Alison on the Devil

Excerpt from James Alison’s The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes (New York: Crossroads, 1998), the concluding sections of chapter 5, “The Intelligence of the Victim and the Distortion of Desire,” pages 156-161.

Excursus on the Devil

In the popular mind, the image of the devil has always been linked with the question of Original Sin, owing to the reading of the serpent of Genesis 3 as the Devil or Satan, a reading authorized by Revelation 12:9. (1) In as far as the Devil is treated as a causative factor, and one who can be blamed for the ills of humanity, such a reading remains within a mythical understanding. The apostolic witness makes abundant reference to the Devil, Satan, and demons, however what is curious is that the tendency is to use the discourse so as to demythologize.

This can be seen with regards to the principles behind both “angles” onto Original Sin that I have been discussing. In what I have called the “Cain and Abel angle” onto Original Sin, the devil is the murderer from the beginning. The same devil is also the prince (archôn) of this world, but even on the (rare) occasions when he appears as an independent entity (the temptation narratives), he is always present as a governing principle. As a governing principle the devil enters into specific people, or they become manifestations of the principle, but in all cases the content of what they do when moved by the devil is purely human. (2) In what I have called the “Adam and Eve angle” onto Original Sin, the devil’s envy is the source of distorted human desire. Once again, however, the New Testament accounts that allude to the birth of distorted desire treat it as in fact a purely human phenomenon: that is, they read the serpent as the self-deceit of human desire, rather than a culpable outside agent.

In fact, we can talk about the treatment which the apostolic witness makes of the Devil/Satan within, and as illustrative of, the same fundamental anthropology that which I have been setting out above. In the first place, the only rôle which the Devil/Satan has in the New Testament is as one who is in the process of being defeated. Jesus has seen him fall like lightning from heaven (Luke 10:18) — which is to say that his transcendence is on its way out. In Colossians 2:15, Christ is described, in an image taken from a Roman military triumph, as having “disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it [i.e. the Cross].” That is to say: by revealing in the Cross the mechanism by which the devil was the princ(ipl)e of the world – that is, the mechanism of collective murder as the basis of human order – and making this knowledge available, the principle arm of the devil has been destroyed. Exactly the same understanding lies behind Hebrews 2:14-15:

. . .He himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.

John indicates quite specifically that the ruler of this world is cast out by Jesus death (12:31), and then illustrates the process by which this happens in purely human terms: Jesus offers a morsel to Judas, and with the morsel, Satan, having already put it into Judas’ heart to betray Jesus (13:2) enters into Judas (13:27). Then, when Judas comes to betray Jesus, it is the ruler of the world in person who comes (14:30). But Jesus’ freedom in self-giving has already overcome the ‘principle’ which is even presented in this Gospel as tempted by Jesus into revealing itself by its action (thus the Johannine Last Supper). (3) The irony of the Crucifixion is that, precisely by killing Jesus, the princ(ipl)e of this world reveals its game, and thus loses its power for ever. (4)

If the devil is revealed as something on its way out of existence, or at the very least, out of exercising power, that is not its only point in common with Original Sin. Where the notion of skandalon, or distorted interrelational desire is vital to the latter, the former’s very name (diabolos) is “divisive obstacle.” Thus when, in John 6:70 Jesus announces that one of the disciples “is devil” (without an article), he is indicating that this disciple is an obstacle. The same appears in Matthew 16:23, this time even more clearly: Peter is called Satan, and this is interpreted to mean a stumbling block (“skandalon ei emou, you are a stumbling block for me”). However, rather than this referring to some bizarre possession, Jesus goes on to explain that this means that Peter is on the side of men, not of God — and this because he was opposed to Jesus moving forward to his death. Here, once again, the satanic stumbling block is shown to work at the level of the relationship between two people, even though this particular stumbling block (preventing Jesus’ self-giving to death) would have been far more than just a normal interdividual scandal: it would have prevented the revealing and thus destruction of Satan’s mechanism. So, just as Peter’s conversion was to be of universal significance, turning him into the foundational rock of the Church, so, because of his very proximity to Jesus he might have prevented the whole of salvation, and thus for a moment the universal principle of stumbling — the adversary — was applied to him.

