HARRY POTTER, YOGA, AND THE DEVIL: DOES SATAN EXIST?

By Paul

The head of the International Association of Exorcists, Father Gabriele Amorth, has recently written that, while we may think of the Harry Potter books, and even of the practice of yoga, as more or less innocuous pastimes, they are in fact intrinsically evil, because the Devil himself is at work in them.  Most of us think of such claims as utterly farfetched and bizarre, and rightly so, but they do raise the question of whether an entity such as the Devil actually does exist.

Satan, the Devil, the Prince of Darkness, the Father of Lies.  This is an entity that has long struck fear in the hearts of devout Christians, and in many others as well.  But the question of whether or not he (to use the masculine pronoun for simplicity’s sake) truly exists as a separate, identifiable, free-standing, if evil, being still remains.  Or is he instead the psychological embodiment, the dark symbol of all those negative forces and tendencies that are hidden at some level, buried deep within the unexplored and uncivilized parts of our psyche?

The concept, or if you prefer, the identity of the Devil cannot itself be explored without also inquiring into the notion of evil.  As seen above, we can hardly even begin any examination of Satan without also making reference somewhere to the words “darkness” and “lies,” which stand out in stark contrast to the notion of light and truth, those appellations so often associated with God.  All this brings to mind the ancient Zoroastrian belief in Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu, the quintessential light and dark twins of that ancient faith.  Many mythologies, in fact, talk about a Creator God, who brings the world into being by somehow giving birth to a set of twins, who are separated at birth or otherwise set apart, one of whom brings light and life into the world, and the other of whom is the bearer of darkness and death.  These two then go on warring “until the end of time.”

But if this analysis sounds too academic, somehow too antiseptic almost, in any discussion of evil, we can think of it in another way: no matter how good or how moral we may normally think of ourselves, given a moment of utter honesty, could each of us not also conceive of ourselves as capable of committing deeds which might include us among the worst of humanity?  Can we not, for example, in the sheer folly and senselessness of youth, let us say, and within the all-encompassing ignorance of cultural conditioning, brainwashing, if you will, imagine having joined the Nazi Party during the Third Reich?  Or, if that is too evil even to consider, what of this?  Who could not see himself as capable of striking out in rage and a desire for vengeance under “the right circumstances” of a loved one grievously harmed or killed by another?  Indeed, as has been pointed out by more than one person in history, to be human is to be at some level capable of doing all those things which human beings have in fact done throughout the ages, from the most sublime to the most horrific.

In this sense then, there is no evil in the world except that which is created by humans.  Erupting volcanoes are not evil, nor are devastating storms or floods, or killer droughts, or ravenous tigers, or grizzly bears.  Yet all are more than capable of killing, more than able to inflict their degree of panic and horror and chaos on the world.  But still, we do not think of them as evil. We might say, “that was a devil of a storm,” but the vast majority of people acknowledge this only as metaphor, as a manner of speaking.  No one takes it literally, with the exception perhaps of the most outré, the most fringe of elements within religions, people who make connections between disastrous events and punishment by God for perceived sin on the part of humanity, or portions thereof.  And is that condemnation itself not also a form of evil in its own right?  One way or another, it turns out that it is only human beings who can actually bring about evil, and only humans deliberately inflict pain and cause death “for the sheer hell of it.”  And if this is so, does that then not suggest that Satan, the personification of evil, could also be the projection of the worst in the human psyche?

When I was a young monk many years ago, each evening we would gather together in the candle-lit chapel for Compline, the last of the so-called offices of the daily liturgy of the Catholic Church, and the cantor would intone (in Latin, though here translated) the following hymn:  “Brothers, be sober and watchful!  For your adversary, the Devil, like a roaring lion goes about seeking whom he may devour.  Resist him steadfast in the faith.” I remember this because it has always stuck me as odd that the Devil was being compared to an animal, a devouring lion in this case, whereas we have just posited that animals cannot themselves be evil (as much as they may be killers).  Maybe the message we young monks were supposed to get out of this prayer was that Satan was the embodiment of the “animal part” of our humanity?  This surely would fit in with Christianity’s bias for spirit, and its animus against, or at least mistrust of, the body.

But none of this negates the fact that there really is evil in the world.  What, for example, of violent rape, or of torture for whatever purpose, or acts of terrorism, which is killing for the sake of ideology, or of state-sponsored killing, or killing simply for the sake of killing, as some seem capable of doing?  And yet, as horrific and as abominable as these acts surely are, does it then follow that we must necessarily posit a single Evil Entity, a Prince of Darkness, who rules over and creates pain and lies and chaos?

