Tuesday 7 February 2023

What is The worst thing in the world? The devil or the human ego?

I am surprised that so many self-identified Christians disbelieve in the devil; not only because there are so many biblical references, but also because a devil makes strong sense both metaphysically (in terms of an explanation for the world as a whole) and empirically (as an coherent way of explaining and predicting the specific occurrences of this world). 

I commented some time ago that a Christian who was as scholarly, influential and respected as Charles Williams; nonetheless didn't believe that the devil was real

I found this confirmed in my current re-read of his novel The Greater Trumps, where the character Sybil (who is clearly intended to be the depiction of a very-near Saint - although not convincingly to my mind) says this in her internal monologue:

She did not, in the ordinary sense, "pray for" Nancy; she did not presume to suggest to the Omniscience that it would be a thoroughly good thing if It did; she merely held her own thought of Nancy stable in the midst of Omniscience. She hoped Nancy wouldn't mind, if she knew it. If, she thought, as, the prayer over, she put on her other shoe - if she had believed in a Devil, it would have been awkward to know whether or not it would have been permissible to offer the Devil to Love in that way. Because the Devil might dislike it very much, and then... However, she didn't believe in the Devil...   

Elsewhere in the novel in several places, it is clear that Williams regards the most evil thing to be the Ego, the Self; because the characters who are depicted as doing Good are expunging their sense of self of agency, of separateness. 

This is a common trope, indeed, among many self-identified Christians through the past 2000 years - I mean that being a "Good Christian" entails a destruction of any recognition of oneself as a separate being from God - the goal is to merge with God, or at least allow God and Goodness to flow through oneself. The self is ideally to become transparent, immaterial - the self standing aside and - eventually - being discarded. 

In other words; I am suggesting that among those who regard themselves as Christian but who do not believe in the devil; it seems usual to believe that - in effect - The Ego is the devil. 

Sometimes this is even stated explicitly; but even when unstated it seems to be implicit in analysis and discussions of evil; because the attribution of evil tend to converge upon the separate and strong ego of a person - often the separated selfhood of the Christian himself is regarded as the primary evil in the world.  

This substitution of the devil by the ego in a context of the primary desire for oneness is, I think, one path by which someone who regards himself as Christian can come to deny the reality of the devil.

This fits with a metaphysical theology that all Good comes from God, and (therefore) for Men to become Good, requires that they cease to offer any obstacle to the shining forth of God's Goodness. 

When God is regarded as omniscient and omnipotent, it seems logical that Men can add - from themselves - nothing to Goodness; which is (by definition) already complete and perfect. 

Since Men can add nothing to Goodness but only obstruct Goodness by their innate evil; Men should, ideally, therefore become empty, become like conduits for the expression of divine Goodness.  

What I am getting-at here is that this is another version of my old bugbear "oneness spirituality" - the only officially- and totalitarian-approved modern spirituality - once again confusing people and masquerading as Christianity. 

I tend to think that oneness spirituality is a point of convergence both of Christians who really-believe in in a mono-omni-God with whom the Christian ought to assimilate; and those adherents of 'Eastern religions' (Hinduism, Buddhism) who believe in a more pantheistic and abstract non-personal deity - that is 'everything'. 

The conceptual gap is bridged by the soaring abstractions and infinitudes of 'Classical' Christian theology (i.e. using concepts from pre-Christian Greek and Roman philosophy - especially Platonism and Neo-Platonism). In other words; abstractions and infinites applied to God conceptually-merge the person of God into a de facto impersonal deity. 

I mean the "mainstream Christian" theology that has, as fundamental, assertions of the Oneness of The Trinity; God's supposed attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence etc.; and an infinite gulf posited between creator and created.   

What I am saying is that someone who takes seriously, and rigorously pursues the implications of, Classical Christian theology; will find that - one the one hand - he is converging towards a oneness spirituality (and the stance of 'perennial philosophy'); and on the other hand will disbelieve in the devil specifically and the operations of purposive spiritual evil more generally - and will regard Man's self/ego as the biggest spiritual problem in the world. 

Firstly, both of these are harmful in the context of the spiritual challenges for Christians in 2023. Because the Western Christian churches have been corrupted and enlisted on the side of evil; this implies that such a fact will be invisible to one who disbelieves that there is a 'side of evil'.

Furthermore, when the churches are corrupt, the individual Christian must operate from that which is Good in his own self/ ego - as the basis for discernment and seeking spiritual guidance. Unless there is the possibility of recognizing and committing to the Good within us, we cannot discern God's guidance from without-our-selves. 

If, instead, we are trying to dissolve our selves into the Omni-God, or into the divine-which-is-everything (it makes little practical difference which); then we are trying to destroy the only thing that might save us in an institutionally-evil world


Addendum: I make further speculations about what Charles Williams may have been up-to in this passage, in an Note to the mirror copy of this post, published at The Notion Club Papers blog. 


Chent said...

"This fits with a metaphysical theology that all Good comes from God, and (therefore) for Men to become Good, requires that they cease to offer any obstacle to the shining forth of God's Goodness.

