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The reality that is Satan

17 January 2014

The debate over mention of the devil at baptism reflects a wider unease with spiritual experience, argues Gavin Ashenden

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 interest.

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 of witch-burning.

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 about fear.

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 non-existence.

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 pastor people.

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 EastEnders.

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.

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