The Devil, You Say

Posted: Apr 24, 2007 12:01 AM
The Devil, You Say

I see people raising their hands. Huh? Without mercy, without feeling, a kid in Virginia mows down students and teachers? Huh?

The usual explanations have been vetted already: permissive gun laws, holes in the mental health safety net, failures to reach out, failures to understand. A couple of days after the Blacksburg calamity, it was reported that classmates of Seung-Hui Cho, years earlier, had been "mean" to him, had teased and derided him.

All of which may be true. All of which, for present purposes, is a little meager. The point to which I would draw attention is that secularized moderns are ill-equipped to deal with the problem of evil. They don't get it when someone runs amok in Virginia or Baghdad, slaughtering people on whom he's never previously laid eyes.

This is the problem of evil. It is a theological problem. You won't find it addressed in textbooks on psychology or sociology, least of all on the editorial pages of The New York Times or USA Today. The people who write these textbooks, these editorials, don't grasp what is at stake. To do so, one has to be a supernaturalist -- an underutilized job description in our cyberworld.

You have to believe in -- shhhh, someone might overhear you -- the devil and the powers of darkness. We used so to believe.

I am an Episcopalian. In pre-modern, non-touchy-feely days, our liturgy whenever we baptized babies invited -- no, commanded -- godparents to "renounce the devil and all his works." Subsequently, the priest entreated God to grant that the newly baptized and newly regenerated might "have power and strength, to have victory, and to triumph against the devil, the world, and the flesh."

This was powerful stuff. No wonder our rites no longer speak in such bald terms. The world might think we disrespected its ideals and language. Nowadays we step lightly through this minefield, talking in Baptism not of the devil but of "the evil powers of this world."

Well, "evil" -- it's a start, I suppose, toward grasping once more the theological terms in which our civilization formerly understood the contests and challenges of daily life. No greater task faces humanity: not even that of figuring out what Don Imus could have been thinking.

What's at the bottom of our modern horrors? We need to know. Isn't there some common account that links al-Qaeda and the Rwandan massacres and Idi Amin and the holocaust of the Jews and the rampage of Seung-Hui Cho? And Cain.

Cain. Maybe we start to get somewhere. In Genesis we read that Cain "rose up against" and "slew" his brother Abel. Can we see elements of Seung-Hui Cho here? I rather think so -- in the killer's ruthlessness and self-regard, his view of others as mere obstructions in his path. Do not the suicide bombers think thus?

In the old Christian understanding, Satan was the fallen angel, the Adversary, the sower of mischief in human hearts. Can't you just hear the rational spirits of our age when that topic comes up? Angels -- aarrghh! Tell us another tall tale!

To which it's possible to reply: How about your telling one? Tell us how, without reference to God or to Satan, in terms universally acknowledged prior to the time of Rousseau and Marx and Freud, we account for the fact that we're not more tolerant, not more loving, not more merciful than before Christian understandings of the universe lost purchase on hearts and minds.

I offer these reflections not in a spirit of evangelism; rather, one of inquiry. Isn't it about time we came to terms with the continuing reality of evil in a world of foie gras bans, smokeless work environments and fund-raising for indigenous minorities?

In the meantime, another old-timey Episcopal petition could come in handy: "That it may please thee to strengthen such as do stand; and to comfort and help the weak-hearted; and to raise up those who fall; and finally to beat down Satan under our feet, we beseech thee to hear us, good Lord."