Varying views on the demonic

A few weeks ago I wrote a post proposing the need for the United Methodist Church (and other 'mainline' historic Protestant churches in Western cultures) to take seriously the challenge posed by the existence of the unseen spiritual forces and beings that are wicked and set against the purposes of God. I also proposed, more specifically, that the UMC could provide special resources for teaching on the demonic and training some clergy to function as designated exorcists within the Annual Conferences. Not too much conversation was generated.

But, it turns out that I'm not the only person in the UMC at least thinking about these issues. Here is a fascinating article from the UMPortal on the various views of the existance and/or meaning of Satan among United Methodists. The article points to the same incident that I mentioned from the recent General Conference when an African delegate was scolded by the presiding bishop for saying that the devil inspired certain behaviors as illustrating the real divide - and lack of understanding - that exists along cultural lines within the Church. As one Korean doctoral student is quoted as saying: "The only Christians who don’t believe in demons are Western scholars" (such disbelief therefore lacks any sort of Catholicity to undergird it - and one reason I DO believe in the demonic is that I believe in the Holy Catholic Church).

The article also points to a growing openess to the idea of a spiritual being called Satan among younger Americans - among postmoderns in particular, who often have a greater openess to the trans-rational and mystical in general than do our Modernistic parents and grandparents.

There are two particular quotes in the article I would like to respond to.

First one pastor says that: “I have a problem with understanding Satan as a separate individual, because ascribing powers to that individual makes it seem to be a separate god, I believe Satan is really more of an analogy concerning evil than a separate cause of evil.”

Now I think that this is a legitimate concern. We run the risk of dualism, of implicitly asserting that there are two equal and opposite gods: one good and one evil. But the Catholic/Ecumenical Christian tradition teaches that Satan is a creature: a fallen creature, much like us and - like us - he/it is a fallen creature who has used his influence (probably both intentionally and incidentally) to affect other creatures in ways that distort the will of God. I believe, C.S. Lewis' discussion of the reality of Satan in Mere Christianity is one of the best Rational accounts that I have read on the subject - and one that pays attention to just this problem of potential dualism.

The second quote comes from a Presbyterian seminary professor: At the heart of one’s view of the devil is the question of how to interpret and apply ancient Scripture in modern life. Most mainline Protestants don’t take Scripture literally, and so are reluctant to embrace the idea of Satan as a personal being, says Susan Garrett, professor of New Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

She is quite correct that Biblical interpretation is near the heart of this issue. However, the dichotomy she then constructs: "mainliners don't take scripture literally" (and presumably, Fundamentalists do) is really...well, an oversimplification at best. This is one of those dichotomies that otherwise intelligent and thoughtful people go around spewing constantly, when, if we stopped to think about it for just a few seconds, we would see the obvious need for a more nuanced approach. Do you know many mainliners that do NOT take the story of David and Bathsheba literally? What about the accounts of Jesus' travelling around or of his being flogged? On the flip side, do you know many fundamentalists that take the parables of Christ 'literally'? What about the dreams of Daniel?

This reductionist split between "group A that does not take the Bible literally" and "group B that does take it so" is simply one more hindrance to deep and thoughtful insight as well as genuine mutual understanding within the Church. And I hear it from both traditionalist and revisionist Christians - much to my dismay. The truth is of course that all of us take the Bible 'literally' (that word itself has some problems that I'll not get into here) sometimes and all of us take it 'non-literally' sometimes. The key is determining when each way of reading is the appropriate way for the particular text at hand. It is here that I fear we tend to simply be uncritical followers of cultural (or sub-cultural) assumptions (whatever they may be).

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Blogger Stephen said...

As far as a "physical" creature...I don't know or I'm not sure. Seen too many movies I guess (The Exorcist and Constantine come to mind readily).

But I do see this continuous idea of the struggle between good and evil. In Jesus life time he was casting demons out of people who seem to be conflicted (the story of Legion comes to mind readily), and I know that even I struggle with my own demons. So as far a "spiritual" reality I can understand Satan. I believe that Jesus once even referred to Peter as Satan when he tried to be against the will of God.

I believe that the movie "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" does a great job of debating this very thing and leaves everyone asking more questions in the end.

As far as taking the Bible literally, how about people who do see Satan as a "physical" real creature who take so much of their information from outside biblical sources? I can't tell you the number of people who believe John Milton's stories as Biblical truth. The stuff written in the scriptures is small compared to the stuff written outside of the accepted Biblical accounts on the matter of Satan as a physical creature.

BTW, missed you for prayer Wednesday!

9:53 AM, August 11, 2008  
Blogger Wesley said...

Nice article, not too surprising at the difference between the Africans and "modern" Americans. I like the idea of postmodernism allowing the belief in the supernatural (for real and not functional Deism), even if I have issues with postmodern philosophy in general.

On another note, you talk about the potential problem of dualism. granted it is wrong to hold to something Zoroastrian and see Satan as more then a mere creature. Yet, it seems arguable that Christianity is at least mildly dualistic (see Jeffrey B. Russell's series). There is in Scripture and the Fathers light vs. Darkness, Christ vs. Satan (and once Michael at war with Satan in revelation). It is a subservient evil, but it is still an opposing force.

11:09 PM, August 11, 2008  
Blogger klcheshire said...

I wish more United Methodist pastors felt this way. If they did, our denomination and churches would be growing.

10:33 AM, August 12, 2008  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Hey guys - thanks for the insightful comments!

Stephen, I hope I never called Satan a "physical" being, since I certainly do not believe that (though perhaps one capable of appearing in physical or quasi-physical dimensions). I think maybe someone in the article may have used that term? Like you, I would want to take a fresh look at the Biblical material. I've been doing a little reading lately about angelology in the Talmud, and it's quite fascinating stuff, though in some respects, rather different from Christian conceptions - especially regarding evil or accusing angels.

I also think "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" is a great discussion started on these issues.

Hey Wesley - there is certainly a cosmic battle with (apparently) only two sides portrayed in the Bible, which might be a dualism of sort. But Zoroastrianism is more I think what Lewis had in mind. Also, I'm highly suspicious of the Marcionite-type of dualism (spirit = good; matter = bad), while being cognizant of the fact that both the Talmud and Jesus call Satan 'the ruler of this world' or something to that effect.

Ken, I don't know that I would call belief in denomic spirits a primary indicator of potential church growth (either in maturity or in numbers), however I do see it as connected. If indeed there is a spiritual enemy set against God's church it does stand to reason that simply "absorbing broadsides" without ever "returning fire" (to use a sloppy metaphor) must eventually have a practical impact on church health.

8:37 AM, August 13, 2008  

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