Returning after a long time away from this blog, I have decided to take up a particularly religious theme that I have been discussing with friends, but which I want to make a more complete statement about. Those looking for easily accessible teenage level philosophical ideas may want to skip this one. My point in this essay is to get those who believe in the Devil to be careful how they apply that belief in their politics.
Most of my friends on the east side of the Atlantic know me as something of a political moderate. Most of those on the west side seem to think of me as more of a political liberal. This would have to do with the fact that I consider the priority of politics to be for people to find ways to work together –– across tribal, religious, economic and other cultural barriers –– to insure respect for all people as people. The basic term for this priority is “human rights”. It further classifies me as a “liberal” in American terms that I don’t happen to believe that the right to equip oneself to kill other people is a higher priority than the right to education, basic medical care and public service protection from prejudicial abuse for instance, but that is another essay.
I say all that as basic background to why I am not disposed to begin with to support American right wing causes in general, and the current GOP identity in particular. That being said, I have many acquaintances, and even a few friends, who remain existentially committed to a Republican political identity as something they consider to be part and parcel of their Christian faith. Previously I considered such people to be merely deceived by those who came to power together with Ronald Reagan’s struggle against the principles of human rights in the name of “Judeo-Christian morality” back in the 80s. Most of those who bought into this thereafter became victims of cognitive dissonance in terms of their party identity. This year, however, the absurdity of believing that to be a good Christian is to be a Republican has become so overwhelming obvious that I believe any genuinely sincere person of at least semi-normal intelligence should at least be aware of profoundly disturbing problems with attempts to harmonize their party standard-bearer’s positions with anything resembling the teachings of Jesus. Again though, another essay.
Under these circumstances I have recently been confronted by a particularly novel excuse for supporting the US Republican party: “Hillary Clinton is literally demonic, and in order to fight against the forces of Satan one must vote Republican!” As absurd as that may sound, former candidate Ben Carson has made this the focus of his justification for supporting Donald Trump. To make it clear to those defending Carson why I fundamentally disagree with this justification for the attack on Democrats it is necessary to go into some theological detail.
The key to that position is to associate Ms. Clinton with the 1960s social activist Saul Alinsky, who close to the end of his life included an epigram with reference to Lucifer in Rules for Radicals, a book about subverting status quo political power structures. Alinsky was a cultural Jew who didn’t believe very strongly in any supernatural powers whatsoever, but he believed that subverting status quo powers in general was a good thing, and he considered Lucifer to be the ultimate mythological symbol of that principle. As it happens, Hillary Rodham, towards the end of her “Goldwater girl” phase, wrote a respectful academic research paper about Alinsky’s strategic thinking (which holds hints that operatives from many different political persuasions have found useful in their attempts to bring about change through protest, but that too is another essay). From there the argument goes that everything that Hillary has stood for since is a matter of devil worship inspired by Alinsky.
Trying to reason with someone who has accepted this sort of argument might well be a fool’s errand. I don’t expect it is possible to change the minds of many who are existentially committed to a sub-cultural assumption that Democrats are inherently demonized, but in the interest of showing respect for the intelligence of some that I know who are entertaining such ideas (even though I think they should know better), I want to take the trouble here to explore the theological assumptions this entails and what I see as the misconceptions behind such an approach. There are a few basic questions we need to consider here:
- Who is the devil and what are his basic strategic goals?
- What is the essence of human sinfulness and how should we be fighting against such?
- How does the pursuit of knowledge as such figure into this dilemma?
I have been trying to discuss this matter with a friend of mine who is fairly closely associated with the “Democrats are demonic” position in ways that I am not at liberty to discuss publically. I will continue here by trying to fairly summarize his perspectives on the above questions, and from there I will offer my own rather different perspectives on the matter. For purposes of protecting my friend’s privacy I will refer to him here as Vic.
