Thought for the Day - 07/01/2014 - Anne Atkins
At last, a thoroughly good-news story: the Archbishop of Canterbury has cast out the devil. I hope he’ll been more successful than my clergyman husband, who came home from Sunday School as a small boy and fervently prayed for the devil’s conversion. In a pilot scheme, Anglican churches are offering a provisional baptismal liturgy that replaces “sin” with more commonplace language, and eschews the devil altogether.
In every era the Church faces the challenge of presenting eternal truths in the vulgar tongue, and unchanging beliefs in the familiar media of the day. And the devil has been out of fashion as far as memory goes back. “If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in the patient’s mind,” Screwtape advises his diabolical pupil Wormwood, “suggest to him a picture of something in red tights.” As he observes, nobody could believe in that, so it will throw him off the scent. “An old text book method,” he says dismissively.
The devil is of course an evocative image for the bad choices we all make. On one shoulder your good demon, urging you to stay off the booze and cake after Christmas: on your other shoulder the bad, the weak side of your own nature.
Is it possible, though, that there could be more to it than this? That just as God personifies ultimate good, so ultimate Evil could be personal too?
Michael Green, in his book, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall, points out that we regard the highest forms of life to be those that are sentient, capable of awareness and planning. Plato taught that behind every material reality is a greater spiritual reality: his definition of God is the ἰδεα, the form, of the good. Thus good itself has the attributes of personality: mind; affection; and volition. God thinks: He speaks, and argues. He feels: He and loves and hates. He wills: deciding on action and carrying it out.
If this is so, it is at least a rational supposition that the same could be true of evil. Indeed, otherwise it’s hard to see how evil ultimately exists. The difference between a wicked crime and an unfortunate accident is intent: one is wilful, the other fortuitous. If there is no evil objective behind the sorrows of the world, then they are not wrong but random. If there is morality, there must surely be evil as well as good.
What is intriguing is the difference it makes. If there is no intelligent force of evil then we live in a neutral universe, I can make choices like a consumer in a supermarket, and ultimately nothing matters.
But if something or someone is testing me, playing me, prowling round me like a lion ready to devour me... Well, small wonder that Screwtape says, “Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves.”