Call me a Manichaen, after you look it up, but whatever I may think about God, my faith in the devil remains unshaken.  He’s my guy. He rocks and rules.

The Manichaens thrived in all parts of the Middle East and North Africa, and as far away as China and Europe, from the third century onward.  So popular were they that the church fathers tried to make people believe they were a Christian heresy. But their real roots are in the dualistic thinking of ancient Persia, stretching back to the prophet Zoroaster.

Their appeal was huge, however, and Mani’s culturally omnivorous followers availed themselves of all sorts of religious ideas (and possibly even Christian writings) in formulating their philosophy.  In turn, the Christian gnostic sects used it freely and imitatively, so much so that it’s sometimes difficult to sort out Manichaen and “purer” gnostic forms of teaching.

Not to mention that even the most “orthodox” Christian teaching got a heavy dose of Manichean ideas. The most famous of the early church writers, Saint Augustine, was a Manichean throughgout most of his formative period.  And some cynics have noted that he only converted to Christianity in 387–after the emperor Theodosius, worried about the influence of Manichaen thought on Christianity throughout the empire, issued an edict (382) ordering the death of Manichaens.  A coincidence, to be sure.

What I like about the Manichaens is that they based their teachings on the simple observation that there is more evil than good in the world, and that two eternally opposed powers of good and evil preside over everything from the cosmos to the individual soul or will.  Giving to charity and lying about your tax liability to the IRS are perfectly natural expressions of your humanity. So is patience with children and wanting to beat the crap out of the guy who just cut into your lane, missing your car by inches.  It keeps us in a constant state of stress and imbalance, and if this weren’t so the stars would fall out of the sky.

Good and evil are simply modes of the universal struggle and the impulses that govern the individual life. Since we live in a world governed by material things, the downward trend of our desire for pleasure, sex and riches is more or less guaranteed. Let’s not call it sin.  Let’s call it human nature.  Because when writers like Augustine get hold of the idea, they’ll equate the two and we’ll just feel sorry for ourselves.  Christianity is the great confusion of a much simpler, earlier dualism.

True, their myths are far more complicated than I’m letting on,  and the light and dark imagery and personages who populate their stories (like the quasi-gnostic Mandaens of Iraq) can be a bit obscure and exhausting–a bit like Hinduism.  There is also the problem of knowing which of the sources we possess, interspersed as they are with all kinds of religious teaching ranging from apocalyptic Judaism to Buddhism, are really representative of Manichean religious thought.  But that just makes them more interesting–in my humble opinion.

Manichaeism remained highly vaporous, dangerous, and a little sexy. Orthodox Christianity pinned everything down to definitions and ended up sounding like Daffy Duck.

The big advantage over orthodox Christianity is that for Manicheans there is no real problem of evil.  Evil (as Nietzsche and Richard Strauss saw, philosophically and musically) is just a mode of reality.  Good and evil are correlative forces creating the basic tension in the universe.  In the basic myth of the Manichees (there are many), God is not all powerful, so he couldn’t subdue evil if he wanted to, and humanity itself is a byproduct of the struggle–a mythological way of saying that our personalities are symptoms of eternal, unresolved swirl and restlessness. Like Jessica Rabbit, we’re not bad; we’re just drawn that way.

The Christians meantime taught that Satan was relatively puny, a tempter, slanderer (diabolos, devil), adversary (Satan), or lesser angel of light (Lucifer) who infiltrated creation, spoiled its primordial goodness, and then had to pay the price of his mischief through the coming of a “redeemer” who could satisfy the devil’s demand for the payment of a debt God had incurred in a game. God the almighty had lost the world in a wager when Adam “fell” from grace. History becomes the staging ground for getting it back.

No, I am not making this up: almost all the church fathers taught that Satan had won the world to his side in the Garden. Even the concept of original sin is developed in the light of this belief.  God is seen as a gambler who invents the stratagem of salvation: producing a god-man who belongs to the devil by right (all humans do, according to Christian theology) but not by nature, since he is “truly God,” and hence more powerful than a speeding devil.

Jesus harrows hell where the saints have been waiting patiently

The belief that between the crucifixion and resurrection Jesus paid a visit to hell and “caught” Satan by surprise (“with the bait of his humanity on the hook of his divinity,”  Irenaeus and Basil liked to say) is actually preserved in early christian creeds, like the one curiously called the Apostle’s Creed written late in the fourth century by Ambrose of Milan.