When it comes to the basic identity of the devil, Vic follows the standard medieval reinterpretations of the taunt against the king of Babylon in Isaiah 14 (which is the only place the name “Lucifer” is actually used in the Bible), together with the references to the Prince of Persia as a supernatural adversary in Daniel 10, and description of the dragon/serpent in Revelation 12 as the basis for understanding the origin of the devil. From there he follows the standard reinterpretation of Genesis 3 saying that the snake there was literally the devil in animal form, and from there all mankind’s troubles begin. In other words, based on rather sketchy Bible evidence, Vic, like most evangelicals, believes that the devil is a former chief angel who rebelled against God and got a number of other angels to join him, causing them to become demons, which God then cast into hell; but God hasn’t definitively locked hell down yet so we still have to fight against its forces. The chief goal of the devil –– also known as Satan and/or Beelzebub –– as Vic sees it, is to bring death, in a rather broad sense. This is based on one interpretation of the binary opposition between the two great trees in the Garden of Eden: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The latter, from which mankind eventually chose to eat from in the narrative in question, Vic sees primarily as the horticultural embodiment of the power of death that the devil wishes to bring mankind under. In his view we need to fight against the powers of death by challenging the devil’s destructive work in all its forms. Human sinfulness, according to this view, is primarily a matter of alienation from God caused by inadvertently joining into the devil’s rebellion against God. This is easily simplified to God’s work vs. the devil’s work and from there the point is to stay on God’s side rather than drifting to the devil’s side.
In order to explain how, in his thinking, this relates to the actual name given for the “bad tree” in the garden, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Vic referred me to some of the writings of the pre-Maoist Chinese Christian theologian Watchman Nee. Nee’s perspective on the matter has some interesting Buddhism flavored aspects to it: he sees the question as one of mankind being separated from God through building the power of the human ego in terms of strengthening the soul through knowledge. In order to explicate a state that would be preferable to this soul empowerment through knowledge, Nee postulates that the human being should ideally be a three-part entity: body, soul and spirit. The spirit, in this view, would be the aspect of the person’s identity that forms the contact point with the divine. The human spirit ideally should govern the soul, but in the non-believing person it sits dormant or functionally dead, and in the “less spiritual” believer it remains overshadowed by the egotistical power of the soul. Thus the “death” of sin is first of all a matter of the human spirit, as distinct from the soul, ceasing to function in its original created capacity, and salvation and redemption are matters of resuscitating that spirit within the person. Thereby the Buddhist teaching of “awakening” through overcoming the ego is realized by postulating a “divine spark” that must master the ego within each of us, but in order to remain Christian in this perspective Nee that the human spirit can only be brought to life through properly orthodox Christian faith.
This opens up an interesting can of worms. As I blogged last year, for those scientifically debating the nature of human consciousness there is an open question of whether the phenomenon can be explained in purely material terms of “the soul” being simply “software” running in the machinery of our bodies, or if the soul has its own ontological essence distinct from the body, beyond the realm of atoms and molecules even. As an argument within that field, however, the idea of postulating split within the non-material essence of human beings to include a third aspect called “spirit,” that only functions operationally in those which subscribe to the proper sort of Christian minority dogma, would be a bit of a non-starter. There is no “scientific” justification for such a teaching, so the only justification for Christians believing in such would be if it was so clearly stated in the Bible that, for the believer, no other evidence would be necessary. In short, that isn’t the case.
What does the Bible have to say about the human spirit as distinct from the soul? If we start out with the Old Testament teaching on the subject, the Hebrew word in question is ruach, which is variously translated into English as spirit, wind, breath, heart, mind, motives, temper, breeze, etc. As an internal characteristic of humanity, as opposed to a divine action temporarily effecting a person (“…the spirit of God came upon him and he prophesied…”) there are relatively few references to a human ruach as such. Among those we do find a person’s ruach can be understood quite literally as his or her breath –– as in that which smells bad when he/she eats too much garlic –– not necessarily having anything to do with an inherent capacity for the divine. When Joseph, of technicolor dream coat fame, was sent for by the pharaoh to interpret a dream it was because the pharaoh’s “spirit was troubled”. (Later in the same chapter (Genesis 41) that pharaoh hired Joseph because he had a “divine spirit” to him.) In 1 Samuel 30, David’s little freelance army found an Egyptian army slave who had been left behind because he was too weak to keep up, and through feeding him some high fructose snack foods “his spirit revived”. Then in 1 Kings 10 the Queen of Sheba was left breathless by the splendor of Solomon’s accomplishments, or in some translations, “there was no spirit left in her.” In all of these cases references to the human spirit relate largely to aspects of experience that effect our rate of breathing, quite literally.
