Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The origins of the Devil or the grave of monotheism

Blabbering inspired by 'The Devil' by Jeffrey Burton Russell:
From movie 'Legend'
If I think about the devil the first things that come to mind are contemporary movies, literature (Inferno, Faust, Master and Margarita, Paradise Lost) and Medieval Art. If I am asked for his origins I would have to stop for a second before saying New Testament and then think hard if there is a devil or a devil like figure in the Old Testament to remember Satan in the Book of Job. As for ancient polytheistic faiths, they usually have rulers of the underworld but such divinities were not The Devil per se. But then so isn’t Satan in Job, if anything he resembles God’s pub buddy with whom God makes a drunken bet. Its far later that we come to the sinister Devil, and the devil found in contemporary popular culture has close to nothing to do with the Bible. So how does the devil come in to being?  

In short and liberally paraphrasing J.B. Russell’s (JBR) argument: we created him because we could not come to terms with god being Good and Evil at the same time (from my point of view this is a testimony to human egoism and self-righteousness, after all we created god in our image or he created us in his, either way if God is Good and Evil it makes humans Good and Evil, and for some reasons we find it hard to come to terms with the darker side of our nature).

JBR argues that the Devil is a personification of Evil then traces how evil became personified. It’s a fascinating story how polytheistic faiths and Judaism at its earliest stages could deal with the idea that god is good and bad in Isaiah 45:7 God proclaims that he created both Good and Evil:

I form light and create darkness,
I make weal and create woe;
I the Lord do all these things.

Yet as a religion developed there raised a need to explain evil and usually part of the explanation was differentiating it from God. It happened in the early Near Eastern religions, it happened in Egypt, and Greece, and Judaism. Reading thought JBR’s account is like watching trees lose their leaves in autumn. It happens so gradually that you don’t notice until one day you wake up and the trees stand in the nude.
Dualistic thinking comes gradually; slowly grey is divided in to white and black, a human into flesh and spirit. First God is both: good and bad, then there is an angel/god/semi-god/god’s minion who does his dirty work (for some reason I always think of Matt Damon in Dogma) and before you know it you have two opposing powers.
What I personally find interesting is how Christianity allows the devil to exist, because it is in the Devil that it finds its end. When the Devil was created a grave was dug up for every monotheistic faith. If the Christian God is wholly Good and the Devil is wholly Bad it puts God and the Devil as different sides of the same coin meaning that it ceases to be monotheistic and becomes dualistic. It is not only one God but God and Devil and this is the end of monotheism.
And now I cannot wait to get my hands on theological works to see elaborate arguments filled with ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ that try to keep Christianity monotheistic while proclaiming the reality of the Devil. Any suggestions where to start?

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