There is no doubt that ours is a bifurcated world of opposites, where we are forever faced with the duality of choosing good or evil, right or wrong, that which is light or that which is dark, or at very least the appropriate over the inappropriate.  We must face the fact that most of us, most of the time, choose some of this and some of that.  This is the human condition.  It could be that what this points to is that the good is represented by God, and the evil is represented by Satan.  In this regard, the God we are speaking of is what might be called the more limited sense of the meaning of that word, and ought not to be confused with the Unnamable Spirit, about whom so little can be said because most things we wind up saying, due to the limitations of language, fall into mere categories, and when it comes to the All Absolute categories are entirely irrelevant.  The “God” that we usually mean when we so name him, though, is a different matter.  In this more limited sense, we are talking about the manifested part of the Unmanifest Being, the God of laws and of do’s and don’t’s, the namable God whose characteristics we can list.

God (in this more everyday sense) can then be thought of as the embodiment of all that is positive in the world of opposites, and Satan can be conceived of as the embodiment of all that is negative.  In this sense, if you believe in (i.e., if you “give reality to”) God, then you also believe in (i.e. “you give reality to”) Satan, as well.  It could even be said that Satan cannot “exist” without God, just as God (again in the normal meaning given to that word) cannot “exist” without Satan.  Or we can put it this way, that some dark, evil Principle, however we may choose to name it, in some way exists and counterbalances a light-filled and loving Principle.  Still we must add that, having said all this, it is always better to follow and to focus one’s consciousness on the light-filled and loving (i.e. on God, if you will) than on the dark and the evil (i.e., Satan), as God is a far surer path to the realization that, in any final and ultimate sense, neither actually exists at all.

In the end, inasmuch as within the context of our normal, everyday lives, and given our usual state of consciousness, God and evil do actually exist, we all know people who could be called good, and some who can be called bad, or even evil.  The same can even be said of places, by the way.  I once visited the notorious prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia (now a museum) called “Tuol Sleng,” where Pol Pot’s henchmen murdered thousands of innocent people.  I could barely remain for more than a few minutes within those walls, there was such a vibration of agony and terror that permeated and emanated from every molecule of the building.   I had to go outside and compose myself, in fact.  Later on, I went back in and made myself walk through the entirety of the place because I felt I needed to honor those who had died there.  But in my memory this will always remain an evil place.

So, can it be said that Satan exists as the personification of all that is dark and horror filled in our binary existence, just as God does as the embodiment of all that is good and light filled?  If you believe, yes, both do exist.  The names they are called are in the end not that important, and indeed they change from one culture to another.  No culture and no religion has a monopoly on these things.  Each religion (each mythological story, if you will) helps describe and fill out our knowledge of otherwise elusive and enormously complex principles of being, which cannot ever ultimately be fully and completely explained.  The converse is also true, that is, that these entities do not exist, not as stand-alone beings at any rate, if at some unfathomably profound level, you “know” they do not.  The Lord Buddha, sitting under the Bodhi Tree, was able to overcome all of his temptations and achieve Enlightenment, because he realized that everything he saw was nothing but a phantom and an illusion.

In this sense, the question of the existence of Satan, or ultimately of the God of most religions, makes little difference.  This is not the statement of an atheist, or even of a cynic, but instead of one who affirms that Spirit fills all, everything and every place.  Even Tuol Sleng, where evil also reigns.  The Unnamed Divine Spirit cannot not be in any place, although there are some locales, and even some people, where his presence is profoundly hidden.  Ultimately, what must be done is to see into and beyond the appearance of good and evil, beyond Satan and even beyond everyday notions of God, to where there is nothing to see, to where sight and even understanding are no longer applicable.  There, as The Buddha knew, these phantom images disappear like dew on the summer grass.  Here there is nothing left but light, and then not even light, but a thing far greater, so great that all we can do is wonder in awe, and ultimately in the silence that is beyond all expression.

WHAT TO WRITE ABOUT AS YOU TURN 100? WHY NOT THE UNIVERSE, AND WHERE IT COMES FROM?

By Paul

It happens that this is the 100th posting on our Two Old Liberals blog, and I was wondering what topic might be worthy of such an iconic number. By chance, it is also just over a year now (we began on Feb. 14, 2012) since Kevin and I first embarked on this endeavor.

During that time, and between the two of us, we have written about everything from art and culture (painting, writing, film, theater etc.), to family and personal histories, gay issues, global warming (including fracking, recycling, over population etc.), language, money and economics, mysticism, mythology, politics of all sorts, philosophy and values, popular culture, religion and faith, science, spirituality, the nature of consciousness, and work and what that means. And in this listing, I’ve no doubt left out several other topics that one or the other of us has delved into.

So I began thinking, what subject might be a proper one to mark this milestone, and I could come up with nothing grander than the universe itself. I suppose you could argue that all of the things mentioned above might simply be thought of as part of that universe, and no doubt you would be correct. But what I have in mind is more the nature of what we mean when we say the universe, or the cosmos if you prefer. I am thinking of such questions as: where does the universe come from, how could it appear from nothing, and are there other universes out there?

It goes without saying that I cannot claim to know the answers to the above questions, if there is in fact anything even remotely like a single answer to each of them. Far greater minds than mine have grappled with them, and they, too, have come up short. Still, I believe that such queries are quite legitimate ones, and in fact all human beings ought to ask them of themselves. They are, indeed, the most basic questions that we can possibly grapple with.

