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.

SPRINGTIME, MYTHOLOGY, AND SOME THOUGHTS ON RESURRECTION

By Paul

Next Sunday most Christians in the western world will celebrate Easter (Greek and Russian Orthodox faiths follow a different calendar).  And last week all of us noted the Vernal Equinox, the First Day of Spring (notwithstanding the continued wintry weather gripping large swaths of the East and Midwest).  In spite of any such glitches in local weather, however, we know that it won’t be long before the forsythias are in bloom, crocuses are poking their heads up, and it’s just a matter of a few short weeks after that before tulips, lilacs, and daffodils begin to make their appearance.

Even in this terrible era of global warming, there is no holding spring back.  And the concomitant joyful celebrations of the warming of temperatures, the blossoming of plants, and the regeneration of life after a long, cold winter are practically part of our human DNA.

Such rites of spring were common among ancient peoples, particularly as they came to rely more and more on agriculture and on the cultivation of crops, rather than on hunting and gathering, in order to feed themselves and their families.  Look at almost any of these cultures anywhere in the world, and you will see rites that honored the burial of seeds in the earth, in essence their ritual death, only to await not long afterwards their miraculous resurgence, their resurrection as it were.  Everywhere, ritual followed such practices, and one relied upon the other for the continual nurturing and feeding of humankind.

As almost sacrilegious as this may sound to some, there are not a few scholars who contend that the origins of Christian Easter itself can be found in these ancient ways of viewing and understanding the world.  It is after all common to find stories in numerous mythologies around the globe recounting the death, burial, and resurrection of a god.  We see these stories everywhere, in fact, and most reflect this same burying of seeds in the earth and the eventual resurgence of these buried seeds in the form of living plants.  People then eat of the fruits of this regeneration and so, in that sense, partake of the life of the mythic creature (the seed) that had ritually died, been placed in the earth, only to rise again.

One of my favorite myths of this variety within the Greco-Roman tradition has to do with Demeter and her daughter/younger self, Persephone.  As you may recall, Hades (the Roman Dis Pater), snatched Persephone from the world of light and carried her down into the Underworld.  Demeter, goddess of grain and the harvest (the Roman Ceres, from which we get the word cereal), mourned her and refused to deliver on her promise of providing food for humankind.  However, without people Zeus would have no worshipers, and so he quickly decided to send his messenger, Hermes, to negotiate a deal with Hades.  Unfortunately, in the meantime Persephone had relented and eaten six pomegranate seeds while in the Underworld.  The immutable rule was that anyone who partook of food in the realm of Hades must remain there forever.  Still, Clever Hermes was able to strike a compromise bargain, whereby Persephone was granted permission to leave the Underworld and rejoin Demeter in the upper world for six months out of the year.  Alas, she would also perpetually be required to return below ground again for the other six months of the year.  Thus, we have two seasons, one wherein Demeter mourns and all things die off (i.e. winter), and one when she rejoices and in which we partake of the fruits of the field (i.e., summer).

There are actually countless such similar stories in many different mythologies of the world in which gods or great heroes descend into the underworld, but then in some form return to life once more.  We see it, for example, with Dionysius and Orpheus (both Greek), Osiris (Egyptian), Tammuz (Sumerian), Kululcan (Maya), Quetzalcoatl (Aztec), and a great many others.  All essentially tell the same story: death (and burial) is not to be seen as the end, but the spirit instead lives on and returns to the world of light for the continuance and furtherance of human life.

But let us recognize that mythology is not only for and about ancient peoples.  As I have already mentioned, the belief of Christians today in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ fits very neatly into this same pattern.  Note, for example, that in the old Catholic Apostles’ Creed there is a curious line in which it is said that Jesus was “crucified, died, and was buried.  He descended into Hell, and the third day he arose again from the dead.”  In other words, once more we have exactly the same story of death, burial, descent into the underworld, and eventual resurrection.  And while there seems to be no direct scriptural reference to this in the gospels, Catholics have believed it to be true for centuries.

Myths have many uses and many meanings.  Going back for a moment to Demeter and Persephone, let us remember once again that, while the story tells us Persephone is Demeter’s daughter, in reality we can understand her as being essentially a younger, less mature form of the goddess herself.  Viewed from a purely psychological point of view, we can understand this as meaning that we, all of us, have periods when we are clear and rational and full of light (the Demeter phase), and those in which we are filled with the dark, irrational passions of unreasonable fear, out-of-control anger, depression, deceit, envy and the like, that is, when our higher self is, as it were, stolen away (the phase during which Persephone is in the Underworld).  In other words, sometimes we live our lives according to the light of rationality and reason, but sometimes we are caught in the shadowy and murky throes of buried and unconscious impulses, urges, and cravings.  Indeed, for most of us, if we can manage a balance of half and half, as was the grand bargain struck by Hermes (the messenger of our higher, more rational selves), we have to think that we are doing pretty well!

