Eight years ago, a former Polish Communist and well-known Marxist philosopher, Leszek Kolakowski, passed from this world to the next. Originally a virulently anti-Catholic, this unusual man of letters began to ask too many awkward questions about Soviet life under Stalin and got exiled to the West. Thanks to the influence of another learned Polish philosopher-theologian, St. John Paul II, he soon radically altered his philosophical leanings
Thirty years ago, Kolakowski gave a lecture at Harvard entitled “The Devil in History.” From early in the talk, the mood in the room became restless. He actually was talking about the real existence of the devil (at which some listeners were astonished, given his early Marxist leanings).
It became a moment when the little bigotries of the intellectual class were laid bare. Many in the audience were baffled that such an urbane public intellectual, fluent in five languages, could really believe in “religious nonsense” like the devil and original sin. But that’s precisely how and what Kolakowski did believe. He said so again and again in his various later works.
He stated that the devil is part of our everyday experience and that his works of evil are continuous throughout human experience. His point was not how to make one immune to it, but under what conditions one may identify and restrain the devil. Kolakowski saw that we can’t fully understand our culture unless we take the devil seriously. The devil and evil are constants at work in human history and in the struggles of every human soul. Kolakowski (unlike certain of our own Catholic leaders who should know better) was not using the word “devil” as a symbol of the darkness in our own hearts, or a metaphor for the bad things that happen in the world; he was talking about the spiritual being that Jesus called “the evil one” and “the father of lies” — the fallen angel who works tirelessly to thwart God’s mission and Christ’s work of salvation.
Kolakowski also stated: “When a culture loses its sense of the sacred, it loses all sense.” This is why the evangelization of culture is always, in some sense, a call to spiritual warfare. We’re in a struggle for souls. Our adversary is the devil.
While Satan is not God’s equal, and is doomed to final defeat, he can do bitter harm in human affairs. The first Christians knew this. We find their awareness written on nearly every page of the New Testament.
But, the modern world makes it hard to believe in the devil; and it treats Jesus Christ the same way. That’s the point! Medieval theologians understood this quite well. They had an expression in Latin: “Nullus diabolus, nullus redemptor” (No devil, no Redeemer). Without the devil, it’s very hard to explain why Jesus needed to come into the world to suffer and die for us. So, what exactly did Jesus redeem us from? The devil, more than anyone, appreciates this irony, i.e., that we can’t fully understand the mission of Jesus without him. He exploits this to his full advantage. He knows that consigning him to myth inevitably sets in motion our same treatment of God.
There is a remarkable four-volume history dealing with the devil that concerns a character named Faust, who, after the characters of Jesus, Mary and the devil himself, is the most popular subject in Western paintings, poems, novels, operas, cantatas and films. Who is this Faust? He’s a man of letters who sells his soul to the devil on the promise that the devil will show him the secrets of the universe (Can you recall the 3 temptations of Jesus in the desert?). He is the “archetype” of a certain species of modern man — a certain kind of artist, scientist and philosopher. Faust doesn’t come to God’s creation as a seeker after truth, beauty, and meaning. He comes impatient to know, the better to control and dominate, a delusion brought on by his own sense of “entitlement,” as if such knowledge should be his birthright. He becomes a prisoner of his own vanity. Faust would rather barter away his soul than humble himself before God.
There’s a lesson in this Faust character for our lives and for our culture. Without faith there can be no understanding, no knowledge, no wisdom. We need both faith and reason to penetrate the mysteries of creation and the mysteries of our own lives. This is true for individuals, and it’s true for nations. A culture that has a command of reason and the byproducts of reason — science and technology — but lacks faith, has made a Faust-like bargain with the (very real) devil that can only lead to despair and self-destruction. Such a culture may have gained the world with its wealth, power and material success, but it has forfeited its own soul. Recall the words of Jesus, “What good does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but suffers the loss of his own soul?” (Mark 8:36)