Slightly embarrassed by this highly mythological way of looking at why Jesus came into the world (bait? hook?), the church finally turned to philosophy, where it tried to make roads and ended up creating the system of potholes we call Christian theology.

In this system, the devil still exists but plays no real role in the drama, leaving God vulnerable to the all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing trilemma.  –The one the Manichaens never had to confront, as their divine powers were fairly equally matched, at least in this cycle of creation.

The theologians’ God (as distinct from the God of the Bible, lore, and early legend) had to account for the fact that the deity, being omniscient, must have known creation would turn out wrong (evil) and being all good must not have wanted it to turn out that way and being all powerful could have prevented it, yet didn’t. No matter how you de-horn this preposterous beast it’s still mighty ugly.  Every theologian from Augustine to Plantinga and Hick have had a try at solving the problem that James L.  Mackie saw as Christianity’s fatal intellectual flaw.  I recommend reading them only if you have ten years in solitary confinement to kill, and even then get plenty of exercise.  –No wonder that this branch of Christian theology, “theodicy,” is often misspelled “theidiocy.”

My real proof that the Manichaens are right however is not that orthodox Christianity looks wrong, it’s that the pure force of evil within the Church is plain as the nose on your face.

My guess is that for two thousand years the Church has been a kind of hothouse for evil.  The process reached a pre-climax in the Crusades and later in the Inquisition.  But only in our own time has the complete success of the evil forces been clear.

Still not convinced? I offer the following exhibits:

1.  Mother Teresa of Calcutta.  A woman so in love with poverty that she did everything in her earthly power to propagate it on a global level.    Especially successful was her campaign against family planning and HIV-AIDS education, calling abortion, in her 1979 Nobel Peace Prize address,”the greatest destroyer of peace in the world.”

2.  Pope John Paul II (Blessed John Paul II): The charismatic bishop of Rome and soon to be canonized supreme pontiff and successor of Peter (1978-2005) whose “Gospel of Life” and blind eye towards the moral decrepitude of thousands of priests was the Catholic church’s belated contribution to the sexual revolution.

3.  Pope Benedict XVI, right-hand man to John Paul, whose skill at delaying judicial proceedings against the criminal acts of priests and bishops revealed a level of technical proficiency seldom witnessed, even in ecclesiastical bureaucrats.

4.  Bernard Cardinal Law, archbishop of Boston, the first bishop shown to be actively involved in a cover up of the criminal acts of priests accused of child abuse, and duly rewarded for his service to his Church by John Paul II by being appointed to a lifetime sinecure in Rome and archpriest of Saint Mary Major basilica, one of Rome’s cushiest benefices.

6.  Father Paul Shanley, who managed to combine his pastoral work with street people in the 1980’s with plenty of downtime with adolescent boys (at least nine), and after being transferred to faraway San Bernadino, California, where the living and bishops were easy, co-owned a B&B for gay tourists with another priest in Palm Springs. A self-starter, Shanley used his rectorial experience to found the North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA).  Hymnal appropriately includes “I get high with a little love from my friends.”

6.  Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix, who rightfully stripped St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center of its Catholic status after insolent nun, Sister Margaret McBride, assented to a surgical procedure to save the life of a woman in her eleventh week of pregnancy, on doctors’ advice.  In the spirit of the Church’s robust defense of unborn life and its commitment to the spread of poverty, disease and infant mortality in the developing world (cf. the “Gospel of Life,” above), Bishop Olmsted also noted that Sister Margaret had incurred automatic excommunication for her intervention.

7.  Honorable mention.  With its aggressive media, it was almost tempting to think that only the American church had been overcome by devils.  Now we know that the spirit of evil is alive and flourishing in Canada, Belgium, and best of all, around Galway Bay, where Paddy can now be a nickname for Patrick–or something else.

Basically, wherever God thought he had won, there is plenty of proof that he lost–just like in Eden all those millennia ago.  As far as I’m concerned, the Manicheans had it right all along. What a craven poltroon, what a yellow-bellied dastard, what a sissy, a milquetoast, a Scaramouche.  He couldn’t even manage to wipe out the whole human race with the flood, and hasn’t had the cojones to follow through with his promise to do it again only this time for real.

