It Takes Guts to Believe that God Loves You

In a world characterised by so much brutality and suffering, it is a bold person who still asserts that human beings are ‘made in the image’ of a loving God. If there are marks of divinity in human beings, the deity in question appears to be terrifyingly cruel.  In 2015, the Los Angeles Times reported that scientists had uncovered what they described as ‘evidence of the earliest known murder among our ancestors’, with the implication that ‘interpersonal violence may be baked into the human experience’.  It came in the form of a grisly skull belonging to a hominid species much older than Neanderthals. The cranium showed signs of two repeated blows with the same implement, suggesting an ‘intent to kill’. These pre-historic remains hint at the dark possibility that the murder of Abel by Cain is emblematic of the human condition.  As the wars and genocides of the twentieth century conclusively proved, even with all our technology and education, we are frequently no better than that frightened ape that clubbed his enemy to death (although so much deadlier). As Sigmund Freud noted grimly in his essay Civilisation and Its Discontents (1929):

 Men are not gentle creatures, who want to be loved, who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbour is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus.

Yet, if “man is a wolf to man” (surely a slur on wolves?) how can that be reconciled with the human-positive language of the Gospel?  Are Freud’s ravenous apes the same creatures worthy of having their hairs counted by God (Matt. 10:30)? Are these monsters the same creatures of which God says, “I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters” (2 Corinthians 6:18).  Are these designers of bombs and missiles really the meek sheep which Christ will gather back (Matt. 18:12–14)?  When we peer into ourselves the darkness can sometimes seem overwhelming. Often we feel trapped by our egotism and although we know what we should do, we often shudder at the prospect of doing it. We rather others died before we died to our own selves. As Paul put it:  ‘For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it’ (Romans 7:15-20). In Paul’s painful honesty, we readily see the processes of natural selection which have made us. We perceive the outworking of millions of years of biting, tearing and clawing.

In the face of this shattering reality, it is hard to believe that anything so vicious could be cherished by any Supreme Being worth its salt. Yet this is precisely what the Gospel tells us about ourselves. When God sees us, he does not perceive a violent primate, but sons and daughters, heirs, and princes.  He does not see our sins, but rather the Spirit of Christ at work in us. In other words, God always sees us through the eyes of mercy. In the face of all the wrong we commit (or ever will commit) God declares in grace: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool’ (Isaiah 1:18). The promise of Jesus is that God will not be pushed away.  The Cross and the Resurrection are signs of God’s ultimate refusal to give up on his creatures. Even when confronted with the roving spirit of Cain, God is not deterred by our coldness. He continues to wait and he continues to give. This is exciting and it is frankly scary. We are invited into a love we cannot earn, we cannot control and do not deserve by any human metric. This is the ‘ocean of light and love’ experienced by George Fox at his convincement, and it is the true reality of which Paul said, ‘neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers’ can bar us. Believing this promise of grace is the most radical act we can undertake. For once we hear and believe in that love which persists we can see beyond “fight and flight”, and all the ancient forces which keep us trapped in the past (both personal and collective).

What does such a graceful affirmation offer us? We can lift a sense of judgment from ourselves and by extension lift the burden of judgement from others. We can declare along with the Songs of Songs: “My beloved is mine and I am his” (2:16). In articulating this new status, we can begin to act like the cherished one we know we are.   Through the love freely offered us, we become capable of sharing love more abundantly with others. Once we recognise our identities as sons and daughters of a loving Father, we can be open to the riches of our inheritance. As Martin Luther once put it: “If I have sinned, yet my Christ, in whom I believe, has not sinned, and all his is mine and all mine is his”. But as the story of the Cross illustrates it takes guts to believe that God is love, because to do so calls into question the punitive behaviour which characterises our species- all our weapons, all our prisons and detention centres become shadows. God’s loving judgement, puts human judgements to shame.  But such a gift of escape may be too much for some to bear. Paul puts the challenge of this new nature provocatively when he tells the Church at Corinth:  “Do you not know that we will judge angels?” (1 Corinthians 6:2-3). Putting the issue more pointedly still, Athanasius said that, the Son of God became man so that we might become God.  We are earth-bound creatures of mud and blood, meant for eternity- a destiny we share with the whole of creation (Rev. 21).

