Bro... Jonathan Dinsmore 1o
Date Published: 12/1/2019
Is Religion’s Devil a Reflection of a Limited Concept of God?
Is Religion’s Devil a Reflection of a Limited Concept of God?
The figure of the Devil is among the most prominent and significant religious figures in the world today, particularly in the Abrahamic family of religions that have come to dominate the globe. The contrast between God (or his representative) and the devil is taken to be one of the most fundamental dynamics of many religious worldviews, even to the point that Satan serves as a symbol for those who oppose or criticize religion. Even for the non-religious, it’s impossible to deny the significance of the devil as an archetype in our culture.
This good vs. evil, God vs. Devil idea is actually much older even than Abraham, and has its roots as far back as Zoroastrianism in ancient Babylon, and many scholars even believe that the Abrahamic faiths picked the devil up from the Babylonians during their capture in that civilization. Many interpretations of the devil have been made on a symbolic level, ranging from a representation of our own carnal nature, to a reincarnation of the nature-spirit Pan, to the light bringer known as Lucifer.
Today, I’d like to take a slightly different approach: Is it possible that the entire concept of the devil emerges directly from a certain limited concept of God?
Inasmuch as the Devil is a shadow figure, perhaps even the quintessential iconoclastic antithesis to all that is regarded as good or holy, it represents the unconscious “dark” elements that are regarded as the opposite of the divine. In other words, the devil becomes the shadow aspect of God, and within us, the shadow of our own divinity. Whether or not a literal, supernatural entity that we might identify as the devil exists, we can see this symbolic truth. We can also surmise that the most essential quality of the devil is rebellion or resistance to the divine will, for the sake of self-gratification, and so represents the temptation each of us feels to indulge in personal pleasure, at the expense of our moral principles or nobler priorities.
All of this presupposes a divine ruler on high, sitting on a throne in heaven, issuing commands, directing angelic activities, hearing and responding to prayers, even feeling gratified or displeased with earthly events. This is the image of God described in the Abrahamic faiths, often taken quite literally by believers. Even less anthropomorphic concepts of a monotheistic God are generally finite, in this way. God is thought of as a being who is somewhere, perceiving events, doing things, even peering into our very hearts and whispering in our minds, a sort of ultimate person above all lesser people, or as the saying goes, “King of Kings, Lord of Lords.”
Given all of this, it seems inevitable that out of this supreme, uber-person-God’s many created lesser beings, one of them would eventually question his position and rebel, and as it so happens, Lucifer was the first angel created, and the leader of the rebellion not long after. The relatively recent origins of this idea can be picked apart at an academic level, but nevertheless, it is the dominant devil mythology of the dominant religion of our time, Christianity.
Of course, if God is an authority figure, there has to be an anti-authority rebel. How else could it be? If the devil hadn’t gone rogue, a human surely would have. The real question we should be asking ourselves is: should we take either of these two concepts seriously?
It’s no secret that many intellectuals have been critical, if not outright rejecting of this traditional concept of God and the devil. It seems too obvious how this uber-person was simply created by human minds, attempting to imagine a divine authority based on earthly authorities, or perhaps being imposed upon them by those earthly authorities as a justification for their rule.
If you want your sovereignty supported by your subjects, be sure you have the endorsement of the highest authority. Even regular philosophers have increasingly questioned and rejected this idea, from the time they gained the right to do so without being tortured and killed.
Likewise, it’s difficult not to see the utility of the penultimate bad boy devil as both a scapegoat for our human failings and a scare tactic to keep the pews filled. That’s not to say that this dynamic duo doesn’t have symbolic value and that these stories aren’t useful in helping to shape human behavior towards a better trajectory. This is especially true for those who have trouble understanding a more rational concept of God. But for the rest of us, how else might we understand God, and is the devil even necessary?
If we look to the many religions of the world, there are some for whom the figure of penultimate evil is either nonexistent or has a much lesser emphasis. It’s no coincidence that these also have quite different views on the nature of God, as well. We can easily see in this comparison how it is precisely the authoritarian concept of God which produces our angelic rebel. After all, without heavenly authority, who would he have to rebel against?
In Buddhism, for instance, while some variations may carry over personifications of evil from their polytheistic precursors, in general, the only enemy of mankind is ignorance itself. Likewise in Hinduism, while various Gods and Goddesses represent manifestations of “aspects” of God, even the dark or destructive ones are seen as mere parts in the divine play or dance of creation. In Paganism, Taoism, and occult or esoteric traditions the world over, there is likewise little-to-no concept of an embodiment of all evil, or at least not one that carries the same cosmic significance and literal personification as the Abrahamic devil.
What else do all of these various non-Abrahamic traditions have in common? You guessed it, a quite different concept of God, or the divine. While there are minor differences, they tend towards a view of God as a universal mind, or omnipresent, transcendent cosmic consciousness, like the Hindu Brahman. Even the mystical elements of Abrahamic faiths, such as Christian Mystics, Islamic Sufis, and Jewish Kabbalists have less anthropomorphic, more mystical concepts of God, and emphasize the devil less.
Many thinkers have proposed that these varying views are merely stages in a linear evolutionary development of our understanding of God, and that each can serve various people, depending on their capability to comprehend. For many, perhaps the simpler stories and images can suffice. In Freemasonry, each Mason is entitled to his or her own religious belief and conception of God, however personal or mystical; only the belief in a higher power is required.
As always, this writing does not represent the official views of Universal Co-Masonry, but is simply the reflections of one Co-Mason.
Image: "Return of the Prodigal Son" by Rembrant
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