Have we outgrown the Devil?



When I was a kid, my home's cellar was a place of terror. The old stone foundation, the roar of the furnace, the cobwebs and the dark corners were creepy enough. But the true fright came from another facet of the place: the cellar was where the Devil lived. Sent down to do an errand alone, I hightailed it in and out of there, slamming the old wooden door behind me. The Devil would make a last grab for you just as you were on the brink of safety.

My devil was a companion into my twenties. He haunted my dreams, paralyzing me and sending me into nightmares. He pounded up the stairs as I lay frozen, yet conscious (in my dreams), on my bed. During waking times, he still waited to snag my ankles as I came up from basement storage areas.

The Devil was a concept taught rather too well in my parochial school upbringing. He showed up in Catholic coloring books (!), arrow-pointed tail wrapped around a tree. He was featured in lurid slide presentations about the Marian apparitions at Fatima and Garabandal. He was the ultimate dark villain, against whose power there seemed little protection. Rosaries, prayers and holy water were but tinny shields against the constant threat the Devil posed. Like the poor sailors from the Indianapolis, imperiled by hungry sharks, we young souls were in constant danger of being picked off by the swarm of devils around us, hungry for souls to drag down to the Pit.

Fifty years later, I have a little more perspective. My nightmares about devils ended abruptly when I learned safe and appropriate ways to express my repressed anger. (Thank you , Sweetie!) A little Jungian psychology went a long way toward helping me understand why the Devil lurked in low places -- symbolically, the realm of the hidden, dangerous, "shadow" side of my personality. At some point, not as long ago as I would like, the Devil literally stopped nipping at my heels.

The idea of the Devil is an old one, but not as old as some might think. When the Book of Job was written, about 400-600 years before Christ, Satan was still a member of the divine court. He was more like a prosecuting attorney -- a Devil's advocate, if you will -- keeping God's judgments honest by bringing up the frailties of men whom God considered upright. Give humans real trouble, Satan would say, and you'll see their real selves -- venal, petty and blasphemous.

By the time of Jesus, Satan had transmogrified into an adversary or God and to his Creation. Jesus saw it as a main part of his mission to overthrow the realm of Satan by casting out demons. Aside from the merely therapeutic aspects of exorcism, overthrowing the Devil had a larger purpose: signifying that God's power was breaking into Creation. God was again getting the upper hand.

Since Jesus's time, the history of the Church has been peppered with overreaction to the supposed presence of then Devil. Jews and Satan were thought to be in league, leading to persecutions, mass murders and expulsions. Women were burned because of their supposed links with Satan. Anyone who has read about the Salem Witch trials realizes that far more mayhem was committed by the righteous of Salem (including 19 deaths, one pressing and numerous unjust jailings) than by the spells of the accused. Indeed, Satan seems most dangerous in the hands of those most intent on driving him away.

Which leads to wonder whether it is time to hang up the Devil's pitchfork and retire him for good. He has done us little good as an externalized symbol of evil - our own or that of others. Believing in him did not make me examine my motives and emotions. In fact, it made them seem to be external -- imposed by an outside force bent on destroying me. Only when I learned to acknowledge my own home-grown greed, lust, pride and anger was I able to own my emotions and learn to manage them.

Not to mention, isn't there something strange about a cosmology in which an all-powerful God is nearly equally matched by a second, dark entity, nearly as powerful and far more busy? Putative monotheists, haven't we created a second god? The sheer blasphemy of this should be enough to make us think twice about giving the Devil so much of his due.

The Devil has had his day.We have identified the source of evil in the world. In the immortal words of Walt Kelly's Pogo, we have met the enemy and he is us.