Put your money on the devils.

19 thoughts on “Devils

  1. Evil, as you say, is a just a mode of reality, and I suppose that wisdom calls for accepting it, trying to not contribute to it and to undermine it in one’s own little way, without losing one’s sense of proportion.

    First, I guess, one must determine what is evil, but there’s no easy formula and most likely there’s no formula at all.

  2. I’m sorry Joe. This has to be said. How dare you draw the lovely Jessica Rabbit into this torrid tissue of allegations?! As we all know, she’s not bad: she was just drawn that way!

  3. Sorry tale, and all true. You had an easy job. I can hear Calvin sighing: despite his own evils he recognised the evils in the church around him. Funny that Dotty M made so much stuff up, when all she had to do was stick to the truth and tell a few facts to justify her condemnation of the Christian church. Not only did she have Augustine convert just after Nicaea (which was before he was born), but she pretended he converted from a Mandean instead of from a Manichean. And his motivation, according to her, was the promise of a prominent place in the church. The real story is so much more gruesome but the mythtics don’t seem to be able to tell the truth straight.

    I think I agree – I believe in a devil. Many devils and demons exist I think. However I don’t believe in any gods who might want us to live with them. Angels though, fight those devilish demons and generally win, at least on a good day when life is treating us well. But the church is like most movements and organisations: they all run rife with hypocrisy and demons.

  4. ” And some cynics have noted that he only converted to Christianity in 387″

    Other cynics have noted the possibility that his Manichaeism was partly motivated by the fact the Manichaeans didn’t require the non-Elect to live up to the religion’s austere moral code!

      • “Grant me chastity … but not yet”. But who was he praying to and did whoever he was praying to, if he existed, ever grant it? He was obsessed, he liked his concubines.

      • You know, it is impossible for us to put ourselves into the age of optionalism in which there was a real alternative to Christianity. We will never be able to feel it or to imagine it. The stark choice to day between belief and unbelief cannot capture it, any more than Augustine could fathom our choice.

  5. Joe, We have a running argument in my house–I’m hoping you can settle this. One side says the devil runs hell. The other side says no way–if so, he’d be working under God, because hell is where God metes out just punishments to bad people. Hell’s employees have to be good, not evil. So what’s the answer, in Christian theology? Does the devil run hell? Is he even on the staff?

  6. Come on, I need to know. My 14 year old says the devil runs hell, and I want to prove to him that he’s wrong. I think it’s ridiculous, like putting Charles Manson in charge of the California prison system. p.s. Are you sure your daughter isn’t the devil?

    • Tell him that if he asks impertinent questions he’ll find out first hand. I think the devil could learn tricks from my daughter that he didn’t learn in hell. Btw, Chris Matthews said a few nights ago that Newt Gingrich couldn’t be the devil because he looks like the devil. Apparently that’s an old Irish proverb but based on the idea that the devil is a master of disguises. I do love the devil–atheists need to talk more about him because the more you say the more absurd God becomes. I would only debate William Lane Craig if he’d agree to debate me on the devil.

  7. I couldn’t agree more. Regarding modern crimes you could also have mentioned the catholic church’s dealings with murderers, fraudsters and money launderers through the IOR (vatican bank) ? Banco Ambrosiano connection. The catholic church still apparently cherishes the good old days of the Borgia popes and wants to emulate them.

  8. One final turn of the screw on item # 6 that you left out – the fetus was doomed either way, so it wasn’t actually even “In the spirit of the Church’s robust defense of unborn life” – it was death for its own sake. The only choices were: mother and fetus die, or, fetus dies. The bishop of Phoenix tried very hard to compel the hospital to agree never again to choose the second option, but it explicitly refused. It would be illegal for the hospital to agree to that. It would be interesting to know how many Catholic hospitals have tacitly or explicitly agreed to it.

  9. As usual, I enjoy your colourful essays and this one has the merit of introducing Manichaeism to a broader audience. I can sense your diabolic enjoyment as you tempt, provoke and tease. CS Lewis would have been proud of you and I am sure he would have found a starring role for you in The Screwtape Letters. You might want to write a sequel called The Hoffman Letters, letters from a professional devil to an internet devil.

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