What utterly scandalous suggestions! How could such weak and spiteful beings have sway over the powers of the invisible world? How can we become mirrors reflecting the nature of God? It is surely more realistic to return to the savage safety of the rules which made us:  “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19). It is this ethic of struggle that we hear in the voice of the High Priest of the Jerusalem Temple who fears what Jesus might do to his ordered world: “You do not realise that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” (John 11:50). Or it put it another way, it is better that unruly love should be snuffed out than allow the anarchy of a perpetually giving God to recast the world. It is much easier to put this ceaseless love on trial and nail it to a cross than hear it and feel open to change. It is easier to follow the script of our evolution than concede the possibility that we nasty bipeds are meant to be a mirror of the Eternal, to be vessels for a reality that is just not like us.

Sometimes this refusal to accept the radical nature of grace becomes manifest in the way some Christians talk about God on the Cross. Instead of understanding the crucifixion as an outpouring of God’s love in the face of the wretchedness of the human situation, an emphasis is placed on stilling the anger of a righteous God, who must have satisfaction in blood. This theological reading is surely built on our ancient Reptilian brain; that part of ourselves which controls our aggressive instincts. Here, God, the bloodthirsty judge serves as a projection of our fears for survival. Someone must die so that we must live. In some theories of atonement, God’s Law is simply a refined version of our own longings for retribution against those who or put us in danger. But the Gospel repeatedly tries to push us beyond this reptilian apparatus by telling us that we must not return evil for evil and that peacemakers will be blessed. The Deity Christians worship is the arch offender against notions of natural justice. In his community, the first will be last and the last will be first, where rain is sent on ‘the just and the unjust alike’ (Matt. 5:45). The God of Jesus Christ is not a capricious sky Father filled with all our instinctual aggressions. The One loved by Israel, whom Jesus calls Father has come to save the world and not to condemn it. Yet there has been much copious theologising trying to blunt this fact. Grace perfects nature as the old Catholic theologians tell us, but invariably nature resists. We still want to believe that God plays by our rules of vindication and punishment, something the logic of grace denies. Our challenge is this. Are we prepared to see ourselves as God sees us or continue to be defined by our past? Grace is the key but will we open the door?

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On Quakers and Demonology

The Problem of Demonic Presence

 In my previous post, I reflected on Quaker attitudes to the paranormal. In this post, I want to consider what Quakerism might have to say about demonology. In delving into this esoteric subject, I am mindful of C.S. Lewis’ cautionary warning at beginning of the Screwtape Letters, that “[there] are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the Devils. One is to disbelieve their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.” I hope at the very least to avoid the error of the Magus, without denying the reader what I sense to be the coherent and distinctive nature of Quaker attitudes concerning demonological matters. At the core of this coherence is the suggestion that the category of ‘spiritual evil’ is not merely a fly in the ointment of an otherwise ‘good’ universe, but one means by which God achieves an abiding connection with His estranged creatures.  The ‘world of the demons’, can, if properly understood, be a conduit for divine purposes. This reading is by my own admission unconventional, drawing on sources other than Quaker tradition, yet I believe it makes sense of the deep structure of our Quaker Way.

At first glance, to say that ‘spiritual evil’ serves some higher good is a strange claim to make, particularly given the Quaker emphasis upon ‘Light overcoming darkness’. What can the category of the demonic possibly have to do with God?  Yet, as I attempt to show, Quaker reflections on the nature of evil, actively circumvent such assumed binaries, by incorporating these forces of darkness into the story of how a ‘good’ God is disclosed. This is perhaps an under-represented story, but if told carefully, can help Friends discover a richer vision of Quaker faith. Before rushing headlong into the question of the function of spiritual evil, let’s just take stock of what early Friends thought and experienced of the demonic.

