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The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil
By Andrew Delbanco
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 274 pages, $23

Andrew Delbanco, Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University, is a secular liberal with a very bad conscience. While he has not lost his faith in the secular creed, he is despondent over the heartless confidence with which it denies transcendence and deathly afraid of the cultural and social consequences of this denial. He is right to be worried.

A healthy, stable society needs to be rooted in a shared moral vision. In a democratic society, where self-government is the rule, this moral vision functions to shape individual character. Only individuals of good character can govern themselves responsibly. The conventional means for any society to obtain such a vision, and have that vision exercise broad influence, is through religious traditions. If religious traditions are under constant attack by literary elites and are impeded from functioning as agents of moral vision, there is nothing to replace them—at least nothing that can be effective on a broad scale.

We used to know this clearly as a nation. It was part of the common wisdom at our founding. “Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life,” asked George Washington in his Farewell Address, “if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in the courts of justice? . . . Reason and experience forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

Our predicament today is illustrated precisely in the place where this Founding Father tells us to look. The sense of religious obligation has deserted our courts of justice. The practice of American law is adrift and everybody knows it. And this is but one instance of a general cultural malaise. Delbanco quotes Richard Rorty: “Once upon a time we felt a need to worship something which lay beyond the visible world . . . [and now we have arrived at] the point where we no longer worship anything, where we treat nothing as a quasi-divinity, where we treat everything—our language, our conscience, our community—as a product of time and chance.” This deconstructed world is the world that we inhabit.

The story of American literature and especially contemporary literary and philosophical theory shows how this world came into being. Ours is a “culture of irony,” grounded in a “discourse of disbelief.” Delbanco believes as a secular, cosmopolitan academic that there is no going home again to the comforts of a shared moral universe grounded in transcendence. But he also knows, and this is the subject of his provocative book, that the costs of this predicament are frightening: “When this theory or idea gets loose from the books, it becomes another matter altogether. For it is incompatible with personal responsibility. In this sense, the most articulate ironists of the last few years have been not professors but killers like the Menendez brothers.”

The conjunction between Rorty and the Menendez brothers is rhetorically devastating. It shows that Delbanco’s method has enormous potential for persuasion. We can learn a lot, says Delbanco, by focusing on the dark side of human affairs. He tells the story of religious and moral degeneration by concentrating his attention not on the forfeiture of God in American culture, but on the forfeiture of Satan. The assumption here is that while many do not believe that the existence of God is intellectually viable, they cannot possibly deny the fact of evil. Given this fact, does not the lack of a vigorous moral sense of evil make us nervous? To gaze upon the face of evil may be the only means we have to undercut the philosophy of relativism that grips the knowledge class and makes the common man indifferent.

This approach is not without precedent. G. K. Chesterton and Reinhold Niebuhr remarked that original sin is the one Christian doctrine that is empirically verifiable. The two great epic poems of modern Western culture, Paradise Lost and Faust, have the devil as their most arresting character. There are even clues on a more mundane level. Notice, for example, how tourists yap and carry on when visiting the great cathedrals, but fall silent at the gates of Auschwitz or Dachau.

Delbanco is attuned to these things because his family carries its own burdens. He is the son of German-born Jews who fled Hitler. “My mother told me that Joseph Goebbels had been the devil incarnate,” he writes. His wife’s mother, as a young girl in Hong Kong, cut her hair short and hid indoors to escape Japanese soldiers. The families of Delbanco and his wife found refuge in this country. But other families have not. Delbanco sprinkles his book with hair-raising anecdotes from the experience of black people forced to make a home in America. The point here is that if we pay attention, we can feel the awful presence of evil in our midst. As the examples of evil accumulate, they take on a numinous quality, especially when they are presented by a good writer who helps us to see them in all of their disturbing power. Evil is in, with, and under human experience; it is an anti-sacrament that, in its twisted way, witnesses to the Holy. It does this by making us hunger for an ordered, moral universe. We want moral order because we desperately want to interpret human experience, including the experience of suffering, as meaningful.

There is a Puritan divine hiding inside the secular Delbanco, struggling to get out. This is apparent in Delbanco’s sympathy for Jonathan Edwards and Abraham Lincoln, which is nothing less than theological. It also appears in his affection and deep respect for the Calvinist ethos of Hawthorne and Melville. Delbanco admires the fact that when the Titanic sank in April 1912, the press was educated enough in a common culture of transcendence to be able to interpret the event in terms of Scripture: “Whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” To understand this event fully is to know that it symbolizes the sunken glory of human endeavor. Delbanco finds it laudable that there was “such a time when a person’s fate could be understood as having a moral appropriateness . . . . Suffering and fault [were] imagined to stand in some sort of stable relation [and] one [might] discern at least a hint of order, of what some theologians used to call ‘excellency,’ in the fact of human pain.”

The mode of discourse here is nostalgic. But if Delbanco is nostalgic, at least he is knowledgeable about the gravity that religious speech used to bear. It is shocking to realize what “excellency” once meant in theology, what enormous weight it carried. Try to find a theologian or pastor today who inhabits this exalted realm of ideas. Perhaps it takes an outsider to prove anew the power of traditional religious speech.

There are dissatisfactions in the book. The argument occasionally meanders. A number of quotations are overlong. There is a vicious swipe at Newt Gingrich that is unwarranted and obviously partisan. More serious is the author’s treatment of Augustine. In recounting the doctrinal history of Satan in Christian theology, Delbanco rightly insists upon Augustine as a central figure. He mistakenly claims, however, that, as Augustine’s faith grew, “the devil simply falls out of his cosmology.” While Augustine taught a doctrine of evil as privation, he also is the church father most responsible for teaching Satan as the fallen angel who rebels against God and personifies the sin of pride as an active, spiritual power. Augustine never reconciled these two directions in his thinking. On the one hand, he asserted evil as nothingness, while on the other, he painted an imaginative portrait of the angelic Adversary that would later inspire Milton to create the greatest Promethean protagonist of English poetry. If Delbanco wants to traffic in ideas about the demonic, he has to be more willing to accept their inherent contradictions and confusions. The devil lives by illogic and paradox.

I am most bothered by the liberal residue that clings to Delbanco’s argument. Liberalism has suffered mighty blows in recent years. But if it holds to any article of its shopworn creed, it is the belief that it rides the wave of the future. Delbanco shares this faith in futurology. Thus, while he does not like the loss of transcendence, he thinks we have to learn to live with it. His pronouncements have a world-weary confidence: Modernity “has doomed us to see the world through metaphors that cannot be ratified by any appeal to transcendence”; this loss of God is “an irreversible fact of modern history.” Delbanco should have learned from nineteenth-century liberal historiography that to claim “irreversible fact” is to stand on the shakiest of ground. We live in a time when the aged Ted Kennedy has become irrelevant while the aged Billy Graham makes the cover of Time; when the feminist Naomi Wolf talks about the danger of abortion to women’s “souls”; when the churches that Stalin destroyed are being rebuilt. Long after philosophy students stop reading Richard Rorty, they will pore over the pages of Augustine.

I do not want these criticisms to take away from The Death of Satan. This is a book to read and discuss—perhaps beginning with students at the privileged universities that our Puritan forbears founded long ago.

Walter Sundberg is Professor of Church History at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.