I’m so excited to be posting some writing by my colleague and dear friend, Daniel. We love to talk theology, even if we don’t always agree. This is probably the first time either Karl Barth or the devil has made an appearance on my blog — my thanks to Dan for courageously tackling the tough topic of evil.
Renouncing the Devil
I’ve always thought of the Devil or Satan as an interesting character. This person/demon/spirit/snake appears throughout Scripture generally making a mess of things.
Much of Christian tradition associates the snake who slyly convinces the proto-couple to eat forbidden fruit and bring God’s curse upon their own heads with Satan (Gen. 3:1-7). In Job, Satan is described as an “angel” or a “messenger” who appears before God with the proposition to toy with Job’s life to see how much suffering it takes to break a faithful person (Job 6:1-12). Jesus is tempted in the wilderness by the Devil in an attempt to make the Son of God seek honor and power in the stead of suffering and service to humanity (Mat. 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13).
In my denomination’s (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) baptismal liturgy we have preserved an early church practice of reciting certain vows before receiving this sacrament. The one receiving baptism or someone on the baptized person’s behalf is asked, “Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?” to which the respondent says, “I renounce them.”
I myself have made this renouncement and as a pastor-to-be I will be asking others to make this renouncement. I have to ask myself though, do I really believe in the Devil? Is he or she a real force that occupies this world?
Encountering the Other
In much of religion, I believe that we humans are constructing metaphors to describe some teeny, tiny, unfathomable aspect of a reality outside of ourselves- divine and demonic. In the case of God, he/she/it is simply too big for us to grasp. God is too “Other” for us to fully comprehend. Karl Barth wrote that the Gospel (a revelation of the Other God to us)
is not one thing in the midst of other things, to be directly apprehended and comprehended… The Gospel is therefore not an event, nor an experience, nor an emotion— however delicate! Rather, it is the clear and objective perception of what eye hath not seen nor ear heard.
(Taken from The Epistle to the Romans)
I love that paradox. Our experience of God is such a clear, obvious encounter with the invisible, unencounterable Other. When we give words to God we are speaking something cannot be spoken and we are given vision to something that is invisible. Revelation doesn’t stop being inaudible or invisible, but we try to construct something audible or visible to something that is beyond sensory or cognitive apprehension.
I do not know who God is entirely. Saint Augustine, Billy Graham, John Calvin, Ignatius of Loyola, Abraham Heschel, Martin Luther, and I may say things about God, but that is only what has been revealed to us in our very limited comprehension. God is beyond words or thoughts.
This is why I feel that I can faithfully believe in and pursue interfaith relations. My understanding of God does not grasp anywhere near the entire reality of who God is and what God’s salvific actions entail. I have no right- in fact, I believe it is grave sin to claim an exclusive knowledge of God.
In short, I know God in my faith, but I do not know God in anyone else’s.
God’s incomprehensibility is why I think we can use so many beautiful or disturbing metaphors. God is a warrior (Exo. 15:3), God is a father (Mat. 6:9; Luke 11:2), God is a mother (Hos. 11:3-4), God is a judge (Psa. 7:11), God is a potter (Isa. 64:8), God is a king (Psa. 95:3), God is a chicken (Mat. 23:37), God is a lion (Hos. 11:10), God is a lamb (John 1:29). Anything we say of God can only be spoken in metaphor simply because we do not have the faculties to speak directly about what the incomprehensible All-Mighty.
To an only slightly lesser extent, I believe the same can be said for evil. Our world is broken and most people are too aware of that fact. Poverty, hunger, injustice, disease, and death. The church has historically called these shortcomings of goodness “sin.”
In my understanding, “sin” comes in three main varieties. First, sin may be our individual shortcomings. For example, I have sinned when I say a cutting remark to that person who has just been annoying me for far too long. Second, sin may be corporate. Our nation’s racial-economic inequalities are a corporate sin that too many of us contribute to. Third, Sin is outside or Other. Something is broken with our world on an elementary level. We may see it in death that strikes suddenly and with disregard for age or goodness.
The classic question of theodicy haunts suffering humanity, “How can evil exist in the world when a good God created it and continues to sustain it?” or more simply, “Why does God allow suffering in the world.” I firmly believe that anyone who claims to have a convincing answer to the problem of evil’s rule of our world is either delusional or a liar. No answer is satisfying when someone asks, “How could my little girl die of leukemia?” or “What good purpose was achieved in the drought that led to multitudes of starving people?” At times, evil which rebels against goodness so strongly is nearly as incomprehensible as the idea of God itself.
This is why I believe in the Devil. I see the Devil not merely as a red man with a pitchfork and horns, nor as a conniving snake, nor as a rogue angel. The Devil is those forces within humanity individually and corporately that tirelessly seek to upset the good of this world- evil inclination. The Devil is also the aspects of our lived experience that we may know viscerally to be wrong- chaotic evil.
The Devil is embodied Sin.
I do not believe that the Devil is a snake or a fallen angel any more than I believe God is a lion or a chicken. When faced with realities- good or evil- that are more real than we can imagine, we humans can only speak in metaphor. The Devil is real and we just do not have the words to speak directly about that incomprehensible, beyond understanding force of destruction.
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Want to read more of Daniel’s essays and sermons? Go check out his blog at Eisenblogosphere.