George Fox and the Demons

When the twenty-something George Fox was brought to the depths of despair by the state of his soul, he sought for words which could give him both consolation and peace. He went from priest to priest and sect to sect, seeking a language of comfort but found nothing except vain ‘hot-air’. Like the equally troubled character of Holden in J.D. Salinger Catcher in the Rye, this young puritan felt surrounded by ‘phonies’- people who pretended to know what life was all about, but had barely scratched the surface. Those who pronounced ‘easy answers’, George found duplicitous and hypocritical, unable to ‘speak to his ‘condition’.  It was in the midst of this religious hall of mirrors that Fox first encountered ‘the world of the demons’. He felt his sense of confusion had a personality of its own, wholly independent of his own will. He felt strongly that this depression was actively tormenting him, probing him, forcing him to confront his sense of guilt and shame. He knew intuitively that this tormentor was the same dark adversary that Jesus had found in the Palestinian wilderness. As Fox recounted in his Journal:

 During the time I was at Barnet a strong temptation to despair came upon me. I then saw how Christ was tempted, and mighty troubles I was in. Sometimes I kept myself retired to my chamber, and often walked solitary in the Chase to wait upon the Lord….when Satan could not effect his design upon me that way, he laid snares and baits to draw me to commit some sin, whereof he might take advantage to bring me to despair. (George Fox, The Journal, Chapter 1).

A secular observer might call Fox a kind of compulsive depressive; a person trapped by an ever-morphing fear that they might do or experience the unthinkable. Yet, such a description could never have satisfied Fox, who found the reductionism of the physicians of his own age depressingly narrow. At one stage he was prescribed tobacco (presumably because of its beneficial effects on alertness and mood) yet he knew that his predicament was existential rather than solely temperamental. He did not need to be medicated against his blight, but must face it.  Did he have a theory of the adversary he was facing? Fox would probably have heard snippets about the nature of demonic powers from the folkish Christianity of his parents; as fallen angels, as the inflicters of disease, pain and death. He also learnt about them from his very close reading of Paul. The apostle had taught that at the crucifiction, a whole invisible community had been ‘disarmed’. Jesus had ‘made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross’ (Colossians 2:15). Yet, Fox was never a systematic thinker. He never developed a definitive account of evil, nor did he know the precise details of where these invisible adversaries had come from.  Fox knew about the Pauline world of ‘powers and principalities’, not by speculation, but directly through his own experience. He sensed that there were creatures who wholly delighted in dissension, cruelty and the obfuscation of truth. While God desired clear sight in the heart of all his creatures, demons wanted us trapped with them in a spiritual hall of mirrors.

From Darkness to Light

How did Fox emerge from this tunnel of anguish and uncertainty? Eventually his sense of inward dislocation reached breaking point. Yet, as his temptations grew and his helplessness increased, he began to hear afresh the story of Jesus contest with Satan, and actively apply this narrative to his own situation:

When I myself was in the deep, shut up under all, I could not believe that I should ever overcome; my troubles, my sorrows, and my temptations were so great that I thought many times I should have despaired, I was so tempted. But when Christ opened to me how He was tempted by the same devil, and overcame him and bruised his head, and that through Him and His power, light, grace, and Spirit, I should overcome also, I had confidence in Him; so He it was that opened to me when I was shut up and had no hope nor faith (George Fox, The Journal, Chapter 1)

Jesus showed Fox that whatever devices the Powers threw at him, he could resist them; not by pulling himself up by his own boot-straps but by surrendering to the sense of desolation he felt, and handing this over to something beyond the closed world of the self.  And it was at that moment, Fox tells us, that he had his spiritual breakthrough:

I saw into that which was without end, things which cannot be uttered, and of the greatness and infinitude of the love of God, which cannot be expressed by words. For I had been brought through the very ocean of darkness and death, and through and over the power of Satan, by the eternal, glorious power of Christ; even through that darkness was I brought, which covered over all the world, and which chained down all and shut up all in death. The same eternal power of God, which brought me through these things, was that which afterwards shook the nations, priests, professors and people (Fox, The Journal, Chapter 1).

