In modern protestant Christian tradition, there are three infallible people: Jesus Christ, the apostle Paul, and me. I’m serious. Our age is so deeply infected with individualism that there is often a natural assumption that my own little way of doing church and my own little belief system are naturally right. The way I see things is just the way things are! What is more, in an individualist age I will not struggle to find Christians who turn a blind eye to my individualism, confirm and strengthen me in all prejudice, and keep me from seriously questioning my convictions.
Given that such individualism is in the air we breathe, it is hardly surprising that since my arrival in Cambridge last term I have lost count of the number of times that beliefs other than my own particular brand of Christianity have been branded ‘satanic’. I haven’t yet quite got to the bottom of what this means. I suppose it could mean that since Jesus is the way, the truth and the life – and is the only way to the Father, any alternative route must be a misguided path planted by some enemy we call ‘satan’. Whilst I suspect that the author of John’s Gospel had no such situation in mind, it still sounds like fair logic and seems to make sense. So far so good. But in tossing out accusations that other religions are all just satanic, we are tossing out a boomerang
Wait a minute! Surely if I Christen my worldview as ‘Christian’, and utter my beliefs from behind a smug modesty that vaguely resembles humility, surely I am right to brand alternatives to it as ‘satanic’. The trouble is, before I can say ‘my boomerang won’t come back’, it has returned to clip me around my own ear.
We could probably do with being clear in understanding just what we mean when we say ‘satanic’. There are all sorts of beliefs about satan, most of them having pagan origins. So in accusing other beliefs of being satanic, it seems to mean that they are fundamentally evil, demonic and occultic. The kind of darkness we can identify so clearly and be grateful that we have not succumbed to. But Satan is neither labelled nor avoided so easily.
Satan is not some supernatural superpower who has locked horns with the Almighty. In the Bible satan is the enemy not of God but of humanity. He is the accuser, the judgemental finger-pointer, the one who quietly leads Israel astray. Even though Israel was called to be the light of the world, they often fell into his trap of pointing the finger of judgement at those who were not privileged enough to be God’s special people. When God’s people themselves become the accusers of the world, instead of the light of the world, satan’s incognito finger-pointing business enjoys a roaring trade.
That is why accusing other religions and denominations of Satanism is basically an example of the Satanism it claims to oppose. This is not to say that we have become hopelessly pure in our evil. It is simply to say that we have become accusers, rather than heralds of good news. When Jesus told the people of God to repent, this was largely the mentality he was opposing. It is ironic then, that in supposing ourselves to be heralds of the kingdom of God, we should manifest the very arrogance that the true coming of God’s kingdom dispels.
We are not called to brand the non-Christian world as satanic. We are called instead to be liberated from the debilitating effects of sin in our age, at both the structural, corporate level, and its personal, concrete manifestation. It is not primarily our naughty little habits that count as sin. Wider structural sins like individualism (along with consumerism and materialism) that are unwittingly absorbed into our Christian consciousness cast a shadow across those who regard themselves as the people of light.
Before we content ourselves with making satanic claims in the name of Christ, maybe ‘the time has come for judgement to begin at the house of God’. If God ‘calls all people everywhere to repent’ then maybe that includes us. But then, how could it? After all, I know deep down that I am, in fact, infallible.
(An address delivered to students of Cambridge University, February 2004)