From a sermon given September 2002 at the Fall Equinox Worship Service
When we originally picked the topic for this service, I had no idea it was such a controversial one. I just thought it would fun to look at one manifestation of a great roadblock that faces individuals and society as a whole who are trying to find peace. That is: the tendency of all of us to divide the world into good and evil.
Planet Earth really is a world of dichotomies; a vast playground full of polarized opposites. It is our job to notice these opposites and learn to choose the middle ground, the high ground so to speak. Other places in the universe do not provide this same challenge of polar opposites. The overarching defining principle of Planet Earth is that we have been gifted with free will. To maximize the learning process upon which we are all engaged, it is helpful for us to be presented with a wide range of opportunities so that we can learn to make choices that are productive and in keeping with divine intention. We are constantly given choices that involve one extreme or another. Thereby we can choose, if we want, to find the balanced perspective in between the extremes. That middle ground is where the peace lies, the inner peace for individuals; and the outward manifestation of it–the peaceful coexistence for groups of individuals.
The tendency for we humans to dichotomize runs so deep that we create situation after situation of “us versus them” in the world at large. As humans, our very brains become accustomed to, and find it most familiar to process the world from an either-or perspective. That same tendency runs deep enough in our basic makeup that we even dichotomize the world of spirit, much as we dichotomize the material world. Thus, in most religious traditions there exists angels, who are the good guys; and devils, who are the bad guys. Sometimes the latter are talked about as fallen angels, acknowledging that they are simply a point in a continuum; and sometimes they are seen as a class of villains by themselves with no particular angelic etiology.
It’s been many years since I looked at the concept of angels and devils. I deal with the spirit world on a daily basis, but I use other filters with which to view that reality. So to prepare for this sermon, and reacquaint myself with how many or most people think about angels and devils, I did what any good researcher would do: I watched a lot of movies.
There is a plethora of messages about the spirit world coming through these days. In this time and place, as the heavens and earth move ever closer together, and the basic fabric of the time-space continuum transforms, our culture is flooded with spiritual images and archetypes to which many people are exposed, often without any real awareness of what it all means. Angels and devils are everywhere in increasing amounts—not just confined to paintings in museums or gargoyles on structures built in medieval times; but on key chains and other knickknacks, and Hallmark cards, and on television, shoes, and rock songs. I am told, angels are mentioned in one out of every ten popular songs. However, movies are one of my favorite ways of tuning into popular culture, so I will start there.
There are some great movies out there that work us over on a subliminal level in a positive direction. I would recommend three in particular: Michael, in which John Travolta plays a beer-drinking, ball-scratching, bull-fighting babe magnet as the Angel of Destruction. Then there is Devil’s Advocate, in which Al Pacino is a magnificent Lucifer trying to charm an attorney played by Keanu Reeves into fathering the Anti-christ. And my personal favorite is Dogma, a movie that was subjected to a concerted boycott by fundamental Christian groups, always a good sign. Armageddon is the main event in Dogma, with Ben Affleck and Matt Damon playing fallen angels, the talented Alan Rickman as one of the angels on the right hand of God, and George Carlin with a short stint as a Catholic cardinal who doesn’t even get that the battle is raging.
Hollywood movies, as fun as they are and as important as they are at both reflecting and shaping our thought processes, are considered only entertainment. So I also did research into how most people are viewing the subject of devils and angels by reading various serious popular and religious texts. And that’s where the real fun begins. Because, as with most aspects of spirituality, people are all over the map. There is no consensus about the nature of the spiritual beings we call angels and devils.
As it turns out, the Christian Bible, that ultimate source document for many people in the United States, is strangely quiet on this subject. Although there are a number of references to angels, there are very few actual details contained therein. In the accepted scriptures of the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition , there are angels who exist to worship God, and angels who are sent out by him to protect, destroy, or carry messages to mankind. But we do not know much about who these beings are, where they live, or what they typically do in an ordinary angel day. There are only two angels who are actually named in the Bible: Michael, and Gabriel. This is not very much information about beings than are generally considered to be more numerous than the stars. I am told that in the 14th century, the number of angels was calculated by certain segments of Christianity as numbering 301, 655, 722.