Finally, he found words to salve him, not in human institutions or systems, but through a tranquil secret voice, which offered him a redemptive language to live by. Yet, it was his demonic confrontation, which had led him there.  He had to, as he says, to be ‘brought through’. What Fox is describing here is not a haphazard experience, but a process. It was only by reaching down into the depths of despair that Fox was able to discover the ‘inward light’. This connection between light and darkness is at the very centre of Fox’s early mystical vision. They existed together in a single journey of faith. In this respect there is no such thing as ‘cheap grace’ in Fox.  Discerning the love of God was frequently a rough slog and required moving through darkness. As Advices and Queries put it vividly: ‘Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life’ (QF&P 1.2.).

Goethe and Jung: Renewal through Darkness

What implications might this mingling of light and darkness have for a Quaker conception of the spiritual world? It certainly does not imply the acceptance of a grim medieval demonology, the kind explored chillingly in William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. Here demonic forces appear to loom almost larger than the power of God. This was always the spiritual failure of the Medieval imagination, a failure which early Friends rallied against. To present the devil merely as a ravening wolf, allowed to run amok in God’s own backyard, appeared to make Satan more active than the Spirit of Christ. While Fox, along with many other early Friends, performed exorcisms, they did so as a vindication of the complete and unbreakable love of God. When Jesus spoke, the demons obeyed; early Friends in this respect, took the New Testament record at face value. It was perfectly natural therefore that that light and dark belonged together as portals into New Life. By commanding the demons, Jesus had disclosed the power God; he had accomplished the will of his Father. By going to the Cross, the Powers thought they had won. In fact, the desolation of Golgotha merely disclosed their role in a pre-set script. Even Judas (who according some of the New Testament writers was a Satanic agent) contributes towards the achievement of what God has decreed, that “[the] Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (Luke 9:22).

According to this reading the demons could obey God whether they wanted to or not; his will would be done ‘on earth as in heaven’. In like manner, George Fox’s own inward struggle, brought him, not estrangement from God, but brought him back to God.  The inward wounds inflicted upon him in the end brought healing. Here we see preserved in an insight communicated time and time again by great mystics, poets and intellects through the ages; that the forces of darkness can and do serve God. As the prophet Isaiah puts it: ‘I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things’ (Isaiah 45:7). This is a strange and unsettling idea, but it makes sense of Fox’s suffering and redemption. Darkness and desolation was what was required for Fox’s awakening. In this sense, are the demons not part of God’s will?

How do we make sense of this strange idea? While composing these reflections, two figures came to mind, which might help us navigate these peculiar waters- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) and Carl Gustav Jung (1875–1961). Both men articulated an ingenious conception of the spiritual world, one which recognized that the demonic never departs from some greater Providence. For Goethe, Satanic adversity always possessed something of the stinging gadfly, which had the capacity to awaken human spiritual longings.  Goethe expresses this beautifully in The Prologue in Heaven, found in Faust, Part I. In conversation with the demon Mephistopheles, God gives him permission to tempt Faust on the grounds that adversity from temptation, will eventually lead the errant doctor back to God:

Your kind and you I’ve never hated,
Of all the spirits who me deny,
The rogue by me the least is rated.
The deeds of men are easily put to sleep,
They love their undisturbéd rest.
That’s why I give them over to his keep,
Who as the devil puts them to the test.

