The Devil is in the Details

In Islam, according to Wikipedia, “The primary characteristic of the Devil, besides hubris, is that he has no power other than the power to cast evil suggestions into the heart of men and women.” The Islamic Devil is a trickster who uses smoke and mirrors to confuse you as to what is really important. Though I do not believe in deities, good or evil, I think this version of the Devil is a useful metaphor and archetype, certainly more right on than the Christian version, which is profoundly malevolent and has the power to control souls, even against their will, if they are not determined and skilled in their resistance.

As I plunge into this stream of thought and attempt to capture some of it in this written piece I have to acknowledge all the complexities, connotations and resulting imprecision of language, particularly written language in the case of this piece, that revolves around words that might mean one thing when we write (actually in my case type) them with an initial capital rather than lower-case letter. But that said, the complexities, connotations and imprecision reflect the richness of our common experience and our ongoing struggle to fully grapple with it.

As a parent, wrestling with ones’ role in the ethical development of your offspring, I have had many occasions to think about these things.

As a kid, I don’t recall my own parents explicitly instructing me on ethical behavior in an abstract sense. The learning was mostly implicit, watching how they led their lives and the principles they brought to bear dealing with difficult situations. Occasionally, reacting to something I accomplished, they might express pride, joy and kudos. And particularly with my mom, she might express anger at times with the way I was treating her. All this of course, contributed to my own ethical development.

Informed by that experience, that it seemed to work for me as a kid, I have taken a similar approach with my own kids. It starts with keeping the communication channels open and being in relationship with them as much as possible. Leveraging that, I then try to live my own life with an ethical transparency, including treating them with respect (invoking the Golden Rule).

Anyway… getting back to my thought thread… In American common usage, from my experience at least, when one describes someone as “a devil”, generally the implication is mischief more so than evil, and often there is some positive acknowledgment of the guile or craft that goes into that mischief.

In contrast, this “Devil” with a capital “D”, just like “God” with a capital “G”, implies singularly named entities that exist at some level, have power, exert influence, and should be reckoned with as we reckon with the other human beings around us who exert influence in our lives. I myself have never encountered either of these entities and am very doubtful of their existence. They don’t fit my view of the cosmos.

Call it theology, spirituality, worldview, or what have you; I think we all have our working theories of why everything is the way that it is. As long as our acknowledged experience fits within the theory, the theory holds. The trick is to continue to be open to, and maybe even actively seek, experience that challenges our current working theory. Easier said than done of course, because I also believe that to a large extent we create our own reality.

My reading of history is that having ever-evolving working theories has been human practice since way before it became the basis of scientific method. Science simply developed more aggressive methodologies for testing and invalidating theories, the latter of course can be very discomforting.

So getting back to that Devil, in conventional Abrahamic (that is Jewish, Christian and Islamic) religious theology, it or he (would the Devil have a gender… what’s that all about?) is associated with and in fact the embodiment of evil, or even “Evil” with a capital “E”. What the hell (with a lower-case “h”) would “Evil” with a capital “E” be anyway? The capital implies a proper noun. Going back to Wikipedia, proper nouns “are nouns representing unique entities (such as London, Jupiter or Johnny), as distinguished from common nouns which describe a class of entities (such as city, planet or person).” I suppose “Evil” could be viewed, at least metaphorically, as a unique location, somehow more profound than all the lower-case “evils” of the world.

But getting back to my theory of the cosmos, neither “Evil” nor “evil” fit in. I have not used the words in my lexicon (other than in jest) or have heard either used by the people that have been my mentors or peers. Given that, let me say that this does not make the acts of Hitler or Stalin, or the pogroms, crusades and other genocides that preceded them, any less horrific. Perhaps I am guilty of not adequately accounting for this experience, this experience of history prior to my own personal experience, in my theory.

For better or for worse, I account for these horrific events as a perfect storm of unknowing, fear and hubris, within the context of a patriarchal culture. Unknowing is the state of being that we are evolving out of (seemingly forever at times but certainly through many incarnations) and is incrementally replaced by ever greater understanding and acceptance. Fear is the great negative motivator that pushes us toward breaking the Golden Rule, which can turn into anger towards “the other” or “them”, which coalesces and congeals into hate. I see fear as one of the pillars of patriarchy, the justification for men protecting (and thus controlling) women, the warlord or other patriarch protecting (and controlling) his clan. Finally hubris is to not acknowledge our unknowing and to think one is doing a service to their clan, to their nation, to their race by mobilizing fear to triumph over others.

All these words with their imposing capital letters, “God” and the “Devil”, “Good” and “Evil”, singular nouns calling out with blaring fanfares entities from dogmatic worldviews that have been with us for thousands of years, are not really part of my worldview. I have built my own working principles, my own basic ethics around simpler concepts like the Golden Rule. That seems to be enough to chart a course in this life of adventure, love, and assistance to others, hoping for that same consideration for me. I try my best to steer on that course every day.

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