The devil is also understood within the same mimetic understanding of psychology that we have seen to be vital for the anthropology of salvation. This scarcely needs saying, since it is precisely interdividual psychology based on mimetic desire which accounts for the constitution of the consciousness by means of the other, and thus makes it possible to talk in a non-mythic way about possession by another and being moved by another. This is so whether we are talking about a pacific possession (as was the case with Jesus, often suspected of being possessed because he was apparently moved by another, the Holy Spirit), or a conflictual possession, as is the case with those of us who are ‘slaves to sin’ and moved by sin against our better judgement (as in Romans 6-7). However the mimetic nature of desire is illustrated graphically in the accounts of the devil’s temptations of Christ in Matthew and Luke. First the devil tries to undermine Jesus’ identity “if you are the Son of God,” attempting to make him feel a lack, and so prove himself out of a feeling of lack of being. Jesus’ replies show that he receives his sense of being as Son from, and by a non-envious obedience towards, God. The final Matthaean temptation shows the devil explicitly as deviated transcendence: the devil offers to give Jesus power over everything if he will worship him. That is to say, distorted desire is the ruling principle of all the kingdoms of the world, and Jesus was being offered to incarnate that principle if only he would distort his desire from pacifically imitative of God to conflictually acquisitive. The devil here is represented not only as obstacle, but as mimetic distortion of desire, making gifts that should be received from God turn into obstacles that turn us away from God. The irony of this passage is that, by his obedience to God, his allowing God to constitute his consciousness pacifically and without obstacles, Jesus is in fact enabled, himself, to become the bread by which men can live because it is the same as the word which comes out of God’s mouth. He is able to become the Temple from which he refused to cast himself down. Finally he becomes, in his death, the king of all the kingdoms of the world. (5) However, all this comes about as something he receives the hard way, through obedience to his Father, not something he grabs via a short cut, through allowing his desire to be distorted to an acquisitive mimesis.

The devil is not only “on his way out,” an obstacle, and one understood within the framework of the mimetic anthropology shown to be vital for understanding Original Sin. He is also a foundational principle. This we have seen in the way in which he has as his gift all the kingdoms of the world (Mt 4:9; Lk 4:6-7), in which he is the prince of the world, founded in murder (John). However it is seen most spectacularly in the synoptic account of the exchange in which Jesus asks whether Satan can cast out Satan (Mt 12:22-39; Mk 3:22-27; Lk 11:14-22). Girard has dedicated one of his most difficult, and profound, essays to these passages. (6) He shows that Jesus is enunciating the foundational principle of all human communities (kingdoms, cities, houses) by indicating that all are based on violent expulsion: Satan expelling himself. And that for this reason, the whole of human culture is ultimately self-destructive, since its foundations depend on its being divided against itself. It is in these circumstances that Jesus comes casting out demons by the Spirit (or finger) of God, and announcing that the kingdom of God has come upon his interlocutors. That is to say that the whole self-giving life and death of Jesus, already present in his teaching and miracles, rather than being part of the world of mutual expulsions founded on being divided against itself (at the base of which Girard detects the hidden scapegoat mechanism), is founding and bringing about a form of human community which is based on the self-giving victim, and not by the driving out of victims. His ‘casting out’ is not so much a casting out as a making redundant, by exposing it, the old lie, and making an alternative form of community available.