Even though devil may lead humans to confusion, Goethe’s God declares, ‘A good man, in spite of iniquity’s force, Will find the path to truth before he’s quit.’ Here the devil is the secret and unwitting companion, working for human good, even if he professes to be doing the opposite. Indeed, when asked by Faust to identify himself, Mephistopheles declares, “I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good.” Jung put flesh on the bones of this conception through a lifetime of contemplation and analytic psychological work. As a young boy Jung, like Fox, had experienced his own sense of inner darkness- a fear that he might commit some terrible blasphemy. Yet, this dark cloud eventually lifted, as he gave up the struggle against his fear. As Jung recounts,

I gathered all my courage as though I were about to leap forthwith into hell-fire, and let the thought come.  I saw before me the cathedral, the blue sky, God sits on His throne, high above the world – and from under the throne an enormous turd falls upon the sparkling new roof, shatters it, and breaks the walls to the cathedral asunder (Dreams, Memories and Reflections,  p. 56).

CGJung.jpg

But what did this image mean? As Jung concluded later ‘nature was nothing other than the will of the Creator. Nor did it help to accuse the devil, for he too was a creature of God. God alone was real- annihilating fire and  an indescribable grace’ (p. 74).  In this way, for Jung God possessed a terrible beauty, which embraced all that was shadowy, desolate and despairing, as well as all that was sublime. The God that declared the glory of the world at the creation, was the same God that cried in Gethsemane. Goethe was right said Jung, ‘At last I had found confirmation that there were or had been people who saw evil and its universal power, and- and more important- the mysterious role it played in delivering man from darkness and suffering’ (p. 78). Yet if the demons have a role to play in the awakening of human souls (as they do in many of the Gospel accounts) then will the demons themselves be redeemed? Fox’s creedal Barbados letter of 1671 does not exactly sound a hopeful note on this point:

We believe that he (Jesus) alone is our Redeemer and Saviour, even the Captain of our Salvation, who saves us from sin, as well as from hell, and the wrath to come, and destroys the devil and his works; he is the Seed of the woman, that bruises the serpent’s head, to wit, Christ Jesus, the Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last.

Elsewhere in the letter Fox tells us that unrepentant souls will join Satan in a perpetual lake of fire. Hints concerning the final fate of the demons, bring us back full circle to Lewis. For it is on the question of finality that the paths of Fox and this austere Anglican apologist cross. For Lewis, there are some choices which cannot be undone. Indeed, there are ‘final’ choices. As Lewis writes in the introduction to The Great Divorce ‘[a] sum can be put right: but only by going back until you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on. Evil can be undone, but it cannot ‘develop’ into good.’ Choices cannot be erased at some ‘end’, or over time, says Lewis. Something is either embraced or rejected. And choices eventually become fixed. As one of Lewis’ characters in the same text notes,

“it begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticising it. And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it. Ye can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no ‘you’ left to criticise the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine.”

Presumably for Lewis the demons are just arid reflections of this same process; demons are creatures which are now captured by their dissidence. They have given a ‘no’ to God and are now mere figments of their negation. Yet, despite these stern statements, as a Quaker I hold out hope for the majestic doctrine of the Church Father, Origen of Alexandria. Distressed by the thought that any of God’s creatures should know perpetual punishment, Origen argued that God would take even the most reprobate demon to Himself. Consequently, he suggested:

[The] destruction of the last enemy must be understood in this way, not that its substance which was made by God shall perish, but that the hostile purpose and will which proceeded, not from God but from itself, will come to an end. It will be destroyed, therefore, not in the sense of ceasing to exist, but of being no longer an enemy and no longer death. For to the Almighty nothing is impossible, nor is anything beyond the reach of cure by its maker. Peri Archon 3.6.5 (trans. Marguerite Harl, Gilles Dorival, and Alain Le Boulluec. Paris, p.67)

As a peculiar people who wait for God’s kingdom of peace, do we have space in our hearts for the demons, who perhaps are trapped in their own hall of mirrors? Can we hope openly and honestly for peace between all of God’s creatures? Might Jesus also say of the demons, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”?