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Commentary: Madrid and the devil's comeback

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religious Affairs Editor   |   March 12, 2004 at 3:17 PM   |   Comments

BORDEAUX, France, March 12 (UPI) -- The devil as a person has staged a comeback in Madrid, European and American theologians ruminated Friday, the day after terrorist attacks on trains killed at least 198 and injured more than 1,400 in the Spanish capital.

For decades, the Evil One as "an active force, a living, spiritual being that is perverted and perverts others" -- to use the words of the late Pope Paul IV -- was rarely the topic of sermons.

"To talk about him was not considered chic," said the Rev. Christian Ruess, pastor of Hamburg's landmark St. Michael's Church in Germany. "In all my years as dean of the chapel in a seminary, I can't remember hearing him mentioned even once," agreed Gabriel Jay C. Rochelle, a former Lutheran theology professor who has since joined an Eastern Orthodox denomination in Pennsylvania.

"But the devil showed yesterday in Spain," Rochelle told United Press International in an interview Friday. How else can you explain such random evil?

St. Augustine once described the devil as "malus privatio boni," as the evil taking the place not occupied by the good. Liberal theology has depersonalized him. And existentialist philosophy reduced him, as did Jean Paul Sartre, to simply the other guy.

A personal devil does not fit in with the postmodern religion worshiping a cuddly God. This God, one assumes, would be too weak to defeat the personal Satan, who has mutated from The Evil One (he) in the original teachings of the Church to The Evil (it) in contemporary homiletics.

"What has happened here is that the Church has adapted itself to a society, which refuses to face up the Satan's existence," according to the Rev. Col. Peter Carsten Thiede, a German theology professor and Anglican priest, who is also a senior British army chaplain.

But this phenomenon, which Thiede attributes to the attempts by 19th- and 20th-century theologians to rid the New Testament of its mythology, may be on its way out as a result of the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001, in New York and Washington and March 11, 2004, in Madrid.

Thiede is somewhat pessimistic that the awareness of the reality of evil will actually translate into a belief in the devil, at least in Europe. "This would require a revolution from above," he said, adding, "of course, I am only speaking humanly. We don't know what the Holy Spirit will do."

The Rev. Albrecht Immanuel Herzog, who heads a venerable mission society in Bavaria, discerns a shift in attitudes all around him, however. "People are no longer satisfied with secular explanations of evil," he said. "They are demanding elucidation in religious terms."

Satan, as the powerful Prince of the World disguising himself as Lucifer, the bearer of light, has become a more probable creature now that unspeakably evil deeds are being committed for some cause or other, a term British Prime Minister Tony Blair used in his condemnation of the Madrid massacre.

The devil's allure is perhaps one of the greatest mysteries of the human experience. What made millions cheer Hitler? What spiritual power did tyrants from Cambodia to Rwanda have when they persuaded simple folk to butcher millions of their own kind?

What is it that makes many Russians still pine for Joseph Stalin, who killed even more people than Hitler? What, asked Herzog, makes young people, especially in eastern Germany, submit freely to Satan's tutelage and then act from this position.

Herzog might as well have mentioned the United States, Norway, France and, indeed, Spain, all countries where Satanism is thriving in varying degrees.

"For we are not contenting against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places," wrote the apostle Paul (Ephesians 6:12).

In other words, man is up against evil in the persons of Satan and his court.

It may turn out to be a significant coincidence -- or perhaps, in theological terms, a sign of divine intervention, that in the troubling situation worldwide, Mel Gibson's movie, "The Passion of the Christ," is such a roaring success.

What is its appeal? To be sure, there is first and foremost the shocking recognition of the extent of Christ's suffering for his humanity.

But there is something else, too. There's Satan in the form of an androgynous, luminous creature appearing intermittently from the beginning to the end of the film -- from Gethsemane to Golgotha. He taunts Jesus, "No man can bear the sins of humanity by himself." He tries to torpedo the Passion whose cosmic significance he has understood.

In the end, he fails and with a fearsome howl descends into his hellish realm.

Indeed, we are not contending against flesh and blood. This is the message of Gibson's work -- and evidently of the ever-increasing horrors brought into everybody's living or bedroom via cable television and the Internet. The devil as a person is once again becoming a high probability for the once doubting public.

© 2004 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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