Girard in fact sees the concept of the demonic, both in its single principle (Satan, the Devil) and in its multiple manifestations (demons, possession) as a rigorous indication of the way conflictual mimetic desire and the scapegoat mechanism are linked: simultaneously a force of division in chaos, and of union in hatred:

The demonic allows, on the one hand, for every tendency toward conflict in human relations and for the centrifugal force at the heart of the community, and, on the other hand, for the centripetal force that brings men together, the mysterious glue of that same community. In order to transform this demonology into true knowledge we must follow the path indicated by the Gospels and complete the translation that they begin. It is obvious that the same force that divides people by mimetic rivalry also unites them by the mimetic unanimity of the scapegoat.

Clearly this is what John is speaking of when he presents Satan as “liar and the father of lies” because he is “a murderer from the start” (John 8:44). This lie is discredited by the Passion which shows the victim’s innocence. (7)

Once again, at the root of the language of Satan and the devil in the apostolic witness, and particularly from the mouth of Jesus, we have a consistently anthropological tendency, revelatory of human reality, rather than a mythical tendency, displacing responsibility and manufacturing unnecessary entities. The language of Satan and the Devil is shown to contribute to our understanding of the way we are cast in interrelational modes of stumbling, not only as individuals, or in particular relationships, but also, and simultaneously, as part of (and thus contributing to, and being manipulated by) the whole human structure of existence. It is this structure which is on its way out of existence thanks to the new creation which Christ has brought about.

The question about the intelligence of the victim is the question of the understanding which Jesus had before his death, and which was concomitant with his free-self donation up to death. The freedom in self-giving enabled him to perceive with clarity the working of the human heart, and teach that perception in ways which the apostolic witnesses, beginning after the resurrection to understand what he meant, bear out. At the root of this human understanding is a complex series of teachings about the skandalon, related respectively to distorted desire, interdividual relations, death, victims, murder, and the foundation of two human orders, one of which is the peaceful subversion from within of the other. It must from this be quite clear that Jesus himself had, and taught, an anthropology in the light of his theology, an eschatological and drastic anthropology, of which traditional accounts of Original Sin scarcely manage to capture the structure, but whose recapturing can enormously enrich our account of salvation. It is precisely as a tool which enables us to piece together so much of the extraordinary human intelligence that was at work in teaching and preparing the apostolic witness that Girard’s mimetic theory recommends itself to Catholic theology. Previous theologies of Original Sin have tended to emphasize either the historical dimension of Original Sin seen in terms of Adam, to the detriment of the existential dimension reduced to some objective transmission of a culpa and its accompanying poenae, or the existential dimension, seen in terms of anxiety and déchirement intérieur, rather despising the ‘mythical’ relation of this to history. In the light of mimetic theory we begin to see how it might be possible to understand the way in which the existential and the historical structure each other, thus rescuing the existential from the purely subjective, and the historical from the purely objective. The doctrine of Original sin is at the mid-point of this confluence, as well, simultaneously, as the way the individual and the social structure each other, whether destructively or constructively….
1. “The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world.” I will not here attempt to examine the theology of the Devil in the book of Revelation, precisely because of the complexity of the way in which the apocalyptic genre uses mythological language for non-mythological ends.

2. It is worth observing the distinction, clear in the New Testament, between the language of demonization (daimonion/oi, daimonizomai), referring to bizarre human upsets, and that referred to the devil (diabolos, satanas), where it is behaviorally “normal” wickedness that is at work.

3. See J.D.M.Derrett, The Victim: The Johannine Passion Narrative Reexamined (Shipston-on-Stour: Drinkwater, 1993), 97-109.

4. In the words of J.D.M. Derrett, “in order to free the convicts, the Great Accuser, the Pieces-Eater, spontaneously collaborated, so that at the Resurrection the ‘modified dualism’ of the religion became a monism, and there is only one Power, in effect, since the wiles of Satan are now ‘known'” (The Victim, 141). Exactly! An important testimony, since Derrett is no Girardian.

5. Might not certain Johannine themes be elaborated workings-out of the synoptic temptations?

6. “Satan Divided against Himself,” chap. 14 of The Scapegoat (London: Athlone, 1986), 184-197.

7. Girard, The Scapegoat, 196.

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