The action of God breathing is a different matter entirely. God’s breath is said to be the source of life as such, and for man to become “a living soul” (nephesh in Hebrew) was the result of God blowing into him. Many miracles were based on God blowing, not the least of which was the parting of the Red Sea for the Exodus. God blowing on waters to overcome the destruction they entail can also be seen in Genesis 1:2 and 8:1. Fundamentalist Protestants in particular also tend to make a big deal of the idea of God blowing into the scriptures according to 2 Timothy 3:16, but that too is a whole different essay.
There is also a collection of references to ruach which are connected with neither God nor any particular human doing the blowing. This is a continuous theme of the book of Ecclesiastes in particular, where it is associated with vanity, emptiness, futility and meaninglessness. In this regard the Jewish understanding of “spiritual” was more like the way we use the word “mythical” these days: something with essentially nothing to it. If you’re talking about God doing the blowing then there’s some serious power involved, basically because it’s God we’re talking about, but the idea of blowing in general is anything but a big or important deal. The Old Testament therefore cannot be said to support Nee’s idea of a human spirit as a significant “spiritual” entity (in our modern sense of the word) distinct from the soul.
The Greek word used to translate the Hebrew idea of ruach, when Greek became the common language among Jesus’ followers, was pneuma –– the root word for “pneumatic” to describe the kind of drill a dentist uses, and for “pneumonia” as the sort of lung infection that was particularly deadly before antibiotics came along. Besides its simple meaning as “air” or “breath” in different contexts though, pneuma had its own connotations from the writings of Greek philosophers that stretched it a bit beyond just a literal or poetic reference to one’s breath. This was a subject of heated debate among Jewish intellectuals of New Testament times, and in Acts 23 Paul used the disagreements over this very topic to draw attention away from the less orthodoxly Jewish teachings about Jesus that he was on trial for proclaiming.
The main point to emerge in Paul’s own teaching regarding philosophical anthropology as such was that people, regardless of how many parts you break them down into, have a life after death, and that life does not necessarily entail occupying a physical body (2 Corinthians 5). In his day and age that in itself was a pretty radically Hellenistic sort of thing for someone of a pharisaical background to say! It further seems rather likely that this perspective came to him as the result of having his own out-of-body experience. In the subsequently talking about the possibility of non-embodied life, Paul does not speak of a spirit/soul distinction that showed up in his earlier writings. Time to back up a bit here.
The non-material essence of the person is variably referred to by different New Testament authors as either the pneuma (spirit, breath) or the psyche (soul, life), but whereas other New Testament writers use these terms rather randomly and interchangeably, early on Paul tries to draw somewhat of a distinction between them. His most direct teaching on the matter is found in the end of 1 Corinthians 15, as part of the discourse on his expectation of seeing Jesus’ return within his own lifetime. His perspective there is based on the premise (typical for Jewish thinkers of his time) that any form of human experience, whether in this life or the life to come, requires some sort of body to have the experience. The background assumption is that our bodies are essential to who we are as individuals. But in this regard Paul is already stretching standard assumptions by speaking of his expectation that our afterlife bodies will be of a radically different sort than the ones which characterize who we are now. In verse 45 he associates the natural body with the historical character of Adam and the anticipated supernatural body with the resurrected Jesus. In further distinguishing between these sorts of bodies, Paul speaks of the soul (psyche) as its operating principle of our current bodies, with the spirit (pneuma) as the operating principle of the type of afterlife body he anticipated. From there he goes on to explain to the Corinthians what he expected to see when “the final trumpet sounds” (vv. 50-53): First those who had died would get their bodies changed into spiritual ones, and after that “we who remain” will have our bodies transformed into the better sort. Life without a body was too strange a concept for him to talk about at that phase of his thinking on the subject. Thus his point was to say that our after-life bodies will be radically different from our present ones, and the soul/spirit distinction was part of his way of trying to explain the difference.
By the time he got around to writing 2 Corinthians, however, Paul’s perspectives on these matters seem to have undergone some significant adjustments, probably as the result of a personal near death out-of-body experience of the sort alluded to in the beginning of chapter 12. Thus he no longer speaks of the human body as what makes the person who he/she is, which is eventually destined to take on a more glorified form; Paul sees his body rather as a mere “tent” or “garment” that he was temporarily living in or wearing. Furthermore Paul seems resigned to the idea that, though he still believed that Jesus would come back again someday, he probably wouldn’t live to see it, and in fact that was just fine with him.
