The more “primitive” the Christianity, the less prominent the devil. Judaism, which Christians of the past and present fancy themselves beyond, is so primitive it hardly pays any attention to him at all. Golems, okay, but a master of metaphysical evil? “With such a son-in-law, I should need a Satan?” For the fourth- and fifth-century Christian hermits known as the desert fathers, the devil was real enough, but seems to have been something on the order of crabgrass or computer spam—nasty to be sure but perfectly manageable if you kept after it. According to patristic scholars Norman Russell and Benedicta Ward, one reason the hermits took to the desert had to do with their belief that the devils had taken flight from the cities to escape the sound of the Bible being read aloud there. In other words, the hermits were essentially on a mopping-up operation. Victory was already behind them.
Even the fantastic eschatology of the biblical Book of Revelation is entirely anticlimactic on this score. The beast appears and is immediately bound and cast into the lake of fire. I’ve known small-town exterminators to have a harder time with mice. Compare this confidence—and in the case of the desert fathers, their humor—with the fetishistic treatment of evil in American cinema, with the great Satan of the mullahs and the post-9/11 invocations of the dark side. Read the Modernist but equally Manichaean manifestos that damned tonal music as the spawn of the fascist beast, or the inquisitorial proclamations that if you like to read sonnets by dead white men you might as well go the whole nine yards and buy yourself a slave.
Then tell me a cheerful story, will you, about all the things we have evolved beyond.
May the Force take a hike
That said, I am more at ease with atheists than with sophisticated theists. I mean those people who say that God is far too big to care about their little woes, usually meaning that they are far too smart to fall for any such baloney. They are beyond anthropomorphism. They can spell anthropomorphism. For them God is sort of like a force—“whatever it was Einstein meant when he spoke of God,” as if they have a prayer of ever knowing. It is a most peculiar smugness. If I say that the source of all being is best likened to the force that assigns my sorry butt a number every time I step onto a bathroom scale, I deserve to live in the twenty-first century; if I say that this source is better likened to Albert Einstein, disheveled lover of elegant equations and gamey women, I am not fit to forgo saying grace in respectable company.
A deity who is “too big” to care for the minutiae of my secular life is as preposterous to me as a deity who rigs the raffle at St. Elizabeth’s so the parish can keep the car—and his proponents twice as vain in that they lack the forgivable inducement of the car. I would like to know what difference there is between John D. Rockefeller, who said God had made him rich, and his dot-com descendent, who says that a less anthropomorphic paradigm would make him believe. Actually, I do know the difference. The first looks out over Lake Michigan and wonders if God might be pleased to have a University of Chicago; the second parks his Beemer in the same place and takes a sanctified trot along the shore.