REVISING our liturgical texts does not usually create headlines,
but last week it did: "C of E to dump 'sin' and 'devil' from
baptism rite", as one blog summarised it (News and Press, 10 January).
No doubt we should be glad at one level that we can still have
theological conversations in the media because there is public
This conversation is being held in two places: under-informed
headlines in public, and theological discussion in the Church. What
we may not manage with much confidence in the latter, domestic
debates is to have a conversation about the devil himself. But,
however awkward we find it, it is a theological conversation that
we need to have.
Freud helped to make this difficult when he published his
first,and not very impressive, paper on religion and mental
illness, "Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices", in 1907. He
did not actually claim that mental illness and religion were
inextricably linked, but his overt association of fear, guilt, and
anxiety with neurosis, and implicitly with religion, stuck in the
public's mind. The proximity between religious experience and
mental illness continues to alarm people.
THE whole thrust of Modernity moved society, conventional
thinkers, church people, and theologians away from mystery and
metaphysics, in the direction of rationality and empiricism. The
theological tension that this produces is that it also moves us
away from the language of the New Testament.
We have resolved this, by and large, by resorting to treating
the world-view of the New Testament as if it can best be understood
as metaphor. We are edgy about treating either the miraculous or
the metaphysical in a way that we often clumsily call "literally".
Perhaps we might help ourselves by talking more helpfully about
engaging with the New Testament "realistically". The literal and
the real are not the same thing.
So, for example, physical hearing is based on accessing sound
within a range of frequencies. If you are losing your hearing,
higher frequencies become inaccessible; but that does not mean that
they do not exist: it means that some people cannot hear them.
The New Testament treats evil as effectively real. Those who
practise prayer seriously also tell us that these metaphysical
experiences are "real". A useful analogy might be that our
secularised generation suffers from a loss of physical hearing
through exposure to loud music in earphones, but it also seems to
have lost its access of spiritual frequencies beyond a very narrow
range. This spiritual deafness is caused not by excessive physical
noise, but by the constant deafening buzz of rationalism, and
perhaps also of sin.
THIS discomfort is most keenly felt in relation to the devil. The
reflex reaction to the assertion that there may be a devil often
involves anxiety about mental illness, or vaguehistorical memories
More informed responses look to theories of evil that
concentrate on the absence of good (drawing on parts of St
Augustine), perhaps a need associated with Aquinas to avoid a
clumsy dualism, and a fear of so-called biblical literalism.
There are some qualifications to make immediately. In answer to
the charge of dualism, the devil is, of course, theologically the
flawed and rebellious counterpart to St Michael the Archangel, and
not to Jesus - and certainly not to the Father.
Yet it may be that we need to meet psychology with psychology,
and ask whether the intellectual modernists' discomfort with the
devil and the associated spiritual world is not so much about the
organisation of intellectual categories that are congenial, but
If there really is a devil, and a spiritual struggle that
reflects his existence, then brain power is not going to be as
important in that struggle as purity and holiness. In other words,
intellectual pride would predicate a preference for the devil's
However much kudos we give to the clever, Jesus says that only
the pure in heart will "see" God. It may be that it is especially
the pure in heart who also see and engage in an effective struggle
with evil. Following the analysis of Jesus in the Beatitudes, we
should not be over-influenced by the ideas of theologians whose
hearts or souls take less exercise than their brains.
The Eastern Church recognises theology as being done best by
those whose penitential prayer and worship open a window on to
spiritual realities - an experience of the "real" that those who do
not pray and worship cannot reach.
THERE are two elements that should remain central to this
conversation. The first is the fact that there is no doubt that the
authors of the Gospels andthe Apostolic tradition under-stood Jesus
to be describing a real figure when he talked of Satan. The second
is that the long narrative of Christian experience and tradition
has claimed to encounter him and the associated demonic.
Solidly sane writers such as Julian of Norwich, St Teresa of
Ávila, and St Catherine of Siena (to pick a random few) describe
soberly and vividly their struggles with the demonic. Immediately,
however, they are assumed to be restricted to the limitations of
their world-view, as if everyone else other than our generation
must be, but we alone are not.
Ironically, since we are the ones theologically and
experientially out of step with the whole of the rest of Christian
tradition, it may be we who are more constrained by our world-view
than anyone else. The modern and rational does not necessarily
constitute "the real".
THE experience of the reality of the devil and the demonic
continues, and not just among Charismatics and Pentecostalists. A
scientist such as John Cornwell, having started as a materialist
atheist, reluctantly included the reality of evil, the devil, and
the demonic in his book Powers of Darkness, Powers of
Light (Viking, 1991).
C. S. Lewis carefully hid his experience of the struggle behind
satire and comedy in The Screw-tape Letters (1942), but
they were predicated on his experience ofthe struggle as a
profoundly real one.
Fr Gabriel Amorth, known as the Vatican's Exorcist, has a sane
media profile, in which he speaks forthrightly about the reality of
the devil and the importance of the ministry of deliverance,
documented by Tracy Wilkinson, as an open-minded journalist, in
The Vatican's Exorcists: Driving out the devil in the 21st
century (Grand Central Publishing, 2007).
Fr Amorth says that there has never been a greater need for
experienced exorcists and those capable of exercising a ministry of
deliverance than today.
IN REVISING its baptism liturgy, the Church of England is faced
with theological questions that go to the heart of its
self-understanding: what sin is, what salvation is, on what terms
the Church should be engaging with society, how we pray, and how we
It will always be easier to accommodate ourselves to other
people's preferences, or to the limitations of their impoverished
experience of spiritual sound-frequencies. But it may be that to be
the one holy Catholic and apostolic Church, as we say we are at the
most defining points of our liturgy, we need to reinhabit a
metaphysical world in which repentance from the reality of sin is
the way into the Church, and the struggle with the reality of the
devil and the demonic are the marks of authentic pilgrimage.
Purity and holiness will then constitute our deepest human
aspirations and our spiritual potency. Depending on how you analyse
our social dis-eases, this might turn out to be just as socially
relevant to the wounded and the disturbed as the argot of
If, however, you want an element of empiricism to inform our
theological preferences, then perhaps we should not ignore the
working generalisation that suggests thatthe Churches that do
inhabit that richer metaphysical world and a broader spiritual
frequency flourish as Churches more than those that do not.
The dilution of our understanding of the struggle between real
good and real evil may constitute a kind of theologicalhomoeopathy.
We reduce the constituent elements of our spiritual struggle to
minute particles in our liturgy and in prayers, which will not in
fact have any discernible effect. We can scarcely hope to be
"delivered from evil", as we pray every day, if we will neither
recognise the evil that we ask to be delivered from nor use the
prayers given to us to effect that deliverance.
The Revd Dr Gavin Ashendenis Vicar of St Martin de Gouray,
Jersey, and a Chaplain to the Queen.