Need a Devil
I forget where I read or heard it, but someone once remarked that you don’t need a god to have a religion, but you certainly need a devil. It’s a statement that rings true, for me. It points to the apparently ineliminable human need for an enemy to define ourselves against. Human beings seem to need a narrative of moral struggle with clear heroes and villains within which to locate ourselves and anchor our thinking and acting in the world. This is as true for the committed Christian battling a literal devil as it is for the jacked-up truck driving Albertan with a F*** Trudeau sticker plastered across the back window or the woke warrior hammering away on Twitter in a feverish attempt to expose and defeat Donald Trump and all he represents. We all seem to need our devils.
This is nowhere more evident these days than in the world of politics, not least because, as many have commented by now, politics has usurped or even become religion in the lives of many (whether they acknowledge or understand it or not). Politics is now the primary arena wherein moral meaning is negotiated and contested, where the battle between good and evil takes place. This is as true for Christians as anyone else. I know a great many Christians, on both the left and the right, who seem far more invested in the world of (usually American) politics than their faith. Watching how the aftermath (or tiresome continuation?) of the US election is playing out only confirms this. Defeat for our preferred candidate seems to represent nothing less than a repudiation of our very identities and moral frameworks. It is a made-for-TV war between good and evil with enthusiastic legions roaring on their preferred team.
I’ve commented often here on my frustrations with how naturally we transfer our religious impulses to worship and to seek identity and meaning into the political realm, so I won’t say much more about that. My question this morning is a rather simple one. Why? Why does the political sphere seem so much more compelling and urgent to so many than religion? There was a time, after all, when nothing was more important than religion. It was not only the domain of moral struggle here and now but for all eternity. The consequences of “getting it wrong,” whether with respect to belief or behaviour, were thought to be dire. Eternal life or death hung in the balance. So we thought, at any rate.
A frequent commenter on this blog offered the following diagnosis of our current predicament recently:
Christianity has become so watered-down that it’s really irrelevant in post-modern times, so it’s no wonder that people are flocking to and responding to the loud call to political tribalism which satisfies a need to belong to the “right” side. …there’s no antagonist in Christianity anymore.
My first instinct is to chafe against this analysis. Why should we need a devil to pursue the way of Jesus? Shouldn’t we just be drawn to the good, the true, and the beautiful for their own sake? Does not the invitation to love God with all of who we are require the absence of fear and/or threat to respond appropriately? Is not the protagonist of the Christian story attractive enough on his own to command allegiance and devotion? And what does “watered down” even mean? Watered down from what? Who gets to define what “full strength” Christianity looks and sounds like and what represents capitulation or deviation?
These are obviously complex questions. But I’m inclined to take comments like the one above more seriously than I perhaps once was. It’s undeniable that Jesus understood his mission and the advent of the kingdom of God in terms quite a bit more urgent than many of us do today. The language of spiritual warfare and eternal punishment and the urgency of taking sides saturates Jesus’ language throughout the gospels, no matter how studiously many of us who preach and teach might try to avoid it. It’s difficult, nigh impossible, to read Jesus as presenting nothing more than a vaguely progressive social ethic (as twenty-first century folks define it) and cheering us on while we dutifully usher in the kingdom. Jesus waged war with the devil and said his followers would, too.
I’m also inclined to take this idea that we need an antagonist seriously because of what I observe anthropologically. We just love to demonize our enemies. We don’t seem to be able to avoid it. Trump supporters aren’t fellow citizens with differing priorities, they are the one-dimensional embodiment of pure evil. Biden supporters aren’t neighbours who prefer different economic and social policies, but rioting mobs bent on ushering in some kind of socialist dystopia. Political identity becomes all. It is a totalizing and ruthlessly binary narrative. It’s the moral stage upon which our virtues and vices are enacted, our identities confirmed or denied. There’s good and there’s evil. Pick your side. We haven’t gotten rid of the urgency that once defined our religious identities, we’ve just transferred it to a different register.
No matter how enlightened or progressive we imagine ourselves to be, no matter how much we might like to congratulate ourselves for moving on from primitive religious superstitions, no matter how irreligious we might imagine ourselves to be as we chase after meaning, belonging, and identity, we all seem to need a devil. This says a great deal about us as human beings, in my view. It may just have something important to say about the big story we are all a part of as well.