While these perspectives are not impossible to harmonize with each other, the contrast between them is quite clear. If from there we take the possibility of a non-embodied afterlife to represent Paul’s more mature thought on the matter, and if we recognize that he was mistaken in his expectation that he would live to see Jesus’ Second Coming, that throws somewhat of a shadow over the discourse in which he comes closest to speaking directly about a contrast between the human soul and the human spirit.
Moving on from there we find just two more Bible verses in which the words soul and spirit appear side by side in a way that would imply a distinction between them: 1 Thessalonians 5:23 and Hebrews 4:12. The former again has to do with Paul’s early expectation of living to see Jesus’ return. With that in mind he tells those in Thessalonica that he wants to present them in good shape to Jesus when he comes –– in completely good shape: “spirit, soul and body.” In the latter reference the anonymous author of the book of Hebrews gives a series of poetic expressions describing how deeply scripture, in the analogy of a sword, can/should cut into us: going so deep into the heart as to cut between our thoughts and intentions; going so deep into our physical being as to cut our very bones apart; going so deep into our non-material selves as to cut between our souls and spirits. For some reason Watchman Nee took this latter reference quite literally, saying that spirit and soul are separate entities that God’s Word needs to cut apart from each other so that the spirit can remain in charge of the soul. The Amplified Bible, on the other hand, places a footnote on this passage which directly contradicts such an interpretation: “‘soul and spirit’ used here to emphasize the whole person, not two separate entities.”
A more common literary expression for referring to the whole person being involved in some matter or another is “heart and soul,” which as a pair is found over 30 times in the Bible. Distinguishing between the respective functions of the heart and those of the soul, however, is not seen as a particularly productive theological exercise. Even less then would I be inclined to distinguish between a person’s breath (spirit) and soul on the basis of a far more limited number of Biblical references to such a pair. Thus I am inclined to disagree with my friend Vic’s perspective taking Watchman Nee’s concept of man being an inherently tripartite being –– body, soul and spirit, with the last of these becoming disabled through the fall in Genesis 3 –– as a basis for understanding the essence of the devil’s work. Following the principle of Occam’s Razor, I don’t see a particularly good reason for postulating that there is an extra part of the non-material part of each of us that we need to bring to life with the proper religious confessions and rituals. This strikes me as a pseudo-scientific distinction, related to many different failed efforts to categorize human cognitive capacities in common-sensical ways –– ranging from the study of phrenology (built on the assumption that our cognitive capacities can be determined based on the shape of our heads), to the more dogmatic variations on Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory (that Gardner himself has categorically rejected). So if Watchman Nee’s theory that the devil is out to kill the spirit and replace it with extra soul energy in the form of knowledge doesn’t hold water, how are we to conceptualize the relationship between the devil, human evil and knowledge as they seem to be mystically tied to each other in Genesis 3?
Let’s start by looking at what the Bible has to say directly about Satan. The first real reference we have to such a character is where he is blamed for the census David decided to take in 1 Chronicles 21. That’s sort of an interesting stand-alone reference to a new character, quite certainly inserted into the story after this character had been introduced to the Jewish people in the first two chapters of the book of Job. There we have a rather odd back story to explain Job’s suffering, with it being caused by a rather childish sounding challenge in heaven between God and this Satan character, in which God lets Satan screw up Job’s life and kill his children just to settle a random bet (with nothing actually wagered). This depiction of disputes in heaven, with the mischievous gods messing up the lives of mortals on a whim, seems more in keeping with Greco-Roman mythology than with the rest of the Bible, but we’ll leave that for the time being. The main point is that Satan first appears as an incidental side character whose job is to challenge the worthiness of God’s people to be acceptable before Him. He plays this same role one last time in the Old Testament in Zechariah 3.
