as far as God was concerned, all things occult fascinated me, and even after I lost any serious interest in those as a possible way of getting power, I remained interested on an academic level until my 20’s. The detail of this must wait for another day, but suffice it to say that I have personal experience of some aspects and have past or current friends who actually practice in various areas.

It is the case that we now live in a scientific-rationalist society, and science has ostensibly left no room for there to be any supernatural element in the church. No miracles, no prophecy, no healing; all are scientifically impossible. (Yes, there are a few studies indicating there may be some minuscule benefit to prayer, but they’re much attacked). This has had, and still gets, a big press, and no, I don’t think that that’s because atheists, science or the press are agents of Satan; it’s because the church has historically got itself an extremely bad name (and parts of it continue to) and it’s therefore a large and popular target. On the other hand, although science has been equally used to debunk every supposed supernatural event from the wide field of the occult, that isn’t so unpopular, and it has the cachet of being “a bit naughty”, and after all, everyone looks at their horoscope in the papers, don’t they?

I’m not saying that guarantees a slide into eventual Satanism (and I remind you that Satanism is firmly based on Paul’s “God of this world” statement), but if someone believes in any kind of “magic”, other kinds become easier to look for.

This Wikipedia article on magic isn’t too inadequate or unbalanced. Neither is this on Wicca or this on Freemasonry. Aside from pointing out that Wicca is a religion rather than specifically an occult practice and that due to Christianity’s past history, there is a saying in Wicca “never more the burning times”, these are mostly harmless, and scare articles in some Christian sources which I’ve actually investigated have always proved to have some non-supernatural explanation but some deplorable human behaviour. Again, that’s a big subject and one I may come back to.

However, some occult practices and those who use and pursue them are extremely capable of messing with people’s heads, so I urge caution. Mind you, that can be said of some branches of Christianity and even, dare I say it, Alpha (which one atheist friend of mine is convinced is a form of brainwashing). Ho hum

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