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(16) Demythologizing the satan
I have noticed that the greatest difficulty people seem to be having with these posts on the satan concerns the depersonalization of the satan. For some reason people feel the need to hang onto a personal devil. If, as I have argued, that Genesis 3-4 belong together as a process describing the descent of humanity into the madness of sacrificial religion and if Paul is making this connection between Adam and Cain in Romans 7 the big question is, is there any other biblical text that makes this connection explicit? Yes there is. It comes from the Fourth Gospel where Jesus says “From the start he was a murderer, and he has never stood by the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he tells a lie, he is speaking in character; because he is a liar- indeed, the inventor of the lie!” (John 8:44 CJB). Even though the satan (or the serpent) does not make an appearance in Genesis 4, Jesus connects what occurs there with what has happened in Genesis 3.
Paul in Romans 7 has done the same thing by turning the conversation over to the problem of Adamic humanity. We saw that he does this without reference to the satan, especially the ‘personal devil’ of the Henochic myth. That is, both Paul and the writer of the Fourth Gospel anthropologize the satan; the satanic is a human phenomenon. We have been following this cue for the last several posts. To demythologize the devil is one of the most difficult things Christians must do for one big reason.
Most Christians have a view of the person as an autonomous individual. I have argued that Rene Girard’s notion of persons as ‘interdividual’ is an essential move from modernity to a postmodern understanding of humanity. This is not a recent shift in the human sciences but one that has been occurring for almost a hundred years in others disciplines like psychology, philosophy and literary theory. It has been confirmed by the hard science of neurophysiology. Thus, those who would see evil as coming from a ‘free moral agent’, as stemming from choice, fail to recognize the deeply embedded situation we humans are in when it comes to the problem of mediated desire (or object oriented desire).
Confirmation of this can be found in the Passion Narrative of Luke 23. Most of us would tend to think that Caiaphas, the religious authorities and Pilate ‘made the choice’ to execute Jesus. If there is any text in which deception and murder occurs it is here in the trial and execution of Jesus. Yet, Jesus says from the cross that “they don’t know what they are doing” (Lk. 23:32, admittedly a textual variant). Girard observes that this is the first literary allusion to the non-conscious. Jesus does not ascribe intent to his persecutors. Nor does he invoke their decision to execute him to the following of a Henochic devil. His saying underscores that “they” do not know what they are doing. He sees the deception and murder as stemming from “them” and them alone. Genesis 4 and all the other murders and victimizations found in the Jewish Bible are reenacted here center stage in the Passion story for all to see. Not once, in any Passion Narrative is the concept of a personal satan invoked (John 13:27 is altogether a different question and at any rate not part of the Passion narrative).
James explores this connection between desire, sin and death in his epistle: “No one who is tested should say, “God is tempting me!” This is because God is not tempted by any form of evil, nor does he tempt anyone. 14 Everyone is tempted by their own cravings; they are lured away and enticed by them. 15 Once those cravings conceive, they give birth to sin; and when sin grows up, it gives birth to death. (Jam 1:13-14 CEB) Notice here that James does not invoke a personal devil or some version of the Enoch myth. Rather evil arises purely from within the human.
Those who insist on a personal devil need to make several critical changes in their thinking: first in their anthropology, their definition of person, second, in the way they had previously related evil to conscious choice, third, to an understanding of evil grounded in mimetic desire and fourth to see the connection between the deception of evil and its flowering in violence, death and scapegoating. Until they do, they will not ever be able to explain evil; they will simply be stuck on the merry go round of theodicy, trying to justify a god who would make a devil in the first place.