This past Sunday was the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels or Michaelmas (Michael’s Mass). In some countries in the northern hemisphere, it’s a Christian version of celebrating the equinox. For Lutherans, it’s one of the only feasts to commemorate supernatural forces in the world.
It was a strange movement coming from evangelical worlds that took supernatural entities literally and tangibly, and walking into a Lutheran context where the supernatural is barely discussed at all. I told one congregation that it was like flying off of cliff into a wall of half-set Jell-O.
No one religious group has nailed down sufficient language for the supernatural. Even groups who defy or deny the supernatural altogether have chosen a language to describe these realms (as unreal altogether). Whether we affirm or deny those forces we can’t see, we still make a choice that influences how we approach the world.
I choose to believe in supernatural forces not because I can or can’t explain the world, but because I understand myself not to be the highest or best power in the universe. Science has given me the language of rational maturity — learning how the physical world interacts and reacts within me and around me — but it can’t explain everything.
Does that mean everything unexplainable is caused by the havoc of demons or the interference of angels? Hardly. In fact, I really don’t think the medieval Christian version of angels and demons paints a healthy picture of what really goes on in unseen realms.
Does that mean I look down upon those who continue to believe in such things? Not at all. In fact, I understand the impulse very, very well.
We need to believe.
We are hardwired to believe.
We have evolved as a species to believe in powers greater than ourselves. So much of our human catastrophe has stemmed from putting ourselves at the top of creation’s ladder. Our human exceptionalism has been our downfall time and time again.
Likewise, using the supernatural world to determine the innocence or guilt of people — weaponising the devil — has sent us all on repeated witch hunts. We fear what we cannot explain, and thus blame God or the devil for our actions that come next. It’s so much easier for me to blame the devil for my own evil than it is to face up to what resides within my own self.
So much of our belief demands a devil. It demands an ultimate evil that is evil by nature, whereas we are redeemable. We’ve believed it so hard that we’ve even demonised people who have dared suggest that the devil doesn’t exist.
That’s a handy weaponisation.
I’ve come to a place where the devil’s presence — if such a creature really exists — means little to me. Humanity is quite capable of desecrating ourselves and the world all on our own, thanks. We have a knack for it.
We’re scared to let go of medieval notions of evil, however, because that might cast doubt on the existence of God.
Does it have to?
Just because I relinquish the idea of a nasty, demonic creature as the source of all evil so that I can assume my own responsibility for how I live in the world, that doesn’t mean God suddenly doesn’t exist. God might not exist in ways I understood God to exist when I was three or thirteen or twenty-three, but existence is still real to me.
Beliefs grow. Beliefs change. And it’s a good thing, too, otherwise I’d still be locked into ideas that the gods somehow gave fire to humanity, or that the world is flat, or that demons cause mental illness. The explanations perhaps supported humanity through ages past within the scope of its understanding at the time, but we have matured in knowledge since then.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we’ve always matured in response to our knowledge.
In so many ways, we still have a long way to go.