There can be little doubt that evil prospers. We’ve suffered through a year of an evil administration and we’ve seen the government increase the suffering of its own people in deference to the wealthy. And ours is only a mild case of evil. Jeffrey Burton Russell, over the course of some years, wrote three sequential books about evil. The first, The Devil, I reviewed last year. Having just finished the second, Satan: The Early Christian Tradition, it has to be said that the concept definitely evolves. The period between the New Testament and the fifth century was a rich one for diabolism. The writers of this period became increasingly theological in their efforts to make sense of what is obviously an unjust situation created by a theologically good God. These were inventive writers, if somehow less than convincing.
Russell is a careful explainer. He summarizes the views of the “church fathers,” pointing out where their logic fails. This isn’t some liberal trying to dis the Devil, however. Russell acknowledges that he believes a Devil of some kind must exist. Reason, however, must also be applied. It’s difficult to believe that people in the early Christian centuries were willing to take such leaps of logic. Of course, they didn’t have many options for opting out. God was the great explanation for so much of their world. Fitting an all-powerful deity into logic when there’s abundant suffering in the world requires a certain flair for casuistry. No matter how the equations work out, an all-powerful God can’t be all good, not in this universe. Speculation about the Devil, or Satan, ran logic through its courses. Who was this being, and how did he get to be the way he is?
The theologians argued without any glint of irony. This was serious stuff. The Bible, famously, has little to say on the matter. Early thinkers such as Tertullian, Origen, and Augustine had volumes to say on the subject. None of them came up with a workable solution. Logic and the Devil just don’t fit. Theology is always a struggle since it deals with intangibles. Laws of logic sometimes simply don’t apply. If the feeble human imagination can conjure a good world without needless suffering, one has to wonder, why can’t an almighty deity do the same? Is this a god of limited imagination or, as the classic theological chestnut puts it, one who sees more than humans do? You can ask, but you won’t receive an answer. The Devil, it seems, really is in the details.
Posted in Bible, Books, Monsters, Posts, Religious Violence, Sects
Tagged Augustine, Jeffrey Burton Russell, New Testament, Origen, Satan, Satan: The Early Christian Tradition, Tertullian, the Devil
Now that my book has been sent off to the publisher, I’m working on the next project. This one has me delving back into the Greek of the New Testament. It may be, some would say, that I’m no longer an expert in such things. Coming to Koiné Greek, however, after lingering among languages like Ugaritic and Akkadian, feels like coming home. It’s Indo-European, after all. One of the books I’ve come back to is 2 Peter. This is a curiosity among the canonical books. All but the most conservatively predisposed of scholars note that this little letter didn’t actually come from the Peter. The idea of using someone famous as a literary pseudonym was a well known and widely accepted practice in ancient times. In fact, the prefix “Pseudo-“ on classical writers is so common that I feel just a little self-conscious. Nevertheless, 2 Peter contains fascinating ideas.
The Bible was influenced, of course, by many outside sources. One of those sources was Zoroastrianism, the religion of ancient Persia. This came to mind because 2 Peter is the only book in the Bible that describes the end of the world as burning and melting. These ideas are tied to the purifying fire of Zoroastrianism. In that religion an evil deity, Angra Mainyu, corrupted this world. Fire, in Zoroastrian thought, is holy. At the end of time, when the blessed ascend to a heavenly mountain, a river of fire will pour down, burning and purifying the polluted earth left behind. The idea is powerful and evocative, and obviously some early Christian writers cottoned onto it. Including 2 Peter.
The idea, in the Bible, stands isolated in this one single book. The real concern of the epistle is false prophets, though. Still, the worldly should take note. The universe in biblical times consisted only of this relatively flat planet—which wasn’t even a planet then—with a starry dome overhead and a fiery Hell beneath. Ironically, 2 Peter’s end is similar to that predicted by modern astronomers. A star the size our sun will likely bloom out into a red giant, parboiling the earth in its death throes. Seems the Zoroastrians, and Peter, may have been correct after all. The thing is they both had an escape hatch that will only come with interplanetary migration, according to science. But then, all of this assumes there will be a world left after the Trump administration. And speaking of false prophets, I wonder what 2 Peter would’ve had to say about that?
It must be very difficult to write books that make the future believable. With the speed of technological change, it’s getting more difficult all the time. Some exceptions are modern dystopias that take civilization back to square one. We’ve come close enough in reality already to be able to imagine such things. While not really a dystopia—although it kinda is—Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Player Piano extrapolates what a future in the service of machines might look like. Some elements are incredibly 1950s—everyone still smokes, all communication is on paper, computers run by punchcards, and attitudes are hopelessly parochial—while others are on point for today. The world has been mechanized and an even more obvious class system than our current one has been established. Of course, those top few reap all the rewards and wonder why those below them are dissatisfied.
What’s really noteworthy, though, is that Vonnegut uses religion to address the situation. In this, his first novel, he has a minister leading the revolution against the system. This clergyman does so by finding and nominating a “messiah”—a figure around whom the dissatisfied might coalesce. In a world many characters characterize as evil, the solution is offered by religion. Well, not exactly. Vonnegut’s famous satire is beginning to appear even here and the revolution that religion fuels can’t overcome the human love of machines and gadgets. In many respects, this book is an extended parable. I can’t help but think that Vonnegut would’ve recognized our love of devices as a symptom of his humanity being declared useless by machines.
Kurt Vonnegut isn’t a religious writer, but like many authors he recognizes the motivating power of belief. There are agnostics aplenty in Player Piano, Indeed, the protagonist is never sure of what he believes. The larger questions, however, still persist: do we advance human potential by making things easier? All of us now have to be varying degrees of experts on computers to find even the most rudimentary jobs. There is really no opt-out anymore, and what’s more, few would take it if there were. The phone in my pocket has changed my life in ways I can’t call entirely good. As we get closer and closer to our media, we’ll want more intimate contact—implants are already starting to exist. Vonnegut, in his sardonic way, was asking even in the early 1950s if we had really improved our lot via such invention. In the end, of course, it doesn’t really matter because for better or worse, our tech is here to stay.