In one way or another, all religions deal with the problem of evil, both how to explain it and how to solve it. Buddhism, for example, teaches that all life is suffering and that the only way out is through the extinction of egotistic desire, that “blowing out of the candle,” designated by the Sanskrit word nirvana. All of Buddhist practice, theory and doctrine are devoted to the attainment of this blissful state. Manichaeism and Gnosticism—ancient theories still very much alive today—teach that evil is a powerful force that does battle with good down through the ages. Usually, but not always, Gnostics tend to identify the good principle with the spiritual and the evil principle with matter. A variant on the Manichaean philosophy is represented in the “Star Wars” films, which feature an ongoing struggle between the dark and light sides of the “Force.” Judaism understands evil as the result of a departure from God’s command and tends to see the solution, therefore, as a more faithful following of the divine law.
In the sixth chapter of St. Mark’s Gospel, we find the account of Jesus sending out the Twelve, two by two, on mission. The first thing he gave them, Mark tells us, was “authority over unclean spirits.” And the first pastoral act that they performed was to “drive out many demons.” When I was coming of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it was common, even in seminaries, to dismiss such talk as primitive superstition—or perhaps to modernize it and make it a literary device, using symbolic language evocative of the struggle with evil in the abstract. But the problem with that approach is that it just does not do justice to the Bible. The biblical authors knew all about “evil” in both its personal and institutional expressions, but they also knew about a level of spiritual dysfunction that lies underneath both of those more ordinary dimensions. They knew about the world of fallen or morally compromised spirits. Jesus indeed battled sin in individual hearts as well as the sin that dwelt in institutional structures, but he also struggled with a dark power more fundamental and more dangerous than those.
This past decade has seen a plethora of movies dealing with superheroes: the “Batman” films, “The Green Lantern,” “Iron Man,” “The Incredible Hulk,” “Thor,” etc. But the most popular—at least judging by box office receipts—has been the Spider-Man franchise. Since 2002, there have been four major movie adaptations of the Marvel Comics story of a kid who gets bitten by a spider, undergoes a stunning metamorphosis, and then “catches thieves just like flies.”
As the Fourth of July approaches, that day when we legitimately celebrate our country, these lessons from Winthrop and Lincoln should be taken to heart, not only to correct a jingoistic patriotism, but to warn us of a dangerous corruption of Christianity. Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics has certainly been the most talked-about book on religion published in 2012. The New York Times op-ed columnist has discussed his work everywhere: CNN, The 700 Club, Andrew Sullivan’s “Daily Beast” video blog, and even “Real Time with Bill Maher.” His central thesis can be rather simply stated: institutional religion is in disarray and decline in America, yet an overwhelming majority of Americans are religious. And this means, Douthat argues, that they have succumbed, for the most part, to heretical versions of classical Christianity, forms of thought that draw a good deal of inspiration from orthodox Christianity but manage to depart from, even pervert, the substance upon which they are parasitic.
One of the most theologically fascinating and just plain entertaining books I’ve read in a long time is Yves Congar’s My Journal of the Council. Catholics of a certain age will recognize the name, but I’m afraid that most Catholics under the age of fifty might be entirely unaware of the massive contribution made by Congar, a Dominican priest and certainly one of the three or four most important Catholic theologians of the twentieth century. After a tumultuous intellectual career, during which he was, by turns, lionized, vilified, exiled and silenced, Congar found himself, at the age of 58, a peritus, or theological expert at the Second Vatican Council. By most accounts, he proved the most influential theologian at that epic gathering, contributing mightily to the documents on the church, on ecumenism, on revelation, and on the church’s relation to the modern world.