Demeter, therefore, represents the ego, which moves about in the upper world of light and which, in so doing, is capable of fulfilling and nourishing our being.  Persephone, on the other hand, is that part of ourselves which has been captured and lives in the chthonic underground of our deeper and more primal compulsions.  The danger is that, if we go on to nourish ourselves with the latter, we run the risk of getting stuck there forever.  Fortunately, most of us most of the time seem capable of making that fortuitous bargain whereby we live sometimes in one place, sometimes in the other.

Easter and Christ’s resurrection, too, can be seen as playing on a similar set of psycho-spiritual human concerns.  The God-Avatar (Jesus), who took human (i.e. bodily) form, allows himself to die, only to show us that resurrection from death is possible.  The meaning here is that our consciousness can be lifted out of the “death” of living only and forever at the more or less unconscious level of strict bodily awareness.  Instead, each of us is shown that we are also capable of realizing that we can partake in higher things or, to put it another way, that eternal, undying Spirit has in some sense become us.

Whether your personal take on these mythic stories is more literal or more metaphorical, spring is the time to think about them.  How, indeed, can we not, when all we see surrounding us is the rising of new life out of the death of the old?

The story of the resurrection of Christ, as well as that of all the other gods and great mythic heroes and heroines that came before and after, symbolizes the buried seed and the resurgent natural world, come back to life after long, cold, “dead” winter.  Beyond that, we are also reminded that our own lives are capable of their own kind of resurrection.  It is the job of each of us to strive for that elevation in our thinking and our consciousness in the best way we know how.  In so doing, we can say, along with the great Marian hymn so popular in the Middle Ages, “Resurrexit, sicut dixit, alleluia.”  He arose, as he said, alleluia.  Surely, that is reason enough for all of us to rejoice, is it not?

MYTH AND THE MODERN WORLD

By Paul

When most of us in the western world think of mythology, images of Greek and Roman gods probably first spring to mind: old stories of Zeus hurling his thunderbolts, of Hera his jealous wife and sister, of Zeus’ Roman counterpart, Almighty Jupiter, or Mercury of the wingéd sandals, who reminded Aeneas that it was his duty to found the city of Rome etc.   And doubtless these are good examples, although only a very few among an endless number of such stories that have come down to us over the millennia from every part of the globe. 

But what really do we mean when we talk about mythology?  What is its essence?  Why has it been so powerful a force throughout human history?  And another equally important question suggests itself, as well – is mythology still with us today?  Is it a force in our lives currently, or was it a thing only of the past?  I believe the answer to all these questions is actually not quite as complicated as it may at first appear. 

First of all, let us consider what mythology is.  It can be relatively easily defined as having two parts.  The first is as a force, a desire really, a need on the part of human beings to explain what otherwise appears to us as unexplainable.  By this I mean what are sometimes referred to as the big questions in life.  Why are we here?  Does life have a meaning?  Who (if anyone) made us?  Why is there suffering in life; why do we die; and after we die do we live on in some form, or do we simply cease to exist altogether?   These and other similar questions have both intrigued and plagued humanity since the very beginning, when ape-like creatures first evolved and begin to engage in reflective thinking.  The second part of the definition is as important as the first, and it has to do with the fact that humans, for the most part, seem to be either unwilling or unable to live without some kind of hope.  Who among us, for example, does not wish for his or her life to be on some kind of trajectory whereby things are somehow “getting better”?  This is true whether we are rich or poor, atheists or believers, members of an organized religion or among those who eschews such groups.  And if, somehow, we have lost hope for ourselves, as some do, still we may hold on to it for our children or for our loved ones.  Those without any hope for the future are the saddest of the sad among us, and some, most regretfully, decide that life is no longer worth living.

So, myth making has been the way which humans have used over the millennia to explain the world to themselves, and through which they envision a better, more hopeful future.  If anyone doubts this, just familiarize yourself with the almost countless number of “creation myths” that people the world over have concocted in order to explain how the world was made.  Virtually every culture has had it own story at one time or another.  And many Christians still hold as literally true the story of God creating the world in seven days.  In every case we see a Creator Being of some sort giving form to things, taking what had been unformed chaos and making it into the familiar forms we have come to know and feel comfortable with. 