In the New Testament we have Satan first of all as spiritual force which tries to keep Jesus from completing his life’s work. In this regard it makes perfect sense for Jesus to address Peter as Satan when Peter stated his intention to prevent Jesus from being crucified (Matthew 16:23). Fighting against a spiritual enemy force organized by Satan then becomes more of a running theme in Paul’s epistles and especially in the book of Revelation. At times Paul implies that Satan has a legitimate positive role to play in the Church, as God’s “district attorney” prosecuting those who stand deserving of judgement (1 Corinthians 5:5, 1 Timothy 1:20). Most of those attacked by Satan, however, are merely weak and in need of God’s mercy and strength, and Paul suggests a number of strategies for not falling prey to these attacks (e.g. 2 Corinthians 2:11). Paul also refers to the various things which limited his own effectiveness in his work spreading the Gospel as being “from Satan” (2 Corinthians 12:7, 1 Thessalonians 2:18). So while Satan’s role is diversified to a fair degree in the New Testament as compared with the Old, his primary stock and trade remains accusation and prosecution against those who wish to be accepted by God. The devil’s primary task then is to insult, accuse, slander and belittle those to whom God wants to reveal His love. Satan is out to prevent people from loving God and each other, primarily by making them feel unworthy of God’s love, and perhaps even unworthy of human contact. The picture painted in the New Testament is more diverse than that, but the core element from the Old Testament remains the same.
The essence of human sinfulness, in turn, is whatever separates us from loving contact with God and each other. So then how does this relate to knowledge, as in the name of that bad tree? There are a number of ways of explaining it, but I would attempt to do so following two models in particular. First we have the factor that knowledge is inevitably based on comparison, which in turn requires separations and distinctions in order for comparisons to be drawn. Comparison is thus in many ways the opposite of connection, and love is all about connecting. This makes the pursuit of knowledge, especially of the good and evil evaluating sort, directly opposed to love. The other, rather related, way of looking at the knowledge question is that knowing good and evil is a matter of forensic accounting: keeping track of who morally owes what sort of debts and how those debts need to be paid. That is the essence of Satan’s job. The essence of Jesus’ mission and message, on the other hand, is to reveal the priority of compassion over vengeance; or as one radical Lutheran pastor these days puts it, Jesus is God saying to mankind, “I would rather die than remain in this sin accounting business that you’ve put me in!” In order to avoid separation from God and our fellow human beings we need to recognize that all of us are rather uniformly distant from the divine ideal, and trying to find ways of justifying claims that some are less deserving of God’s favor than others is the primary thing that puts people on Satan’s side.
So how does all this come back around to the current state of American politics? I realize that I’ll probably be labelled as a radical leftist by some for saying so, but I believe the only truly Christian perspective on the matter is that followers of Jesus within a representative democracy should be using the degree of power God has given them in that regard to express their love for Him by using the government, to the extent they have any genuine control in that matter, as a means of caring for their neighbors in every possible way. The point is not to force others to live according to our moral ideals, but to try to organize things so that people respect each other and work together to insure caring and respect for all. Just how paternalistic we can get about this process is going to be a complicated question at times, but the overall goal of caring for and respecting others based on the belief that all people are made in God’s image should clearly be our most basic political priority.
The amount of power we actually have may be far more limited than we think, however. In the event that the forces controlling a corrupt empire are beyond what we can control democratically, or by any other means that our Christian integrity leave open to us, we can simply trust God and know that there are greater powers out there than those determining the course of any given empire. (This certainly includes the United States.) On the other hand chasing after power or trying to cling to power for power’s own sake, regardless of how many victims this process may entail, is the polar opposite of the teachings of Jesus. What then are the most dangerously satanic things to be avoided in this regard? Quite simply the urge to attack others as a means of gaining power. Hate-mongering, fear-mongering and continuous accusations against “the others” are what make the devil who he is. If your politics depend on these strategies you can be quite sure you are on the wrong side. Ironically, labeling others as being “of the devil” can be a strong means of doing the devil’s work!
To avoid being hypocritical I will not take the liberty to say that one party or the other is of the devil, but I would caution all of those participating in any political organization which claims to be doing “the Lord’s work” to be careful about what sort of kingdom their actions represent. This is far more important evil to avoid than rumored associations with the devil based on bad jokes in the epigrams to non-fiction books which particular candidates have studied.
And when His disciples James and John saw this [a village rejecting Jesus], they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” But He turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of.”
– Luke 9:54-55 (NKJV)
(Opening picture: The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Pieter Paul Rubens)