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The Birth of Dualism
a review of The Origin of Satan by Elaine Pagels
by Tom Radcliffe

Date: 2000-07-29
Forum: Enlightenment
Copyright: Tom Radcliffe

Paperback Reprint edition (May 1996) Vintage Books; ISBN: 0679731180.

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If one thing distinguishes the Christian from the Classical worlds, it is dualism. In modern Euro-American thought dualism and dichotomy abound -- from the mind/body problem in philosophy and psychology to wave/particle dualism in quantum physics.

Dualism and dichotomy are so much a part of modern thought that only a few philosophers, such as John Searle, take the stance that we can transcend the apparently irreconcilable contradictions in our basic presumptions about the world, such as the views that on the one hand the world is strictly causal and on the other that our will is free.

To cast our penchant for dualism in perspective, and get some grasp of what the world might look like through unifying eyes, we should ask, "Where did all this dualism come from, anyway?"

Noted biblical scholar Elaine Pagels doesn't set out to answer this question in The Origin of Satan, but in fact that is exactly what she does. In this book, which she describes as a "social history of Satan" Pagels shows how the idea of Satan was vital to the temporal success of Christianity, much as she demonstrated the pivotal role of doctrine of the physical resurrection of Christ in her brilliant The Gnostic Gospels. But she also shows how the idea of Satan was a radical departure from Classical thinking about the supernatural machinery of the world; to the pagans, particularly by the time of Christ, the pantheon was diverse in aspect but unified in purpose. The gods were representative of natural principles that worked in concert with each other, not in opposition.

Satan, Pagels tells us, comes from the Hebrew word meaning, "one who opposes."

In the early chapters Pagels reviews the history of Satan in Jewish thought, showing how "the satan" in these stories was a messenger from God sent to oppose the works of people. God and Satan are on the same side in their torment of Job, for example. Only in the last century or so before Christ did some Jewish sects start to use the idea that their opponents were in fact opposed to God.

Pagels argues that Satan has always been a symbol of "the intimate other" -- of people who are close to us physically and socially and are therefore accessible and comprehensible. People opposed to us who are different from us, who are "not like us" in important ways, are much less psychologically threatening. People who are like us but opposed carry with them the implicit message that we might come to be like them, which many people find very threatening indeed.

With the schisims in Jewish society that followed the successful war of rebellion against their Syrian overlords, the party of the Maccabees showed a tendency to "satanize" their Jewish enemies, identifying them as opposed not just to the Maccabees but to God as such. The Essenes, a radical Jewish sect sometimes thought to have associations with Jesus, carried this tendency even further, identifying themselves with "the Sons of the Light" as opposed to "the Sons of the Darkness" -- i.e. the Jewish majority.

The movement that converged on the followers of Jesus started life in a strictly Jewish context, and saw the salvation of the Jews as its primary goal. In this context Jesus' followers found themselves in conflict with the Jewish establishment, notably the Pharisees, and demonstrated a marked tendency to associate their opponents with Satan. From the very beginning these people had a problem: the end of days was taking an inordinately long time in coming, and they had to cast around for reasons why. Simple human pig-headedness, though a powerful force, was not enough. They needed an Opponent whose machinations could be used to explain the postponment of the fruition of the divine plan.

Due to events that have as much to do with real-politic as anything else -- particularly the disastrous Jewish revolt against Rome in the 70's -- followers of Jesus found it increasingly wise to remove themselves from the Jewish context. They weren't making a lot of headway against the scions of one of the most literate and thoughtful cultures in history, and found more fertile ground for their seed in the illiterate and oppressed masses of the Roman Empire at large. But the culture of polarization, of demonizing or Satanizing their opponents, was by that time deeply embedded in the Jesus movement. Moving to a broader context, to a focus that would ultimately take in all humanity, simply gave the Christians the opportunity to demonize more broadly; for if "all men are brothers" then anyone in opposition is "an intimate other."

As the Church became established and grew, it used this tool of associating its enemies with Satan against all comers. It used it against heretics within its own flock, and it used it against all those outside the Church. It was a powerful tool, for it could raise any disagreement at all to the status of a battle in the winner-take-all, cosmological struggle of Good against Evil. No longer were disputes about the poverty of Christ (to take a much later but still relevant example) a question of academic quibbling, but rather a matter of eternal salvation or damnation.

In trying to sell Christianity to pagans, the Church had a problem. Most people believed in "spirit energies" that could be controlled, cadged or propitiated to confer benefits, or at least lack of damages, on the suppliant. The Greek term for these "spirit energies" is "daimones."

There were two basic moves available here: either deny the power of daimones and the old gods, and look ridiculous in the eyes of believers, or accept their power but associate them with the agents of Satan. The Church took the latter course.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Pagels' account is what she tells us of the pagan response to all this. She cites at length from the pagan Platonist philosopher Celsus, who wrote The True Word around 180 C.E. Celsus was a social conservative who at times sounds remarkably like a modern American Fundamentalist, arguing in favor of the family and the state against the upstart cult of Christianity, and claiming that the Christians attack the fundamental beliefs upon which morality and the rule of law depend. In particular, he argues that Christians are opposed to monotheism. And he's right:

	If one accepts that all of nature, and everything 
	in the universe, operates according to the will
	of God, and that nothing works contrary to his
	purposes, then one must also accept that the
	angels and daimones, heros -- all things in the
	universe -- are subject to the will of the one
	God who rules over all
In opposition to this the Christian Origen, writing a few decades later in response to Celsus, acknowledged that daimones still had earthly power, despite Christ dying to destroy their ruler. And many Christians today still believe this -- that there is a supernatural power comparable to God, capable of opposing the divine will effectively.

This is something that no pagan would have recognized as legitimate theology. Certainly the pagan gods could contend with each other, oppose each other, cuckold each other and get tossed out of heaven for their trouble. But however battered or lame they might become in their struggles with each other, they never opposed the fundamental order of the universe, even in their most anthropomorphic manifestations. And more abstract pagan thought, which identified the gods as metaphors for the forces of nature, was moving increasingly toward a fully and formally unified world view when the Christians sprang their remarkable innovation upon the world.

Although Pagels states her case in relatively demur scholarly language, it's clear that there is a case to be made here the the fundamental ideological innovation of Christianity is not the monotheism with which it is often credited, but rather the cosmological dualism that has haunted us to the present day. It has infected our thinking about nature and ourselves, and I believe that if there is a central goal to the intellectual program of the New Enlightenment it should be to uproot this dualism wherever it is found, and cast it out. And while doing so we should remember that the basic Christian innovation, the fundamental source of the enormous power that Christian belief has had for two millennia, is not God, but the Devil.