Information about devils in the Bible is also largely or wholly missing. Satan is mentioned sporadically. In the Old Testament he is more in the role of a prosecuting attorney in ongoing theological debates than an evil figure. In the New Testament, he is certainly not the tunnel-visioned, stand-alone, cartoon-like figure that is portrayed by many present-day Christians.
For example, in Matthew, Chapter 17, Jesus of Nazareth has a disagreement with Simon Peter. This is directly after Jesus has told Peter that Peter is the rock upon which Jesus’s church will be built, so obviously within the context of Jesus having a great deal of faith in Peter and his abilities. Jesus tells his disciples that he will soon be crucified, and Peter tells Jesus that this isn’t going to happen. Jesus says to Peter, you are thinking from the ways of man, not God; get out of the way, Satan. What I hear from this story is Jesus’s acknowledgment that even the strongest and brightest of us can have energy not aligned with God. I do not hear validation for a separate being which we might simplistically call “the Devil.”
There is actually, a lot of information about angels and devils out there in popular literature and apocryphal or noncanonical literature, but none of the world’s religions seem to have a consistent, coherent stance on the subject. In polytheistic systems of religious belief, there seems to be more mention of but less focus on angels and devils, probably because when you base religions on inward meditation and not outward-based truth-seeking, you have less need for intermediary spirits between an individual soul and the Cosmic Consciousness.
In all the great monotheistic religions, devils and angels galore exist, but also a great deal of controversy about them, even within each church or religious denomination. Even in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and the like, there are many acknowledged spirits or devas that pursue out good or bad ends.
At various times in various ways Jews, Christians, and Muslims have all gone through periods of awakening interest in the functioning of the spirit world; followed by periods of anxiety that acknowledgement and exploration of the spirit world will lead to an undermining or destruction of faith in the teachings of the church; followed by further periods of rediscovering sacred literature about angels and devils; followed by further rejection by church leaders in the populace’s interest in these entities, etc.
For the record, I will tell you that personally, I do believe that there are spirits that will assist us in following God’s will, if we choose to avail ourselves of their assistance, spirits that might accurately be labeled “angels.” In the words of the 91rst Psalm, Verses 10-11:
He will give his angels charge of you,
To guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
Lest you dash your foot against a stone.
I don’t know about you, but I am very prone to dashing my feet against stone, and consequently am quite glad for the assistance of the spirit world, which I receive freely when I remember to call upon them.
I also believe that there are spirits who are more than willing to encourage us in making choices that are detours on our path back to God, many who are simply curious or mischievous; and a few that rise to the level that might be called evil. The former could be called devils and the latter “the Devil,” if you prefer that terminology.
Ultimately, however, it is our choice who we hang out and allow around us, and who we follow–whether they have a body they work through or not. Because we have free will. We demand of the substance abuser that if they claim to be sincere in controlling their drug-seeking behavior, they must surround themselves with those who will support patterns of sobriety and other pro-social behavior. So too, is it up to us to surround ourselves with those who will lead us to the righteous pathway. When we can acknowledge the self-responsibility that derives from our free will from a place of awareness and a place of nonjudgment, than we can make clearer and more productive choices that are the more direct route to the true peace that comes only from connection to our Source.
So what is the True Nature of Good and Evil? You know me. Of course, I’m not going to impose my truth upon you. Feel free to discover your answers in your meditations over time. But I would like to leave you now with an interesting tidbit I ran across in my research. According to Malcolm Godwin, who wrote a book called Angels: An Endangered Species, among the stories about the war between the angels in heaven in various Christian texts, there was one version that was suppressed by the Catholic Church. In this version of genesis or the apocalypse or whenever this war supposedly takes place, there were three groups of angels, not two. One-third sides with God, one-third with the Devil, and one-third chooses to stay out of the conflict. Reportedly it was this third group of angels, the ones who chose neutrality, the not-very-bad but not-very-good-ones, who later bring the Holy Grail to Earth.
Copyright 2002 Rev. Resa Eileen Raven