American priest Fr. Robert Barron is probably the most popular Catholic preacher on YouTube, at least among those preaching in English. Also found on his website www.WordOnFire.org, his 5-10-minute discourses offer theologically sound and highly accessible answers to frequently asked religious questions, from what hell is like and why the Eucharist is the True Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, to why Catholics leave the Church and how to win them back.
One talk that caught this writer’s ear recently was about the devil, traditionally known as the evil spirit battling with God for souls. In this column’s efforts to bring Christian teaching into public affairs, the main interest in Fr. Barron’s discourse are the key elements or characteristics he ascribes to devils based on the Bible and Church tenets.
First, as fallen angels, devils are pure spirits which, though bereft of physical form, are believed capable of influencing human thoughts, feelings, and actions, or even take possession of souls. When Jesus sent His apostles out to preach, among his first instructions was to cast out demons. That priority task from Christ Himself underscores how real and paramount an obstacle to godliness the devil is.
What the devil is the devil?
If readers are rolling their eyes over this devil drivel, it’s no surprise. If faith in God has declined in many nations despite the tireless efforts of world religions, belief in the devil would drop even more, with no vast congregations providing instruction and rituals on matters satanic.
That suits just fine Lucifer, Satan, Mephistopheles, and their dark ilk in horns, batwings and tails. Dismiss their existence and don’t bother calling on the one Being who has defeated them. Instead, rely solely on human wits and will, so easily deceived and manipulated. Exactly what the tale of Adam and Eve, who faced the wily serpent by themselves, warned against.
This cavalier disregard or outright disbelief in the devil is seen by some religious writers as its most insidious weapon. Like unseen puppeteers, satanic forces can incite conflict, crime, corruption and other concupiscence, with no one ever thinking there is anything but human faculties and earthly factors at work.
In ages and places where religion was dominant, evil’s influence made people think that heaven wanted bloodshed for the faith. In modern times, where science, economics and politics hold sway, mass suffering and the despoilation of nature are justified for national interest, free enterprise, and scientific advancement. In Christianity’s view, demons spurred the excesses of both ancient religions and modern ideologies. And today, the devil plies its trade among people who refuse to see and believe it.
The eternal battle between unity and disunity
All the more reason to know demons. Perhaps one way to think of them that is more attuned to modern minds is as worldly forces opposed to God’s will. Fr. Barron cites four characteristics of the devil which could correspond to trends in society and culture, rather than traits of spirit beings.
First, his video explains, the devil is a great fragmenter, even as God unifies and builds bridges in His creative love. This diabolical divisiveness—the Greek word diabolos means divider and deceiver—can apply to different levels of society, from the individual and the family to the global community of nations. And the primal fissure, epitomized by Lucifer’s rebellion, puts self above all others, including God.
The American thinker Ken Wilber, drawing from vast fields of knowledge from ancient history and particle physics to psychology, sociology and spirituality, sees the same clash between union and division. He propounds a theory that throughout the universe, there is a force that constantly propels things and beings to combine into more complex and capable entities.
Thus, after the Big Bang, the exploded bits of the cosmos began condensing into stars and planets, asteroids and comets, solar systems and galaxies. At the elemental level, electrons, protons and neutrons form atoms, which combine into molecules, and the latter, in turn, make up gaseous, liquid and solid substances.
Billions of years ago, certain substances came together into self-replicating strings of molecules, which eventually led to living organisms. Evolution brought even more advanced beings able to grow, reproduce, move, and eventually think, feel and will, and join together in families, communities, organizations and nations. For Christians, this unifying force is none other than the creative power of God.
Yet throughout the formation of the cosmos and the development of life and society, there has also been the opposite tendency for higher, more complex entities to break down into lower, less developed forms. Compounds dissolve into separate elements, living creatures die and decay, and social groups, from families and firms to international groupings, disintegrate.
Divider, detractor, deceiver and death-dealer
The devil can then be seen as the force or being that seeks to put asunder what God brings together. It spawns conflict, animosity, misunderstanding, repression, violence, and other acts that pit man against man. It brings disaster, disease, decimation, decay, and disintegration. And its ultimate goal is death and dissolution, for all creatures and the many ways they come together into higher, beneficial forms of union.
Besides divider, Fr. Barron cites three other devilish traits, intimated in the above paragraphs. In the Gospel of St. John (8:44), Jesus Himself calls the devil “the father of lies” and “the murderer from the beginning.” For in telling Eve she would not die after eating the forbidden fruit, the devil told the first untruth which led to disobedience and death for humankind.
Even dispensing with Biblical texts, the forces of fragmentation do prosper using deception and misunderstanding, and they bring death through war, crime, and oppression. Not to mention the misuse of resources and the failure of the wealthy to help the needy, both spawned by society’s division between haves and have-nots, powerful and powerless.
Fr. Barron’s fourth trait for the devil is one not usually attributed to Satan, yet it’s the original meaning of that name: accuser. The devil builds walls between people and between man and his Maker with blame and condemnation. While God forgives, Satan accuses and tempts the accused into sin. True enough, so much discord and conflict are borne of charges and countercharges. Witness the pork barrel controversy.
Division, deception, accusation, death and destruction. Wherever these forces rule personal as well as public life, beware the hidden hand of the devil. And in this battle against the divisive dissembler, detractor and destroyer, make sure to call on the Way, the Truth and the Life.