If it is true, then, that the making of these kinds of stories about ourselves and our world is so essential to human beings, it seems equally reasonable to posit that modern peoples too must continue to do so.  It is my contention, in fact, that all religions are a form of mythology.  This includes the major religions practiced today, Christianity (in all of its subsets), Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism etc.  Each one makes a valiant stab at explaining to its followers the world and its great mysteries of life and death and suffering and good and evil. 

Take Christianity, with which most of us are very familiar, as an example.  As Joseph Campbell points out in his master work “The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology,” a great shift began to take place in the Europe of the 12th and the 13th centuries.  Prior to that, the Church ruled with an iron fist, and its priests were the sole explainers and arbiters of all mystery in the world.  However, beginning with the wonders of the Grail stories, and moving on from there to the Reformation and the European Enlightenment, individuals gradually began to realize that they themselves are quite capable of making their own way.  Indeed, people began to see that it is an absolute requirement for them to do so. Campbell calls this “the rise of the principle of individual conscience over ecclesiastical authority.”  But just how far have we progressed?    

Many of the major world religions of today have come down to us from the almost incredible fertility of what Campbell calls “the nuclear Near East.”  Certainly, this is true for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  In each case, the stories, the myths if you will, that they are composed of are now many centuries old.  But they all have a sacred book or books considered to have been dictated by a Deity.  As such, the book and what it teaches are thought to be “outside of time,” that is, applicable to every era of human history.  Some followers even take these stories in their most literal form – which was never the real intent of myth making – and contrive to apply their rules and their strictures to life in the 21st century, with sometimes disastrous results. 

This is in fact the great danger of myth making, that many take the stories quite literally, instead of symbolically.  Take for example the story of the Virgin Mary’s Assumption into Heaven.  There are those who believe that her literal body was taken into a place called heaven, accompanied by a host of rejoicing angels, instead of understanding the story the way it was meant to be, that is, as a symbol of what it means to raise our consciousness above the everyday cares and worries of the world.  

My own view is that these stories are beginning to wear thin.  Yes, many still hold to them, but that is because some great New Myth has yet to emerge out of human consciousness to form itself in the world.  Mormonism, some New Age religions, and such oddities as Scientology have made an attempt, but most seem to come down to either a rehashing of the same old stories with a few tweaks here and there, or something so outlandish that they appeal only to the fringes of society.  Communism, too, is a kind of mythology, and it was tried and found horribly wanting.  It has been suggested by some, as well, that science itself may be the new mythology of the modern world.  It does, after all, attempt to explain many of the world’s mysteries, including creation and life itself.  However, such explanations are at best both provisional and tentative, nor do they provide any understanding of such questions as why there is evil or suffering in the world, or give us hope in the face of a perilous and uncertain future.  Such answers, if you will, come only with true myth making. 

So, we seem to be left either with what I will call the old forms, that is, the millennia-old religions and their waning stories, or – with what?  I would tentatively suggest that perhaps what is left is the very flowering of the greatest form of individualism that began to slowly and laboriously emerge from the High Middle Ages.  I would put forward that what may be needed today is a greater willingness and effort on the part of each individual to create his or her own mythic story, which ultimately attempts to grapple with all of life’s mysteries.  This means that it is ultimately incumbent on each person to go within and to search out what cannot be explained or even fully understood by our everyday consciousness.  I am not talking about a new religion, but a new way of being in the world, one whereby every human takes full responsibility for his or her own story, as well as for its ramifications on the world around us and on other people. 

We are individuals, but we do not live alone in the world; nor do we own the world.  Whatever story we come to understand and to live by must therefore take into consideration the needs and the rights of all other life forms, indeed, of the planet itself.  No longer is it necessary to read and abide by what was dictated by a Deity to prophets who lived thousands of years ago. Neither priests nor popes nor preachers need tell us what it means to lead a good life.  But this can only be true if we go deeply within, anchor ourselves in the Great Mystery that is beyond all explaining and understanding, and humbly seek what is best for ourselves as individuals and as members of the collective. 

In this way, a New Mythology may slowly begin to emerge, one that is fashioned for the challenges of the rapidly changing 21st century in which we live, but which still addresses the great mysteries that defy explanation, and gives us courage to continue on, as well as hope that a better day is yet to come.