Metaphysical Evil

Last Sunday, my wife and I were listening to Peter Mayer’s song, “Holy Now”, while coming home from her church (LDS):

When I was a boy, each week
On Sunday, we would go to church
And pay attention to the priest
He would read the holy word
And consecrate the holy bread
And everyone would kneel and bow
Today the only difference is
Everything is holy now
Everything, everything
Everything is holy now

When I was in Sunday school
We would learn about the time
Moses split the sea in two
Jesus made the water wine
And I remember feeling sad
That miracles don’t happen still
But now I can’t keep track
‘Cause everything’s a miracle
Everything, Everything
Everything’s a miracle

Wine from water is not so small
But an even better magic trick
Is that anything is here at all
So the challenging thing becomes
Not to look for miracles
But finding where there isn’t one

When holy water was rare at best
It barely wet my fingertips
But now I have to hold my breath
Like I’m swimming in a sea of it
It used to be a world half there
Heaven’s second rate hand-me-down
But I walk it with a reverent air
‘Cause everything is holy now
Everything, everything
Everything is holy now

Read a questioning child’s face
And say it’s not a testament
That’d be very hard to say
See another new morning come
And say it’s not a sacrament
I tell you that it can’t be done

This morning, outside I stood
And saw a little red-winged bird
Shining like a burning bush
Singing like a scripture verse
It made me want to bow my head
I remember when church let out
How things have changed since then
Everything is holy now
It used to be a world half-there
Heaven’s second rate hand-me-down
But I walk it with a reverent air
‘Cause everything is holy now

After the song was over, my wife told me she just can’t accept that everything is holy, because she believes in evil.  We talked about it, and we agreed that the evil she was referring to was human evil.  The tornado or hurricane (or mother bear — see my previous post) may cause human suffering, but we agreed that these forces of nature are holy too.  But my wife does believe in an evil force “out there”, the Devil or Satan.

My wife obviously is not alone among Christians in believing in metaphysical evil.  She had an experience when she was a young girl where she went to an abandoned house that was rumored to be occupied by “devil worshipers”.  She saw there some drawings on the wall that she didn’t understand, but she had an overwhelming sense of “evil”.

I listen to that story and my first thought is that most cases of devil worship are just teenagers screwing around.  Graham Harvey has carried out a systematic study of Satanism in modern Britain, and he found most people who self-identified as Satanist did not to belong to any group, and were almost all young people who had adopted the term as “a posture of rebellion, with which to shock and provoke the (in most cases literally) parent society.  As a posture it almost wholly lacked genuine religious commitment.”

The second thing I think is that my wife only felt what she brought into that house with her.  Now my wife is the least “Satanic” person I know.  But different people can look at a drawing of Baphomet and see different things.  One person may see an esoteric symbol of something, another may see the Christian devil, and another may see kitch.  I personally think my wife felt the devil because she went there looking for the devil and she brought her own inner psychic devil with her.

It’s kind of like Yoda’s response to Luke when he asks what is in the cave.  Yoda responds, “Only what you bring with you.”  And in the cave Luke encounters his dark side, which appears in the form of his father, Darth Vader, but is revealed to be Luke himself when Luke slays him.

Luke Skywalker faces his dark side in the cave
Luke's dark side is revealed to be himself

There is a third possibility that I am now considering: that whoever drew the “Satanic” images on the walls of that house was actually trying to invoke something dark, and that they succeeded in doing so.  Is it possible for there to be a dark genius loci?

I remember once when I was in my early 20’s I returned to my childhood home that I had not visited for almost a decade.  That was the home where my parents fought and decided to divorce.  After the divorce, my mother dedicated herself to convincing my brother and I that my father was Satan incarnate.  She actually told us a story about how she once saw seven devils circling around his head and later had it confirmed by some religious leader that every person is assigned seven evil spirits from Hell.  (Is it any wonder I am dismissive of Satanic talk now?)

Anyway, I remember when I went back to my childhood home, I was so overwhelmed by an oppressive feeling that I literally fled from the house.  I was convinced it was actually an evil place.  My young wife followed me and I asked her if she could feel it too.  I was surprised when she said “No.”  (My wife is a sensitive person, but unlike my mother, she is not one to manufacture feelings for the sake of drama.)  Looking back on that experience, it seems apparent to me that the “evil” that I felt in that house was only the “evil” that I had brought there from my childhood experiences.  I think the evil we feel in any place has at least as much, if not more, to do with the subjectivity of the observer than it has to do with any objective condition of the place.  I consider myself to be a sensitive person too, but I think symbols and places only have the power we give them.

I believe in evil, but only human evil.  And I believe in the Devil, but only the one that lives in the human soul.  And he (or she) has to share the space with a lot of other gods.

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