Devil of the Time

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.

Such a Happy Place

I fear anyone named Ronald. Being named’s something a kid can’t help, I know, but associations run deep and irrational fears are the flavor of the day. When a friend sent me a link to the original Ronald McDonald clown concept, I had to look. Now, I’m not one of those people who’s afraid of clowns. I know that perhaps puts me in the minority. In college I was introduced to, and even rebooted a club for, Christian clowns. Back in the days of Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell, many were exegeting Paul’s phrase “fool for Christ” in a new way—the way of the clown. I’ve never been a particularly smiley guy, but I do research things before getting involved. Not only did I read about Christian clowns, I read about the history of clowning itself. It helped that this was before people started dressing up like clowns to assault others in imitation of cheap horror.

Clowns, it should come as no surprise, were originally peasants. The name itself means “rustic,” or “laborer,” even in classical languages, just as it does in English. The affluent have, it seems, always liked to laugh at the poor. The clods could be expected to goof up time and again and their brainless antics would humor the bored, but entitled classes. Buffoons becoming missionaries took a somewhat tortured path through a culture that cast religion in a rather stern, harsh tone. Children of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s were trying to say “lighten up,” laugh about your beliefs. Isn’t that what Paul said? Tertullian wrote, “prorsus credibile est, quia ineptum est”—believe by all means because it’s absurd— didn’t he?

In my greasepaint and mismatched clothes I joined a troop of unspeaking clowns, acting out stories of kindness and good will. We were, after all, made from dirt (the laborer tills the soil, and the word clown comes from the same root at “clod”). We like to think things might’ve evolved since then, but when we turn on the news we see that although it’s no longer Ronald, the antics of the plutocrats haven’t changed since my college days. What d’ya think of that Star Wars defense initiative? After all, we call “Mutually Assured Destruction” a doctrine, and doctrines have their origins in church councils. Ronald McDonald is recognized by his painted face. Beneath the makeup, however, he’s just a man. A clown has no business being leader of the free world. And yes, I’ll take fries with that. Supersize it, will ya?

Sacred Sexism

holymisogyny How terrifying to observe religion from the eyes of women! In the monotheistic traditions it begins as early as Genesis 2 and continues unbroken through to the twenty-first century. While the origin of such views seems a mystery, they may be partially understood by reading April DeConick’s Holy Misogyny: Why the Sex and Gender Conflicts in the Early Church Still Matter. Not that anyone fully comprehends the insidious idea that women are somehow less than men, but DeConick offers some insight into the issue. She suggests that sacred misogyny is, like much of life, an embodiment issue. The monotheistic traditions from the beginning have had trouble with women’s bodies. Men can’t control their urges and blame the victim. That is over-simplifying, I know, but the basic gist is about right. What can’t be missed from reading Holy Misogyny is that the idea has embarrassingly deep roots in religious thought.

The Bible starts out pretty fair. Except from the beginning the masculine pronoun is used for God, even though theologians from very early days declared God neither male nor female. How do you believe that an “it” really cares for you? Wants the best for you? Loves you? We are gender embodied. We want to know who it is that’s loving us. Genesis 1, on the human level, has man and woman created together on the same day, at the same time. The essence of their embodiment appears to be divine: “in the image of God created he him, male and female created he them.” “Human” is gendered humanity. But then the apple falls. We turn the page to find that the not yet monotheistic religion of the Bible is already pointing sticky fingers at Eve. I know that I can’t read Tertullian without wanting to hide my face when he castigates women as the source of evil.

Holy Misogyny is a disturbing book. It should be. What it does demonstrate, however, is that a wide variety of opinions and options existed for early Christianity when it came to the perception of women. Some of the Gnostic sects of Christianity came much closer to a kind of equality, but they lost out to an unremittingly masculine “orthodoxy.” The Bible itself, although written in a patriarchal world, is an ambiguous document. At points even Paul seems to indicate the genders are equal in God’s eyes, but then, he (or someone writing in his name) tells women to keep quiet in the church. Ask your husband at home. I’ve talked to a lot of church guys in my time, and Paul, I have to contest you here. Women who want to get proper instruction in matters of the soul—or of the body—would be better off reading DeConick than asking their husbands. We’ve got two millennia of unfortunate history to prove the point.

Faith and Freedom

Schadenfreude is not my usual response to the downfall of a religious leader—with perhaps the exception of televangelists. After all, religious leaders are only human. Occasionally one crosses a very serious line, as the news about Nechemya Weberman, a Hasidic counselor who was found guilty of molesting a girl under his profession care, reveals. The sad part of this situation, apart from the tragic consequences for his victim, which are very serious in their own right, is that the Satmar Hasidic community insisted that it should have had the right to do its trial in secret. Sects that take their cue from the Bible are seldom fair to women. The Bible, after all, is not a very female-friendly tome, no matter how much feminists may try to rescue it from its androcentric world. Religions based heavily on the Bible feel they have the right to judge by their own standards—something a secular court can’t understand. It is back to the paradigm of the two swords here.

What are we to make of the civil crime that violates no religious laws for any one sect? What is wrong in one book is all right, or at least forgivable in the other. For a secular crime committed in a closed religious community in a country of religious freedom, who is to decide? These questions are decidedly more than rhetorical. Any religion that says women are here to serve men—and there are a disturbingly large number of such religions—can claim that God trumps gent d’armes every time. What’s more, they believe the decree is eternal and they are violating the divine will if they don’t keep to it. This situation is nothing new; at least as early as Tiglath-Pileser III, and probably earlier, ancient religions sometimes had to compromise under the hegemony of a higher power. But they were only biding their time until the political situation would grant their autonomy once more.

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It is simplistic to suggest that the two swords represent the two hemispheres of the brain, but we do have a rational versus emotive issue here. Rationally, would an unseen force endowed with a human personality demand the unfair treatment of some people simply because of an unexplained favoritism? It does not seem likely. But religions are seldom logical. “Credo quia absurdum,” Tertullian is remembered as sighing—“I believe because it is absurd.” Theologically profound? Certainly. Helpful in society? Not so much. Freedom of religion is a classic ouroboros, a serpent biting its own tail. Religions are free to declare their own beliefs, but their own beliefs may challenge the very authorities who grant them that privilege. Secular authority may have the ability to put to death, but resurrection is the prerogative of religion.