Part of what blocks a serious awareness and rethinking of our current culture is the "knowledge economy" we have created. In its 1999 statement Towards a Pastoral Approach to Culture, the Pontifical Council for Culture saw that the constant flow of "information provided by [today's] mass media . . . affects the way things are perceived: What people come to know is not reality as such, but what they are shown. [The] constant repetition of selected items of information involves a decline in critical awareness, and this is a crucial factor in forming what is considered public opinion." It also causes "a loss of intrinsic value [in the specific] items of information, an undifferentiated uniformity in messages which are reduced to pure information, a lack of responsible feedback, and a . . . discouragement of interpersonal relationships." This is all true. Much of modern technology isolates people as often as it brings them together. It attacks community as easily as it builds it up. It also forms the human mind in habits of thought and expression that are very different from traditional culture based on the printed word. And that has implications both for the Word of God and for the Church.
There is one other important point here that even strong religious believers often find hard to talk about. Let me explain it this way.
Referring to artists, John Paul II said that, "In shaping a masterpiece, the artist not only summons his work into being, but also . . . reveals his own personality by means of it." In other words, "works of art speak of their authors; they enable us to know their inner life." This is quite normal. But it also poses a danger. A key temptation of our age is the will to power. It is most obvious in our politics and science; in the constant erosion of our respect for the weak, the infirm, the unborn and the disabled. But the impulse to pride -- that hunger to smash taboos and inflate the self - appeals most naturally to artists and other creators of high culture. Genius breeds vanity. And vanity breeds conflict and suffering. The vanity of creative genius has a pedigree that leads back a very long way; all the way back to the very first non serviam from Satan himself.
It is very odd that in the wake of the bloodiest century in history - a century when tens of millions of human beings were shot, starved, gassed and incinerated with superhuman ingenuity - even many religious leaders are embarrassed to talk about the devil. In fact, it is more than odd. It is revealing. Mass murder and exquisitely organized cruelty are not just really big "mental health" problems. They are sins that cry out to heaven for justice, and they carry the fingerprints of an Intelligence who is personal, gifted, calculating and powerful. The devil is only unbelievable if we imagine him as the black monster of medieval paintings, or think The Inferno is intended as a literal road map to hell. Satan was very real for Jesus. He was very real for Paul and the other great saints throughout history. And he is profoundly formidable. If we want a sense of the grandeur of the Fallen Angel before he fell, the violated genius of who Satan really is, we can take a hint from the Rilke poem The Angels:
. . . when they spread their wings
they waken a great wind through the land:
as though with his broad sculptor-hands
God was turning
the leaves of the dark book of the Beginning.
This is the kind of Being - once glorious, but then consumed by his own pride -- who is now the Enemy of humanity. This is the Pure Spirit who betrayed his own greatness. This is the Intellect who hates the Incarnation because through it, God invites creatures of clay like you and me to take part in God's own divinity. There is nothing sympathetic about Satan; only tragedy and loss and enduring, brilliant anger.
In 1929, as the great totalitarian murder-regimes began to rise up in Europe, the philosopher Raissa Maritain wrote a forgotten little essay called The Prince of This World. It is worth reading. We need to remember her words today and into the future. With no trace of irony or metaphor, Maritain argued:
"Lucifer has cast the strong though invisible net of illusion upon us. He makes one love the passing moment above eternity, uncertainty above truth. He persuades us that we can only love creatures by making Gods of them. He lulls us to sleep (and he interprets our dreams); he makes us work. Then does the spirit of man brood over stagnant waters. Not the least of the devil's victories is to have convinced artists and poets that he is their necessary, inevitable collaborator and the guardian of their greatness. Grant him that, and soon you will grant him that Christianity is unpracticable. Thus does he reign in this world."
If we do not believe in the devil, sooner or later we will not believe in God. We cannot cut Lucifer out of the ecology of salvation. Satan is not God's equal. He is a created being subject to God and already, by the measure of eternity, defeated. Nonetheless, he is the first author of pride and rebellion, and the great seducer of man. Without him the Incarnation and Redemption do not make sense, and the cross is meaningless. Satan is real. There is no way around this simple truth.
Let me underline that even more strongly. Leszek Kolakowski, the former Marxist philosopher who died just last year, was one of the great minds of the last century. He was never a religious person in the traditional sense. But Kolakowski had few doubts about the reality of the devil. In his essay Short Transcript of a Metaphysical Press Conference Given by the Demon in Warsaw, on 20th December 1963*, Kolakowski's devil indicts all of us who call ourselves "modern" Christians with the following words:
"Where is there a place [in your thinking] for the fallen angel? . . . Is Satan only a rhetorical figure? . . . Or else, gentlemen, is he a reality, undeniable, recognized by tradition, revealed in the Scriptures, commented upon by the Church for two millennia, tangible and acute? Why do you avoid me, gentlemen? Are you afraid that the skeptics will mock you, that you will be laughed at in satirical late night reviews? Since when is the faith affected by the jeers of heathens and heretics? What road are you taking? If you forsake the foundations of the faith for fear of mockery, where will you end? If the devil falls victim to your fear [of embarrassment] today, God's turn must inevitably come tomorrow. Gentlemen, you have been ensnared by the idol of modernity, which fears ultimate matters and hides from you their importance. I don't mention it for my own benefit - it is nothing to me - I am talking about you and for you, forgetting for a moment my own vocation, and even my duty to propagate error."
Reminder: Rorate Caeli Purgatorial Society
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