“One Must Never Converse with Satan”
I don’t talk about the devil nearly enough for some Christians. In some churchy circles, one often hears prayers and conversations littered with all manner of wild spiritual warfare language that makes me squirm with discomfort. What are we talking, like horns and pitchforks and fiery barbecues? Frank Peretti and Tim LaHaye novels? None of it resonates with me.
Truth be told, I often find it all rather silly and embarrassingly anthropomorphic. At best, all this Satan talk is metaphorical, right? The eighteenth century mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace was once queried about why he hadn’t mentioned God in his discourse on the orbit of the planets. He famously replied, “I had no need of that hypothesis.” I suppose I often implicitly offer a similar response when it comes to the devil: “I have no need of that hypothesis.”
Alternatively, when we wander away from churchy circles, talk of the devil is often the province of silly caricatures. The devil is kind of conceived of as the dirty, fun-loving uncle who lets you get away with all the stuff that a stiff and stodgy do-gooding God would prefer you avoid. Who wants to go to heaven where all the prudes hang out? The good time is to be had down below. The devil just wants you to have a bit of fun! Like in a song by the Counting Crows called “Friend of the Devil” that came up on the playlist while I was writing this post:
You can borrow from the devil
You can borrow from a friend
The devil’ll loan ya twenty
But your friend got only ten
The devil will spot you what you need for the party. He won’t tell. He’s where the action is. Wink, wink. Whether it’s super-zealous religious types who see a literal devil behind every obstacle in life or more secular folks for whom the devil represents little more than a dalliance or two with the shadowy back alleys of life, neither seems particularly persuasive or compelling to me.
But perhaps my reticence is misplaced. Jesus certainly seemed to believe in the devil and a demonic realm. It’s tough—really tough—to read the devil out of the gospels, hard as we might try (and I have, believe me). And, well, it’s probably not advisable to locate yourself on the opposite side of Jesus when it comes to matters of theology.
And Jesus has company. Pope Francis also seems to think of Satan pretty literally:
“He is evil, he’s not like mist. He’s not a diffuse thing, he is a person. One must never converse with Satan—if you do that, you’ll be lost,” he told TV2000, a Catholic channel. “He’s more intelligent than us. He always pretends to be polite, that’s how he enters your mind, but it ends badly if you don’t realize what is happening in time. (We should tell him) go away!”
This is a proclamation that I suspect will not make him as popular as some of his other ones. Doesn’t Francis realize that statements like this won’t win him any points with the smart people? What’s he thinking? Sheesh.
But perhaps we rush to judgment when it comes to the (non)existence of the devil. How else, after all, to account for the horrors that our world has seen? I don’t really have to enumerate, do I? I suspect we all walk around with a kind of shorthand list of atrocities that we have heard or read about or seen or witnessed or experienced that makes us shudder down to our bones. The appalling violence and cruelty that our planet has seen, continues to see… Sometimes it beggars belief. Is it so far fetched to imagine a malevolent agent or force at work in the world? Human beings are selfish and stupid and capable of all kinds of mischief, to be sure, but perhaps we’re only capable of so much on our own. To reach escape velocity evil, maybe we need “help” from an outside source? I don’t know.
Or, perhaps we could get a bit more uncomfortably personal. It’s natural enough to rummage around in our brains for the evilest evil we can imagine and then pin that on the devil. But if the biblical account of human origins is in any sense to be believed, the devil’s original temptation wasn’t to lure the first humans straight into to the grimiest depths of depravity. It was a bit subtler than that. It was more like a whispered, Did God really say… ? You can be like God! The original sin was for human beings to arrogate to themselves the place that God alone should occupy. And this has remained the devil’s most basic and least challenging task since—to relentlessly drive us inward, to self, where God would direct us outward in love.
I honestly still struggle to conceive of the devil as a literal, personal agent of evil. But maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe I have more need of this hypothesis than I think. Maybe instead of speculating about the plausibility of the devil’s existence I should expend more energy in avoiding conversation with him, as Pope Francis says. Or to more determinedly resist him that I might watch him flee.