There is no harm in being afraid of the Devil – except in one sense. The sense in which people are afraid to be heard talking about him, lest they be thought of as some kind of medieval freak.
Cardinal Robert Sarah engaged in debate recently with Fr James Martin S.J. on the issue of the latter’s alleged soft-peddling of Catholic teaching on sexual morality. In an article in America about the differences between the two men, it is noted, not approvingly, that Cardinal Sarah is on record saying that homosexuality and radical Islam are two major threats to the family and are “demonic”. The cardinal’s position on the first issue – as is that of any Catholic in tune with their Church’s teaching – is as he puts it in his Wall Street Journal op-ed article with which Martin takes issue.
In that article the cardinal said that while experiencing attraction to people of the same sex is not in itself sinful, same-sex relations are “gravely sinful and harmful to the well-being of those who partake in them”.
“People who identify as members of the LGBT community are owed this truth in charity, especially from clergy who speak on behalf of the church about this complex and difficult topic,” Cardinal Sarah added.
He went on to praise the example Catholics who experience same-sex attraction but live according to Church teaching, citing Daniel Mattson and his book “Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay: How I Reclaimed My Sexual Reality and Found Peace.”
“These men and women testify to the power of grace, the nobility and resilience of the human heart, and the truth of the church’s teaching on homosexuality,” the cardinal said.
Reactions to any judgement by Sarah that “the father of lies” is responsible for the state we are in and the threat we face will broadly fit into two types. Someone who believes that the Devil is an existing creature, going about like a raging lion seeking whom he may devour – as St Peter described him – will sit down and think seriously about the implications of the statement. Is it some fictive narrative or is it a fact – as Sarah maintains it is? If a fact, what are its implications? If not, how should they argue their case against it?
Someone for whom “demonic” is just one more term of abuse, with its origins in superstition, the response will be different. For that person this is an outrageous label, the only effect of which is to make other people distrust, fear and probably hate what it has been pinned on. If those in this position have no interest in trying to understand what someone like Sarah believes to be the actual conditions of the real world, then they can only respond to him by abusing him in turn – or just ignoring him as a deluded freak.
We have here a radical cultural and religious divide of the most fundamental and dangerous kind.
Denis Donoghue, Ireland’s greatest gift to the world of literary criticism, touches what may be the root of this chasm in his book Practice of Reading. It is in a passing observation in the context of a wider theme but it speaks to our current discontents.
Interpretations of Milton’s Paradise Lost still divide literary critics. But one of them in particular seems to put us on a track which has a great deal to do with our fear – or lack of it – of the Devil. This is the one which reads Satan as the hero of the poem. For Donoghue this is a false reading but one, nonetheless, which has seeped into our literary culture with perverse consequences. Beguiled by this false reading, a reading in which Satan is just another metaphor for our conflicted tragic selves, they deny the existence of the real spirit which others know to be the ultimate source of all human misery.
The corrupting consequence of this false reading is that, paraphrasing Donoghue, we read the world under the sign of Satan-as-tragic-hero in Paradise Lost. In doing so we miss, in a sense, the woods for the trees – the woods being Devil himself, the trees just being his beguiling works and pomps. Donoghue comments on the misreading as follows:
Some critics find the thrill of Satan’s eloquence exempliﬁed again in Byron’s Cain. The particular moment of satanism that is found irresistible comes in Book V of Paradise Lost when Satan, who has evidently been reading Stevens, rounds upon Abdiel, who has been insisting that Christ was God’s agent in the Creation. As always, Satan is a spoiled brat:
That we were formed then say’st thou? and the work
Of secondary hands, by task transferred
From Father to his Son? Strange point and new!
Doctrine which we would know whence learnt: who saw
When this creation was? Remember’st thou
Thy making, while the Maker gave thee being?
We know no time when we were not as now;
Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised
By our own quick’ning power, when fatal course
Had circled his full orb, the birth mature
Of this our native heav’n, ethereal sons
Our puissance is our own.
Satan’s claim to have begotten himself is nonsense. Adam deals with it adequately and silently when he tells of his own birth and addresses the sun:
Tell, if ye saw, how came I thus, how here?
Not of myself; by some great Maker then,
In goodness and in power preeminent.”
But Blake, Hazlitt, and a formidable rout of critics have sent themselves into an altitudo of eloquence under the sway of Satan’s vanity. Harold Bloom is the most susceptible of these critics, and in Ruin the Sacred Truths and The Western Canon he quotes Satan’s boast as if it should be taken seriously. Bloom and his associates in this line of interpretation are the bad angels of criticism, exhibiting their own forms of angelism, the desire to transcend the human scale of experience in a rage for essence. They want to be rid of the world of fact, the opaque burdens of history and society, and to ﬂy upon wings of their own devising. As critics, they thrive on weightlessness.
“Our puissance is our own.” Now what does all that remind you of? Man as the measure of all things. Man, who can be the architect of his own nature and essence. Man, made in the image of himself and capable of moulding that image in whatever way he wants. Man the Satanic Angel.
The error of these critics – apart from their misinterpretation of Milton’s own Faith – is also the great error of our age. The denial of the reality that is the Devil leaves us all at sea with the problem of evil. It also drains the concept of sin of all its meaning, giving it a meaning which makes nonsense of our sense of injustice and of the need for salvation – for we know neither that which we need to be saved from nor that which we are saved for. Without this knowledge we have not a hope in Hell of understanding what the problem is with Islamic fundamentalism, with the abuse of our sexual nature – nor any basis on which to build the foundations for a moral life. Without this we flounder in a sea of relativism and our feeble efforts to be just more often than not end up perpetuating injustice. The delusions of Satan in Paradise Lost – in the passage quoted – are the delusions of “liberated” 21st century man.
Michael Kirke is a freelance writer, a regular contributor to Position Papers, and a widely read blogger at Garvan Hill (www.garvan.wordpress.com). His views can be responded to at firstname.lastname@example.org.