When God is regarded as omniscient and omnipotent, it seems logical that Men can add - from themselves - nothing to Goodness; which is (by definition) already complete and perfect."

Well, this is true if you accept the nominalist metaphysical view, which puts man and God in the same level of existence. This view was created by William of Ockham and was inherited by Luther, Descartes and the Jesuits and, hence, by the modern world. It is why Luther viewed reality in an oppositional way: Faith against works, God's will vs human will, Sola Gratia vs human cooperation. Nominalism is the philosophy of OR.

The classical view, from Aristotle to Aquinas to the Catholic church, views the situation in another way. God and man do not compete because they are in a different plane of existence. When a man does something good, he is doing good and God is doing good as well. It is not that God is doing 50% of the good and man does the other 50%. It is not an ADDITION. It is not a zero-sum game. God does 100% of the good and man does 100% of the good.

It is like a civil servant (or a consultant working for the government) writing a report. Who is writing the report? The civil servant or the State? Of course, both write the report in 100%. The civil servant writing the report is the way with which the State writes the report. The same way, each time a person does good, God is doing this good through this person. So the person is important: with exception of miracles, it is the way through which God's will is done. There is no opposition but collaboration. The classical view is the philosophy of AND.

Books "Biblical origins of modern secular culture" and "Ideas have consequences" give more details.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Chent - That's not the point I am making. All of the theologians you mention share the same view of God and Man that I critique. The metaphysics from which I am operating did not exist until the 19th century - at least not self-consciously.

Lady Mermaid said...

I think the reason for a lot of disbelief about the devil's existence comes to the portrayal of the devil primarily serving as a tempter to convince people to do bad things. The Disney cartoons of an angel and a devil perched on the shoulders whispering advice comes to mind. If the devil mainly exists to simply tempt people to do wrong, he's mainly superfluous. Man doesn't need a devil to convince him to sin. He already has a natural desire to do so.

However, what if the devil and demons do more than simply try to tempt people into committing various vices? One of the defining aspects witchcraft is deal making. Demonic evil convinces people to embrace the unnatural or horrible. As opposed to human evil that misdirects good impulses in bad ways like fornication, supernatural evil actively celebrates ugliness as seen w/ push for the normalization of obesity, sterility, and other disgusting perversions.

The enthusiastic acceptance of the horrible is what separates our society from other decadent ones of the past. The latest "performance" at the Grammys brought by P***er illustrates this. There is nothing remotely appealing about indefinite house arrest, ugly plastic surgery, or not being able to breathe fresh air. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll at least had some semblance of pleasure. Modern evil is ultimately banal and despair inducing.

This is why so many conspiracy theories or political movements fail to understand the real nature of our ruling class. A proper understanding of the devil and demonic influences is crucial to seeing the truth of why our modern world is so messed up.


Alexeyprofi said...

My understanding is that God contains both good and evil. If we take Gnosticism, then the question arises, how could a perfect God allow the existence of an imperfect Demiurge? I can't draw a color that I can't perceive. A possible answer is that God did not create the Demiurge, but then they are on the same level of existence(as polytheistic gods are), and God is not superior to the Demiurge(and not God therefore). So the only remaining option is that God is not originally only good and perfect, and then the need for the existence of a Demiurge disappears. In my opinion, evil has no supraphysical justification at all. The laws of physics determine the structure of the surrounding world, but do not prescribe any specific behavior to people, which means their freedom to choose. The alternative would require that every time someone is about to do something bad, God would personally intervene and prevent it from happening, in which case our world would be deprived of any intrinsic value and autonomy. In short, asking why God created evil is like asking why the creator of chess allowed bad moves to exist.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ap - You have left out the explanation that I regard as true - and which I have discussed very extensively on this blog over the past decade.

This is (put it very briefly and over-simply) that God is creating within a reality that consisted of many 'beings' (each alive, with some kind of consciousness, and motivation) plus 'chaos' (about which nothing can be said, because it has no meaning).

God created all purpose and meaning that other beings dwell-in.

Evil is that which opposes creation (and/or God).

God is 'a being' and so are Men, angels, demons, Satan, plants, animals, and supposedly non-living entities.

This world is entropic; and a developing mixture with both creation and chaos, beings that are affiliated to god-creation and beings that oppose God-creation...

Heaven is only-creation and all beings are affiliated to (harmonious with) God-creation.

In other words; God is superior to any putative demiurge, because there is only the one creation made by God; God is wholly Good because good equates to creation. But God is not omnipotent or omniscient - because God works within chaos. Creation is a work-in-progress.

But since Jesus Christ, there is Heaven; which is part of the total reality, and an opt-in state of being.

Evil operates in this entropic world, and is real, and can defeat Good by inducing beings to reject creation/ God.

But evil cannot touch the Heaven of pure creation and only-Good.

The question for each being is whether ultimately to choose Heaven (and do what is necessary to inhabit that state) - or reject Heaven (or delay the choice).