The Devil is in the Details

The 20th century traveling evangelist Billy Sunday used to preach a sermon with hand gestures that made it look like he was in a boxing match with the devil. So if I seem a little more animated than usual it may be because I am channeling my inner Billy Sunday.

A few months ago Bill Dockery suggested I preach a sermon about the Devil based on this book The Devil: A Very Short Introduction. So I told him that I would but I warned him that I was going to tell everybody that Bill Dockery made me do it.

Now this may seem like an unusual topic for a Unitarian Universalist Church. In the age of science, reason and empirical evidence the Devil has disappeared from contemporary liberal theological discourse almost without a trace.

In an increasingly secular world many people may identify with the story of the two kids who were walking down the street when one turned to his friend and asked, “Do you believe in the Devil?” and the other one replied, “No, the Devil is like Santa. It’s your dad.”

While that story may not describe your personal theology, it is true that a growing number of people prefer naturalistic explanations of spirituality to supernatural ones. Even so, the idea of the Devil is a persistent one in popular culture. Anyone who watches the cartoons is familiar with the moment when Bugs Bunny or Homer Simpson or some other cartoon character has to make an important decision and an angel appears on one shoulder and a devil on the other. The angel advocates for the good and wise choice while the devil advocates for the selfish and greedy choice.

Now this cartoon picture of a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other may seem overly simplistic, a holdover from medieval times, but believe it or not it does bear some resemblance to some concepts of Freudian psychology. Sigmund Freud divided the human psyche into three parts the id, the ego and the super ego. The superego is that part of us that always wants to do the good, the noble and the altruistic thing. The id is the part of us that wants to do the selfish thing; immediate gratification of our desires regardless of the consequences. In other words the superego is like the angel on one shoulder and the id is like the devil on the other and the ego is trying to reconcile these two competing forces within us and sometimes it seems like they are in a boxing match.

I don’t know about you but personally I’ve never seen a devil or an angel on my shoulder but to be honest I’ve never seen an id or an ego or a super ego either. What we are dealing with here is the effort to create imagery for what might otherwise go unseen and a vocabulary for what might otherwise go unrecognized. We are in the realm of mental constructs, mythologies and metaphors.

Biblical tradition gives us the story of Jesus being tempted by the Devil. In the East we have the story of Buddha being tempted by the demonic figure of Mara. Now in these stories temptation is portrayed as a contest with an outward enemy but I believe these stories are illustrative of an inward struggle with our inner enemies. Spiritually speaking, the ability to conquer an outward Devil demonstrates less real spiritual power than our ability to conquer our own inner demons.

The novelist William Faulkner once spoke about writing his novels where he said, it is “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat”

What is true about writing a novel is also true for spiritual growth. We have to address that our hearts are in conflict with themselves. The apostle Paul described this conflict when he said, “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.” The psychologist Carl Jung once described this conflict by saying, “In each of us there is someone we do not know” or as the rock band Pink Floyd said, “There is someone in my head but it’s not me.

The Lord’s Prayer says, “lead us not into temptation.” And yet there is often voice in our heads leading us in the opposite direction. As Oscar Wilde once said, “I can resist everything except temptation.”

I once came across an irreverent contemporary version of the creation story that captures this inner struggle by portraying it as an outward struggle. Here it is.

In the beginning God created the earth as a garden with broccoli, cauliflower, spinach and vegetables of all kinds, so human beings would live long and healthy lives.
And the Devil created hamburgers, chicken nuggets, delivery pizza, sugary sodas and fast food meals you could supersize.
And human beings gained weight.

And God created the healthy yogurt that human beings could mix with nuts, whole grain oats, fruits, berries and other antioxidants. And the Devil froze the yogurt and mixed it with chocolate chips, cookie dough and brightly colored sprinkle candies. And human beings gained weight.

And God said, “Why not make a fresh salad from my garden.”And the Devil brought forth creamy dressings, bacon bits, and shredded cheese, and there was ice cream for dessert.
And human beings gained weight.

And God brought forth running shoes and exercise equipment. And the Devil brought forth a widescreen TV with remote control so that human beings could watch Netflix and chill. And human beings gained weight.

And God brought forth the potato, a vegetable naturally low in fat and brimming with nutrition. And the Devil sliced the potato into thin strips and put them in a deep fat fryer. And human beings gained weight, got a sudden spike in their cholesterol and began to go into cardiac arrest.

And God sighed and created hospitals and quadruple bypass surgery. And the Devil created private health insurance.

 Thus endeth the lesson. It’s that time of year when many people give up things for the season of Lent; things like hamburgers, French fries, sugary sodas, high cholesterol foods. In many ways the Christian season of Lent, like Ramadan in the Muslim tradition or the High Holy Days in the Jewish tradition, is meant to be an antidote to consumerism and addiction. It is a time to ask ourselves the question, “Am I in control of my habits or are my habits in control of me?” Giving something up for Lent can be an exercise in self-control, self-government, conquering ourselves, that pays dividends in other parts of our lives.

As we contemplate life’s many addictions; alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, it is helpful to remember that addiction comes from the same root word as dictator. To suffer from an addiction is to be oppressed. To overcome an addiction is to know freedom.

In the aftermath of Super Tuesday I was reminded that long ago many American evangelists used to preach a stock sermon to their congregations, “Every day is election day for the soul so are you going to vote for God or the Devil?” It’s a pretty simple sermon with either/or choice. It’s one or the other, God or the Devil, Heaven or Hell, with no middle ground. I’m not sure who you voted for on Super Tuesday but I think we can all agree that the inner boxing match continues, the tension between opposites in us continues.

If you’ve every visited a Catholic Church you may have seen an image of Saint Michael fighting with the Devil. According to legend this is a contest where the Saint wins and the Devil loses. This creates a dualistic understanding of the cosmos where good conquers evil, right triumphs over wrong, the devil is defeated and God is triumphant. However, this is not the only way to think about the contest, this tension and struggle between opposites inside us.

Now religions tend to give us myths set in the past whereas science fiction offers us myths set in the future. Myths are the stories that answer the big philosophical questions, “Who are we? Why are we here? What is our purpose?” When I was a kid I grew up watching Star Trek , the original series, and one episode took up this challenging topic. In that episode Captain Kirk was in a molecular transporter accident and he became two people. One was the good Kirk and the other was the bad Kirk. The bad Kirk was aggressive and violent and lustful (even more so than the regular Captain Kirk) but also decisive and action oriented. The good Kirk was kind, gentle and considerate but also weak, indecisive, prone to vacillation. What the crew of the starship Enterprise realized in the end, is that both Kirks need each other – the kindness and the gentleness need the decisiveness and action orientation and vice versa. Fortunately due to the miracles of futuristic technology the Enterprise crew is able to reunite the two Kirks in order to have a fully functional human being. This is science fiction’s way of saying that most of us feel divided and conflicted but we can find wholeness and unity within ourselves.

And so in conclusion let me say, before there can peace in the world (or peace in the universe) there must be peace in our hearts. The prophets tell us that one day the lion and the lamb will lie down together but before this can happen the lion inside of us must lie down with the lamb in us. We must make peace in ourselves before we can make peace in the world. At some point we have to stop the boxing match with an outward devil in order to wrestle with our inner demons so that gentleness can be our greatest strength and our strength tempered by the greatest gentleness, our decisiveness blended with kindness and our kindness empowered by decisiveness. So that the lion will lie down with the lamb and the wolf with the kid and there can be peace in the valley.

(Rev. Chris Buice gave this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, March 8, 2020.)

Homer simpson






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