It is also true that these kinds of queries bring us to that mysterious borderland that exists somewhere between science and religion, or if you prefer (as I do), between science and spirituality. There was a time when science would not touch such questions, would not even contemplate them, inasmuch as they were considered to be outside its boundaries. But those borders no long pertain. Nowadays, science does not shy away from them, because tools have been developed which bring us to the very heart of such queries. Telescopes have been made which can peer back into the past and see the very beginnings of the formation of the first stars. And there are other tools, too, such as the Large Hadron Collider, which open up to us the smallest of worlds, and which search out the answer to what matter is and where it comes from.

Within the parameters of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, for example (which states that you can never be certain of both the position and the velocity of a particle, and the more accurately you know the one, the less you know about the other), some physicists now theorize that fluctuations of quantum particles, which spontaneously appear and disappear out of nothing, along with something called “an inflation” (a sort of hyper-rapid boiling of space), may have been the cause of the Big Bang. As of now, of course, this remains merely an interesting theory, not a proven fact. But still, if some day such a theory – or something like it – is proven to be correct, we could then posit that this caused the Big Bang, and therefore, it was the cause of the universe itself. And if that were to be so, does it then follow that there is no longer any need for God, or at least for a God in the sense that Thomas Aquinas meant, when he spoke about his concept of the Prime Mover?

Another fascinating fact, which science now knows, is that the physical universe, or the way we think of it in normal terms anyway, that is, the visible cosmos, the world, all matter, the stars, the planets etc., all this forms only about 1% of the actual universe. Personally, I find that astounding! And what this means is that 99% of the universe, our universe, yours and mine, the one we live and breathe in, is made up of something else. What is that something else? Well, we know that approximately 29% of that very same universe consists of dark matter, and the remaining 70% is composed of a thing called dark energy. Not a lot is known about these substances, if that is even the proper term for them, but dark matter does appear to play some kind of a role in keeping galaxies spinning in their orbits, and dark energy may, in whole or in part, be responsible for the continuing rapid expansion of the universe.

But returning for a moment to the fluctuations of quantum particles in a vacuum, it could also be deduced from this that not merely one, but many, indeed perhaps an infinite number of universes could be formed in this way. Ours, therefore, the one with life in it (as we think of life anyway) is but one example of millions, or even billions, most of which might not support life at all (again, at least as we conceive of it). But where are these other universes? And could there be other ways in which to conceive of life? If so, why are they hidden from us? The answer, if there is an answer, is probably because they exist within physical and mathematical principles which are so different from, or alien to, our own that they cannot be seen, or otherwise perceived by us.

But we are conditioned to think, and to believe, that every effect has a cause that brings it about. How, therefore, can we imagine that a fluctuation within a quantum vacuum can come about spontaneously and causelessly? And if there exists such a thing as laws which govern even quantum fluctuations, to say nothing of inflations, surely it is a legitimate question to ask, where do these laws come from?

So far at least, it seems to me that everything our greatest scientists have done has merely wound up backing up the basic question of where “all this” comes from. In other words, if the original question was, what came before (i.e., what “caused”) the Big Bang, and if we now theorize that it could have been the fluctuation of quantum particles in an inflation, then the question bumps back, and we have to ask, where do quantum particles, and the laws that govern them, come from? Right now, it is posited that they come from nothing. But can “something” really come from nothing? The old mathematical question remains: how do we get from 0 to 1, from nothingness to somethingness?

Many, but not all, scientists hesitate to posit a Divine Spirit, an Infinite Intelligence, if you will. If this is the case, however, in other words, if such a concept does exist, what it surely cannot mean is anything like the God that most of us were raised to believe in. Such a God, with his likes and dislikes, and his favorites and his not-so-favorites, his anger and his appeasement, his concept of sin and redemption, all this gets jumbled up in our minds with our own human needs, our desires, and especially our fears. God (to use that word only as a kind of short hand) must surely be so far beyond such concepts of ordinary human understanding that all we normally can do is catch glimpses of him. We see parts, while The Whole is beyond our everyday range of vision. And the very least that must be said is that such a Divine Spirit would never confine himself to speaking only from the voice of, let us say, a power-hungry politician-pope, or the fear-filled raging of some ignorant preacher, condemning sinners to the fires of an everlasting hell.

No, the universe is and must be far grander than that. There can be little doubt that, whatever it may be, it is light years away from anything that we can conceive of. It is filled with mystery and magnificence and unimaginable beauty. Dark matter, dark energy, swirling galaxies, exploding supernovae, human abilities to think and create and wonder at what is beyond, and below, and within, all this forms merely part of what is meant only by our own universe. And what of other universes, which by definition more or less defy our abilities to imagine what they could be like?

These are the things that should capture our fancy and our imagination. These are the questions which ought to occupy our spirit and our intellects. These, surely, are topics that must fascinate our minds, not only as we turn one hundred, but indeed all the days we are privileged to lead our lives in this magical and fascinating world, always and forever beyond our final understanding.