My car was behind a very old car driven by a very old woman. Among the numerous bumper stickers on her vehicle was one that made me take notice. It said: “90% ANGEL.” Because we both were waiting to make a turn into a hospital parking lot, I wondered if the “90% ANGEL” meant that the lady was ill and dying, in which case the bumper sticker announced to one and all that now she was near true angel status and was reaching for the hand of God. But then I had a second opinion and wondered if perhaps she thought of herself as having a sweet, angelic personality – in which case, I began to speculate on what she considered that other 10% of herself to be: the devil?
At any rate, this second opinion of mine really sets up my thesis because it announces the reality that down through much of recorded human time our species has postulated a god-devil duality. And the dialogue, if not diatribe, continues to the present day.
Let me tell you a true story: It was about three decades ago that the so-called “Death of God” debate among theologians flared up. The personal, patriarchal Judeo-Christian God came under revision, replaced by God of the multiple intent and meaning. Truly, God as we knew HIM got a facelift.
I was at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, CA, as a seminary student when one of the leading American “God is Dead” theologians visited. That day I was supposed to earn $25 by pouring tea for Thomas J. Altizer’s private reception in the home of our seminary president.
Many important people of the spiritual world were there. At that moment I didn’t know much about God – whether or not he was dead and such – but did discover an instant of grace, if you will. Or at least of catapulting, catalytic, and potentially catastrophic moment.
Because, while I was pouring very hot tea for the great man himself (Altizer, not God), I over-poured – right into his lap. And Altizer screamed “Jesus Christ!” which was, I guess, a form of resurrecting the dead Christian godhead – or at least one-third of it.
Mrs. Altizer, up until my unintentional assassination attempt a soft-spoken Southern belle, screamed a less-than-godlike profanity at me, adding “Do you know who my husband is, young man?” To which I replied, “He killed God or something, didn’t he?” upon which I turned on my heel and left the reception.
I am sure that some at that party thought of me as the devil incarnate. Well, the upshot of the event was that the next semester I enrolled at a more liberal seminary across the street. In effect, I guess you can say that I tried to kill the man who knocked off God and became a liberal in the process.
But, I must say, that it is now time to knock off the Devil! So, as we approach this festive/spiritual time of autumnal bedevilment, Halloween, the Day of the Dead, and such, let me begin the process.
An attempt as a liberal theologian to preach about the devil years ago caused me a bit of potential civic controversy in the state that some call West-by-God-Virginia! And I do mean “God” as presumed by many West Virginians: a real, literal, personal, Old Testament God!
You see, my sermon title that I thought was provocatively cute and was sure to “bring ‘em in” on the following Sunday morning was sent to the religion page of our local newspaper in Charleston. Before the title was published, however, a prominent member of our congregation heard about it—“prominent” as in “a major financial supporter of the church, including my salary.” So she called me immediately and in a very concerned voice asked me to change the title, for fear that in protest some in our fair city might take it upon themselves to burn down our church.
I laughed, being the liberal-minded Northeasterner that I was back then, and thought that the woman was joking. But when I heard her out, I realized that she was very serious. So, although considering my then-denomination’s tradition of Freedom of the Pulpit for minister and congregant (but very much not wanting the literal pulpit to be incinerated), I called up the newspaper’s religion editor and change the title to something quite inane and antiseptic. Still, on that Sunday I preached the sermon I had been planning to preach, word by word. It was a blockbuster! Even if the attendance was predictably small.
And the original title of that sermon that I am sure would have swelled the numbers in the sanctuary – if not burned it to the ground? “HIP HIP HOORAY, LET’S HEAR IT FOR THE DEVIL!”
The point of this story is that the devil, is still very much alive and very real in the hearts and minds of many people in West Virginia or elsewhere!
Consider the premise of Gerald Messadie’s book, A History of the Devil: the concept of the devil being a cultural one. Indeed, in those civilizations that sought to stress their religious sentiment toward the celebration of life rather than toward the bemoaning of their mortal lot, there was less belief and ritual associated with the concept of a devil.
In the South Pacific cultures 60,000 BCE “The hollower sort of divinity embodied by the Devil seems to be absent; fear or hatred of Evil is much less in evidence than is the worship of life.” (Messadie, pp. 17-18)
In ancient India the large Hindu pantheon of gods and goddesses had numerous roles assigned to them, but there was no one god who embodied all evil. This would be true in Vedic, Jainist, and Buddhist India as well.
In Southeast Asian religions, the same fact is illustrated. In Buddhist thought the concept of evil is equated with the “Void” – not as a deity. Another concept of evil in these societies speaks of it within the realm of human ethics.
Oh well! So, to close this little peregrination of mine (one based on a much-larger work), let me tell you a story taken from the Old Testament “Book of Numbers.” The story of old Balaam and his donkey – referred to as an “ass” in the translation. Balaam decided to ride his ass to a place that God had forbidden him to go. This made God angry so he sent his emissary, his “satan” to block Balaam’s way. Now, the donkey was a good, God-fearing donkey and decided to follow the satan’s advice by stopping in his tracks, which only caused Balaam to beat up the poor animal. The donkey had enough of this cruelty and decided to speak his mind, saying: “Am I not your ass that you have ridden all your life to this very day? Did I ever do such things to you?” Well, all this uproar caused God to get even madder at Balaam. So, you know what God did next? Of course! He knocked Balaam off his ass – literally! Let the moral be told: Pay attention to the signs that are trying to protect you, or you, too, might find yourself knocked off your ass!!
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